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Aug 17, 2010 | Commentary

The July 11th terrorist attacks carried out by the Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab underscored the need to reform the Ugandan intelligence system. The success of these attacks shows an increased level of sophistication on the part of al-Shabaab, as they are now operating outside of Somalia’s borders. In light of this continuing threat, improving the nation’s intelligence services, and improving coordination between institutions, is a critical necessity.

Uganda’s security system can be described as “dispersed,” as there are more than tensemi-autonomous security agencies operating within the country. According to a Human Rights Watch report, some were created on an ad hoc basis and operate without codified mandates. These include the Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force, the Black Mambas, and the Rapid Response Unit. These groups operate within the law enforcement and intelligence system of Uganda, but contrary to the Constitution of Uganda were not created by acts of parliament and as such operate with little oversight or accountability. Officially mandated agencies like the Ugandan Police and the Internal Security Organization operate in a system crowded with other unaccountable actors. This overcrowding represents an inefficient usage of resources and creates a disconnect in communication and coordination between agencies. For this reason it has been suggested that the agencies be brought together under one umbrella organization.

This is not to say, however, that there have not been and do not continue to be attempts to reform the Ugandan security and intelligence system. For example, the Uganda Policy force has been undergoing a review process since 2006 so as to make it a more professional, credible and accountable institution. Military reform and modernization has been underway since 2002, which has resulted a new command structure.

While these reforms are important, they do not necessarily address the need to better streamline the various agencies to encourage interagency cooperation. In fact, if one were to accept the recent comments of Assistant Inspector General of Police Abbas Byakagaba, one would believe that there are no issues of interagency cooperation. He states: “We instead have inter-agency cooperation. I would want people to get this because what I’m saying is the truth.  If anything, we are the envy of very many countries. If you want inter-agency cooperation in the fight against terrorism, come to Uganda. Inter-agency cooperation is our strength.”

In retrospect, this type of reform may have prevented the 7/11 terrorist attacks. It has now come to light that in October 2009 South Africa alerted Ugandan Intelligence Services to the threat of Somali militants, which were operating within terrorist cells in Uganda and had every intention of attacking Kampala. This intelligence was obtained from the mother of a Somali militant, but due to a failure in intelligence screenings, the Ugandan Intelligence Service ignored her counsel. Furthermore, in December 2009, the commander of the Ugandan peacekeeping force in Somalia recommended that Uganda put its military on high alert as he believed a terrorist plot against his country was highly probable. The question arises, why were these warnings ignored or overlooked? In order to avoid another tragic attack, Uganda should recommit to improving intelligence coordination.