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Story Publication logo July 7, 2021

Commentary: Fixating on the ISIS Connection in Eastern Congo Will Make Things Worse

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Residents in Beni region greet peacekeepers passing by in a MONUSCO armored personnel carrier.
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Last year, Congolese, US and UN officials linked the Allied Democratic Forces, a mysterious Congo...

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Democratic Republic of the Congo flag on soldiers arm. Democratic Republic of the Congo troops

In early May, in a televised address, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s president, Felix Tshisekedi, declared martial law in North Kivu and Ituri, two provinces on the country’s eastern border with Uganda and Rwanda, and placed them under military rule. In justifying this draconian measure, Tshisekedi invoked the regular mass killings in the region, which have left more than 1,000 people dead since 2019 and have generally been ascribed to one local militant group: the Allied Democratic Forces. Days later, a delegation from the Ugandan army arrived in Beni to set up a coordination center for a joint offensive with the Congolese army against the ADF. 

Tshisekedi’s declaration followed a shift in U.S. strategy earlier in the spring. In a March 2020 statement by State Department spokesperson Ned Price, the U.S. announced that it now considers the ADF a “foreign terrorist organization” and has added further sanctions on top of the ones first placed on the group in 2014. The move, Price said, constituted “decisive action against violent extremism” targeting a group that “is responsible for many of the terrorist attacks throughout eastern DRC.” Even more significantly, Price’s statement gave a new name to the ADF, which the U.S. now calls “the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria-Democratic Republic of the Congo,” or “ISIS-DRC,” explicitly linking the region’s militants to crises farther afield and transforming eastern Congo into a new front in the U.S.-led “war on terror.”


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Experts on the Congo’s conflicts were quick to point out the pitfalls of the State Department’s designation. For starters, the depth and nature of the links between the ADF and the Islamic State are contested, and there is limited evidence that their collaboration extends beyond mere propaganda. The U.N. Group of Experts on the Congo added weight to these criticisms in mid-June, with a report that found no conclusive evidence of Islamic State command, control or financial support of the ADF.

The problem with Washington’s new terminology is not just a question of semantics: It could have significant implications for policy. The “ISIS-DRC” narrative flattens the multilayered reality of violence in Beni into a one-dimensional storyline of “violent Islamist extremism.” In this new narrative, the many and complex actors and interests at play give way to a focus on the ADF—and its Islamist orientation—as the root of the crisis.

This reframing could lead countries that are involved in international counterterrorism efforts, like the U.S., to throw their weight around in Congo without understanding the situation’s complexity, pursuing ill-advised collaborations with the Congolese and Ugandan governments, while prioritizing military action, an approach that has so far had counterproductive effects. Already, ISIS-focused international researchers without experience in Congo are swooping in, offering flawed analyses that foreground the ADF and its Islamist posture.

The inconvenient truth is that both the ADF and violence in Beni are shaped by multiple conflicts and grievances, none of which can be ignored in international and local efforts to end the crisis. 

The ADF’s Multi-Layered History

The ADF has its roots in the repression and political marginalization of Muslims in Uganda in the 1980s, which sparked the politicization of Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim missionary movement that advocates a “return” to a puritan interpretation of Islam emphasizing individual piety and social reform. In 1994, a Tablighi youth leader named Jamil Mukulu founded an armed movement to overthrow the Ugandan government. Faced with heavy repression, the fighters soon fled into eastern Congo, which was then named Zaire, where they merged their movement with another Ugandan rebel force, this one drawn from the Bakonjo, an ethnic group that straddles the Uganda-Zaire border.

From its base in the Grand Nord area of North Kivu, this united force, the Allied Democratic Forces-National Army for the Liberation of Uganda, or ADF-NALU, quickly became part of the geopolitical competition between Sudan and Zaire on the one hand and the government of Yoweri Museveni in Uganda on the other.

The problem with Washington’s new terminology is not just a question of semantics: It could have significant implications for policy. 

At the same time, aspiring local politicians leveraged their contacts with the ADF-NALU in their quest for provincial and national power. Eventually, within the Grand Nord, the group became entrenched in struggles over land and local authority. While its leadership remained predominantly Ugandan, ADF militants recruited among and intermarried with the local Congolese population, got involved in cross-border economic networks—chiefly in the timber trade—and developed new alliances with local militias and customary chiefs belonging to ethnic minorities in the region.

After the Second Congo War began in 1998, the ADF-NALU became further entangled with local armed groups, including RCD-K/ML, a political-military rebel movement that partially disbanded its military wing and transformed into a political party after the war ended in 2003. Though RCD/K-ML was initially part of the post-war government of President Joseph Kabila, it continued to struggle against Kinshasa to retain an independent sphere of influence in the Grand Nord. In 2011, the group moved into the political opposition, and its conflict with Kinshasa assumed increasingly bitter overtones. Within this struggle, they were supported by the ADF, whose NALU faction disbanded in 2007.

