Fighting home-grown terrorists

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Security experts say attacks on Kampala woke them up, want IGAD regional strategy

Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | Director of the Security Sector Programme of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Commander Abebe Muluneh Beyene is always on the look-out for terrorist activity. He records attacks. And he has had enough of the destruction, maiming, and killings.

“We need a regional strategy because it appears all the IGAD states are vulnerable to the threats posed by the improvised explosive devices,” he said during the third technical committee meeting held in Kampala on Feb.1.

A day before the Kampala meeting, an explosion went off in the northern Kenyan region of Mandera County killing seven people and injuring 13 people. On the same day, Commander Beyene heard about blasts in Mogadishu and attempted bombings in Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan.

The IGAD regional bloc comprises eight eastern African states including; Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda. The bloc stretches over an area of 5.2 million sq km and has a combined population of over 250 million people.

Commander Beyene says the extremist groups roaming this region have perfected the making of home-made bombs or improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and these have become their weapon of choice.

These can take the form of suicide bombs and can be person-borne, radio controlled, vehicle-borne, suicide vehicle-borne, command-wired, victim-operated, magnetically-attached, and pressure-plate devices.

These have been driven primarily by Al-Shabaab, an Islamic extremist organisation with cells across eastern Africa and other organisations such as Daesh, and the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) of Ugandan rebels based in DR Congo.

Regional terror

Abbas Byakagaba, the Assistant Inspector General of Police who is also the director of Counter-Terrorism in the Uganda Police Force was the chief guest at the Kampala meeting.  He told the delegates that although “Uganda had had ‘a lot of successes’ and it was getting on top of the issue, the IED problem in the region is real.

Byakagaba who is also a bomb disposal and counter terrorism expert said the IGAD region must deal with the threats of IEDs through cooperation in identification and assessment of threat, sharing information and developing a common coordinated approach to the dangers posed by the production, transportation, deployment and use of explosives.

 Kampala bombings

The meeting came at a time when the country is recovering from a series of home-made bomb attacks in late 2021. On October 08, an IED was detonated at a police post outside Kampala city. Then on October 23, an explosion in a Kampala pork eatery killed one and injured three patrons, two of them critically.

Two days later, a suicide bomber detonated a device on a long-distance passenger bus, killing himself and wounding several passengers.Then on November 16, 2021 two IEDs exploded in the heart of the capital city and shaking the country to its core.

One suicide bomber detonated his vest outside the Kampala Central Police Station. In another coordinated move, two other suicide bombers riding a motorbike blew themselves up near the parliament. Six people, including the three bombers, were killed in the attacks while 37 more including 27 police officers were wounded.

Security forces hunted down a fourth bomber in the northwestern suburbs of the city, shot him dead and, recovered his suicide vest. The police said they had recovered more explosive materials from a safe house the fourth attacker was using in a nearby suburb.

President Yoweri Museveni said the attackers were tied to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a rebel group that emerged in Uganda in the early 1990s and later fled into eastern DR Congo.

But, hours after Museveni’s statement, the Islamic State (ISIS), which now counts the ADF’s largest faction as one of its affiliates, issued its own communiqué via its media agency, Amaq, claiming the attacks as its handiwork. ISIS said the attackers were all Ugandan foot soldiers of its caliphate.

At the Kampala meeting, Mohammed Hussein Ahamed from Sudan who was representing the Chairperson of IGAD said the workshop was timely in the context of the bombing attacks that occurred in Uganda from late October to mid-November last year.

“We are witnessing the re-emergence of the terrorist organisation, Daesh in Sudan. The IGAD region is facing more than tough challenge on the peace and security front. The socio-political setting reminds us that we must give the highest priority for such activity and programme.”

Ambassador Eng. Mahboub Maalim, the former Executive Secretary of IGAD who is now a senior security advisor to the regional body told the delegates that the IGAD region has lived with the phenomenon since 2012 “but it looks like it has become (more) persistent than ever.”

“The removal of compartmentalization among ourselves is very important,” he said, “Above all, the need for information is equally important. We don’t want to wait until other international agencies that share information better tell us that they have sent an alert. Community mobilization and understanding the seriousness of the issue is so important.”

