Terrorists might be winning by losing

Thursday November 25 2021
Kampala pic

Police cordons off the crime scene at Parliament Avenue. PHOTO | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

It might not look like it, but it is a good season for terrorists in Africa. In the Sahel and parts of West Africa they are operating in wider areas, and to them achieving success, that to the rest of us is evil – murdering people.

In Somalia, as the peacekeeping of the African Union, AMISOM, draws to a close, and with no certainty of its renewal, Al-Shabaab is rubbing its hands gleefully. Having played the long game for nearly 20 years, in the coming months it could well claim the political crown.

In Uganda, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for twin suicide bombings that eventually killed seven people in the capital Kampala on November 16, and wounded dozens. They were the latest in a series of such bombings in and around Kampala in the last one-and-a-half months.

Kampala authorities attributed the attacks to a Ugandan extremist group the Allied Democratic Front (ADF), which has been hiding out in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo since it was beaten out of its western Ugandan bases 18 years ago.

Even where the extremist groups have suffered reversals, they have still raised questions that do their cause good. In August, the Rwandan military intervened in Mozambique’s vast Cabo Delgado region and helped embattled Mozambique forces beat back Islamic State-Mozambique or Al-Shabaab, as the militants who had held the territory for nearly five years were known. It took the intervention force just three weeks to chase IS-Mozambique into the forest.

That fact highlighted the hollowness of the Mozambique state, but the Islamist militants could also claim that they were beaten by a worthy opponent, not a ragtag army. The Rwanda Army definitely aren’t pushovers.

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Last Thursday, Kenyan authorities rearrested three convicted terrorists who had escaped from Kamiti Maximum Security Prison in Nairobi.

The three convicts were arrested in Kitui County after residents reported suspicious-looking people near a forest to authorities. The three escapees, who were reportedly trying to make their way to Somalia, are Musharaf Abdalla, who was convicted of attempting to attack the parliament in 2012; Joseph Juma Odhiambo, who was nabbed in 2019 at the border between Kenya and Somalia for allegedly planning to join Al-Shabaab, and Mohamed Ali Abikar, who was convicted for his role in Al-Shabaab’s attack on Garissa University in April 2015. In one of the worst terrorist attacks in Kenya, the militants killed at least 148 people, the majority students. Though they were captured, their escape left egg on many people’s faces, and an upset President Uhuru Kenyatta fired the Kenya Prisons leadership, amidst allegations that the terrorists bribed their way out of prison.

Secondly, it was a victory of sorts for the terrorists that, with all the security machinery looking for them, they made it nearly 300 kilometres from Nairobi, but for vigilant local citizens could have sneaked into the welcoming embrace of Al-Shabaab a few hours later.

But the telling revelation is that the Kenya Police placed a bounty of $534,000 (Ksh60 million) on information that could lead to the arrests of the escaped three terrorists. While bounties are a deserved reward for people who help apprehend dangerous criminals and terrorists, they are an acknowledgement by the state that without the incentive the wananchi are unlikely to put in the effort. Often, that reluctance is because they dislike or distrust the state.

Many Kenyans on social media simply didn’t believe the official story of the escape. Several claimed it was an evil political plot to achieve some devious objective. Alive to the reality that the view from suburbia can be out of touch, I reached out to fellows who are more on the ground. Not a single of them believed that the three convicts had escaped from Kamiti out of their genius.

Half of them believed some people had “eaten” money to enable the escape. The other half thought it was a scheme to get money for the coming festive by letting out high-value prisoners who can attract a substantial bounty, then nab them and collect the money.

The cynicism was even deeper in Uganda, where many claimed the terror attack was staged by the state to enable it to continue a crackdown on growing opposition to President Yoweri Museveni’s regime in southern Uganda, once a stronghold. What seems to be a fairly successful operation by the security agencies in arresting suspected terrorist collaborators is widely seen as a political purge.

There are easy points for the sceptics to score. The ADF is based in DRC and is carrying out its attacks far away in Kampala. They are asking why they are not attacking targets in Museveni’s home nearer the border in western Uganda, instead of going all the way to Kampala to bomb innocent people.

The equivalent would be if President Uhuru’s home base was in Mandera at the Somalia border, and Al-Shabaab never carried out a single attack there, concentrating all of them in Nairobi.

Even in the face of setbacks, the terrorists probably see these questions, cynicism, and scepticism, as a good consolation prize.