It is within this political context that, in January 2014, the government of then-President Joseph Kabila launched a major military offensive against the ADF, which it named Sukola 1 or “Clean 1” in Swahili. It wasn’t the first time that Kinshasa had fought the group, but Sukola 1 was by far the biggest and boldest operation against it yet. 

At first, the Congolese armed forces scored significant victories, retaking the ADF’s main bastions and triggering scores of surrenders. The ADF scattered and withdrew deep into impenetrable terrain in Beni territory, barely surviving.

But then, toward the end of 2014, the group changed gears. In October of that year, several villages in Beni were attacked by machete-wielding assailants who hacked civilians to death. The violence escalated rapidly, with attackers often targeting the same communities over and over again, sometimes killing dozens of people in a single attack. The massacres caused generalized panic and mass displacement. It is estimated that between October 2014 and October 2016, nearly 700 people were killed and over 180,000 displaced. 

Initially, local and international media and analysts, including the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the area, ascribed nearly all of these attacks to the ADF, which was increasingly branded as an Islamist terrorist organization. Yet careful research by the Congo Research Group, an independent think tank based in New York, found that the reality was much more complex. It turned out that a host of armed actors had been involved in the mass killings, at times operating alongside or in collaboration with the ADF, but sometimes acting alone. The other perpetrators included militias from Beni’s ethnic minority groups, militants from the RCD/K-ML’s disbanded military wing and even factions within the DRC military’s Sukola 1 operation, including its commander, Muhindo Akili Mundos, who was later sanctioned by the United Nations.

Each category of assailant had different motives for the violence. The ADF sought to punish civilians and deter them from collaborating with the Congolese army; it also wanted to put pressure on the government to stop its military operations in the region. The ex-RCD/K-ML fighters hoped to maintain their political and economic control over the Grand Nord by undermining the legitimacy of the Congolese army and the government. And the factions in the army’s Sukola 1 command similarly sought to assert control over the area and its economic networks by sowing confusion and weakening the legitimacy of the rebel groups and other opponents. Finally, the local militias and allied chiefs used the massacres to fight out local power struggles.

The Complexity of Violence

Military operations against the ADF slowed down in 2016 and 2017 as the government focused on other priorities, and the massacres nearly ground to a halt. But in 2018 and 2019, shifts in the political landscape—including the arrival of Tshisekedi, who promised to end violence in the east—sparked new rounds of Congolese offensives. Those, in turn, triggered more violent attacks, which continue to escalate today. 

Once again, analysts, members of the international and Congolese media and even the United Nations have attributed nearly all of the massacres to “suspected” or “presumed” ADF combatants. But upon closer inspection based on insights from the field, a far more complex picture emerges—one that challenges those easy assumptions.

First, there is the issue of language. According to United Nations reports, ADF combatants primarily communicate in Luganda and Kiswahili during attacks. However, when Robert, one of this article’s co-authors, interviewed survivors of recent mass killings in Beni last year—including more than 60 who have lived through more than a dozen attacks each—many noted that their assailants spoke other languages, such as Kinyarwandaand Lingala. It’s worth noting that in Beni, Lingala is mostly spoken within the ranks of the Congolese army. 

Second, analysts often use unclear or loose criteria when attributing violence to the ADF. For example, if an attack occurs in the general geographic area in which the ADF operates, it may be attributed to the ADF almost by default.

The tendency to attribute all attacks automatically to the ADF, many Beni residents believe, has offered other instigators and perpetrators the blanket of anonymity.

Yet the tendency to attribute all attacks automatically to the ADF, many Beni residents believe, has offered other instigators and perpetrators the blanket of anonymity, creating a climate in which different groups default to settling their conflicts by resorting to violence. In the course of Robert’s fieldwork, Beni residents told him that some attackers had intentionally obscured their identities by “kuficha na jina ya ADF,” or “hiding with the ADF’s name.” The U.N. Group of Experts on the Congo similarly noted in a 2019 report that non-ADF armed actors are “taking advantage” of the “general environment of insecurity and lawlessness created in part by the presence and activities of ADF.” 

Third, investigations of individual attacks have revealed that some are linked not to the ADF, but to the same local conflict dynamics that informed the earlier wave of massacres in 2014. 

For example, a local chief told Robert that he’d survived a targeted attack by machete-wielding assailants while attending a wedding in 2019. The attack, he said, was linked to a conflict between him and another local customary authority. Conflicts like these are common in Beni territory, often reflecting decades-long struggles between ethnic Nande chiefs and chiefs from other minority communities. “This isn’t about the ADF war—it wasn’t ADF,” the chief insisted to Robert. “They tried to assassinate me because I am the chief.” 

In another recent mass killing that was investigated by the U.N. Group of Experts, migrants from the ethnic Hutu community and a local chief who had sold them land were all brutally killed. Though this killing was attributed to the ADF by local authorities and the media, the U.N. group found evidence that the migrants had actually been targeted by members of other local communities who sought to prevent the newcomers from controlling land in the area.

