Thursday, July 15, 2010



Wednesday, 14th July, 2010
Dr. Opiyo Oloya

Dr. Opiyo Oloya

Somali’s al-Shabaab has claimed responsibility for the World Cup night massacres in Kampala this past weekend. The mayhem took 74 lives and counting, and wounded hundreds when bombs were detonated in the midst of the unsuspecting crowd.

The question is therefore not who did it, but how did al-Shabaab do it, and whether or not it will do it again. On November 3, 2009, when I assessed the threat al Shabaab posed to Uganda in this very column, I noted, “al-Shabaab does not have a very strong reach beyond the borders of the war-torn country.” But I also quickly added, “it is also evidently clear that al-Shabaab has connections to foreign actors including Al-Qaeda that are capable of carrying out its bidding.” I concluded with this warning: “The threats to attack Uganda and Burundi, therefore, must be taken very seriously.”

Well, the despicable cowardly attacks on innocent civilians have happened, and now we need to shift gear to look closely at what we can read from this terrible tragedy. In fact, there is rich information to be learned from the events of this past weekend that could be useful for predicting what happens next. Foremost, the attacks killing innocent citizens of other countries thousands of miles away from Kismayo in Somalia where al-Shabaab rules most of that war-torn country were chiefly aimed at the politics back home.

Al-Shabaab is an alliance of Islamic organisations that rose after the defeat of the conservative Islamic Courts Union (ICU) by the combined Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and Ethiopian troops in December 2006. Its primary objective is to push out the TFG, take over power and re-establish an Islamist state similar to the one that operated prior to 2006. Al-Shabaab, therefore, sees the presence of African Union Mission in Somali (AMISOM) which has large contingents from Uganda and Burundi as an extension of US continued presence in Somalia.

The goal of hitting innocent victims in Kampala is singularly aimed at weakening the resolve of African nations in shoring the TFG government led by Prime Minister Omar Sharmarke, and indirectly striking a blow at America. Moreover, it is a huge propaganda coup for al-Shabaab leaders to say to their potential recruits and supporters—look, we have the power to strike far and wide, and make countries shake before us like leaves in a hurricane, which is why you must know we shall soon have all the power.

To impressionable young converts some of whom have been recruited from the US, Canada and Europe, the bombings in Kampala are the surest signs yet that victory is close at hand. And, if there were those for whom the talk of jihad was beginning to sour because they wanted to go back home, this was the make-belief show of strength from the radical movement that it is a serious outfit.

Secondly, if preliminary reports are true, the choice of suicide bombers to carry out the attacks reveals a couple of things. First, the operation took several months to put together with scouts travelling to Kampala ahead of the actual attack to scout out potential targets, and make preparation on the ground.

In all likelihood, if any local person was involved at all, it was to provide support such as accommodation for one or two individuals without knowing what exactly was going to happen or when it would happen.

The bombs themselves were very likely assembled by a master bomber outside Uganda, and then smuggled overland through the numerous porous borders including the borders with Sudan, Congo and Kenya.

A master bomb-maker in the vein of the famed Palestinian Yahya Abd-al-Latif Ayyash who was killed by Israeli booby-trapped mobile phone on January 5,1996, will always keep a very low profile, and stays far from the actual operation.

The final preparation would have been carried out by the foot soldiers just a few hours before the fatal blasts. The use of suicide bombers however also signals that the operation is not likely to be repeated very soon. A quick analysis of such operations in the Middle East and Pakistan shows that it takes time to put boots on the ground, and to plan these daring suicidal attacks on civilians. If however Kampala investigators were to arrive at a different conclusion that points to the bombs being planted and then detonated by remote control devices such as mobile phones, then Uganda could be in dire situation. The difference is that the bombers could have a stash of the devices ready to be planted at anytime, anywhere. This moreover, would suggest that the attackers could be established in the local communities, and are able to blend in between bomb blasts.

Nonetheless, knowing your enemy is the best defence. The al-Shabaab is keen to show the world that the past weekend bombings were not a one-time show of strength, but that they were a preamble to bigger things to come. In this regard, and rather eagerly, it is willing to act in order to please Al-Qaeda which continues to be the big source of funding. In essence, carrying out another attack will be an obligation to demonstrate for all to see that al-Shabaab has arrived in its ‘holy war’ against non-believers. It will also be good for the business of recruiting more converts. With this in mind, there are several things that Ugandans need to know.

The first one is a repeat of the warning I wrote in November, and which I repeat here verbatim: It would be counter intuitive to start clamping and harassing peaceful law-abiding locals of Somali heritage living within the country, say in Kampala or Bujumbura. They are the eyes and the ears to first alert authorities on suspicious individuals and events.

Secondly, as I suggested to authorities on Monday, it cannot be life as usual any more. All need to be extra alert to unusual happenings in large events such as football games, crowded marketplaces, taxi-parks and so forth.

Boarding public buses, for example, need to change immediately. You board the bus with your luggage, and you stay on the bus with your luggage—if you get out of the bus then you must take your luggage with you.

Finally, key people at border crossings and in hotels must keep eagle eyes out for the unusual, who is coming and going. Border officers especially need to be re-educated in the psychology of talking to those coming into the country.

It should not be a matter of showing passports or travelling documents and being allowed in, but being quizzed about any number of things. If the stories are inconsistent, then such persons merit further investigation.