Uganda: How close is the ADF to Islamic State?

By Musinguzi Blanshe

Posted on Tuesday, 9 November 2021 10:52
Democratic Republic of Congo military personnel patrol against Allied Democratic Forces and the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda rebels near Beni in North-Kivu province
Democratic Republic of Congo military personnel (FARDC) patrol against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU) rebels near Beni in North-Kivu province, December 31, 2013. REUTERS/Kenny Katombe

For the first time, the Islamic State (IS) has claimed credit for a pair of attacks in Uganda last month, but experts interviewed by The Africa Report are skeptical of the group’s hyped links to local insurgents.

IS claims that it detonated a bomb on 8 October at a police station outside Kampala, where several officers were wounded, and again on 23 October at a restaurant, where a waitress got killed.

Three days later, one other person was killed in a third explosion on a bus. Ugandan security agencies say the 23-year-old man was a ‘suicide bomber’ who had been on their list of wanted persons. President Yoweri Museveni described him as a “terrorist”.

The spate of attacks is drawing new attention to purported ties between IS and the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a three-decade-old group of Ugandan insurgents operating across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A faction of the group merged with the Islamic State’s Central African Province in 2019.

The Ugandan government has long attributed high-profile assassinations to the ADF.

In August, security agencies claimed to have foiled a bomb attack at the funeral of Paul Lokech, a senior army officer who played a critical role in flushing al-Shabaab out of Mogadishu in 2011. The perpetrators, they said, were linked to the ADF.

Other plots that Uganda has blamed on the ADF include:

  • The June 2021 shooting attack against Katumba Wamala (transport minister) that killed his daughter and driver;
  • The June 2018 assassination of Ibrahim Abiriga (lawmaker);
  • The March 2017 shooting of Andrew Felix Kaweesi (assistant inspector general of police), his bodyguard and driver;
  • The March 2015 murder of Joan Kagezi (senior state prosecutor).

Between 2010 and 2016, about a dozen Muslim clerics were gunned down in Uganda. The state blamed the ADF for those deaths as well.

Is ADF connected to IS?

Talk of an IS-ADF connection started in 2019, when faction leader Seka Musa Baluku pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. In March this year, the US State Department declared ADF a terrorist organisation, after it rebranded itself as Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP) or ISIS-DRC.

However, in the wake of the attacks, four researchers interviewed by The Africa Report cast doubt on the sway of the Islamic State in Uganda. Any link between the two organisations, they say, is very loose. A June 2021 report from the United Nations Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo likewise could not substantiate “direct support or command and control” by ISIS over the ADF.

The researchers are Christoph Vogel, research director of the Insecure Livelihoods Series at Belgium’s Ghent University; Judith Verweijen, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Sheffield in England; and independent researchers Stewart Muhindo and Esaie Gatavu, based in the eastern Congo, where the ADF operates.

There is no evidence to date [of] a clear operational link that would include significant transfer of skill, manpower and strategy.

Vogel says that for the US, Ugandan and DRC governments, ADF-ISIS links appear confirmed because of the uptick in official ISIS claims on social media following the attacks. Nevertheless, regional analysts and other experts have questioned the links, he says.

“The truth may lie in the middle,” Vogel says. “There is no evidence to date [of] a clear operational link that would include significant transfer of skill, manpower and strategy.”

Verweijen tells The Africa Report that well-documented links between ISIS and ADF exist only at the propaganda level.

As for Muhindo and Gatavu, they point to the September arrest, by the Congolese army, of a Jordanian  national – who was allegedly training ADF fighters on how to use drones – as the only example that could show that the group is working with foreigners who aren’t from the region. Additionally, there wasn’t any information linking the Jordanian to ISIS.

Doubts about ADF’s potency

The ADF remains the most lethal rebel group in Eastern DRC. It carried out 18 attacks in October with a victim tally of 94, according to the Kivu Security Tracker, an organisation that maps violence in the region.

Only the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC), the national army, carried out more attacks. Vogel says the ADF has become highly efficient in carrying out attacks, ambushes and abductions.

Washington would make the best use of international aid dollars if it stopped pouring money into the coffers of corrupt and manipulative dictators like Museveni…

Verweijen says the UN group of experts on the DRC has observed an increase in the ADF’s ability to build Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), over the past two years, through recruits from East Africa. However, she saw “no evidence of technological transfer from ISIS central.”

Three IEDs, similar to those detonated in Uganda, also recently exploded in the Congolese city of Beni, where ADF operates, Verweijen says. The first IED killed two people, the second killed the bomber, while the third didn’t kill anyone. IEDs detonated in both Uganda and DRC seem to have been of low quality, or handled by unskilled operators.

The key question of whether the ADF is responsible for all these attacks in both countries has not been answered. “It remains difficult to find conclusive evidence,” Verweijen says.

Vogel adds that it would be “surprising” if the ADF were behind every high-profile assassination they have been accused of in Uganda, because of different modes of operation and many hypotheses surrounding the assassinations.

Muhindo, who lives in Beni, sees the ADF as a weaker rebel group, which can’t be responsible for high-profile assassinations that have taken place in Uganda. In Beni, he says, the ADF avoids confrontation with the army and focuses on ambushes and targeting civilians. Had it not been for the “weakness, disorganisation and complicity of [the] Congolese army”, he says the ADF would have been defeated.

Uganda, DRC benefit from threat perception

Verweijen argues that the designation by the US, of the ADF as a terrorist organisation, benefits Uganda and DRC in terms of counter-terrorism manpower, training and financing. DRC President Félix Tshisekedi has appealed for support from the US and France to combat terrorism. Uganda has already benefitted from training in mountain warfare conducted by French soldiers.

Under the guise of fighting terrorism, Uganda gets leeway to further increase its security budget without displeasing international financial institutions. It currently spends more than $1.4bn (13% of its annual budget) on security.

Recently, when negotiating a $1bn loan, government officials told the IMF that security spending was on an upward trajectory because they needed to “replace equipment needed to face the regional tensions.” The IMF demanded a reduction in the security expenditures share of the budget and an increase in social spending.

In an article criticising a March 2021 report by George Washington University researchers, that seemed to confirm that ISIS is operating in the DRC, Museveni critic, Helen Epstein, argues against the US’s newfound fascination with the Islamic State in Central Africa.

“Washington,” she says, “would make the best use of international aid dollars if it stopped pouring money into the coffers of corrupt and manipulative dictators like Museveni and spent less on meddling in conflicts it doesn’t understand.”

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