Many were defeated militarily, others co-opted into government after peace talks, but not the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). Why? Regional political complexities and its continuous metamorphosis have aided the group to thrive, analysts say.
The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) of Joseph Kony – another rebel group – which fought Museveni’s government, was defeated in the mid-2000s and pushed to the Central African Republic (CAR). However, the ADF – which has had bases in Eastern DRC for a quarter a century – is the only rebel group that continues to pose a threat, though the Ugandan government downplays its threat as minimal.
The latest attack was a 16 June raid on a secondary school in Mpondwe, Kasese district on the Uganda-DRC border that left 41 people dead, including 37 school children.
The ADF never claims responsibility for attacks, but the Ugandan government attributes raids to the group. Since the 2010s, all attacks in Uganda – be it bombs planted in Kampala or assassination of high-profile government officials – have been attributed to the ADF.
In eastern DRC, ADF has shown to be the most lethal rebel group, killing hundreds of civilians annually. Researchers on extremism at George Washington University published a recent study titled Fatal Transaction: The Funding Behind the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province, attributing 5,000 deaths to the ADF since 2013.
Birth of a “radicalised” group
The ADF was formed in the mid-1990s. Its founders were joined by remnants of National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU), and another rebel group, the Rwenzururu movement – made up of people from Rwenzori mountains in Western Uganda. The latter group eased ADF’s navigation of Rwenzori mountains by members who had come from central Uganda. Musa Baruku, the current ADF leader is a Mukonjo, an ethnic group hailing in the Rwenzori mountains.
The ADF emerged as the aftermath of fights within the Muslim community in Uganda over supremacy. Edgar Tabaro, a lawyer and analyst, tells The Africa Report that the Tabliq–puritanical–sect of the Ugandan Muslim community that birthed ADF was a “radicalised” group from the start.
“There was a confrontation among the Muslims in Nakasero [Kampala upscale suburb] and some Muslim youth hacked four on-duty uniformed police officers to death,” Tabaro says, referring to the fights among Muslim community of the 1990s.
“A number of radicalised youths were picked and jailed. Unfortunately, trials of those fellows were never concluded; some were released and those were the first people who formed the first bulk of recruits into [the] ADF,” he says.
Tabaro argues that this radicalisation aided the survival of the ADF in the early years as it connected to other radical Muslim groups in Sudan where the group received training, financial aid, and military support.
However, researchers have – in the past – argued that the ADF was embraced by the Sudanese government because of politics, not religion. Khartoum was trying to counter Museveni’s government, which was also supporting Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), whose decades of fighting led to South Sudan’s independence in 2011.
Khartoum provided aid not only to the ADF, but to the LRA. Other research studies have argued that ADF briefly received support from Zaire (now DRC) dictator Mobutu Sese Seko at the time when Rwanda and Uganda launched a war that ousted him in 1997.
Easy life in DRC, no to amnesty
With Bakonjo in its ranks, who share a language and customs as some ethnic groups in Eastern DRC, the rebel group found it easy to settle and integrate.
“ADF combatants became ‘naturalised’ and part of Congolese society,” Kristof Titeca and Koen Vlassenroot says in a study titled Rebels without borders in the Rwenzori borderland? A biography of the Allied Democratic Forces.
The authors argue that inter-marriages between the ADF and local communities followed.
“All of this provided ADF combatants some freedom of movement and facilitated access to food, medical assistance, arable land, and so on,” they say.
The mixing in Congolese communities became a strong disincentive as Museveni deployed an amnesty strategy to persuade ADF rebels who were fighting him to return home and be integrated into his government.
To a larger extent, Museveni’s government was successful with the ADF, but the entire group never fell apart. Some of the prominent members of the group who accepted amnesty in late 1990s and early 2000s include Major Mohammad Kiggundu, who was assassinated by unknown assailants in 2016. He had reintegrated into the Uganda army.
The Ugandan government made another amnesty push in 2005 by opening an office in Beni, North Kivu where it offered rebels a deal to be integrated in the Uganda army. “This demobilisation campaign proved to be a failure,” says the Titeca and Vlassenroot report because most rebels who turned up for demobilisation were Congolese.
A number of their youth were left on their own. They returned to the masjids [mosques], to the very conditions that had radicalised them
Tabaro however tells The Africa Report that the government could have handled amnesty better, arguing that it failed to reintegrate rebels back into their communities.
“You shall recall that major Kiggundu [and other senior ADF leaders] were reintegrated into the mainstream army. They had access to livelihood, they drove good cars, they married new wives. They became relatively better off than veterans of NRA [Museveni’s bush war],” he says.
