Uganda: the ADF strategy
The Final Word – On Tuesday, terrorists hit bombs again that detonated three innocent bystanders (souls tear apart) and three people carrying the bombs. The initial suspicion was that they were suicide bombers. But a close study of the videos suggests otherwise. The bomb carriers did not seek to maximize their impact by killing as many people (or police) as possible – as is the custom with these terrorists. They made no effort to get closer to their points. Instead, the two detonated their bombs in the middle of the road and while they were on the move – one walking, the other riding a motorcycle. This suggests that the bomb carriers may not have been the ones who detonated them.
But first we need to understand the logic and drivers of terrorism as a strategy to pursue political goals. Terrorism is a weapon of the weak who recognize that they cannot directly confront the power of the state. What sets it apart is that terrorism does not seek its goals by its own actions but by the government’s response to its actions. Thus, where military or revolutionary violence is used to obtain a physical result, terrorism seeks to obtain a psychological result. By using terror to spread fear, it can force the government to take extremely repressive measures to fight terrorists who keep it away from the population.
Therefore, the terrorist’s strategy is to give the ruling government a rope with which to hang itself. The response to terrorism must therefore go beyond technology (investing in CCTV cameras to apprehend terrorists) and the criminal justice system (prosecuting offenders) to the political and philosophical basis of terror. Terrorism as a strategy will win or lose depending on how a government of the day reacts to its provocations. Terrorism wins only when a government reacts as the terrorist wishes. If a government chooses not to react or to react in a way that the terrorist does not want or expect, then terrorism faces a crisis. So the choice is always up to the government, and it is the weakness of terrorism as a strategy of political struggle. A government can avoid doing what terrorists want it to do, and if it does, terrorism fails.
This brings us to the specific case of ADF terrorism. The government of President Yoweri Museveni has a lot of experience in the fight against insurgencies and terrorism. This will most likely give them a decisive advantage in the fight to contain this new wave. Museveni personally and his security apparatus generally view terrorism as a primarily political problem rather than a mere criminal problem. And that’s a great place to start. While in the short term they will seek to hunt down individual criminals by infiltrating their underground cells, their long term strategy is most likely going to focus on the political factors that can support these terrorists. It is therefore likely that many of their leaders will be co-opted through corruption, blackmail, persuasion and other tactics.
More critically, ADF terrorism begins with a serious disadvantage in its search for popular support among the Ugandan population. Ideologically, it presents itself as a radical Islamic movement pursuing a religious agenda. But it does so in a country where Muslims make up only 12-14% of the population. This religious foundation would have given him a reasonable basis for political agitation. However, it is difficult to argue that Muslims in Uganda are so severely discriminated against that they need a radical movement using terror to advance their cause. Even within the Muslim community, and with the exception of a small fringe faction, the claim that the Ugandan government is anti-Islam will be a hard sell.
Organizationally, the ADF has partnered with ISIL, the global jihadist group seeking to recreate an Islamic caliphate. This group has a very bad reputation with many Ugandans, the vast majority of whom are Muslims. It is therefore unlikely to generate the significant sympathy needed to transform it from a terrorist movement into a serious military and political threat. With the exception of a small fringe, the vast masses of poor and unemployed Ugandan youth in the ghettos will find it difficult to accept the ADF’s methods. This is also the reason why I suspect that the terrorists used unsuspecting people to transport their bombs and then detonated them from a distance.
The ADF had military bases and conducted military operations in Uganda from the mid to late 1990s until around 2000. Since then it has suffered considerable atrophy and has withdrawn to eastern DRC. He found a home due to the absence of any significant state in that region. This may explain why he decided to partner with ISIS; instead of being an isolated nuisance, association with a global organization can give it access to both money and international bragging rights. But this has been achieved at the expense of its national, regional and national agenda. At best, ADF can only maximize its nuisance value, but it cannot threaten state power.
To make matters worse, the terrorist activities of the ADF combined with its association with ISIS will lead the Western powers to ally with Museveni in order to crush him. Once Uganda becomes the center of the fight against radical Islamic extremism, Museveni will sleep soundly knowing that Western countries will become cautious in how they criticize its human rights and other undemocratic practices. Without taking much diplomatic action, ADF helps Museveni, in the eyes of the Western world, to reinvent himself by guaranteeing security in this region. For a president pushed to the wall because of political reform, the terror of ADF will give him a renewed diplomatic lifeline.
The opposition will now have to reposition itself. They should avoid making statements that make them appear to be tolerant of terror. They will have to act with skill and circumspection. This means that they condemn terror in clear and categorical terms and only question the strategies employed to contain it. I also hope that the Ugandan government and the general public will avoid panicking and acting disproportionately to the real threat. It is a movement on its deathbed. The only ray of hope is that the government is unleashed and begins to hunt innocent young Muslims, imprisoning and torturing them. The ADF will then have achieved its objective of bringing the state to its campaign to recruit young Muslims into its ranks.