While Islamic State has suffered heavy losses over the past few years, statements from leaders such as U.S. President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and former Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi of its defeat were, predictably, incorrect. The jihadist group has shifted to a deadly insurgency in Iraq, continues to hold off Syrian Democratic Forces operations around Hajjin, and its affiliates around the world continue to carry out attacks and attract foreign fighters.
Yet the group’s oft-cited statement – baqiya wa tatamadad – calls for remaining and expanding, not just surviving.
In the jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo an old insurgency may have a new trajectory, giving rise to the possibility of ISIS expanding its global conflict there.
Late last month, the U.S. Department of State shut the American embassy in Kinshasa for several days due to a “terrorist threat.” Although the nature of the threat was not specified, Reuters on Monday reported that reported diplomatic sources as saying the closure was due to the arrest of Tanzanian nationals linked to a Ugandan-led Islamist group. Other organizations, including Voice of America and CNN, reported U.S. officials as saying the threat came from an ISIS-affiliated group.
The embassy was set to reopen on Tuesday, December 4.
A Ugandan-led insurgency based in DR Congo
The ADF had the stated goal of overthrowing the Ugandan government and setting up an Islamic state, and DRC offered a location from where they could launch attacks in Uganda. The ADF built up decent relations with local Congolese to assist in this goal, and received some support from the Congolese and Sudanese governments.
The ability of the ADF to follow their stated goal has shifted over time. During the late 1990s they staged many attacks in Uganda, including several targeting civilians. Uganda responded by stepping up counter-insurgency efforts and invading DRC in 1998.
By the early 2000s the ADF had been severely weakened, limiting its ability to strike in Uganda. Beginning in 2005 the DRC, backed by a United Nations peacekeeping force, MONUSCO, launched its first major operation against the ADF. Many more would follow, shifting the ADF’s focus from targeting Uganda to defending against DRC assaults.
Starting in 2014, against the backdrop of another intensive Congolese army operation, a series of massacres against civilians were carried out in Beni Territory, an area where the ADF operates. The DRC government holds the ADF responsible for these massacres in the main but others, including U.N. investigators, believe they are just one of many factions involved. This includes the Congolese army who according to a 2017 report by the Congo Research Group, were responsible for orchestrating massacres in Beni from 2014 to 2016.
ADF radicalization and rebranding
The ADF has extensive roots in Uganda’s Islamist circles. Many of the group’s leaders and early members were key figures in Uganda’s Jamaat al-Tabligh movement and were involved in the country’s Salafist movements.
In 1991 around 1,000 people, including future ADF leader Jamil Mukulu, stormed the headquarters of the Ugandan Muslim Supreme Council, an organization comprising all Muslim leaders in Uganda, over a disagreement with senior clerics’ interpretation of Islam. Four police officers and an activist were killed in the violence.
Around 400 people were jailed for their involvement, including Mukulu. Upon his release in 1993, Mukulu formed the Saalaf Foundation which included an armed wing, Uganda Muslim Freedom Fighters, the precursor group to the ADF. Ugandan forces quickly drove them out of Uganda into the DRC where the remnants would form the ADF.
Despite these roots, the actual importance of Islam for the ADF has been debated. While expressing an intention to create an Islamic state in Uganda and leaders using extremist rhetoric in statements. Academics and researchers have argued this may not be the primary motivation of the group but one of many factors, or even a tool to assist in more important political goals.
An ex-combatant interviewed in 2002 said “the agenda of the ADF was purely political.” and “Islam was a ticket, so the leaders disguised their political motives in religion.” Since its formation in 1995, the group has allied with the secular National Army for the Liberation of Uganda as the ADF-NALU.
It is known that within the ADF’s camps the group followed a version of Sharia law. A practice that was implemented more strictly starting around 2003, according to a member of the group. These camps also held schools where children received Islamic education as well as teaching in other subjects, mosques, and Islamic banks.
However, in the more recent stages of its insurgency, there has been a shift with extremist ideology taking a more central position. The Congo Research Group, an independent research group focusing on conflict in DRC, analyzed 35 videos posted on private social media channels including Telegram, Facebook, and YouTube between 2016 and 2017. The videos, many of which were posted by one member of the ADF, reveal a “shift in the rhetoric employed by the movement, from a war against the Ugandan government to a broader struggle for Islam,” according to the researchers.
