To defeat al-Shabaab, we must study them and equip our police
Posted Thursday, October 3 2013 at 01:00
Since al-Shabaab presents enormous challenges in East Africa, we must understand how the group started, its complexity, structural dynamics and ideology. Understanding these will help us in fighting the terrorists.
On September 1, 1992, Paul Wilkinson, one of the world’s leading authorities on terrorism and political science wrote in the Daily Telegram: “Fighting terrorism is like being a goal keeper. You can make a hundred brilliant saves but the only shot that people remember is the one that gets past you.”
He was right. We all remember the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York, the July 11, 2010 bomb blasts in Kampala and the recent terror attack on Kenya’s Westgate Mall, among others. And we are usually quick to blame security organs for not doing enough to foil these attacks.
While Kenyans were fighting the terrorists, I was travelling to Soroti with friends and a debate started on the Westgate siege. Two questions stood out: How did 15 terrorists manage to smuggle their ammunitions into the mall? Why was it taking long for Kenyan security to rescue the hostages?
As Wilkinson noted, we were finding fault with Kenyan police and intelligence system yet it is clear that terrorism is difficult to understand. We could not differentiate terrorism from other criminal acts and violence.
If we are to go by the definition of terrorism by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and New York Police Department (NYPD), terrorism, according to FBI, is “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives”. NYPD defines terrorism as a “criminal act designed to manipulate an audience beyond the immediate victims”.
Terrorists seek to commit acts of violence that draw attention to their cause. They plan their attacks to obtain the greatest publicity. From the above definitions and trend of attacks, it is clear that the real target for terrorists is not the victim but the wider audience. Terrorism is designed to have far-reaching psychological repercussions beyond the immediate victim. The victim is just an innocent bystander. He/she is killed to send a message to the powers that be. All these are intended to achieve political results by forcing government to do something. For the case of Uganda and Kenya attacks, the goal is to force the governments to withdraw their troops from Somalia. If Kenya or Uganda does so, then terrorists will claim victory.
Setting up security detectors and checking our vehicles at every entrance is not working and will never work. This is because the organisation of suicide bombers is so tactful, following at least seven steps: target selection, intelligence gathering on target, recruitment of potential bomber, training of bomber, preparation of devices, and transportation of bomber and detonation of bomb.
Detectors and checking vehicles falls in the last stage and terrorists are not gullible to just put bombs in the car. Under intelligence gathering, they identify weak spots where bombs/ ammunitions could be passed without being detected. That is why policing instead of military force is important in ending terrorism.
In 2008, Jones and Libicki conducted a study “How Terrorist Groups End” and selected 268 terrorism groups which had ended. The report revealed that only 7 per cent of the groups ended because of military force compared to 40 per cent, which were defeated as a result of police work. It is, therefore, paramount that the police are well trained and equipped to fight terrorism.
Since al-Shabaab presents enormous challenges in East Africa, we must understand how the group started, its complexity, structural dynamics and ideology. Understanding these will help us in fighting the terrorists. Also, the formation of the terrorist groups is complex, so is the decline but organisational design can dictate the weak points within the system that can cause the group to unravel.
Ideological motivation can also influence group life span. Ethno-based groups last twice as long as left/right-wing groups. That is why the Westgate attackers were associating themselves with Muslims/ Islam because it is easier to tap into a larger pool of potential supporters, foot soldiers, leaders and financiers. If the Muslim community cooperate and strongly denounce al-Shabaab and carry out mass mobilisation against them, al-Shabaab will easily die because of backlash.
Mr Murangira studied contemporary issues in terrorism and radicalisation at the University of Zurich. email@example.com