by Godfrey Olukya
KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) —If Ugandan police investigators are right, the size of the conspiracy behind the twin bombings during July’s World Cup finals could hardly have been bigger.
Ugandan police—with help from the FBI and Kenyan police—have arrested 36 people from seven countries in the wake of blasts that rocked Uganda’s capital, killing 76 people.
The suspects hail from at least three countries with known terror links: Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. At least one suspect said he was recruited and trained by al-Qaida. The Somali militant group that claimed responsibility for the blast, al-Shabab, has known links with the international terror group.
Uganda’s director of military intelligence, James Mugira, has said al-Qaida is at least partly responsible, although authorities believe the planning took place in Somalia.
A day after the blasts, al-Shabab, Somalia’s most powerful militant group, said the bombings were retaliation for Ugandan troops’ participation in the African Union peacekeeping mission in Mogadishu. The militant group promised more attacks, a threat Ugandan officials take seriously.
“Uganda cannot say that what happened on July 11th, 2010 cannot happen again,” said army spokesman Felix Kulayigye. “It has happened in countries with better technology and better-facilitated security organizations than ours. We can only minimize it but cannot stop it.”
The suspects in custody come from a wide background: businessmen, university students, and leaders of small mosques. Other suspects come from Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.
“The conspiracy is really very big,” said James Okello, a senior police investigator told The Associated Press. “It involves many people who also seem to be well-funded.”
Edward Ochom, the head of Uganda’s criminal investigations department, said the arrests show Uganda can successfully hunt down terrorists on its soil.
“It was not by mistake that we arrested those people,” Ochom said. “Police have sufficient evidence that all those charged in courts of law with terrorism were somehow involved in the planting of the bombs.”
Human rights officials, though, say some of the suspects have nothing to do with the bombings and were taken in because they are people of interest to the FBI and Kenyan authorities. Lawyer Ladislaus Rwakafuuzi represents eight Kenyans charged in the attacks. He said there is no evidence against most of his clients.
Ugandan authorities “are only interested in interrogating the bombers,” Rwakafuuzi said. “The rest are being interrogated by the FBI and Kenyans.”
At least 10 human rights organizations in Kenya dispute the arrest of Al-Amin Kimathi, an activist with the Muslim Human Rights Forum in Nairobi. A U.S. Embassy spokesman in Kenya said previously that no representative of any U.S. agency was involved in any way in Kimathi’s arrest, detention or questioning.
Private investigator Luswata Ntusi said the only reason authorities have been able to locate so many suspects is because a fourth bomb at a third venue—a dance club—did not go off. The other bombs went off at a restaurant and an outdoor sports facility where people had gathered to watch the game.
One suspect, Haruna Luyima, was supposed to set off a bomb at the dance club but changed his mind at the last minute. Luyima told a news conference in August that he did so because he didn’t want to kill innocent people. Police later found his discarded mobile phone, a huge lead that helped unravel the plot.
“After failing to set off the bomb, Luyima went and told some close relatives that he had been recruited to plant the bomb by his elder brother Isa Luyima and that he had not blasted his,” Ntusi said. “The relatives are likely to have reported to police and that led to the arrest of many people involved. He made the work of police easy.”
Another suspect in custody, Mohamood Mugisha, has said he was given $4,000 by al-Shabab militants to help plan the attacks, including renting a house in Uganda. Mugisha says he drove the bombs in from Somalia, via Kenya, and he hinted that ethnically Somali police in Kenya were in on the plot and helped with border crossings.
For now, police in Uganda have increased their force’s counter-terrorism training. There are more plain-clothes police on the streets and at government facilities. New bomb-scanning machines have been set up at shopping malls, bars, hotels and banks.
James Kasolo lost a cousin in the July attack. Like many Ugandans, he is worried about a second bombing, but he also worries that Ugandan authorities may now be moving too close to a security state.
“My daily fear is that they might hit again. I am worried,” he said. “But again, these security men are everywhere, and unfortunately they scare me as well.”
(Associated Press reporter Tom Odula in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.)