Various videos feature extremist rhetoric, such as an ADF member saying what makes him happy is “to slaughter the kafiris” (non-believers), a narrator referring to dead Congolese troops as kafiris who were “trying to fight Islam” and another ADF fighter saying, “We slaughter infidels who hate the Quran.”
A flag reminiscent of those used by other jihadist groups like ISIS and some al-Qaeda branches was also featured in several of the videos. The ADF also adopted a new name, Madina at Tauheed Wau Mujahedeen (MTM) – The City of Monotheism and Holy warriors, according to the Congo Research Group.
The earliest references to this were stamps bearing the name found by U.N. investigators in 2012 on ADF internal documents. It was also used in several of the videos. Outside of ADF-produced materials, the name can occasionally be seen – in one instance the flag was used by a Kenyan man as his Facebook cover photo.
The threat to the U.S. embassy in Kinshasa, reportedly caused by the arrest of a cell of Tanzanian ADF members, suggests this shift has spread from rhetoric to action.
A few factors may have led to this shift.
In 2015, ADF leader Mukulu was arrested in Tanzania, and Musa Baluku took control. Baluku had to unite a fragmented group that, due to the 2014 Sukola I operation by DRC forces, had suffered heavy casualties and was geographically disjointed.
Placing an emphasis on extremist Islamic ideology over other factors may have been a tactic to unify the remaining forces, help assert control, and strengthen the group.
The loss of the ADF’s secular NALU allies in 2007 to a political settlement with Uganda also helped pave the way to increasing extremism.
Previous claims of ADF ties to extremist groups
The ADF has often been accused of working with other extremist groups around the world.
Uganda’s government in 2005 accused the group of working with al-Qaeda, though no evidence was provided.
Monusco, the U.N. stabilization mission in DR Congo, gave in 2014 the even more credulous claim that the ADF had links to al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram, the Taliban, and even Hezbollah. This was based on uncorroborated statements by a single, widely inaccurate, source. Multiple organizations including U.N. special investigators have concluded that there was no evidence linking the ADF with any of those groups.
Despite these previous allegations there is now evidence for tentative ties and increased ideological alignment between the ADF and other extremist groups.
Based on its analysis of ADF videos, the Congo Research Group has argued the group has been “making a tentative attempt to align itself with other militant Islamist groups.” It appears that the alignment with ISIS is was most successful.
Recent evidence of ADF links to ISIS
In February, DRC soldiers found an ISIS-produced book on the body of a dead ADF militant. This book was identified as توعية الرعية بالسياسة الشرعية – ‘Making the citizen subjects aware of Shari’i politics’– and was produced by the Office of Research and Studies and published by Al Himmah Library. Among its various responsibilities, the Office of Research and Studies produces religious texts studied at ISIS camps, while Al Himmah Library is the official ISIS organization responsible for book publication.
This text is readily available online, so its presence isn’t conclusive evidence of a physical connection between the ADF and ISIS. But it does suggest an ideological connection to ISIS among ADF members. This is supported by a report by the Hiraal Institute, a security think tank based in Somalia, that said individuals within the group have expressed support for ISIS.
In a video that surfaced online in October 2017, an Arabic-speaking ADF militant appears to pledge allegiance to Islamic State and calls on individuals to join them in DRC. The speaker states “I swear to God that this is Dar al-Islam [House of Islam] of the Islamic State in Central Africa.”
The video featured the MTM name and the newer flag. It did not feature any of the group’s high-ranking Ugandan leadership, nor was it officially recognized by ISIS in any form, so it cannot be viewed as an official pledge of allegiance, or bayat, by the group. It does however show further support for ISIS within the ADF. The video was also popular among ISIS supporters, and was widely shared by pro-ISIS media.
Since 2017, ADF in the DRC has become a destination for Islamic State recruits from Kenya, with would-be ISIS members detained while attempting to join the ADF, according to the Hiraal Institute report.
