Al-Shabaab, or "The Youth," is an al-Qaeda-linked militant group and a U.S. designated Foreign Terrorist Organization fighting for the creation of a fundamentalist Islamic state in Somalia. The group, also known as Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, and its Islamist affiliates once held sway over Mogadishu and major portions of the Somali countryside. But a sustained African Union military campaign in recent years has weakened the group considerably. Still, security analysts warn that the group remains the principal threat in a politically volatile war-torn state.
Today, it remains a threat to all African Union countries that have contributed troops to supporting the peace mission in Mogadishu, Somalia. And Sierra Leone is among the countries with the largest troop deployment in that region. Uganda was the first nation to send forces into Somalia in March 2007 under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), and charged with defending the transitional government. As of July 2013, Uganda maintained the largest contingent in the UN-backed force with more than six thousand personnel. Other AMISOM troops come from Kenya (5,500), Burundi (5,430), Djibouti (960), and Sierra Leone (850).
In June 2010, al-Shabaab seemed to make good on its promises of jihad with coordinated suicide bombings that killed seventy-four people gathered to watch the World Cup in Kampala, Uganda. It was the group's first terrorist attack outside of Somalia. "We are sending a message to every country who is willing to send troops to Somalia that they will face attacks on their territory," said a spokesman at the time. (Source: US Council on Foreign relations – the Al Shabaab profile). Now the threat is growing even louder as the African Union (AU) announced on October 11, 2013 of its commitment to sending more peace keeping troops to Somalia. Thus, Al- Shabaab still harbors evil intentions to do harm to member countries that have military contingencies in their homeland.
As recently as last month in September 21, 2013 al-Shabaab fighters claimed responsibility for a raid on a Nairobi mall, holding hostages for days and killing more than 67 non-Muslims and foreign nationals. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in Kenya since al-Qaeda's East Africa affiliate bombed the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998. In the immediate aftermath, investigators sought more details on the attackers, including their origin and potential ties to al-Hijra, a local militant group. Counterterrorism analysts say that al-Shabaab and al-Hijra maintain strategic-operational ties, as well as keep logistical relations with Islamist affiliates in Rwanda and Burundi.
Is Al Shabaab a threat to Sierra Leone’s national security? With the deadly attached on Uganda and Kenya, the possibility of threat against the remaining countries like Burundi, Djibouti and Sierra Leone remains real and almost a possible mission waiting to happen. What is the security readiness of Sierra Leone in the face of such imminent danger? The need to develop an antiterrorism assistance program is crucial to national security. Such programs would train civilian security, and law enforcement personnel in police procedures that deals with terrorism.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Sierra Leone Police (SLP), the office of National Security (ONS), the Sierra Leone Immigration Department and the Sierra Leone Military force should develop the most effective means of training for bomb detection, crime scene investigation, airport and building security, maritime protections, and VIP protections. Other categories of protections includes: national border, protecting national leadership, responding to and resolving terrorist incidents. And the resources should be readily available – in terms of security expertise and budget allocation – to create such training curriculums.
Counter Intelligent Investigation program should be designed by the Office of National Security (ONS) to deter and detect threat of security breach by outside forces. This security body should be able to gather credible information through aggressive counterintelligence inquires and counterespionage investigation with other government agencies. Also, an Intelligent and Threat Analysis network – a system that helps to monitor and analyze all sources of intelligence on terrorist activities and threat directed against Sierra Leone should be explore as a fighting tool against outside threat.
The Police force should design a new level of security team within its institution such as “tactical support team” and “mobile support unit” to deliver counter assault capability in high threat incidents, while the mobile support unit would provide surveillance detection, discovering hidden explosives, firearms instruction, room entry, defensive tactics, and safe-haven medicine. A security support team could be first responders to confront, repel and stabilize threat of any magnitude against the general population. Most importantly, a chain of command (The Sierra Leone Police) with strong communication network will link every security agencies on the preparation and operation of activities against external threat.
