More than four years since the July 11, 2010 twin bombings in Kampala, which claimed 79 lives, Uganda’s security has worked on processing intelligence information faster and used it to foil several terrorist attacks by Somali group Al Shabaab, which targets frontline states that deployed peacekeepers in Somalia.
A security source told The EastAfrican that there are at least 500 crime preventers in each of Uganda’s 112 districts, who are trained to detect suspicious individuals, sieve information and covertly pass it on to the Joint Security Agency, which is charged with counter-terrorism duties.
Uganda, the first to deploy troops under the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) in 2007 is top on the Somali militia’s list, but others like Kenya, which only joined the fray in 2011, have suffered more terrorist attacks at the hands of Al Shabaab.
The terrorist group, which is linked to Al Qaeda, openly vowed to strike at states contributing troops to Amisom in retaliation of their deployment, a situation that has kept Uganda, Kenya and Burundi on their toes as they work to prevent terrorist strikes.
In the past two weeks, Uganda has broken up Al Shabaab’s terrorist cells in Kisenyi, a city slum, and other upcountry towns, and arrested 26 suspects that were planning bomb attacks on soft targets in the city and urban centres.
Police spokesman Fred Enanga confirmed that they have managed to infiltrate and break up terrorist cells by using intelligence from crime preventers like motor cycle (or boda-boda) taxi operators, taxi touts and drivers, salon workers, restaurant waiters, hotel and guest house workers, among others.
Mr Enanga said that the suspects include some Ugandans, who initial information has revealed, were accomplices of Al Shabaab. They also arrested Kenyans who could not account for their presence in the country and a number of Somali nationals.
According to the police, initial intel from crime preventers rotates around suspicious elements — local or foreign — who are often seeking information on key installations like parliament, state house, or busy public places like shopping malls.
“Any bit of information we get, we process it and start working to turn it into actionable intelligence. This has seen a number of cells dismantled and we’ve been able to deter several attacks,” said Mr Enanga.
Uganda’s counter-terrorism security apparatus operates under the Joint Security Agency (JSA), which brings together the police, internal security, external security and the Joint Anti Terrorism Taskforce.
The JSA went into over-drive to involve business people in crime prevention, detection and information gathering after the September 2013 terrorist attack at the upmarket Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, which left 67 dead and over 170 wounded in mass shooting.
The police, however, warn that information that comes with specific targets turns out to be a ploy by terrorists to mislead counter-terrorism efforts.
In July, for instance, the police sent out alerts to the public that an unknown terrorist group had sent information to the American Embassy that there would be an attack on Entebbe International Airport on a specific day.
Days later, there were a series of well co-ordinated attacks in three districts in the Rwenzori region, which left 90 people dead, including security personnel. The Rwenzori region is over 400km west of Entebbe.
“We believe that information of specific targets is sent out by the terrorists to deliberately mislead. What we do as the joint security agencies is not to focus our attention and action on the said target, but to work with crime preventers to send out general alerts,” said police deputy spokeswoman Polly Namaye.
As targets of terrorist groups, Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda, East African countries have been receiving assistance from operatives of the United States of America’s Federal Bureau of Investigations on intelligence gathering and processing, but Mr Enanga declined to say whether there are any FBI agents in the country currently.