Security agencies arrested one of the alleged July 11 attack masterminds before the blast but lost the opportunity to stem the terrorist incursion by freeing him under unclear circumstances, Daily Monitor can reveal.
A highly placed source said police held Rwandan national Muhammed Mugisha, later profiled as the initial master planner of the blasts, but detectives failed to establish his links with al-Shabaab.
The man was detained for an “immigration-related” crime, charged and released on bail, Police Spokesperson Judith Nabakooba said. “We did not then have the information we have about him now.” Other sources, however, suggest the suspect was freed under unclear circumstance with knowledge of ‘high level’ Police detectives.
Staying with the enemy
That would not be the only failing. Mugisha, who was deployed to organise the attacks, rented a house next to the residence of Ms Ruth Nankabirwa, then junior Defence minister.
He appeared not to fear or worry about soldiers guarding the minister, according to reverse security analysis, until one of his senior terrorist commanders while on surveillance for the mission reportedly advised him to relocate to a much safer part of the city. “If Mugisha had been handled properly, there was a possibility this thing (July 11 attacks) could have been prevented because he had the information,” a highly placed intelligence source told Daily Monitor.
It is not clear what Mugisha told detectives before his release. When a team of investigators recovered a cellphone handset attached to ignite an unexploded bomb in Makindye, a city suburb, shortly after the Kyadondo and Ethiopian Restaurant blasts, the contacts retrieved and call details exposed the matrix of the attack stringing four countries.
It was apparently planned in Mogadishu, the explosives assembled in Kenya’s Eastleigh, a Nairobi suburb, while the funding was allegedly wired from Pakistan and execution carried – to devastating effect – in Kampala by among others, ordinary-looking Ugandans some of who fraternised even with the senior army officers.
For instance, Edrisa Nsubuga, the man alleged to have transported the bombs to Kyadondo and detonated it with a telephone call, stayed in his in-law’s house in Najjanankumbi off Entebbe Road, neighbouring Army Spokesman Lt. Col. Felix Kulayigye.
He would, for a year, exchange pleasantries and chat up the military officer without raising suspicion he had turned a radicalised Muslim planning mass killings.
Asked how he lived side by side with a terrorist and failed to detect anything ominous, Lt. Col. Kulayigye said, “The fact that they (suspects) were ordinary Ugandans, we would not suspect. If he was a stranger, I would be curious”.
“Terrorism is impossible to stop since it has no face or religion. You can only minimise their chances,” he said, pointing to the September 11, 2001 Al Qaeda attacks on the US, despite the world super-power’s sophisticated security arrangement.
The fault lines in interrogation and missed chances by security organs resulted in the July 11 blasts in which at least 76 people, including one American citizen, perished. Five other Americans were also injured. Because American citizens were involved, and since Uganda is US’ key security ally in the Great Lakes region, Washington sent a team of Federal Bureau of Investigators (FBI) to examine the blast scenes and pick samples on site for forensic analysis.
The experts generated likely images or look of the alleged suicide bombers, and gave the pictures to Uganda police, to aid backward tracing of their probable movements, associations and contacts.
The US Mission in Kampala would not divulge findings by the FBI team since the matter is still under investigation and said they got involved, at the request of Uganda, because American citizens were involved and fighting terrorism interests them. “The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security of the US Department of State have assisted Ugandan law enforcement with evidence collection in the investigation,” outgoing deputy Public Affairs Officer, Mr John Dunne, wrote in an email reply to this newspaper.
The terrorism experts helped government to collect evidence, interview witnesses, and develop leads so that mastermind(s) of the attack are identified and apprehended.
Mr Dunne wrote: “The terrorists behind that tragic attack must be brought to justice, and we are working with the government of Uganda to do so. The US government’s Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) continues to assist the government of Uganda with their investigations. We hope that the trials will start soon.”