Speaking shortly after the Kampala terror attacks, Dino Mahtani, an expert from Crisis Group, an independent non-profit organisation committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict said the Kampala attacks showed that governments across the region need to tackle what appears to be a multidimensional threat straddling national boundaries.

Security experts say the arrival of Islamic Jihadism in the region, and specifically Al-Qaeda, in the early 1990s transformed the nature and scale of the threat. Following his arrival in Sudan in 1992, former Al Qaeda supreme leader, Osama Bin Laden, waged a shadow war against U.S. forces in Somalia, entering into an alliance with the Somali jihadist movement, Al-Itihaad Al-Islaami.

Although improvised explosive devices did not feature on the Somali battlefield in the early 1990s, Al-Qaeda veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir on the Pakistan-Indian border brought with them the requisite skill sets to manufacture the devices.

Experts also say Al-Qaeda instructors taught bomb-making to their recruits. When Bin Laden was expelled from Sudan in 1996 and the decisive defeat of Al-Itihaad the same year, at the hands of Ethiopian forces, Al-Qaeda’s centre of gravity in East Africa shifted to Kenya.

This also marked the point improvised explosive devices became the terrorist group’s weapon of choice. In August 1998, Al-Qaeda’s East Africa cell bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing over 200 people and leaving behind thousands of casualties.

Four years later, in 2002, the group struck in Kenya again, ploughing a Suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device into a resort hotel popular with Israeli tourists near Mombasa, killing 15 people and wounding 80 more. Meanwhile, there was also a simultaneous attempt to shoot down an Israeli passenger jet using SA-7 surface to air missiles was unsuccessful.

In a paper titled, “Terrorism in East Africa: Rise of Al Shabaab and How to Counter It,” Jan Havlicek, a non-proliferation terrorist analyst in August 2020 noted that Al Shabaab’s biggest threat to peace in Somalia is their frequent use of IEDs.

Al Shabaab’s widespread use of IEDs poses critical security challenges as it continues to tear through Somalia, propelling violence in the country by over 30% each year to reach unprecedented levels today. Al Shabaab’s IED attacks have claimed over 5,000 casualties and about 2,177 fatalities between 2017 and 2019.

Now, with a strong foothold in Somalia, Al Shabaab’s unabated violence makes them one of Africa’s deadliest terrorist organisations. In 2019, UN investigators reported a one-third, year-on-year increase in Al-Shabaab directed IED attacks inside Somalia—the highest rate recorded so far in the country’s history.

The UN found that Somalia imported approximately 44 tonnes of nitric acid from Kenya and the United Arab Emirates between 2018; even though it lacked the industrial demand for concentrated nitric acid.

Analysis of Al-Shabaab’s IED production have shown that stricter supply chain due diligence measures are urgently required to identify and prevent the leakage of commercial precursors into Al-Shabaab control.

Going forward, Commander Beyene told the delegates that research work has been carried out, focusing on describing the units responsible for the production of explosive devices and their use.

He said the assessment so far recommends at least an increased monitoring of the main precursors used in the home-made explosives manufacturing process and components in addition to the extension of the improvised explosive devices national forensics capacities.

But Lucy Daxbacher, the IGAD head of mission for Uganda told the delegates that IGAD needs to conclude the IGAD treaty which is still in draft form. Among the provisions of the treaty is the issue of peace and security which includes countering violent extremism and terrorism in the region.

She added that there is also need for IGAD to conclude the data sharing protocols since these would go a long way in helping the region. “It directly relates to matters of cross-border information gathering and cross-border intelligence gathering and sharing,” she said.

“What’s even more important in this region of more than 270 million people is citizen accountability. The citizens of IGAD should be at the forefront of ensuring peace and security in the IGAD region,” she added.

“This means that citizens are aware of their environment; they are aware of suspicious people who are in their neighbourhoods and what exactly they are doing.”

“But citizen accountability also means that they can work with law enforcement agencies including; police, the military and intelligence agencies so that information can be given in a timely manner to avert terrorist acts.”

Dr. Whitney Grespin, the former regional strategy coordinator for the UN Mine Action Service in Somalia who is now the lead research consultant for the IED project at IGAD told The Independent on the sidelines of the workshop that the convening of  the stakeholders meeting is one of the  ways of fostering regional cooperation, collaboration, and information sharing.

“This is a transnational threat and there is need for a transnational response and solution,” she told The Independent.

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