The Rising Threat to Central Africa: The 2021 Transformation of the Islamic State's Congolese Branch.

AuthorCandland, Tara

On November 16, 2021, three suicide bombers detonated themselves in two locations in downtown Kampala, Uganda, killing at least four civilians and wounding 30 others. (1) While resulting in fewer casualties than the suicide bombings Kampala witnessed in the summer of 2010, (a) the November 2021 bombings had significant implications for regional security. First, the attacks were perpetrated by the Congolese branch of the Islamic State's Central Africa Province (ISCAP-DRC), more commonly known by its local name, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). (b) Second, the blasts were the first suicide bombings claimed by the Islamic State on Ugandan soil and outside of the ADF's primary area of operation within the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, suggesting a desire by the Islamic State to project its power to new territories. And third, the bombings came on the heels of a coordinated--but ultimately unsuccessful--attempt by the ADF to bomb multiple civilian targets in Rwanda (2) and amid credible reports of the ADF's efforts to establish cells in surrounding countries. (3)

This article seeks to unpack the ADF's transformation within the wider context of the overall operations of ISCAP-DRC last year. Specifically, this article argues that 2021 was the group's most operationally transformative year since joining the Islamic State around 2017, with the ADF both pushing and being pulled toward adopting the norms and practices of its adopted parent organization. As will be outlined below, in addition to newly implementing the tactic of suicide bombings, the group also began exporting its violence beyond the borders of the DRC to Uganda and Rwanda, deepened its recruitment of foreign fighters, began clashing with other armed groups in the Congo on a more regular basis, began publicly emphasizing proselytization within the DRC, began filming and releasing beheading videos, expanded its use and capabilities with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and, by more deeply integrating its media efforts with the Islamic State, greatly expanded its propaganda production. Taken together, these changes, all explained and enabled to varying degrees by the group's deepening linkages to the Islamic State's transnational network, constitute a significant transformation in the group's modi operandi.

Based on primary source fieldwork and research conducted by the authors across the DRC, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and Somaliland between November 2020 and April 2022 in addition to open-source research in French, English, Arabic, and Swahili, this article argues these operational transformations were the direct result of the ADF's integration into the Islamic State. With the support of the Islamic State, particularly in terms of financing and propaganda, ISCAP-DRC has fully transitioned from a group traditionally only focused on Uganda and eastern Congo, to a wider, more regional terrorist threat. And if its operations in 2021 are any indication, the group's propensity for exporting its violence across East and Central Africa will continue to deepen and expand if left unchecked.

Starting with a brief background of the ADF's history and transition into a so-called province of the Islamic State, this article then provides a chronology of key developments in 2021, including the group's operations across the DRC and the wider region and the joint military campaign launched against it by the DRC and Uganda in late 2021. It then examines significant changes across seven dimensions of the group's operations in 2021, with these shifts all explained to varying degrees by the group's deepening integration into the Islamic State's transnational network.


Before outlining the ADF's operational transformation throughout 2021, it is first important to briefly touch on its history. The Congolese branch of the Islamic State's Central Africa Province started as the Allied Democratic Forces in Uganda in the mid-1990s, a radical, violent splinter group formed during intraclerical disputes over who would wield leadership of the state-recognized authority governing Uganda's Muslim community. Quickly routed by Ugandan security forces and forced across the border into Congo, the group found support from the former Zairian government under Mobutu Sese Seko, as well as from Sudan, both of which sought a proxy with which to counter Uganda. The group carried out a bloody cross-border insurgency into Uganda during and after Congo's cataclysmic wars between 1996 and 2003, until battlefield losses and geopolitical shifts in the early 2000s forced the group into a survival posture as one of the many foreign and Congolese militias that persisted in Congo's east. While the group increasingly integrated with local communities and pursued economic activities, military pressure by Congolese security forces led the ADF to retaliate by perpetrating a series of bloody attacks against Congolese civilians in 2013. These massacres in turn led to a much more devastating offensive by the Congolese army in 2014 and the flight of the group's longstanding leader, Jamil Mukulu, from Congo. (4)

