The Atmosphere Of Fear

Four black-uniformed officers step up to me as I get to the gate, one reaching his hand out to my bag, the others readying themselves to drill me through the rigorous checks every person that got into the High Court this morning underwent.

I greet them, with a hazy smile which is returned with even more rude stares, underneath the black helmet, the cop gestures at me to drop my keys into the bucket and walk through the metal detector, I oblige.

Today, unlike many days, the high court is laden with all forms of security detail. The daily cops in their Khaki uniforms have taken to the background to allow the Joint Anti-terrorism soldiers run the security. What is peculiar about today too is that the 11 terror suspects accused of master-minding the July 10th twin bombings at Kyadondo Rugby Grounds and Ethiopian Village Restaurant are in court for their first ruling on whether they were extradited legally.

Security around Kampala is always like this, when the threat level is high, terrorism police are deployed around town and dotted checkpoints are emphasised, once the threat is gone, we are back to normal; the checkpoints are sleazy, the emphasis on metal detectors sluggish, the cops are out there chasing crowds or if not, sleeping in the various roundabouts of the city as they gather intelligence on political opponents of the state.

The terror suspects’ case is one of the hotspots that have tested the consciousness of the security apparatus. When the bombs went off, the Ugandan security apparatus had been caught napping, no spot checks had been done on the two venues that would later host over 1000 revellers, as a result of the napping, 79 people would brutally be murdered by twin bombs set by the notoriously defiant terror group – the Al-shabab.  The attacks would set a new tide of rules from the Police on the hosting of events.

Each event host would now be required to have a metal detector at the event, written permission from the police and police protection, dog sniffing of the event venue and a detailed plan for the flow of traffic.

The rushed plan from the Police was perhaps a response to the flaws that had been exposed by the July 11th bombings. The bombs made in Somalia, transported through Kenya and docked in Mbale for over three months had been undetected by the Ugandan security, praised for among many things, having a strong intelligence network.

Counter-terrorism police officer manning security at the High Court . Photo By Halima Athumani
Counter-terrorism police officer manning security at the High Court . Photo By Halima Athumani

How did the attacks happen?

The blue print plan to bomb Uganda was orchestrated largely between Somalia and Kenya. The bombs manufactured and assembled in Somalia, were passed through Kenya, smuggled into Uganda and kept in Namasuba, according to the intelligence reports that were written following the attacks. It is in these files that the army’s intelligence wings discovered that the bombs were kept in Mbale at a ‘safe-house’ for two weeks. CMI, which also tracked phone conversations found on a suicide vest that didn’t explode, found out that the attackers travelled with unclear identification on a public bus (name withheld) to Uganda. The bomb however, was driven through the border, where heavy security is present, aboard a landcruiser with Tanzanian plates (T585 ADH).

The suspects accused of master minding the July 11th bombings listen in to court proceedings.  Photo By: Halima Athumani
The suspects accused of master minding the July 11th bombings listen in to court proceedings.
Photo By: Halima Athumani

By the time the bombs arrived, the attackers, through their networks had identified Lugogo grounds as a potential target and other places on the list included Namboole, Shoprite Lugogo and even Makerere University.

If indeed the Ugandan intelligence networks were active, would it ever have been possible for the attackers to exchange information, explosives and later leave the country without detection? These questions remain unanswered,.

Police, which at the time had a routine check of event grounds with sniffer dogs and uranium detectors was unable to detect explosives at an event that was to be attended by over 1000 people. The same sniffer dogs would however sniff out an unexploded device at a bar in Makindye just 24 hours later.

And indeed, the lapses in security, its deployment and co-ordination cost the country 79 people from an attack which could largely, from expert opinion, have been stopped.

6 days before the attack, the Chieftaincy For Military Intelligence had received a high level intelligence file from sister security agencies warning that an explosive device could have been assembled and sneaked into Uganda. The file, whose details I have not been able to see through the course of this investigation, is said to have been debated at high level security meetings and changes adopted in manning security in the city.

A source, close to the circles of power in the security apparatus, confirmed that indeed a threat had been communicated to them and ‘due steps’ had been taken. But the Ugandan security wasn’t worried about the population as much as they were about high level meetings and places where ammunition had been kept. It is only these places, it is believed, that were provided extra security.

I reached out to the Police spokesperson Fred Enanga on the allegation that police had – with knowledge about an impending attack- not provided enough security at the Lugogo grounds. He declined to comment.

It is never told on how the bombs made their way into a facility like Kyadondo grounds which should, on the night of attacks, have been heavily guarded by the Police and counter-terrorism.

When FBI and UN investigators landed in Kampala after the attacks, they would question how Al-shabab had exploited lapses in the Ugandan security apparatus to pull off the twin bombings. Joint Anti-terrorism, which was by now in advanced investigations, had recovered a cell phone device on an unexploded vest that had called numbers both in Kenya and Somalia in its past two weeks of use.

I have been given the benefit of seeing the device and together with it, the chat-list of numbers called both Kenyan and Somali. On some interactions, there are Ugandan telephone numbers. Every one called by the phone stands trial in Uganda, is dead or has been pardoned by the state to become a state witness.

As trial started for the suspects, many of whom the government extradited on unclear terms, the jury was out on who had attacked the Lugogo grounds but still major outlets that are thronged by revellers remain thin on security.

In Uganda, we have an estimate ratio of one policeman for 811 people, which is over 300 more people than the ideal 1;500 people as per the Police security requirement standards.

While the courts of law seek to answer the question of who attacked and bombed Uganda on 7/11, nobody is asking for answers on how and why the attackers seemed, from all evidence collected, to have a swift passage of the explosives.

Many Ugandans continue to live in the atmosphere of fear that one day, another bombing of the Lugogo kind might occur. While Ugandans worry, security continues to routinely pick up Somali and Eritrean nationals from the suburbs of Kisenyi and Old Kampala and question them for hours on end but only after the US embassy has publicly warned its citizens of an impending attack.

2 thoughts on “The Atmosphere Of Fear

  1. Great article, however I still strongly believe that fighting terrorism isn’t as easy as everyone makes it seem to be.

    However strong or impenetrable a security system in a State, you still get the odd attack slip through, however you have to give credit to the Government of Uganda for keeping the ratio of prevention to attack at literally nil, unlike lots of countries across the world that have the money, power and influence but are not as thorough as Uganda.

    No amount of security, even if there were 10 security officers every ten metres, would create safety against terrorism; it’s not a conventional form of warfare where the actors are scared by numbers. Asymetrical warfare, requires asymmetrical solutions in the form of psychological, unconventional warfare.

    When you look at Uganda, we are a quasi- police state and simply because of a number of influencing factors, including but not limited to our political and societal history, the insecurities and insurgencies we’ve experienced over several years, the political immaturity amongst the political and intelligentsia class, the insecure & unstable neighbourhoods and most importantly, the history of the liberation ethos which is now fused into the full weight of the Statecraft.

    Essentially terrorism is a behaviour, it’s an attitude and it is becoming increasingly clear that using all the elements of national power alone will not defeat it, rather a strong-willed battle of ideas, ideas and more ideas that overwhelm this warped sense of misguided thinking.

    Lastly, education of the masses of youth that are easily influenced and brainwashed, is an importantly critical need. The government cannot employ all of them, but they can play a role in empowering the youth to do the right thing.

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