The United States woke up to the reality of terrorism on 9/11, but many of the African nations that participated in a recent FBI-led program aimed at countering violent extremism have been fighting terror attacks on their soil for decades.
“Terrorism is a global problem, and it requires a global response,” said Special Agent Rick Hernandez, who provides counterterrorism training to the FBI’s international partners. The Bureau’s highest priority is to prevent terror attacks in the United States, Hernandez noted. “But if we can prevent an act of terrorism anywhere in the world, it helps keep America safe and it helps keep our partners safe.”
The recent training—conducted at the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in Roswell, New Mexico—included delegations from Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Angola, Botswana, and Mozambique. Delegates were police officers, prosecutors, and judges, and many had firsthand experience dealing with terrorism in their countries.
In July 2010, suicide bombers in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala carried out attacks on crowds watching a World Cup soccer match, and more than 70 people were killed. Susan Okalany, a member of the Uganda delegation at ILEA, was appointed lead prosecutor in the case after her colleague in that position was assassinated.
“Uganda is a young population—about 50 percent of Ugandans are below the age of 18,” said Okalany, who is now a judge. “While we have universal primary and secondary education, the rate of enrollment and retention in schools is not very high.” Without the proper programs for young people, she believes many could be indoctrinated and radicalized by extremist groups.
Other delegates shared similar concerns—as well as insights—about the threat from terrorism in their countries.
“We challenge them together,” Hernandez said. “We ask them to search for ideas, we compare them with ours, and then we find common ground. We ask each other: How can we work together? How can we be proactive to prevent acts of terrorism?”
A theme that emerged from the training was thinking “left of the boom.”
The FBI, like many law enforcement agencies, has become expert at responding to the “right of the boom,” which is what happens immediately after a terrorist bomb explodes. “We have teams, we have specialists, and we react,” Hernandez said. “Unfortunately, we’ve learned that just reacting means you are already too late. Once the attack has happened, people have died.”
The idea is to look left of the boom—a military term referring to the timeline before an explosion—and to trace the journey that individuals take from being average citizens to being violent extremists, and to find a way to interrupt that process.