KAMPALA – This year has marked the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 (Commonly referred to as “9/11”) terrorist attacks that rocked the United States. The four coordinated attacks—committed by al-Qaeda—resulted in the brutal, tragic and untimely deaths of nearly 3,000 people and over 6,000 sustained injuries.
According to available statistics, the immediate aftermath of the attacks cost the United States at least $10 billion in property damage and about $3 trillion in total costs.
Today, two decades later, the 9/11 attacks still shape the U.S government, society, foreign policy and Counter-terrorism efforts, including the expansion of military activity, law enforcement operations, and intelligence powers.
But as the U.S continues to reflect, take account and assess its national security and counterterrorism responses
—tallying gains against costs—for both pre- and post-9/11 eras, Uganda should perhaps borrow a leaf.
Like the U.S, Uganda has also had its (un)fair share of terror attacks, with the worst attacks being the 2010 World Cup twin bombings in Kampala, where at least 74 people were killed and 85 others badly injured. And most recently, in a space of only one week, the country has had to contend with three suspected terror attacks.
On October 23, terrorists used an explosive device to attack a pork restaurant in Komamboga, a Kampala suburb, killing one person; and on October 25, they used a similar explosive device on a passenger bus travelling on the Kampala-Masaka Highway near Mpigi, killing one person. Then on October 30, a suspected bomb blast in Nakaseke district killed two children.
Of course, Uganda is not as wealthy or sophisticated as the U.S, but that should not stop it from taking lessons from the Americans, especially those emanating from counterterrorism responses and efforts. By the way, it also goes without saying that, whereas America’s post-9/11 efforts have yielded many important successes, there have been some notable errors to learn from as well.
In the wake of 9/11, the United States created new institutions, including the Department of Homeland Security, Directorate of National Intelligence, and the National Counterterrorism Centre. It also substantially increased resources for intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
While these institutions have faced several challenges over the years, they have arguably made the U.S more secure if compared to the pre-9/11 times. As a result, no additional major terrorist attacks have taken place within the United States and even most of the smaller attempts have been subverted.
The effectiveness of these agencies majorly lies in the redefined strategies and approaches used. After 9/11, the U.S focused on disruption, intelligence-gathering, strengthening partnerships, and renewing a sense of shared responsibility. All levels of government removed barriers that had stifled collaboration and prevented information-sharing.
For Uganda’s part, whereas the suspected terrorist operatives are largely believed to be part of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a rebel group operating in the jungles of the neighbouring eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), no major efforts have been made to strengthen counterterrorism partnerships with DRC, other regional partners and local communities.
As a matter of fact, hundreds of people, from DRC and other neighbouring countries, are estimated to illegally enter Uganda every year using porous routes but only few are apprehended. Others buy their way into the country when intercepted by border security operatives.
To avert the eminent threat created by these illegal border crossings, collaboration will be essential for Uganda. This means strengthened law enforcement partnerships with state and local partners, whose front-line observations have proved key for the U.S. The government also needs the backing of the Ugandan people to answer the call to tackle these new terrorism threats.
After 9/11, the U.S. enhanced its capacities to track and shut down terror finance networks, and it adapted approaches aimed to thwart terror threats and operatives in the face of technological advancements, including internet and social media.
Similarly, Uganda’s law enforcement and counterterrorism agencies must redefine their approaches and acknowledge that unlike in the past where terrorist attacks required extensive physical communication, which took time and created leads for investigators to pursue, today, terrorism moves at the speed of internet and social media.
With technological advancements, terrorists have become more sophisticated and harder to track. For instance, in one of the retrieved emails shared by the attackers while plotting the 9/11 attacks, one of them disguised as if he was writing to his girlfriend and is quoted saying: “The first semester commences in three weeks…Nineteen certificates for private education and four exams”.
The referenced 19 “certificates” were codes meant to identify the 19 al-Qaeda hijackers, while the four “exams” identified the targets of the attacks.
In the eyes of some experts, the U.S ‘war on terror’ has also resulted in a variety of miscalculations, often focusing on wrong targets. Therefore, Uganda’s security agencies must focus on doing thorough intelligence work of assessing emerging threats and interrupting them in the planning cycle and be careful not to be carried into interventions attuned to solving political grievances.
There’s need to avoid situations of under/over-reactions while dealing with terror threats. After under-reacting before 9/11, the U.S overreacted in many ways in the aftermath. For instance, Peter Bergen writes in his book, The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden, that: “There were only 16 people on the U.S. ‘no-fly’ list on 9/11. Around the time that bin Laden died [in 2011], there were more than 40,000”.
For Uganda and its East African counterparts, counterterrorism tactics and operations have, in the past, led to a string of hurried actions and exaggerated fears often ending into human rights violations including allegations of arbitrary detention, physical abuse, and denial of due process rights.
By any measure, fighting terrorism is a tricky business and stopping the next attack should always be the priority for any country. Terrorism is not a disease that can be eradicated through vaccination, but its likelihood may be minimized if we develop innovative counterterrorism strategies centred on collaboration with both state and local actors.
Mr. Mukalazi is the Country Director of
Every Child Ministries Uganda.