We should learn from the US 9/11 terror attacks

Author: Brian Mukalazi

What you need to know:

  • We should be careful not to be carried into interventions attuned to solving political grievances.

This year has marked the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 (Commonly referred to as “9/11”) terrorist attacks that rocked the United States. The four coordinated attacks—committed by al-Qaeda—resulted in the brutal, tragic and untimely deaths of nearly 3,000 people and over 6,000 sustained injuries.

But as the US continues to reflect, take account and assess its national security and counterterrorism responses —tallying gains against costs—for both pre- and post-9/11 eras, Uganda should perhaps borrow a leaf.

Like the US, Uganda has also had its (un)fair share of terror attacks, with the worst attacks being the 2010 World Cup twin bombings in Kampala, where at least 74 people were killed. And most recently, in a space of only one week, the country has had to contend with three suspected terror attacks.

On October 23, terrorists used an explosive device to attack a pork restaurant in Komamboga, a Kampala suburb, killing one person; and on October 25, they used a similar explosive device on a passenger bus travelling on the Kampala-Masaka Highway near Mpigi, killing one person.

Then on October 30, a suspected bomb blast in Nakaseke District killed two children.
Of course, Uganda is not as wealthy or sophisticated as the U.S, but that should not stop it from taking lessons from the Americans, especially those emanating from their counterterrorism responses, efforts, and policy failures. In the wake of 9/11, the U.S focused on disruption, intelligence-gathering, strengthening partnerships, and renewing a sense of shared responsibility. All levels of government removed barriers that had stifled collaboration and prevented information-sharing.

For Uganda’s part, whereas the suspected terrorist operatives are largely believed to be part of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a rebel group operating in the jungles of the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), no major efforts have been made to strengthen counterterrorism partnerships with DRC, other regional partners and local communities.  As a matter of fact, hundreds of people, from DRC and other neighbouring countries, are estimated to illegally enter Uganda every year using porous routes but only few are apprehended. Others buy their way into the country when intercepted by border security operatives.

To avert the eminent threat created by these illegal border crossings, collaboration will be essential for Uganda. This means strengthened law enforcement partnerships with state and local partners, whose front-line observations have proved key for the U.S.

After 9/11, the U.S. enhanced its capacities to track and shut down terror finance networks, and it adapted approaches aimed to thwart terror threats and operatives in the face of technological advancements, including internet and social media. Similarly, Uganda’s counterterrorism agencies must redefine their approaches and acknowledge that unlike in the past where terrorist attacks required extensive physical communication, which took time and created leads for investigators to pursue, today, terrorism moves at the speed of internet and social media.

There’s need to avoid situations of under/over-reactions while dealing with terror threats. After under-reacting before 9/11, the U.S overreacted in many ways in the aftermath, often focusing on wrong targets. For Uganda, counterterrorism tactics have in the past led to a string of hurried actions sometimes ending into human rights violations.

We should be careful not to be carried into interventions attuned to solving political grievances. By any measure, fighting terrorism is a tricky business and stopping the next attack should always be the priority for any country.

Terrorism is not a disease that can be eradicated through vaccination, but its likelihood may be minimized if we develop innovative counterterrorism strategies centred on collaboration with both state and local actors. 

Mr Brian Mukalazi is the Country Director of Every Child Ministries Uganda.
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