Some 18 people, picked across East Africa, have been charged and remanded to Luzira Prisons, awaiting trial. Uganda was the 33rd country to be hit by terrorists. Since then, the country’s intelligence organs have picked seminal lessons, which they say helped them foil planned terrorist attacks during the campaigns period, particularly one targeting President Museveni at his last rally at Kololo.
Other failed plots, according to military intelligence, were planned to happen on Christmas and New Year, NRM Day observance on January 26 and the latest target being Mr Museveni’s swearing-in on May 12 attended by half a dozen other African presidents.
The security forces do not admit intelligence failures and infighting - fuelled by the struggle for operational cash and power - resulted in withholding of crucial intelligence information and improper coordination that militated in favour of the terrorists.
The Nabhan Brigade of Somalia’s al Shabaab group carried out the July 11 attacks ostensibly to avenge the death, in a US raid, of Saleh Ali Nabhan, a top al Qaeda leader in East Africa who was simultaneously an al Shabaab linchpin.
Nabhan was on the (FBI) wanted list for his alleged role in directing the 1998 suicide bomb attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed in total 223 and wounded more than 4, 000.
It is this man that Mugisha, whom Ugandan authorities arrested and freed, was found to have strong links with. Their principal local accomplices included detained brothers; Haruna Luyima and Isa Ahmed Luyima, according to investigators.
Uganda is understood to have elevated itself as a prime terrorists’ target when it marshalled troops and deployed in March 2007 to buttress the Somalia Transitional Federal Government (TFG) on a military expedition nudged and financed by Washington, but under the aegis of the African Union.
Not seen the last?
Sheikh Muktar Abdelrahman Abu Zubeyr, al Shabaab’s spiritual leader, said shortly after the bombs went off in Kampala that Amisom (African Union Mission in Somalia) is causing more suffering to the Mogadishu people than did the Americans and the Ethiopians.
“The bombings were the beginning of vengeance for those victims,” Zubeyr said then, warning: “If Uganda and Burundi do not withdraw their troops, there will be more bombings in Kampala and Bujumbura.” Thus Uganda is safer pulling its forces from the restive Mogadishu to keep safe, some argue.
President Museveni said such cowardly withdrawal would be defeatist because extremists would carve an undisturbed enclave in the Horn of Africa, and use it as a lair to plan attacks anywhere and at will.
The solution, therefore, should be confronting them militarily as is beginning to happen ever since the recent change of Amisom mandate from peace-keeping to enforcement.
Kenya reportedly passed on classified intelligence to Uganda detailing plans for the July 11 attacks but another top security official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to sensitivity of the matter, said “we did not who the attackers were and how they were going to attack”.
In spite of such documented high official cooperation, it is alleged that some rogue elements within the Kenyan security could have helped the extremists cross porous borders with Somalia and Uganda while coordinating the attack.
It has emerged Mr Nsubuga had suggested they snuff out his neighbour Lt. Col. Kulayigye but his colleagues reportedly dissented on grounds the death of a single UPDF officer would not generate maximum impact, particularly publicity. “I usually say those poor victims of the Kyadondo bomb blasts were my sacrifice,” the colonel said.
In accounts offered to investigators, Mugisha reportedly said he was aware of the al Shabaab plot to hit Uganda and that the radical group has trained pilots in Sweden who could be drafted anytime to hijack and crash a plane into either Entebbe Airport terminal or State House Entebbe.
The avalanche of information churned in the aftermath of July 11, has prodded officials to strengthen immigration controls; particular issuing of travel documents and border clearance alongside tracking terrorists’ financing through commercial banks, profiling and sharing intelligence about them among cooperating countries in real time.
Recently, FBI conducted its first ever under-cover training for 15 Ugandan and 17 Kenyan police officers to gain, among others, skills develop recognisable undercover identity and infiltrate and disrupt terrorist cells from within.
From such great risks are expected great rewards to stem terrorist plots and now the police, intelligence and the army say they are better “prepared” now to handle extremists than before July 11.