Meanwhile, in the Rwenzori sector, an area near Beni known for its fields of cacao, communities told U.N. investigators that they were targeted by groups with more avaricious intentions. Many were displaced by a string of massacres that coincided with the annual cacao harvest season. When they returned to their fields after the attacks, they reported that the cacao they left behind had been harvested in their absence. These massacres are commonly attributed to the ADF, but, again, emerging evidence suggests that other groups are behind many of them—including organized bands of armed criminals, members of communal militias known as Mai-Mai, and rogue elements in the Congolese army. One Congolese official in the city of Mutwanga, another major town in North Kivu, told Robert that “the criminals profit from the talk about terrorism and ADF.” He continued, “They’re not terrorists. They’re here to take the cacao.”

Though much of the recent violence does actually appear to be committed by the ADF, these examples indicate that the group is not the sole actor involved and, moreover, that violence continues to be shaped by local conflicts and power struggles. There is also crucial evidence that the ADF’s operations have at times been facilitated by the inaction or even complicity of the Congolese army. Bearing all this in mind, it is clear that focusing narrowly on the ADF won’t be enough to stop violence in Beni and the surrounding areas.  

Martial Law 

Last year, the DRC army reported that it had 22,000 troops on the ground actively involved in operations to rout the ADF. Despite this overwhelming deployment, mass killings have multiplied.

That should not be surprising. Back in 2016, the Congo Research Group found that elements in the military had sent troops to surround sites where massacres were taking place, preventing victims from escaping. Factions in the Congolese army have also reportedly collaborated with the ADF to traffic timber and provided the group with supplies, such as ammunition, uniforms and food. And some officers have even provided intelligence about army operations in advance to protect ADF contingents from suffering heavy casualties. These actions have been driven by a shifting combination of economic, political and strategic motives. 

This checkered history raises questions about the wisdom of putting the Congolese military front and center in plans to combat the ADF. Yet this is precisely the approach the U.S. is taking. In October 2020, it reestablished security cooperation with the Congolese army, having earlier promised to support its operations against the ADF.

These actions closely align with President Tshisekedi’s vision. During a meeting in Washington in April 2019, Tshisekedi emphasized the “Islamic threat” from the ADF, warning that the Islamic State was seeking to establish a caliphate in Africa. He went on to solicit renewed military cooperation with the U.S. More recently, in April, Tshisekedi appealed to France to help eradicate the group, saying it exhibits “Islamic tendencies, Islamist speech and Islamist methods.” The French military has already been involved in training the Ugandan army in mountain warfare techniques in a region bordering Beni, ostensibly to defend against terrorism.

Aside from benefiting from Western counterterrorism funding and security cooperation, Tshisekedi is harnessing the fight against the ADF to reinforce his grip over the Congolese military and unruly provinces in the east. This is at least how many observers read his recent decision to declare martial law in North Kivu and Ituri, which came in the wake of a long power struggle between Tshisekedi and his predecessor, Joseph Kabila. The former president had retained political influence in Kinshasa and a firm grip over the country’s security institutions even after he left office in 2019.

Reinforcing the powers of the military and curtailing civil liberties through a state of martial law is a highly risky strategy in an area where distrust toward the central government runs deep. 

Yet reinforcing the powers of the military and curtailing civil liberties through a state of martial law is a highly risky strategy in an area where distrust toward the central government runs deep. It also does little to address the local conflicts and power struggles that continue to feed violence. If anything, it could exacerbate the violence and instability by shaking up the local political landscape. 

The renewed involvement of the Ugandan military is also questionable. Both during and after the Congo Wars of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ugandan troops operated on Congolese soil and supported rebels that had destabilized the region. Like the Congolese army, Ugandan military officers have also been implicated in natural resources trafficking in Congo’s northeast. What’s more, involving the Ugandan army in the battle against the ADF risks creating complex geopolitical knock-on effects, given Rwanda’s historical involvement in the wars in eastern Congo and continued strategic interests in the region. 

More importantly, Ugandan involvement in military operations distracts from the broader role the Ugandan government has played in creating and perpetuating the ADF problem. In a sermon posted on social media at the end of 2019, current ADF leader Musa Seka Baluku lamented that “Muslims die like dogs in Uganda,” and called again for overthrowing the Ugandan government. Clearly the grievances of Ugandan Muslims, who continue to feel marginalized and discriminated against, have not been addressed since the ADF first mobilized 30 years ago. Instead, ADF activity is used as a pretext for their further repression.

For all these reasons, reducing violence in Beni to a problem of “violent extremism” on the part of a single group is shortsighted. The narrative the U.S. has adopted by applying the moniker “ISIS-DRC” is already leading Washington and other international actors, including the U.N., to embroil themselves in inadvisable counterterrorism schemes that willfully ignore the complex histories of conflict in eastern Congo and Uganda, and the crucial role both governments played in creating this crisis. In the end, military operations led by these same governments—and playing directly into their interests—can only make a bad situation worse.

*Editor’s Note: The interviews referenced in this piece were conducted by Robert Flummerfelt with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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