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New insights on Congo's Islamist rebels

- February 19, 2015

A file photo taken on May 7, 2014 shows the chief of the general staff of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC), then Lieutenant General Didier Etumba Longila (L) meeting with members of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) in Beni in North Kivu. (AFP/Getty Images)
Recent acts of terror by Boko Haram in Nigeria have renewed interest in Islamic militancy in Africa.  Boko Haram has achieved notoriety in part because it uses videos to promote its attacks against civilians, including kidnapping and enslaving young girls.
Yet one Islamist group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC or Congo) – the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) – has received very little international attention despite an atrocious, 20-year history of human rights abuses. The ADF, which was founded in 1995 by Ugandan exiles in Congo with the aim of overthrowing Uganda’s government, does not widely publicize its attacks on civilians. Nonetheless, the people of DRC and Uganda are all too familiar with ADF’s modus operandi: kidnapping and enslaving women and children, human trafficking, forced conversion, forced marriage, torture, summary execution, attacking hospitals, and using child soldiers.
A new report from the UN Group of Experts on DRC, of which I was a member during 2013 and 2014, provides a fresh assessment of this enigmatic group.  A military operation against the ADF during 2014 by the Congolese army (called FARDC) made it possible for the Group of Experts to interview dozens of former ADF members, access ADF camps in the forest near the DRC-Uganda border, and analyze hundreds of pages of documents recovered at the ADF’s headquarters camp.  The FARDC’s operation weakened but did not defeat the ADF, thus making it the latest in a series of ineffective operations over the last two decades.  ADF’s leader, Jamil Mukulu, remains at large, and the group’s recruitment, material support, and financial networks remain largely intact.
The Group of Experts’ report highlights three factors that explain how ADF has been able to survive for 20 years.  These factors – internal organization, external networks, and ineffective counter-insurgency efforts – highlight challenges to peace and stability in eastern Congo, and inform contemporary debates about how to end protracted insurgencies.
First, ADF is a highly organized and secretive armed group led by Mukulu and a few dozen senior leaders known as “The 8000.”  Since late 1990s, ADF has operated in Congo’s North Kivu province near the border with Uganda.  Mukulu established a network of camps, which, in early 2014, housed approximately 2,000 people.  There, the group trained men, women, and children to be soldiers, although most of its disciplined and effective fighting force of approximately 500 combatants consisted of men and boys.
The ADF is somewhat unique among Congolese rebel groups in that it had the trappings of a state. ADF’s government ran an internal security service, a prison, health clinics, and an orphanage. It also had a school that taught boys and girls, and included classes on English and computers; this approach is a notable contrast to Boko Haram, which violently opposes the education of girls and “Western” education.
The ADF maintained a justice system – based on Mukulu’s interpretation of sharia law – that imposed harsh penalties for infractions.  For example, people caught trying to escape ADF’s camps were beheaded or crucified.  Although rape was punished by cutting off a convicted man’s hand and foot, ADF routinely forced women and girls as young as 12 years old to marry ADF commander and soldiers.  Mukulu also oversaw a system of slavery by which ADF kidnapped local Congolese women and children, forced them to convert to Islam, engaged them in hard labor, and required women – and girls – to marry.
Second, the ADF has survived because it has local and international networks that provide recruits, supplies, and money.  ADF recruits Muslims, mostly in Uganda and DRC, through direct appeals and by deception (i.e., by promising employment to men or scholarships to children). The recruitment network has enabled the ADF to resurrect itself after being attacked, but its supply network is equally important. ADF agents operating in the eastern Congo cities of Beni and Butembo regularly deliver the supplies of food, clothing, and medicine needed to sustain ADF’s population in its forest camps.
The supply network, in turn, is dependent upon ADF’s financial network.  ADF has derived funding from allowing timber harvesting in its area of control, and from money transfers, in particular from unknown supporters in London. The Group of Experts identified recent transfers of just under $15,000 from London to two ADF agents in eastern Congo; however, British authorities reported they had “no trace” of most of the senders, who were likely using pseudonyms.
The ADF may also have ties to local or national politicians, to FARDC officers, and to other armed groups; however, various observers have noted the lack of hard evidence for such claims.
Third, the ADF persists not only because of its own agency, but also because regional governments and the United Nations stabilization mission in Congo (called MONUSCO) have repeatedly failed to defeat it.  Indeed, these governments and MONUSCO seem content to occasionally trim the ADF tree, but leave it standing.
The Ugandan army fought ADF on numerous occasions between 1996 and 2003, including during its nearly five-year occupation of northeastern DRC, but failed to achieve victory. FARDC, with UN backing, fought ADF in 2005, 2008, and 2010, but each time halted military operations before achieving ADF’s defeat or surrender.
In January 2014, the FARDC launched a major offensive against ADF, called Sukola I.  ADF soldiers initially inflicted heavy casualties upon FARDC, but were slowly encircled by FARDC’s superior numbers and firepower, including attack helicopters.  In April, while FARDC forces closed in on ADF’s headquarters camp, Mukulu disappeared with his head of finance, deputy army commander, and more than a dozen other senior leaders; their whereabouts are still unknown. Another commander led the remaining ADF – including more than 1,000 women and children – deep into the forest, where their numbers were whittled to about 200 by September as a result of famine, escape, and FARDC attacks. Nonetheless, by the end of 2014, FARDC failed to kill or capture these remaining elements, neglected to dismantle ADF’s networks, and made no discernable effort to find Mukulu and his group.
MONUSCO provided limited intelligence and logistical support for FARDC’s operation, but was preoccupied with another armed group in eastern Congo: the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR.  In October, when a series of massacres in North Kivu were blamed on ADF, the head of MONUSCO, Martin Kobler, noted on Twitter: “The FDLR…has occupied the Mission possibly to the detriment of our focus on the ADF threat.”  MONUSCO’s interest in FDLR may have limited its engagement on the ADF, but the Mission also suffered from poor information gathering and analysis on the ADF throughout 2014.
There are three reasons to be concerned about the failure to defeat the ADF. First, the ADF will likely reemerge during 2015, as it has after earlier military operations, thus hindering efforts to stabilize eastern DRC.  This is bad news for the local Congolese population, which has suffered the most from the ADF’s presence, and for MONUSCO, which has been the target of local rage about the ADF’s survival and attacks attributed to ADF.  Second, although the ADF has not recently had links to foreign terrorist groups, its persistence feeds concerns that Congo could become a new battleground for international Islamic militancy.  Third, the chronic failure of operations against the ADF suggests that neither governments nor MONUSCO are committed to finding Jamil Mukulu, dismantling the ADF’s networks, or ending the ADF’s 20-year reign of terror.  This lack of political will may be the most important reason for the ADF’s survival, and the biggest mystery of the entire ADF tragedy.
Daniel Fahey is a Visiting Scholar in the Center for African Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He was Coordinator of the United Nations Group of Experts on DRC during 2014, and a member of the Group during 2013.