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The Ugandan intervention in Congo and the threat of ADF

On November 30th the Ugandan army struck - with an air raid and artillery’s fire – the stationings of the group Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in the north-east of Congo. The operation was arranged with Congolese forces, in the context of a new cooperation between the two Countries, designed to oppose ADF’s militias. An unspecified number of Ugandan soldiers (with an armoured vehicle) even got into DCR's territory, crossing the Noble’s passing, in North Kivu. The news surely deserves some attention, considering Uganda and Congo’s recent history, involved from 1998 to 2003 in what has been considered as the biggest war in Africa, also known as “African World War” [1].

Short history of ADF: origins and development

The goal of the operation, ADF, is an armed islamic group with Ugandan origins and operative centre in eastern areas of Congo. It was born in 1995, from the union between the Ugandan islamic cult Tabliq with the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU)[2], in order to overturn the Ugandan government of President Yoweri Museveni.

From 1996, thanks to the initial support of Sudan in terms of logistics and training , the ADFs were protagonists of violent attacks, especially in the capital city of Kampala. This caused a strong reaction of the Ugandan army, that, taking advantage of its military presence in the East of Congo during the first and second Congolese conflict, launched a huge offensive against ADF’s militias. Contextually, the Congolese authorities supported the Islamic movement in order to subvert the Ugandan (and Rwandan) influence in its territory.

During the early 2000s, the group lived an operational reshaping phase, preferring to keep a lower profile even in official proclamations and concerning their propaganda in general. In that period, ADFs opted for the development of their economic interests, especially in the cross-border area of Ruwenzori[3], adventuring themselves in activities such as gold extraction, wood trade and agriculture. This allowed the group not only to insert themselves in local dynamics (black market and patronage system) but also to gain relevant earnings and to follow different economic goals from the political ones of contrast to the Ugandan government.

The resting period of ADFs, marked by a relatively low number of attacks, ended in 2013, a year that saw a generalized increment of the group’s offensives. In particular, militants started to commit aimed at attacks against the Congolese army, consequently generating its reaction. The counteroffensive of national forces force ADF’s leaders, Jamil Mululu, former Christian who converted to Islam (of Salafist Orientation) to seek refuge in Tanzania, where he’s been arrested and later depoted to Uganda in order to undergo trial. With Mululu out of the games, in the organisation’s leadership gradually emerged Musa Baluku, whose main aim was to draw ADFs closer to jihadist’s cause. Therefore, it’s not a coincidence that from 2017 some elements of the group started to create direct connections with representatives of the Islamic State. Later, in 2019, a propaganda video from ISIS showed the loyalty pledge to Daesh from Baluku. In an even more explicit attempt to align its group to IS, in September 2020 he announced the end of Allied Democratic Forces’ existence, incorporating them to Islamic State’s Central Africa Province (ISCAP). Considering that, the United States designated ADF as a terrorist group and submitted Baluku to executive order 13224[4]. It is still necessary to underline that, according to several analysts, the alignment with ISIS didn’t involve all ADF’s members and some of them stayed loyal to Mululu, causing an internal fragmentation.

The last events in Uganda and the armed intervention

During the last two months, a sequence of attacks committed in Uganda raised the level of the terrorist threat in the Country. The first event happened on October 8th, when a rudimentary bomb exploded close to a police station in Kampala. The attack didn’t cause victims, but it was the first act of internal terrorism to be rivendicated from the Islamic State. On October 29th a bar in the Ugandan capital city was hit (causing a victim and the injuring of at least three clients) and, only after two days, a suicide attack blowed himself on a bus on the road from Kampala to Masaka (killing the driver and wounding about ten people). Both the attacks have been attributed right from the start to ADFs and ISIS soon claimed responsibility for it. Again, on Novembre 16th two almost simultaneous explosions happened respectively nearby a police headquarters and the national parliament. The final offset is of at least six deaths, including the attackers, and more than thirty wounded. Even in this case ISIS soon took the responsibility of the attacks that would’ve been carried on by ADFs once again.

The series of attacks therefore led the Ugandan government to intervene militarily in north-eastern Congo, where ADF’s militants gathered. As anticipated above, the forces of Kampala, with the support of Kinshasa, initially bombed the emlacement of the rebel group and then entered the Congolese territory in order to carry on soldier’s control and research operations. According to some local witnesses, explosions and gunshots mainly happened in the district of Watalinga, in the province of North Kivu, and in the ones of Boga and Tchani, in the province of Ituri.

In regard to the Ugandan intervention, an event that surely has a relevance in the African geopolitical landscape, it’s necessary to point a few things out. Firstly, from a merely operative point of view, the previous attempts to drive ADF’s forces out have always faced considerable complexities, due to the arduous territory and the thick vegetation, typical of the eastern areas of Congo, where the militants have their hiding places. Regarding the local perception, several residents have already expressed strong criticism and (first of all) worries about the military’s presence of the Ugandan troops, who are considered responsible for atrocities and violence against civilians during the second Congolese conflict. This might further exacerbate sociocultural tensions in a context marked by an endemic state of contrasts and interethnic rivalries. Beside the local level, it is necessary to take into account regional dynamics, as well as the reaction of other African actors who are interested into developments in Congo. Finally, it can’t be excluded that the armed intervention against ADFs might provoke the response of the group’s members (or of ideologically alike associations), with consequent low profile attacks in Uganda in the wake of what happened during the last months. The executions of new attacks might increase the notoriety of the Islamic State in the region, whose goal is exactly to spread its “logo” on site - the reason why ISIS’ propaganda organs regularly claim responsibility for attacks committed in Uganda (as well as in Congo).

However, it’s important to underline that the nature and the payload of the bond between ADFs and the Islamic State stay uncertain and opaque. In the official messages from Daesh a few discrepancies on the timeline, on the places and on the number of victims of the claimed attacks have been noted, this raises even more doubts on the depth of the relationship between ISIS and the Allied Democratic Forces. In addition, as previously seen, the jihadist message didn’t involve all the militants of ADF and only a part of the group aligned themselves with the Islamic State. Furthermore, several analysts questioned the real importance of Islam for ADFs, who used the fondamentalist rethoric in order to mask their political goals. The identity of the group expands itself beyond Islamism and is tangled with social, economic and cultural dynamics of the region. Apparently, it is actually this “fluid” arrangement that makes ADFs resilient, that allowed them to continue their insurrection in spite of internal divisions, organisational/structural problems and military operations at their expense. On the other hand, to overestimate the relationship between ASFs and jihadist internaitonal cells can be useful for the States, like Uganda itself, in order to receive assistnace in the field of anti-terrorism and to justify armed interventions over their borders. It is actually taking this into account that the events of the last period must be read.

[1] Referring to the second civil local conflict in Congo, that was the involvement of 8 African States, as well as several armed groups, and that follows the first civil local conflict (between 1996 and 1997).

[2] NALU is a rebel group, created in 1988 in opposition to the Ugandan government. Tabliq is an Islamic cult, also criticizing Kampala’s authorities, accused of marginalizing muslim communities.

[3] Mountainous area between Uganda and Congo.

[4] Undersigned by Bush Jr. in September 2003, aimed at clocking the economical support system of terrorists (or terroristic organizations) and allows United States’ governemnt to designate and block the goods of individuals and entities that commit, or present a significant risk of committing, terrorist acts.

Translated by Immacolata Balestrieri


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  • L'Autore

    Vincenzo Battaglia

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From the World Sub-Saharan Africa Sections International Security Framing the World


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Uganda Congo ADF terrorismo ISIS

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