Return of the terrorists to Kampala. What gives?

Author, Charles Onyango Obbo. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Going by the evidence of the actions of terrorists in the region, especially Kenya, of recent years, and West Africa, the Uganda police is probably right.

Islamic State’s Central Africa Province on Monday claimed responsibility for the bomb blast Saturday at a restaurant in Komamboga, in the northern outskirts of Kampala, in which one person was killed, and three injured.
The Uganda Police said the crude nail bomb suggested the terror attack was the work of an unsophisticated local outfit and played down any connection to foreign groups.
 Going by the evidence of the actions of terrorists in the region, especially Kenya, of recent years, and West Africa, the Uganda Police is probably right.

The Somali extremist group, which has been behind most attacks in Kenya, has tended to go for high profile targets like the upmarket Westgate mall in Nairobi in September 2013 in which 71 people were killed and 200 wounded, or the even bloodier Garissa University attack of April 2015, in which 148 people were killed and nearly 80 injured, or the posh DusitD2 complex in January of 2019.

But then, again, IS could have a hand in it because while the explosive device was crude, the political goal seems sophisticated.
One is reminded not so much of the 2010 al-Shabaab-linked twin bombings in Kampala targeting fans watching the World Cup final that left 76 people dead, but of the series of smaller attacks in the late 1990s that happened in downtown Kampala and its outskirts and went on for weeks.

The bombs used to go off between 4:30pm and 5:30pm on Saturday. One, two, and at the highest no more than six people were ever killed. Some of them had no casualties.
 In our analysis, we concluded that the primary goal of the terror attacks was publicity and to paint a picture of instability that they had failed to do in 1998. 
On August 8, 1998, over 200 people were killed in virtually simultaneous truck bomb attacks on the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The planned Kampala bombing was foiled by intelligence.

The crude bombs in downtown Nairobi and churches were designed to sow social division. Kenyan-Somalis became viewed with suspicion and hostility. At the height of it, the government responded by raiding Somali-dominated suburbs and carting them off to the Kasarani stadium in “pandagari” operations. The last time Kenyans had seen such things was during the Mau Mau Uprising (1952-1960) in which the British colonial authorities rounded up people and threw them into concentration camps, so the liberal elite was quite appalled.

At this point the terrorists will have caused discord at the bottom, but won’t have frightened the privileged class and ruling elite in a personal way, nor dealt the image of the country the blow to cause capital flight. 
For that, they have to do a Westgate. Usually, here you will have foreign terrorists getting involved. Those are seeking martyrdom and don’t plan to go back. And unlike the Komamboga who might still have ties to the community, and are not willing to inflict the kind of casualties that were witnessed at Garissa University, for example, they have no compunction about killing over 70 – as in Lugogo in 2010.

The bombing of a five-star hotel in a leafy suburb with fancy ammunition, therefore, starts life as an attack with a locally-made IED in a downtown taxi park. If this pattern holds, it helps anticipate the terrorists’ possible next moves.

This raises the question of how fertile Kampala is for these attacks. Politically, Kampala and its environments are mostly opposition strongholds today, unlike in the 1990s. 
Continued attacks could drive opposition supporters into the government’s arms, rather than cause social division. Thus the fact that the Yoweri Museveni government is unpopular in the south, might be an advantage for it in this war.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]


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