Ties between the two fundamentalist groups are concerning but the depth of cooperation is uncertain.
A violent attack on a Congolese town claimed by Daesh raises the prospect of an Islamic insurgency in central Africa.
– The so-called Islamic State (IS; a.k.a. Daesh) has claimed responsibility for an attack in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s troubled North Kivu region
– Congolese officials and witnesses blamed the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a major rebel group with affiliations to IS, for carrying out the attack
– Despite some tangible some ties to Daesh, scholars dispute the depth of cooperation between the rebel group and IS
– The myriad armed groups operating in North Kivu, paired with poor government presence and the ADF’s organisational agility, impair authorities’ ability to counteract the insurgency
Daesh has claimed responsibility for an April 16 attack carried out on a small military unit in Bovata, a town near Beni in northeastern Congo, which left two Congolese soldiers and a civilian dead. IS made the announcement through its Amaq news agency. A UN source and witnesses blamed the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) for carrying out the attack. The ADF has been recently accused of growing organisational ties to Daesh, which has previously dubbed the Democratic Republic of the Congo as its “Central African Wilayat”, one of its sixteen provinces outside of Iraq and Syria. Although Daesh’s claim has not been independently verified, some evidence suggests support and communication between the groups.
TIES THAT BIND OR ALLIANCE OF CONVENIENCE?
The mineral-rich eastern Congo, particularly the North Kivu region, has long been plagued by conflict. As many as 100 active armed groups operate in the region. It is estimated that over one thousand people have been killed near Beni since October 2014 and both government authorities and rebel groups have been implicated in the violence. A recent Ebola outbreak has compounded stresses in the region, with at least 991 individual falling ill to the disease that periodically plagues the country.
The ADF is a shadowy but significant rebel group that has its origins in a split in the Tabligh sect of the Kampala Muslim community in Uganda. The ADF’s main territory straddles the mountainous Rwenzori region between Uganda and Congo, where it has been able to establish “state like structures”, including prisons, schools and banks in the Congo, although it has never established a comparable presence in Uganda.
Strict internal discipline and the lack of prominent defections or public communications make the ADF’s motives and internal structure difficult to understand. Nevertheless, the organisation has recently been seeking to realign with its Salafi origins and nestle its identity in relation to other militant groups and the broader East African jihadist community. In 2012, the ADF raised the so-called “Seal of Muhammad” Black Banner, which is similar to the flag flown by Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and Daesh. There is also a strong emphasis on a strict, violent interpretation of the Quran, reports of physical punishments — such as stoning — and propaganda calling for the killing of kāfir (unbeliever).
The depth of its collaboration with Daesh is uncertain. The discovery of a book published by Daesh’s publicity arm on a dead combatant in Beni in February 2018 was one of the first indicators of cooperation, while the growing prominence of IS-inspired narratives and some thirty-five videos from the group, with one featuring a man expressing his intention to join the caliphate, were further indicators of Daesh’s influence. The September 2018 arrest of Waleed Ahmed Zein, a Kenyan IS financial facilitator, was the first concrete piece of evidence linking the two groups. Kenyan police allege Zein was responsible for the allocation of over $150,000 through a network linked with IS that included the Congo. The US has confirmed that Zein sent money to the ADF and United States Africa Command has stated that the group is considered to have “meaningful ties to the Islamic State”.
However, the ADF does not always act in congruence with its Salafi-Islamist projection and the true depth of involvement between the two groups is unknown. The ADF has frequently collaborated with local rebels or militias that were composed of non-Muslims and has been accused of drinking and stealing alcohol during attacks. Prominent Congo analyst Elanor Beevor stresses that links between the two groups remain tenuous. Low-level communication between transnational security groups is not unusual and Beevor warns of extrapolating serious practical support from private online messages. However, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi recently claimed that the ADF has been infiltrated by members of Daesh and signed onto the international coalition against IS. Given that both the Congo and Uganda wish to attract anti-terrorist financial assistance from the US, Tshisekedi’s certainty may be politically motivated.
THE SUSTAINED INSURGENCY
The lack of government authority or presence in the Beni region is a prominent factor enabling the ADF’s protracted presence. Large swathes of unpoliced territory in the North Kivu region will continue to allow the ADF and other rebel groups to prosper. The ADF’s resilience is analogous of this, given that they were never able to establish a significant presence in Uganda due to the continual uprooting of their camps by security forces. The failure to provide services or strong state institutions makes the Congolese countryside appealing to insurgent groups as a safe haven and recruitment ground among local populations vulnerable to radicalisation. Widespread corruption and impunity among military and security services further exacerbate the issue of radicalisation.
There is little doubt that the ADF as an armed rebel group will persist. However, its external image and ties with Daesh will likely morph and flow with the group’s desired projection. The ADF can and regularly does shift its central values for the sake of survival. Under significant military pressure, it has continued fighting and forging opportunistic alliances, which at times compromise its Islamist identity. Its ability to cultivate relationships with non-Muslim groups while simultaneously calling for the killing of kāfir illustrates the ADF’s ability to compromise their supposed values for necessity. The ADF’s talent in tapping into local and secular grievances also sets up a steady avenue of recruitment.
Geographically, the ADF is well poised for an ongoing insurgency. Their mountainous location complicates government military offences and provides them ample cover for retreat. The geography also benefits African Islamist foreign fighters who would have otherwise travelled to the Middle East to fight. Rather than risking a flight to Syria or Iraq, fighters from as far as Mozambique and South Africa can join an Islamist group for the price of a bus ticket.
As far as the ADF’s affiliation with Daesh or any other prominent Salafi Islamist group, it is likely that it will continue to lean on their external image when it suits them. Although strict and radical Quranic interpretations are central to the ADF’s identity, the importance of Islam has fluctuated. A report by the Congo Research Group suggests that the conflicting motivations between Islamist ideals, economic racketeering, business interests, and survival befit an organisation whose Islamist identity is, at times, made for external consumption. That being said, IS’s ability to graft itself onto local militia groups in Libya, Sinai, and Bangladesh is evident and, if they wished to become prominent actors within Congo, this first attack would appear to fit a pattern of organisational expansion.
If the threat of IS develops, the international community may begin to pay greater attention and invest larger amounts towards counteracting its presence. The African Union could play a leading role in assembling an international coalition with the International Coalition on the Great Lakes Region facilitating inter-state dialogue. The AU-led Regional Task Force for the Elimination of the Lord’s Resistance Army provides a precedent for such action. Failing this, the governmental void in the Beni region leaves it vulnerable to insurgent groups and the ADF’s dynamic nature means that it will endure.