By Antonin TISSERON, Associate Fellow at the Thomas More Institute.
On Sunday 11 July, several bombs exploded in two restaurants in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, where numerous people were watching the broadcasting of the 2010 Football World Cup final. This terrorist act- the most lethal in East Africa in the past 12 years- proclaimed by Somali Islamists belonging to the Al-Chabab (1) movement, hit a country which seems at first glance to be far removed from the problem of Islamist terrorism.
Uganda, surrounded by countries where conflicts have long been brewing, is one of those African states which seemed to enjoy relative stability in spite of past conflicts, since the signing of a cease-fire by rebels from the North and the Ugandan government in 2006. Ugandan soldiers, along with soldiers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Sudan and he Central African Republic, have been tracking the remaining rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army, but the latter are stationed within the northern borderland. In 2009, 255 of these rebels operating from within Kampala’s neighbouring cities allegedly laid down their arms and benefited from the amnesty proclaimed in 2000. However, in spite of efforts made in the fight against terrorism and the setting up of a unit grouping together soldiers, policemen and intelligence services, the country now serves as a place of transit and recruitment for Al-Qaeda (2). Moreover, in September, November and December 2009, the Ugandan government increased its alert level and reinforced security surrounding government buildings, shopping centres and well-known hotels.
How can we explain the 11 July attacks? Striking just before the African Union’s 15th session of Heads of State and Government in Kampala forced the current situation in Somalia- an issue which was not initially at the centre of the proceedings (3) – onto the agenda. Above all, the Al-Chabab Islamists presented the attacks as an act of resistance against a foreign enemy: « We are behind this attack because we are at war with them [the Ugandans] », declared spokesperson Ali Mohamoud Rage before journalists in Mogadishu; « we will contine the attacks if they continue to kill our people. It was a defensive measure against the Ugandans who came into our country and killed our people. The attack was an act of reprisal against their actions ».The Chababs, who control the largest part of Somalia and have pledged their allegiance to Al-Qaeda, are pitted against 6000 AMISOM soldiers (4) in Mogadishu. AMISOM is the African Union peace force tasked with the protection of the interim government of President Sharif Cheikh Ahmed. However, Uganda, along with Burundi, is one of the only countries that contributes to AMISOM (5). Uganda, trains Somali soldiers on its territory and has been home to the European mission EUTM Somalia over the past few months (6). Finally, as Thierry Vircoulon, Head of the Central African branch for International Crisis Group, reminds us: « the Ugandan authorities are the Americans’ closest allies in the region » (7). Following the 11 July attack, which cost one American his life, President Barack Obama announced that the FBI would participate in the investigation.
On the occasion of the opening of the African Union summit on 25 July, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni called for “working together to chase [Islamist terrorists] from Africa”. However, the African Heads of State decided to settle for the dispatch of 2000 reinforcement soldiers, for the most part provided by Uganda- a far cry from the 10 000 to 20 000 soldiers mentioned by Museveni. It is easy for Seyoum Mesfin, Ethiopian Foreign Affairs Minister, to declare “All Africans understand the urgency of the situation”. Behind the masks of solidarity, there doesn’t seem to be anything preventing Somalia from buckling under the control of radical Islamists. The Americans are refusing any involvement other than bringing financial and operational support to their local allies. The international intervention in Somalia between 1992 and 1994, marked chiefly by the loss of two UH-60 Special Forces helicopters in 1993 and popularised by the Ridley Scott film Black Hawk Down, has certainly not been forgotten. But by favouring a practise of resorting to friendly regimes fighting for them by proxy, the United States are adopting the same approach in the Horn of Africa as in the Sahel (8). Somalia’s neighbours, for their part greatly concerned, remain guarded. Between 2006 and 2007, Ethiopia had already tried unsuccessfully to set up a transitional government in Mogadishu, then in exile in Baidoa in the South-West of the country. Kenya, on the other hand, simply announced a strengthening of security along the length of its 680km shared border with Somalia.