This suggests that some regional radical Islamists view ADF ideology as similar enough to ISIS’s for it to be attractive to would-be foreign fighters. The October 2017 video likely played a significant role in this.
As well as an ideological shift that appears to bring the ADF more in line with ISIS, there are claims of more concrete connections between the two groups.
Speaking in May, the Director-General of Uganda’s Internal Security Organization Colonel Kaka Bagyenda claimed that there is proof ISIS has collaborated with the ADF, though he offered no evidence to support this assertion. Considering the Ugandan government’s previous efforts to define the narrative around the ADF to suit its needs, including unsubstantiated claims that the ADF had ties with al-Shabaab, such an unsupported statement should be looked upon with caution.
Other, more credible, claims have also been made linking the ADF to ISIS.
The Hiraal Institute report stated that in 2016: “ADF members are said to have reached out to the Islamic State in Libya and Syria to discuss a formal relationship between the two groups.”
This was based on information obtained from detainee debriefs of Kenyan recruits to the ADF.
However, the level of knowledge would be Kenyan recruits would have about a high-level decision such as this is debatable, especially considering the secretive nature of the ADF.
The most concrete link between the ADF and ISIS came with the arrest of a pair of ISIS financial facilitators in Kenya.
Waleed Ahmed Zein and Halima Adan Ali were arrested in July after they had allegedly established an extensive ISIS financial facilitation network that spanned Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas.
During a period from early 2017 to June 2018, Waleed moved over $150,000 through this network. The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Waleed in September and listed him as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, claiming that he “established an intricate worldwide financial network to facilitate funds transfers for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” and that funds were “sent to ISIS fighters in Syria, Libya, and Central Africa,” a reference to DR Congo.
According to the Congo Research Group citing an ADF defector and sources close to the U.S. government, Waleed sent money to the ADF. They also cited Ugandan officials as saying he was in contact with the group.
Kenyan press also reported at the time of the arrests that Halima had sent funds to ISIS fighters in the DRC. The amount of money transferred is unknown but a pair of ISIS financial facilitators supplying funds to the ADF, regardless of the amount, represents a connection between the ADF and a global jihadi group that had not previously existed.
While there is no evidence that Waleed or Halima played a role beyond sending funds to the ADF, their alleged connections illustrate the potential for lines of communication between the ADF and ISIS.
As well as being in contact with the ADF, Waleed also had contacts in Syria. They claim he sent funds to ISIS fighters, while his father and several other family members joined ISIS in Syria, and that one of the women, named Zeituni Ali, who traveled with his father ended up marrying a high-ranking ISIS member known as Salah.
The extent of Waleed’s communications with the ADF and ISIS, as well as how high his contacts were in the groups’ hierarchies, is unknown.
A new heading for the ADF?
The Congo Research Group, in their analysis of ADF videos, argued the group was “making a tentative attempt to align itself with other militant Islamist groups” with its shift to more extreme ideology.
The presence of ISIS-produced ideological material on a fighter, ISIS-supporting Kenyans viewing ADF as a suitable organization to join, and an ADF video shared widely on pro-ISIS media apparently showing fighters pledging allegiance to the group suggests ISIS is the organization the ADF is aligning most strongly with.
Even if less-substantiated claims about contact between ISIS and the ADF are excluded, the cases of Waleed and Halima provide compelling evidence that there is a connection deeper than increasing ideological alignment between the two, as does reported U.S. officials viewing a threat from the ADF to the U.S. embassy in DRC as coming from an ISIS-affiliated group.
Even if tentative ties between ISIS and the ADF are confirmed, the extent to which they may develop in the future is hard to discern. If the ADF desires and is able to establish contact regarding a more-formal relationship, there is no guarantee ISIS will be open to such an arrangement. There is no certainty a more complex relationship between them will ever develop.
However, even barring any formal ties, the ADF’s shift to an organization with a greater emphasis on extremist Islamic ideology and jihadist goals presents issues for the DRC and opportunities for the ADF. It has helped to draw recruits and funding, presents a unifying factor for a disjointed organization, and will likely lead to increased violence in an already conflict-stricken region.
Thanks to Aymenn al-Tamimi for translation