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Word to the Wise On Terrorism and Counterterrorism in Africa

Terrorism in Africa, like all questions of strategy and of strategic consideration, is context specific – to time, space, actors and events. Generalizations of terrorism in Africa, past and present, are most unwise and unhelpful. Countering terrorist threats in Africa requires a deep understanding of Africa – from subregion to subregion, country to country, and small folk community to small folk community. Thus, as I teach my students, understanding terrorism and counterterrorism in Africa requires knowledge of Africa, first and foremost. Policymakers would be wise to follow suit.

For the past two years, I have taught a senior seminar to upper division undergraduate and graduate students called “Terrorism in Africa.” Three years prior, before the announcement of the formation of U.S. Africa Command, I was hired to be the Africa desk officer for an intelligence and terrorism analysis team working for the U.S. Government. To say that I have an interest in what transpired this past weekend in the Ethiopian Village restaurant and the Kyadondo Rugby Club in Kampala, Uganda, would be an understatement, to say the least.

The near-simultaneous attacks (approximately ten minutes apart in two different Kampala neighborhoods, Kabalagala and Lugogo) against civilians watching the World Cup finals match between Spain and the Netherlands herald a qualitative advance in the capabilities of the Somalia-based terrorist organization al Shabaab, which has claimed allegiance to Osama bin Laden and credit for these attacks. But before we begin worrying about future terrorist attacks in Africa and shifting our resources (diplomatic, intelligence, military and economic) to the next so-called battleground against al Qaeda, it is prudent to consider what terrorism is in Africa and what is needed to counter it.

Historical and geographic factors impinge directly on the meanings of terrorism in Africa. Do Africans consider immediately what occurred in Kampala on July 11 acts of terrorism? The question is more difficult to answer for Africans than for non-Africans. Uganda, the source of the Nile River, has been intimately linked to events in neighboring Kenya and, therefore, Somalia.

During the reign of its three leaders since independence, it has faced interstate and intrastate war, civil strife, and insurgency. To pundits who are speaking and writing today about the recent attacks in Kampala, the rationale for the attacks is the participation of the Ugandan People’s Defence Forces in the African Union Mission in Somalia. In short, this is pay-back from al Shabaab for meddling in the affairs of Somalis, and Burundi may be next.

Stepping back from such insightful analysis, however, we must recognize that terrorism and political violence motivated by Islam has and has not been called terrorism by Africans. In fact, this bears out in the history of Uganda itself: in late June 1976, Palestinian terrorists hijacked an Air France plane with Israeli passengers and received safe haven at Entebbe Airport by then dictator of Uganda, Idi Amin. Does this mean that Ugandans have sympathy for terrorists motivated by an extremist interpretation of Islam? Most likely, not. But to answer the question properly, we must develop a thorough understanding of the geography and politics of Uganda. Furthermore, the future terrorist threat of al Shabaab speaks to the heart of the failed Somali nation-state, policy solutions to which require understanding the geography and politics of Somalia. Word to the wise: to counter terrorism in Africa, understand Africa.