The puzzle of terrorism

Author: Moses Khisa. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • States and state actors have long engaged in acts that amount to terrorism. In fact, for some iconoclastic analysts, the biggest source of terrorism, historically, has been the state as a body and state actors as individuals.

When I first took interest in studying the contours and complexities of global terrorism, now more than a decade ago, the most puzzling aspect was the suicide bomber. This remains puzzling: why would anyone be indoctrinated into blowing up themselves in a mission that leads nowhere? 

States and state actors have long engaged in acts that amount to terrorism. In fact, for some iconoclastic analysts, the biggest source of terrorism, historically, has been the state as a body and state actors as individuals. The rise of non-state terrorist actors over the past decades has only compounded matters.

Today, terrorism is the biggest security dilemma governments around the world have to wrestle with, whether poor or rich, technologically advanced or backward. 
 Osama bin Laden arguably raised the stakes in a manner that drastically turned around the world in a profound way with the attacks on New York City and Washington DC in September 2001. The world went in unprecedented direction henceforth. 
We are now subjected to all manner of security checks and scrutiny, especially at international airports often in ways that intrude into our personal privacy yet there is no room for protest. 

Governments use terrorism as justification for infringing on individual freedoms and citizens cannot push back because matters of national security are at stake. The surveillance state has grown and become egregious in many respects.  Political repression in some instances has sprawled and been granted cover under a vague and grand reference to terrorism.  

Yet the more the world has deferred to the fight against terrorism and handed states and governments almost unfettered latitude to fight the scourge, the more it appears the problems has come to be deeply entrenched and intractable. 
Rather than defeat it, terrorism has been reproduced and replayed in different ways and in changed forms with the passing of time. It has become a cyclical problem.

The killing of Bin Laden may have scattered al-Qaeda and disabled a great part of its operations, but then came some utterly daunting phenomenon called Islamic State. The attacks on Kampala on Tuesday morning were a despicable assault on us as a nation. There can never be any sound and defensible basis for engineering a bomb blast in a public space to target innocent civilians.  

Fortunately, for the authors of the heinous acts of Tuesday, the casualties were not as extensive as they may have wished. But even one victim injured is totally unacceptable. Whatever grievance one has against the Ugandan government or Mr Museveni as a person, targeting citizens and civilians is not just cowardly and idiotic, it’s inconsequential in the broader scheme of things. 

The terrorist got whatever publicity they crave for by sowing fear, caused the closure of normal business and may well send the state apparatus on rampage, chasing after an ill-defined targets. But for the long term and larger picture, what strategic objective does one achieve by setting off a bomb in Kampala?

Uganda has been here before. The immediate goal of a terrorist outfit is to send a country and community into overdrive or total withdraw, to overreact or retreat. We should do neither. 
The state needs to be measured and reasonable in its response, to tackle the problem professionally and meticulously. The public has to be vigilant without appearing timid and cowed. 

For the government to engage in blatant violation of citizens’ rights, for example, in the name of fighting terrorism is to precisely play into the hands of the terrorists. If the public becomes overzealous and somehow treats this as a matter of one religious-faith pitted against others, the terrorists will have won!

We have big enough socioeconomic and political problems confronting us as a country. Addressing them is one way of countering the festering sore of terrorism for the long term. A country with masses of young people living a hopeless life, with nothing to hold on for the long haul, is ripe for terrorism recruitment, fertile ground for the scary and incredible suicide bomber.  At the broader political level, a successful counterterrorism strategy has to focus on cultivating public good will and a general feeling that the rulers mean well for the common good. This has become a far more intractable problem given excesses of the NRM government. 

But any government facing a legitimacy crisis, where the average citizen does not feel the government is there to serve the interests of the people will find it very difficult securing the peace and overcoming something as elusive as fighting terrorism.  All said, in the current circumstances our rulers have to abandon part of their hubris and know that defeating the terrorists starts with winning over the wider public and avoiding sweeping victimisation. Cheap grandstanding by security agencies won’t help either. Professionalism will deliver results.