This attitude contrasts with the regional dimension of Islamist terrorism in East Africa. The Kampala attacks have demonstrated the Somali Islamists’ capacity to strike far from their bases. Likewise, the origin of the suspects arrested by Ugandan authorities gives credence to the theory concerning international terrorist networks linked to the Chababs. Amongst the people under investigation, one finds, in addition to Ugandans and Somalis, one Rwandan, one Pakistani and ten Kenyans. Within Somali’s neighbouring countries, but also in Tanzania and Uganda, Chabab recruiters can primarily draw on the sizeable, relatively long-standing displaced Somali community, whose displacements were fed by the civil war, practically uninterrupted since 1991. In Uganda, ex Islamist militants belonging to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) constituteprovide another pool for recruitments: even though ADF has in theory been disbanded, rumours seem to point to a connection between social Islamists and the Al-Chabab (9). Over and above these factors, one must consider the porous borders in a region where possibilities for control are limited by insufficient state resources and high levels of corruption.
The regimes in this geopolitical zone- aside from Somalia- are not yet at risk of civil war. The July 11th attacks- terrorist action against an enemy country- aims to create a climate of terror in Uganda and influence the country’s foreign policy. By striking indiscriminately, the Islamist militants were not trying to strengthen their cause amongst the Ugandan population, but in Somalia. The short term risk is thus to allow a sanctuary for Al-Qaeda, deprived of a number of its bases following the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, to endure. In the long term, however, this group, which asserts its affiliation to Al-Qaeda and has imported techniques such as suicide bombings from other Jihadist terrains, poses a threat to regional stability. But without greater regional cooperation in the fields of security and development, the sky looks grey in an African East that suffers from the absence of a regional or global leader capable of forming an anti-terrorism coalition that Uganda- along with Burundi- cannot undertake alone. In this respect, it is telling to note that at the African Union summit it was South Africa who promised to dispatch war ships to impede the importing of arms into Somalia...
At a time when Europeans tend to be focusing their attention on Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb- where hostage taking and explicit threats to Westerners are compelling - we must not overlook the situation in Somalia and the possibility of the spread of chaos into wider zones. Just as the Kampala attacks highlight Uganda’s neuralgic role in the efforts made by the international community to achieve stability, the most recent terrorist attacks in Mogadishu lead us back to Somalia. As geopolitics is made up of repercussions, there is a fear that different terrorist factions in Africa, from the Sahel-Sahara zone to the Horn of Africa- may grow mutually stronger.
(1) The Islamist insurrection, led by Al-Chabab, has been trying to seize power since the withdrawal of Ethipion troops in January 2007, who occupied the country for one year after overthrowing another militant organisation, the Islamic Courts Union . The Al-Chabab armed militant group, regarded as a terrorist organisation by the United States, is one of the most extremist Islamist groups in Somalia.
(2) National Counterterrorism Center (United States), Country Reports on Terrorism 2009, August 2010, available at http://www.state.gov:s:ct:rls:crt.
(3) This meeting took place from 25-27 July. The original topics of the meeting were mother and infant health and development.
(4) AMISOM, created on 19 January 2007 with an intial mandate of 6 months, aims to support Somali government structures (the Somali president, moderate Islamist Sharif Ahmed, previously Head of the Islamic Courts Union, was elected by the Somali Parliament on 31 January 2009, in Djibouti due to the civil war in Somalia at the time), improve security within the country, train Somali government forces and facilitate the channelling of humanitarian aid.
(5) Initially, other African countries, such as Malawi, Ghana and Nigeria expressed their willingness to send troops into Somalia…. However, due to logistical shortages and lack of funds- indeed in response to threats by militant groups which heralded their entry into a theater of war- in the end only Uganda and Burundi armed an AMISOM light years away from the nine battalions intiially envisaged (for additional information, see : http://www.africa-union.org/root/au/auc/departments/psc/amisom/amisom.htm).
(6) EUTM Somalia, launched on 7 April 2010, is a European Union military mission intended to complete the training of 2000 Somali recruits up to troop level dispensed in Uganda. This mission, scheduled to last one year, includes just under 150 people.
(7) Christophe Châtelot, « L’Ouganda démantèle un réseau chabab responsable des attentats de Kampala », Le Monde, 21 August 2010.
(8) Daniel Volman, « AFRICOM: what is it and what will it do? », in Review of African Political Economy, 34: 114, December 2007, pp. 737–744. This strategy notably allows one to avoid feeding further tensions with regard to the United States.
(9) Knox Chitiyo, 11/7: The July 2010 Kampala Bombings, RUSI, 20 July 2010, available at http://www.rusi.org/analysis/commentary/ref:C4C45B35122E02/.
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