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Jihadis in Congo? Probably not.

- September 27, 2016
A Congolese soldier from the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) looks at a burning vehicle after an ambush near the village of Mazizi in North Kivu province in January 2014. (Kenny Katombe/Reuters)


Between October and December 2014, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) endured massacres that killed more than 250 people in Congo’s northeastern Beni region. The DRC government and the U.N. stabilization mission there, known as Monusco (for the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DR Congo), quickly identified a Ugandan rebel group called the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) as the sole culprits. Others, including the nonprofit Congo Research Group, found strong indications that others were involved.

Who makes up the ADF?

DRC’s neighbor Uganda would like you to believe that the ADF has been infiltrated by international jihadi extremists. For instance, Lt. Colonel Paddy Ankunda, spokesman for the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF), said, “There is no doubt; ADF has a linkage with Al-Shabab. They collaborate. They have trained ADF on the use of improvised explosive devices.”

However, little is known about the secretive ADF, a Ugandan-led rebel movement which established well-organized camps in northeastern Congo since the early 2000s. While in-depth research explores the group’s early years in Uganda, there has been little to no in-depth academic analysis on its activities since the ADF resurfaced in the Congo in 2010. Research on the ADF is particularly difficult, given that the highly secretive movement has retreated into eastern Congo’s forests.

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Founded in 1995, the ADF claimed its goal was to overthrow the Ugandan government and create an Islamic state. But during the past decade, its actions have shown no clear commitment to this goal, except as a narrative to unite ADF members. By the late 2000s, the ADF’s leaders had ceased making public proclamations, started avoiding media, and harshly punished members caught trying to escape. By tightly controlling movement within and between its forest camps, and allowing very few members to travel “outside” to such places as the town of Beni, the ADF leadership minimized any interactions that might reveal the group’s objectives and activities.

This mysterious mode of operation worked to the rebels’ advantage. Existing largely under the radar allowed the group to survive, despite repeated attacks by the Congolese army.

How others use the ADF’s secrecy to their own advantage

But its secrecy has also helped the Ugandan government. In a recently published article on the ADF, we show how the lack of knowledge about the ADF has allowed various political players to craft narratives about the ADF that further their own political objectives.

For example, the Ugandan government has consistently framed the ADF as an Islamic extremist terrorist group, but adjusted this master frame to the political context. Doing so brings various advantages. Regionally, Uganda used the ADF as a (post facto) excuse for invading the DRC in 1998, to eliminate the ADF’s terrorism against Uganda.

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Internationally, Uganda consistently insists that there is a link between the ADF and al-Qaeda & al-Shabab. All in-depth reports on the ADF have denied this link; there has been contact but not real integration. But by exaggerating the jihadi threat, the Ugandan government can tap into international discourse on — and resources of — the “war on terror.” Between 2001 and 2012 overall U.S. military and economic assistance to Uganda rose steadily from $77 million to $399 million. This narrative also gives Uganda geopolitical credit that helps it avoid donor censure for such transgressions as reported corruption and an increasingly negative democratic and human rights record.

More recently, in December 2014 and January 2015, after unknown assailants killed three Muslim clerics in Kampala, Ugandan authorities blamed the killings on the ADF and arrested six alleged ADF agents. The government did not show any evidence linking ADF to the crimes. Similarly, after an unknown gunman killed Ugandan government prosecutor Joan Kagezi on March 30, 2015, Ugandan government spokesmen initially blamed ADF, and then al-Shabab, offering no evidence in either case.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission paints its own picture of the ADF as well

Originally called Monuc (“Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies en République Démocratique du Congo,” 1999-2010) and later renamed Monusco (2010-present), Monuc focused on other Congolese armed groups, considering the ADF to be little more than a local nuisance.

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But in August 2014, Monusco reports began to describe ADF as having extensive links to such international terrorist groups as al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, Boko Haram and the Taliban. Monusco reported that ADF’s leader Jamil Mukulu had traveled to Pakistan to pick up Taliban-trained Boko Haram jihadists, and would return to Beni in September 2014 and attack Monusco.

Why did Monusco abruptly shift its position on the ADF, apparently without paying much attention to the lack of evidence for in-depth links to jihadi groups? That’s in part precisely because until then Monusco had ignored the group. Monusco’s intelligence analysts had focused for several years on other armed groups. As Séverine Autessere, an associate professor of political science at Barnard College, has shown, Monusco has often relied on a very limited pool of informants. That results in partial and superficial analyses and an inability to tell who is relevant, who can be relied upon, and whose messages are misleading. With no permanent intelligence presence in Beni, Monusco concluded that ADF was a jihadist group based on information from a single, dubious source.

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Then, in October 2014, mass killings began in the Beni area. Monusco’s intelligence units and leaders routinely identified the ADF as an international terrorist organization that was uniquely responsible for the massacres, although there were many indications that other armed actors were involved. In using this narrative, it was echoing the Ugandan and Congolese governments. For example, Monusco chief Martin Kobler repeatedly referred to ADF as “terrorists” in his public statements.

Getting it wrong can have serious consequences

Many knowledgeable analysts questioned this narrative. Among those were the U.N. Group of Experts, which noted that “as of late November [2014], there is still a lack of independent and critical analysis of ADF and the causes of violence in the Beni area.” And yet in May 2015, Monusco blamed ADF “terrorists” for killing two and wounding 26 Tanzanian peacekeepers in an ambush near Beni. Later evidence pointed, instead, to Congolese soldiers.

Narratives inform policies and operational plans, and intelligence failures can lead to a failure to protect civilians and failure to hold perpetrators accountable. Between 2011 and 2013, several hundred people were kidnapped in the Beni area, some by ADF, some by other armed groups.

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Failing to understand what the ADF is — and is not — made it far more difficult to help the citizens of Beni. Instead of focusing on the real sources of this Congolese crisis of violence, this focus is blurred by political motives (Uganda) or intelligence failures (Monusco).

Kristof Titeca is a lecturer at the Institute of Development Policy and Management at the University of Antwerp. You can follow him @KristofTiteca.