While long espousing an Islamist outlook, the ADF had largely limited its goals to overthrowing the government of Uganda's longstanding ruler Yoweri Museveni, but in 2016, that began to change. The year before, the ADF's founder and its core ideological driver, Jamil Mukulu, was arrested in Tanzania. His successor, Musa Baluku, more radical and embracing a more global jihadi outlook, then set the group on its current trajectory. In 2016, the ADF began releasing rudimentary propaganda videos--its first ever--while also briefly publicly rebranding itself as Madina at-Tauheed wa-Mujahideen (MTM). (c) It is unknown when exactly the ADF, led by Musa Baluku, swore bay'a (allegiance) to the Islamic State and its then-leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but reportedly by late 2017, the group was receiving its first iteration of financing from the Islamic State through Kenyan financier Waleed Ahmed Zein. (5) Around the same time, the ADF released a video, widely shared on Islamic State-supporter media, featuring an Arabic-speaking Tanzanian known as 'Jundi' or Abuwakas,' urging people to join the Islamic State in Congo. By early 2019, the Islamic State officially recognized the ADF as part of its global apparatus by designating it one-half of its Central Africa Province, with the other half being the Mozambican jihadi group known locally as "al-Shabaab" (no relation to the Somali group of the same name). (6 d) And while the central leadership of the Islamic State's Congolese branch remains predominantly Ugandan, the group has taken on more regional foreign recruits in recent years, including other nationalities represented in its upper echelons. (7)

Key Developments in 2021

While the Islamic State has openly operated inside Congo since 2019, last year saw some significant operational trends that bear exploring. Relying on data from the Kivu Security Tracker (KST) (e) of all known or suspected ADF attacks since 2017, the authors identified several key trends in 2021 when compared to previous years.

Firstly, 2021 was the deadliest year on record for ISCAP-DRC. The group was responsible for at least 1,275 civilian deaths in DRC in 2021--almost three times the death toll of 2019 and more than a 50% increase over 2020's 782 killed.

Secondly, much of this violence was driven by a rapid rise in massacres of 10 people or more: ISCAP-DRC killed 378 people in 22 such massacres in 2020, while 2021 witnessed almost double the number of such massacres and deaths with 40 such massacres claiming 715 lives. (8) The highest concentration of these massacres was in the area around the town of Mamove, which spans the North Kivu-Ituri border to the west of Route Nationale 4 (RN4), where 12 ISCAP-DRC massacres of 10 people or more killed at least 220 people. (f)

And thirdly, both wings of ISCAP in DRC and Mozambique faced international interventions in 2021, though it remains unclear how effective the interventions will be at curbing ISCAP's violence in either country. (g)

This section seeks to place the highlights of ISCAP-DRC's broader operations in 2021 into context in the local, regional, and international theaters. Doing so creates a better backdrop in which to extrapolate the noticeable trends and evolutions with respect to the group that will be discussed throughout this article.

ADF Military Operations in 2021

The year 2021 started with significant bloodshed inflicted by ISCAP-DRC (also known as the ADF) with the continuation of its massacres in Rwenzori, an area southeast of Congo's Beni town, that had escalated throughout 2020. Following the group's expulsion from Loselose on January 1, 2021--the only populated town the ADF is confirmed to have ever occupied--ADF fighters retaliated, killing 22 people in nearby Mwenda. (9) At the same time, January 2021 provided the first hint that ADF forces were moving into the southern part of Ituri Province in northeast Congo. Although the group had committed a handful of smaller attacks in the area over the course of 2020, the January 14, 2021, massacre of 46 people near Ambebi, across the provincial border from Mamove, demonstrated that the ADF was establishing a much larger and more aggressive presence in southern Ituri than had previously been known. (10) Over the course of 2021, the ADF would go on to open a significant second front in Ituri in its campaign against the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) and the people of eastern Congo.

The Rwenzori region remained the group's main focus in February 2021, accounting for 16 of 21 incidents, but by March 2021, the majority of the violence had shifted north, first to Mamove and then eventually to Ituri's Irumu territory. (11) Mamove suffered 11 incidents affecting 13 villages that March, with the ADF killing 77 people. (12) Most of those deaths occurred in three days of...

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