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Eleanor Beevor, Research Analyst for Conflict, Security and Development at the IISS

Twitter: @IISS_org

Dr Eleanor Beevor is a Research Analyst on the Conflict, Security and Development programme at IISS. She oversees the Institute’s research and analysis of conflict and terrorism in Central and East Africa and the Horn of Africa. She contributes to research, media commentary and corporate advisory briefings on the region. She has an academic and policy research background, and extensive fieldwork experience in conflict-affected areas.

This piece first appeared on the IISS website and is reproduced with their kind permission.

The Allied Democratic Forces: the DRC’s most deadly jihadist group?

Known for its violent attacks, the Allied Democratic Forces is hampering vital Ebola relief efforts in the DRC. Just how much is the group driven by Islamist beliefs and does it pose a serious threat?

Over the past two years, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) has become the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s most active and violent rebel group – a dubious honour for which there are numerous competitors. The group is thought to be responsible for the deaths of at least 249 people in 2018. It may indirectly kill many more by disrupting the already-strained Ebola relief efforts in North Kivu.

Although it has attracted considerable attention for its apparent jihadist beliefs, the ADF remains one of the country’s least understood rebel forces. For years it lay low, blending into the nexus of armed conflicts in the eastern part of the DRC and, for the most part, leaving civilians out of its attacks. In late 2013 its tactics changed, and the group began committing horrific mass attacks against the civilian population of Beni territory in North Kivu. But just how ‘jihadist’ is the ADF?

Origins in Uganda

The ADF was first formed in 1995, from an unusual partnership between radical elements of Uganda’s Tabliq Muslim sect and a group of Bakonjo fighters left over from the secessionist Rwenzururu movement, who rebranded themselves as the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU).

What they lacked in ideological commonality, the Tabliqs and NALU made up for in mutual usefulness. The Tabliq faction was led by a radical young convert named Jamil Mukulu, who had been educated in Saudi Arabia, and trained in militant camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Partly thanks to Mukulu’s connections, the Tabliqs were able to source considerable funds from international supporters of Islamist causes, and from Sudan.

The Bakonjo are the Ugandan kin of the Congolese Banande. Their language and culture are near-identical, and they were only separated by colonial borders in the early twentieth century. With near-monopoly control of the Uganda–Congo border and the lucrative trade that passed through it, the Konjo–Nande people offered the Tabliqs the local knowledge and cover they needed to survive the borderlands.

Free rein in the Congo

The ADF began its campaign of violence in western Uganda in the late 1990s. The Ugandan military responded with a series of uncompromising military operations. By 2003, the ADF’s number had dropped from the thousands to the hundreds, and they were forced to flee across the border into the predominantly Nande areas of North Kivu.

By contrast, in the DRC (then Zaire) the ADF was mostly left to its own devices, if not periodically supported by the government in Kinshasa. Mobutu Sese Seko saw the group as a useful force against Ugandan incursions into the country and was happy to give them weapons and intelligence. His successor Laurent Kabila – the father of the now outgoing president Joseph Kabila – appeared content to give the ADF free range of the borderlands, or at least made very little effort to contain it.

This left the ADF free to engage in advantageous, short-term partnerships with other rebel groups, to benefit from illicit border trade and to court the support of international actors. Sudan, for example, regularly sent the group arms and funds.

Adopting a jihadist identity?

Although the influence of Konjo–Nande nationalism remains, what is less clear is the role of jihadist ideology as the ADF has evolved, and to what extent jihadist influences are really shaping the group’s actions now.

Internal shifts towards sharia law reportedly began in the early 2000s, and there are signs the group is increasingly keen to adopt militant Islamism as an identity. A report by the Congo Research Group found that videos posted on the ADF’s social media channels between 2016 and 2017 contained Quranic readings, images of indoctrination and propaganda messages, in addition to militant attacks.

The report also reveals that the group had received funds from a Kenyan national who had also financed the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The ADF also seems drawn to adopt the name Madina al Tauheed Wa Mujahedeen (the city of monotheism and holy warriors). The lack of governance in eastern DRC has stoked fears that the ADF might be able to establish a proto-state.

The next al-Shabaab?

However, the temptation to look at the ADF through the prism of jihadism alone, or as the next al-Shabaab or Boko Haram, must be resisted. Regional governments have long emphasised the ADF’s transnational jihadist connections – to a dubious degree – in the knowledge that military aid will follow. Yet the presence of a few links between the ADF and better-known Islamist groups does not make for concrete operational support.

The ADF’s propaganda messaging could be read as a mimicking of Islamic State techniques. Yet it isn’t clear whether the ADF has been actively courting ISIS support. There has been no direct appeal to the group or pledge of bayah (loyalty) made to the Islamic State. Nor does the ADF appear to have chosen a side in the bitter rivalry between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

In early 2016, I was given a folder of jihadist writings by an informant who frequented an ADF safehouse in Beni. The documents included English translations of works by Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the influential al-Qaeda ideologue who publicly denounced the Islamic State. This suggests that even if some members of the ADF would like to see the group take its place in the ranks of international jihadism, there is so far little strategy or unity behind this ambition.

Struggle for control in North Kivu

The fact that the ADF has international financiers is concerning. However, if these backers are hoping that the group will establish an ISIS-style proto-state, they might well end up disappointed. Despite the lawlessness in North Kivu, there is little indication that the ADF has either the will or the capacity to govern the region.

It already has more effective competitors for governance. The Nande of North Kivu are notoriously self-reliant. Wealthy traders, community organisations and the Catholic Church work together to build infrastructure, create jobs and provide a degree of security in cities such as Butembo.

United Nations experts assessed the ADF’s size in 2018 to be around 450 fighters. With numerous splits in recent years, some units are much more committed to militant Islamism than others. The group appears able to pay its fighters relatively well, a factor that is probably far more conducive to recruitment than any ideology it professes.

For these reasons, the ADF has so far tended to stick to its camps rather than trying to control civilians outside the group.

Strain on Ebola relief

At the local level, the ADF is still poses a grievous threat to civilians and to peace in the DRC. Unlike many other armed groups operating in the country, the ADF has no clear-cut political interests or ethnic allegiances, making a long-term response much harder to strategise.

The ADF responds to military offensives by killing civilians, which further diminishes trust between communities and state forces. This trust is already at an all-time low after the exclusion of Beni constituency from December’s general election.

Furthermore, ADF violence is hampering the already strained efforts to fight the Ebola epidemic in the area. Emergency relief workers have been forced to temporarily suspend their efforts more than once in the wake of ADF attacks – because of the risk to themselves, but also because of the demonstrations that often follow these attacks, by citizens angry about the insecurity and the losses they live with.

If the group makes relief efforts impossible, it could do incalculable damage to an already troubled region.


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