Additionally, the Sierra Leone police should have a new Protective Intelligence Investigation Unit (PIIU) to conduct investigation of terrorist incidents, vulnerable assessment and lesson learned reviews when attach involves or incidents related to terrorism such as the Westgate Mall attack in Kenya in September 21, 2013 and the Ugandan Al- Shabaab terrorist incident in 2010. This Protective Intelligence Unit should be a coordinating agency to the rest of the other national security apparatus. The Police force should work in concerted effort with the Sierra Leone military especially when combat operation and sniper units are needed.
Furthermore, border security is another way to prevent external threat from groups like Al-Shabaab. The government must ensure that efforts to gain and maintain operational control of the entire borders as well as vigorously enforcing our nation’s immigration laws are utilize through better technology, trained security personnel and good intelligent infrastructures. Infact, a regional security agreement from the Mano River Union (MRU) member states would be instrumental in combating cross border entry of terrorist groups into targeted territories. Any security pact will further enhance future cooperation when the peace and tranquility of any member state are violated.
Also, a multi-million dollar investment should be appropriated in building a new Hospital – an ultra modern triage center or emergency facility with the capacity to treat thousands of patients in the event of terrorist incidents and natural disasters. The new hospital should have a burn trauma center including modern equipments to treat gun-shot wounds and other emergency services. Such state of the art hospital will be useful also for domestic use from the treatment of heart attack and stroke to Diabetes and dialysis care. Sierra Leone needs an upgrade in its medical devices with adequate access to vital support system such as intensive care units, operating rooms and admission facilities.
Finally, the fire force department should be revitalized and equipped to prepare for threats such as natural disasters and terrorist attack. Government should increase funding for the fire force from buying new trucks and fire fighting devices to training firemen as first responders as well as evacuation support team. The fire force agency – as badly neglected as they are – can be a life saving institution that can contribute to the welfare and safety of Sierra Leoneans during a period of crisis whether it is a terrorist incident or natural disaster.
Indeed, without the readiness to confront the challenges of the possibility, our nation risk becoming a state where its citizens are powerless and defenseless. After all, we live in a country today where politicians are chasing Chinese money in the name of development projects. As the veer the resources of the people, in a shameless manner, for personal gains and without good conscience; Sierra Leone becomes a nation not adequately ready to confront the security threat of tomorrow. Most of our public officers today have squandered the opportunities of transforming our neighborhoods and cities from improvised conditions to a state of self-sufficiency. And to them, the matter of national security is only relevant when something happens down the road.
But we live in a dangerous world especially in this age of terrorism. If we fail to plan – by not building the human capacity and the intelligent infrastructure to prevent threat – we will certainly be planning to fail. And Sierra Leone is no exception to Kenya and Uganda who years ago believed that AL Shabaab was nothing but disgruntled youths who had nothing better to do. Today, they remain a lethal force against innocent citizens around the world.
And we will continue to be a target as long as we are committed to bringing peace in the trouble state of Somalia. As long as we are willing to show the world that we are deeply indebted to the international peace keeping support we received from the United Nation and the African Union during our darkest civil war years. Our international commitment is mostly due to our shared compassion and principle value in promoting world peace – but the price we pay can be expensive both in terms of human and resource cost.
We must be vigilant and proactive in defending the sovereignty of our state. It must be President Koroma’s top most priority and the people of Sierra Leone expect him to live up to his constitutional obligations. Our military and police force including the security agencies of Sierra Leone must be the ones to protect and defend our nation against foreign threat. That can be achieve by sharing intelligence, having the resources and discipline to carryout rescue missions and stopping would-be terrorists from executing their insidious agendas.
As for our beautiful Sierra Leone, it will always continue to be the land of the free – from the abolitionist slaves in England and Nova Scotia, Canada who found permanent settlement in Freetown to even men and women from Sub Saharan Africa who came in search of education in our schools and universities – we will always prevail as a land where God will protect us as: “we pray that no harm on thy children will fall.” But for the future, we can only be better in what we do if we believe that preparation for the challenges of tomorrow leads to the opportunity of becoming a safer and secure nation today.
May our land continue to be the realm of the free!