Ugandan’s Lord’s Resistance Army uses technology to elude capture

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Many of the continent’s rebel armies have taken the new communications technologies, including things like satellite phones, to heart. They allow them to co-ordinate between themselves but Government armies are fighting a cat-and-mouse game to try and track their communications. Shelby Grossman looks at how the Lord’s Resistance Army escaped encirclement by the armies of three countries.

In December 2008 military forces from Uganda, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo began attacking camps belonging to the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in a Congolese national park. With helicopters, jets, and ground forces, the joint offensive destroyed five LRA camps in the first three days. But their main target, veteran LRA leader Joseph Kony, escaped.

While it is not clear how Kony eluded capture, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni later revealed that the army found a manual for a device used to monitor radio conversation in Garamba National Park. Museveni suggested that Kony may have used this device to eavesdrop on pilot communication in order determine a direction to flee.

This is but one example of the LRA’s limited but precise use of technology to avoid defeat. The rebel group has also used technology in unorthodox ways to communicate internally, with the Ugandan public and government, and with supporters in the diaspora, and to coordinate attacks.

Much of what outsiders know about LRA use of technology has come from items the army captures after LRA fighters flee attacks. For example, in January, in the west of Garamba, the Ugandan army recovered a satellite phone, a Global Positioning System, and sophisticated military communication equipment, including a charging system. A month earlier the army seized walkie-talkies, laptops, and solar panel chargers.

All of these items need portable power sources to be used in the jungle for extended periods of time. LRA fighters have found it useful to loot small cars and motorbikes. “They have no need for these vehicles,” said Moses Chrispus Okello, a project coordinator with Refugee Law Project, a local group that has published many reports on the LRA. “They were looking for batteries. Batteries make them mobile.”

Talk of LRA strategies to avoid detection abounds, though specific tactics are hard to confirm. "They try to avoid using one phone for a long time," said Grace Matsiko, a Kampala-based journalist who has reported extensively on security issues. This decreases the chance of phone tapping.

Despite access to modern communication technology, Okello said, “a lot of the LRA['s communication strategy] is based on non-communication.” The LRA has successfully put itself beyond reach by limiting communication with the public, he added. Since the attacks in Garamba the LRA has not had any official communication with local or foreign journalists.

“They [the LRA] don't have the technology to avoid being detected," said Ugandan military spokesman Major Felix Kulayigye. This may be true, but the group's command structure seems to obviate the need for this technology.

The LRA is divided into small units of 5 to 10 fighters which take orders about once every three months, agreeing where to meet next, and often have no communication in between. This limits the ability of the army to acquire intelligence by tapping into phones.

Though the utility of tapping the phones of LRA fighters is questionable, there is a controversial bill before parliament that would legalize phone tapping by security agencies. The government has admitted to tapping the phones of LRA fighters illegally. Minister for Security Amama Mbabazi told a parliamentary committee that the bill will allow the government to use intercepted information in court, according to the Daily Monitor.

Okello finds the perception of the LRA as a group of rag-tag, disorganized fighters misleading at best. LRA leaders are politically astute, he said. "You've got to have clear communication strategies to last this long."

For 22 years Uganda has been fighting the LRA, an insurgency that claims to represent the needs of the historically marginalized Acholi ethnic group. In practice, however, LRA abductions of Acholi children and indiscriminate killings of Acholi adults in an attempt to frighten the population bring into question this goal, and the group’s political objectives are anything but clear.

The International Criminal Court has indicted Kony and three of his commanders on charges of systematic murder, sexual enslavement, and intentionally attacking civilians. In November 2008 peace talks between the Ugandan government and the LRA collapsed.