Are terrorists winning by losing?

kamiti terror convicts caught

The three terror convicts who escaped from Kamiti Maximum Security Prison after they were arrested in Kitui County on November 18, 2021.

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • Last Thursday, Kenyan authorities rearrested three convicted terrorists who had escaped from Kamiti Maximum Security Prison.
  • An upset President Uhuru Kenyatta fired the Prisons leadership amid allegations that the terrorists bribed their way out of jail.

It might not look like it but it is a good season for terrorists in Africa. In the Sahel and parts of West Africa, they are operating in wider areas and, to them, achieving success that to the rest of us is evil — murdering people.

In Somalia, as the African Union peacekeeping, Amisom, draws to a close with no certainty of renewal, Al-Shabaab is rubbing its hands gleefully. Having played the long game for nearly 20 years, in the coming months it could well claim the political crown.

In Uganda, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for twin suicide bombings that killed seven people and wounded dozens more in the capital Kampala on November 16. They were the latest in a series of bombings in and around the city in the past one and a half months.

Kampala authorities attributed the attacks to a Ugandan extremist group the Allied Democratic Front (ADF), which has been hiding out in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo since it was beaten out of its western Ugandan bases 18 years ago.

Even where the extremist groups have suffered reversals, they have still raised questions that do their cause good. In August, the Rwandan military intervened in Mozambique’s vast Cabo Delgado region and helped embattled Mozambican forces to beat back Islamic State-Mozambique, or Al-Shabaab, the militants who had held the territory for nearly five years. It took the intervention force just three weeks to chase IS-Mozambique into the forest.

That highlighted the hollowness of the Mozambique state but the Islamist militants could also claim that they were beaten by a worthy opponent, not a ragtag army. Rwanda Defence Forces definitely aren’t pushovers.

Kamiti escapees 

Last Thursday, Kenyan authorities rearrested three convicted terrorists who had escaped from Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, in Nairobi, November 15. They were captured in Kitui County after residents reported to authorities “suspicious” people near a forest. They were reportedly trying to make their way to Somalia.

They were Musharaf Abdalla, who was convicted of attempting to attack Parliament in 2012; Joseph Juma Odhiambo, who was arrested in 2019 at the Kenya-Somalia border for allegedly planning to join Al-Shabaab; and Mohamed Ali Abikar, who was convicted for his role in Al-Shabaab’s attack on Garissa University in April 2015. In one of the worst terrorist attacks on Kenya, the militants killed at least 148 people, the majority of them students.

Although they were captured, their escape left egg on many people’s face, and an upset President Uhuru Kenyatta fired the Prisons leadership amid allegations that the terrorists bribed their way out of jail.

Secondly, it was a victory of sorts for the terrorists that, with all the security machinery looking for them, they made it nearly 300 kilometres from Nairobi and, but for vigilant local citizens, could have sneaked into the welcoming embrace of Al-Shabaab a few hours later.

But the telling revelation is that the Kenyan police placed a Sh60 million ($534,000) bounty on information leading to the arrests of the escapees. While bounties are a deserved reward for people who help apprehend dangerous criminals and terrorists, they are an acknowledgement by the state that, without the incentive, the wananchi are unlikely to put in the effort. Often, that reluctance is because the citizens dislike or distrust the state.

Prison break

Many Kenyans on social media simply didn’t believe the official story of the prison break. Several claimed it was an evil political plot to achieve some devious objective. Alive to the reality that the view from suburbia can be out of touch, I reached out to fellows who are more on the ground. 

Not a single one of them believed that the three convicts had escaped from Kamiti out of their genius. Half of them believed some people had “eaten” money to enable them to escape. The other half thought it was a scheme to get money for the festive season by letting out high-value prisoners who can attract a substantial bounty, then nab them and collect the money.

The cynicism was even deeper in Uganda, where many claimed the terror attack was staged by the state to enable it to continue a crackdown on growing opposition to President Yoweri Museveni’s regime in southern Uganda, once his stronghold. What seems to be a fairly successful operation by the security agencies in arresting suspected terrorist collaborators was widely seen as a political purge.

There are easy points for the sceptics to score. The ADF is based in Congo and is carrying out its attacks far away in Kampala. They ask why ADF don’t attack targets in Museveni’s home, nearer the border in western Uganda, instead of going all the way to Kampala to bomb innocent people.

The equivalent would be if President Uhuru’s home base was in Mandera, on the Somalia border, and Al-Shabaab never carried out a single attack there, concentrating all of them in faraway Nairobi.

Even in the face of setbacks, the terrorists probably see these questions, cynicism and scepticism as a good consolation prize.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the Wall of Great Africans. @cobbo3