“But a number of their youth were left on their own. They returned to the masjids [mosques], to the very conditions that had radicalised them from the word go. They have continued to be centres for recruitment, rejuvenation, revitalisation of the ADF,” he adds.
Military operations to eliminate ADF
Throughout the ADF’s life span, the Ugandan and DRC governments have launched military operations aimed at eliminating ADF rebels. However, the operations have not fully achieved their objectives. Here is a brief timeline for some operations:
- In 1999, the Ugandan army launched an operation called ‘operation mountain sweep’ against the rebels
- In December 2005, the Congolese army and UN peacekeepers MONUSCO launched an offensive targeting several rebel camps in North Kivu
- In June-July 2010, the Congolese army launched another offensive against the ADF
- The Ugandan army launched an operation dubbed ‘Tuugo’ in 2017 after ADF rebels reportedly killed 15 UN peacekeepers
- The latest operation against rebels was launched in November 2021 after a series of bomb blasts in Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, which were attributed to the rebels.
Why has the ADF survived lethal military operations? It’s because the rebels have managed to adapt to the Congolese environment, says Pierre Boisselet, coordinator of research on violence at Ebuteli, a research organisation based in Kinshasa which tracks violence in Eastern DRC.
To win support, he says the ADF takes sides in inter-community tensions, which enables them to create links to benefits from illicit trade and control land and routes in protected areas.
“What strikes me is that they manage to use their knowledge of the area to hide and bounce back every time,” Boisselet says.
He thinks that military action is not an efficient strategy. Those with the intention of completely eradicating the ADF, he argues, must put more effort in first understanding “how they survive in this context, who are their allies, their businesses, their sponsors”.
“More effort needs to be put in helping the Congolese state build the capacity to dismantle those networks and that can only be done with better intelligence services, identifying sponsors and allies, and having a justice system capable of dealing with it,” he says.
Launched at the end of 2021 and conducted jointly by the DRC and Uganda, Operation Shujaa has not yet succeeded in containing the threat. The rebels have even spread westwards and north-eastwards, approaching the highly strategic $10bn oil project operated by France’s TotalEnergies and China’s CNOOC. Worse still, according to the Congo Research Group (Gec), the army’s offensives have motivated rebel reprisals against civilians.
Islamic State–ADF link getting stronger
The ADF’s recent and prominent connection to Islamic State (IS), the transnational militant Islamist terrorist group initiated in 2017 has transformed the group into a lethal organisation. This connection began two years after the arrest of Jamil Mukulu, the group’s founding leader who is now facing trial in Uganda.
Researchers at US’s George Washington University program on extremism have argued the main driving factor that pushed the ADF to IS was lack of funds. Mukulu had been the group’s main link between the ADF and financers in South Africa, Middle East and Europe.
“The ADF was running out of money, unable to provide even basic necessities like salt or medicine as group morale plummeted and attacks fell to almost nothing,” the researchers say.
According to the researchers, IS funding received by the ADF has had dramatic consequences. They maintain that some $68,000 was given to individuals connected to ADF cells who were responsible for the series of suicide bombings in Uganda in 2021.
They also point to a connection between the ADF’s intense scale-up of activity and the IS connection. For instance, more than 75% of deaths attributed to the ADF between 2013 and 2022 happened after 2017 when the ADF allegedly started receiving funds from IS.
Despite the ADF’s connections to IS, deputy spokesperson of Uganda army Deo Akiiki Asiimwe says the group has not morphed into a deadlier group. They operate using the same tactics as they did 20 years ago, he says.
“I don’t see anything new from them. We shall continue fighting terrorism the way we have been fighting it,” Asiimwe tells The Africa Report.
The group’s modus operandi is particularly brutal. The massacres of women and children, most often killed with machetes and sometimes burnt alive, are repeated. More than 200 people have also been abducted since April 2017.
‘Do as much damage as possible’: This is the aim of the group, which now uses improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide bombers. Placed in the middle of a crowd, these bombs kill indiscriminately, each time leaving dozens of people mutilated.
This rise in power is correlated with the influx of funding to Beni from the various cells of the Islamic State (IS). The links between the terrorist group’s African cells are strengthening, giving the ADF regional and even international influence.
There's more to this story
Get unlimited access to our exclusive journalism and features today. Our award-winning team of correspondents and editors report from over 54 African countries, from Cape Town to Cairo, from Abidjan to Abuja to Addis Ababa. Africa. Unlocked.
Already a a subscriber Sign In