Terrorism: Unending war where govt is right

The wreckage of the vehicle that the victims of the gruesome October 17, 2023 attack in Queen Elizabeth National Park were travelling in. PHOTO/JEROME KULE BISTWADNDE

What you need to know:

  • The conversation about terrorism, more aptly the war on terror, has gained currency in Uganda,

Terrorism has multiple definitions that by 1988, scholars Alex Schmidt and Albert Jongman had counted up to 109 such meanings. 

This suggests terrorism is different things to different people, signalling less clarity and more confusion. Put another way, what is terrorism and what it is not is an unending debate.

That renders counter-measures employed and deployed in the name of terrorism in disparate jurisdictions countless, if not conflictual or counterproductive, especially if it curtails civil liberties. 

One meaning mirroring United Nations definition is that terrorism constitutes the “intentional indiscriminate use of force or such threat against unarmed civilians whether to attain political aims or inflict fear”.   It is the emphasis on “unarmed civilians”, which appears to have legitimated the enumeration of war victims in the clusters of women, children and men rather than a collective deceased ostensibly to better illuminate the evil deeds of the terrorist against the vulnerable.

Two key words in the presumably acceptable definition stand out: fear and threat of action. The inclusion of political motivation of violence as terrorism introduces a fluidity permitting state actors to problematise legitimate power contestation by opponents, whether armed or not, as terrorism.

This may, or may not, be the case. For instance, in September 2011, then Inspector General of Police, Gen Kale Kayihura, said Activists for Change (A4C), an offshoot pressure group of an opposition political party at the time protesting post-election rising living costs, was a terrorist outfit powered by youth trained in Afghanistan.  The police chief offered no evidence, no one challenged him to substantiate the claim and none of the members of A4C was ever successfully prosecuted despite arrests. Under Gen Kayihura, police between 2011-15 issued 10 terror alerts, with one on October 2, 2013 based on recycled facts.

Such dichotomous approach to national security is explainable if viewed through the prism of discursive construction of existential threats, a central plank of the Securitisation or Copenhagen School Theory of security analysis. 

Simply put, security or insecurity is not, unlike what Realism asserts, an objective tangible reality for which national defence or military is the answer.  Rather, as is the case with terrorism, it’s an assigning by specific words usually by a state actor of an existential threat, which when accepted by citizens, allows suspension of normal politics and justifies use of extraordinary measures.

This is because fear renders the population effeminate, leaving the government as its only bulwark against vulnerability. 

Looked at that way, it’s unsurprising if citizens become compliant with, or unquestioning of, unlimited government powers or actions qualified as necessary to safeguard against terrorism.  Reason? A contestation presents the risk of an individual or group being labelled a terrorist or terrorism sympathiser, both of which bear severe consequences for a crime without borders. 

Thus, silence and acquiescence are citizens’ self-preservation tactics - not necessarily lack of knowledge or interest in realpolitik- because critique invites trouble.  Such, among others, involve state actors killing or arresting and detaining one as a suspect for lengthy periods. Or, torture and imprisonment to extract confessions, visa and travel restrictions and international financial/asset freezes for designated individuals and groups.

The conversation about terrorism, more aptly the war on terror, has gained currency in Uganda with the Tuesday attack by suspected Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) fighters in which a British couple on honeymoon was killed in Queen Elizabeth National Park in western part of the country. President Museveni in a statement yesterday christened the assailants “terrorists … wretched individuals” who carried out the attack in the hope of distracting Uganda’s military that has been pursuing them inside the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for nearly two years.

ADF was not always a terrorist group. Before the September 11, 2001 Al Qaeda attack on the US, the Ugandan government called the insurgent group, like the Lord’s Resistance Army/Movement in northern Uganda, a rebel group their macabre onslaughts on civilians notwithstanding. At worst, they were “bandits”.  Then 9/11 happened. And President George Bush cast the attacks as ideological, a radical evil against progressive liberal values. 

He made the war on terror that he declared permanent and everywhere until the last terrorist was defeated, killed or removed from unspecified frontline.   By proclaiming that “you’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists”, the American leader conscripted nations of the world to take sides and vouch international solidarity, by interpretation with the US if they wanted to avoid ominous ramifications. 

It is in this context that 140 of the 193 UN member states, following UN Security Council 1456, had by 2012 enacted restrictive terrorism-related laws. This contrasted with 51 countries that had such laws before September 2001.

And Uganda was among the compliant. Kampala in 2002 enacted an Anti-Terrorism law prescribing death for an individual convicted of doing acts “for the purpose of influencing the government or intimidating the public … for a political, religious, social or economic aim, indiscriminately without due regard to the safety of others …”

The definition of who a terrorist is so broad in the legislation, including “unlawful possession of explosives, ammunition, and bomb”, that anyone could potentially be a suspect.

It is the kind of classification that makes all current and former rebels groups in Uganda culpable. For instance, in its bush days, the National Resistance Army/Movement guerrilla group that catapulted President Museveni to power in 1986, would have fallen in the same fold. Its urban hit squad commanded by Maj Gen Matayo Kyaligonza, Uganda’s current envoy to Burundi, committed terror-like acts.

Indeed, then President Milton Obote in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in February 1985 called the NRA leader Museveni, now in power for 37 years, “a gunman…is it worth talking to such gangsters, terrorists?”

Obote’s disapproval did not prevent Mr Museveni from capturing power a year later. He proclaimed himself a liberator, which suggests today’s terrorist (as Museveni was in Obote’s eyes) is a current or future freedom fighter (the way Museveni and followers saw himself then and now).  It is precisely because, as the BBC’s World Affairs Editor John Simpson noted in an article a week ago in relation why the UK public broadcaster is not calling Palestinian militant group, Hamas, a terrorist outfit, that “terrorism is a loaded word, which people use about an outfit they disapprove of morally”.

“It’s simply not the BBC’s job to tell people who to support and who to condemn - who are the good guys and who are the bad guys,” he wrote, departing from western nomenclature of the group that launched an unparalleled attack on Israel about a fortnight ago. The BBC position, as is the scholarly and policy discourse, shows the continuing lack of consensus about what is and what is not terrorism --- even when different government are deploying disparate measures and committing immeasurable resources to counter what they consider an existential threat.