Home > News > Congo officials claim that a rebel group is tied to the Islamic State. That could backfire.
161 views 9 min 0 Comment

Congo officials claim that a rebel group is tied to the Islamic State. That could backfire.

A local armed group claimed responsibility for recent attacks.

- July 7, 2021

Beni, a city in eastern Congo, is experiencing a wave of violence. Bomb attacks in late June killed one and injured two others. On June 28, Beni’s mayor closed all schools and markets, banned public gatherings and established a curfew. These moves couldn’t prevent a July 1 attack, which left nine civilians dead.

Congo’s government attributed the attacks to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a rebel group active in eastern Congo since 1995. Some analysts see the ADF as the deadliest of the roughly 130 armed groups now operating in the region. Since 2019 there have been increasing reports of links between the ADF and the Islamic State, which seeks to establish a global Islamist militant movement, along with an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

Is the Islamic State behind the Congo bombings, as a number of U.S. news reports suggest? Policymakers in Congo and elsewhere increasingly view the ADF as an extension of the Islamic State — but this assumption obscures the causes and consequences of the violence, and may be counterproductive.

The Islamic State has ‘provinces’ in Africa. That doesn’t mean what you might think.

A new focus on defeating the Islamic State in Africa

The 83-nation Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, an intergovernmental coalition devoted to extinguishing the Islamic State threat, met in June to discuss expanding its efforts to Africa. This comes in the wake of the apparently growing extremist threat and reports of increased Islamic State ties to established rebel groups across the continent. The United States and Italy, the summit’s co-chairs, called on the coalition to establish a working group to address the Islamic State “problem” in Africa. A joint communique on June 28 identified several regions of concern, including the Sahel, East Africa (including Congo) and Mozambique.

This rising international scrutiny stems from a recognition that weak governance and other vulnerabilities within many African nations offer ripe conditions for the Islamic State to renew and expand. However, this newfound focus on the Islamic State in Africa may be misguided, as appears to be the case with the ADF in Congo.

The ADF is a highly localized rebellion

Research by Lindsay Scorgie examines why the ADF has survived longer than nearly any other violent group in the area. While the group has come under scrutiny due to the alleged connections to the Islamic State, informed discussion on the rebellion has been scarce. This research explains how the ADF’s embedded position and historical ties to the borderland region has fueled a surprising resiliency.

Since its founding in the mid-1990s, the ADF has operated in the remote Rwenzori Mountains borderland of western Uganda and eastern Congo. Isolated for most of the group’s existence, members traditionally received minimal attention from outsiders, which probably contributed to the ADF becoming a misunderstood and understudied force, even after more than two decades of ADF violence.

The ADF’s complex composition also tends to confuse outsiders. The group’s membership includes Ugandan, Congolese and other African nationals. While the ADF identifies as Islamic, various factions within the group inconsistently adhere to Islamic teachings. And while analysts describe the ADF as a “foreign” rebel force, some segments of the group go back generations in the Rwenzori borderland.

ADF members are skilled at blending into the surrounding population, maintain inaccessible bases, use minimal propaganda and have had few defectors. They move across borders with ease and seem able to rebound after military confrontations with other rebels, the Congolese army or U.N. peacekeepers. The ADF uses its embedded position in the borderland to elude its enemies and maintains a high degree of control over the territory.

5 things to know about the instability in eastern Congo

Because the ADF operates in the shadows, it is easy for outsiders to assign various identities to the rebels. Regional governments, international organizations, fellow rebel groups and even local civilians have all portrayed the ADF to fit their own specific narratives. The idea that the group’s members are extremist Islamist militants is the latest in a long series of these assumptions.

But are ADF members Islamist militants?

In April 2019, the Islamic State first claimed responsibility for deadly attacks committed by the ADF on the villages of Kamango and Bovata in Beni. Over the past two years, the Islamic State has frequently made similar claims. Actual evidence of Islamic State connections to these attacks, however, remains limited — despite what Islamic State or ADF statements say.

The U.N. Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo has yet to find evidence of meaningful links between the Islamic State and the ADF. The Group’s June 2021 report states, “The Group was unable to establish direct support or command and control of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) over ADF.”

Congolese security forces have yet to recover any evidence from their counter-ADF operations to confirm Islamic State connections, according to a 2020 U.N. report. Also noteworthy is the lack of substantial changes in ADF operations since the apparent affiliation with the Islamic State began. Further, U.N. researchers note, the Islamic State often misreports casualty counts, injuries and even locations of ADF attacks it was supposedly behind.

Don’t miss any of TMC’s smart analysis! Sign up here for our newsletter.

The focus on Islamic State ties may backfire

Much of the international community remains focused on the ADF’s alleged Islamist extremism, and recruitment. But viewing the ADF as an “Islamist threat” risks ignoring the role that local disputes and grievances against the Congolese government play in convincing people to join them. And policymakers may also be misinterpreting the ADF’s financial backstop. External Islamic connections receive far greater attention than the ADF’s local businesses and trading networks.

Misreading the group has serious repercussions. The overwhelming focus on the ADF’s Islamic character is fostering hostility against Beni’s Muslim community — and thousands of Muslims in the region with no affiliation to the ADF or the Islamic State. And we know from past military operations against the ADF that civilians are the targets when the group recovers and mounts reprisal attacks. Militarized responses leave the rebels’ local socioeconomic networks largely untouched, and also set in motion additional violence.

Are there other options for reducing the ADF’s capacity for violence? Steering clear of military action might avoid playing into Islamic State propaganda. And taking a closer look at the group’s local connections and financial sources — for instance, addressing the ADF’s cross-border trade practices and manipulation of local grievances — might offer one strategy to weaken the group’s regional influence.

Professors: Check out TMC’s expanding list of classroom topic guides.

Lindsay Scorgie is assistant professor of political science at Huron College, Western University. Her forthcoming book is entitled “Conflict at the Edge of the African State: The ADF Rebel Group in the Congo-Uganda Borderland.” Follow her on Twitter @LindsayScorgie.

Mallory Dunlop is completing a joint JD/MA in international affairs at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law and the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.