The Growing Threat of the Allied Democratic Forces and its Links with ISIS in Central Africa

By Dr. Mohammed Salah Djemal

European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies

Germany and Netherlands

on April 18, 2019, ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack in the Democratic Republic of Congo, sparking further tension in a region burdened by years of armed conflicts. The attack occurred in the town of Kamango, near the border of Uganda, killing three Congolese soldiers and wounding five. Initial reports suggested that the perpetrators belonged to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a rebel group of Ugandan origins, accused of killing hundreds over the last three years, however, the SITE Intelligence Group, who monitor all ‘Islamic State’ announcements said that the jihadist group have now claimed responsibility. The recent attack thus signifies the first attack in the Democratic Republic of Congo that ISIS has claimed responsibility and comes at a time where ties between the ADF and ISIS have raised suspicions at different levels.

Background and Threat Analysis

Historically, ADF is a product of the union between Islamic fundamentalists hailing from the highly conservative Tablighi Jamaat group and the remnants of the Islamic National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU). It also includes some Muslim ex-commanders from the army of Idi Amin, the former president of Uganda. ADF’s leader Shaykh Jamil Mukulu is believed to have been an ally to slain Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden who he met in Sudan in the hay days before receiving training in Afghanistan. In the past, ADF has sought funding and support from Al Qaeda to establish a Jihadi movement in Central Africa and hence, an inclination to pledging bayat to ISIS. The birth of Al-Sunnah wa Jama’ah is very similar to what was seen with Boko Haram in Nigeria. It started as a religious sect which transformed into a guerrilla group. Al-Sunnah wa Jama’ah is Arabic for “people of the Sunnah community”.1 ADF is believed to have between 800-1400 soldiers with trained and core fighters being anywhere between 500 and 1000 fighters majority active in DRC. Most of the training camps and weapon armories are located deep in the restive North Kivu province. On the other hand, Al-Sunnah wa Jama’ah has between about 350 and 1,500 members who are organized in tens of small cells along the coast of Northern Mozambique. While ADF-primary is self-funding from illegal gold mining and timber smuggling as well as other business in the town around the headquarters, the group has external financiers from Europe and neighboring African countries. Mozambique’s Muslim-majority Cabo Delgado province is expected to become the center of a natural gas industry after promising offshore discoveries near Palma.2

Therefore, it is quite possible that despite DRC and Ugandan government seemingly treating the group as a local rebel group, the resources at their disposal and potential to capture more villages and regions could quite possibly make ADF-ISCAP the most lethal Wilayat of ISIS. Significantly, upon the recent claim by the terror group of its first attack in Mozambique, the terror organization is amercing offshoots in very strategic regions of the world and especially in Africa. In Mozambique, the anarchist nature of the government and the potential of a flourishing gas mining operation could offer a conducive environment to breed violence and a deadly terror outfit.3

ADF Outreach to other Radical Jihadist Groups

The group appears to be making a tentative attempt to align itself with other militant Islamist groups, calling itself Madina at Tauheed Wau Mujahedeen  (MTM, “The city of monotheism and of those who affirm the same,”), or at least to rebrand themselves. Several videos feature a flag similar to that used by ISIS, Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram, and placing a strong emphasis on a radical, violent interpretation of the Quran. In addition, a book produced by the publicity arm of the Islamic State was found by the FARDC on a dead ADF combatant in Beni in February 2018 :4

“All of you wherever you may be; Burundi,

Tanzania, and other places, migrate and

come join the struggle to ensure that you

strive in Allah’s cause and put a stop to the

practiced polytheism by Infidels. MTM is the

sole solution and we do not fear threats.”

The name MTM has been used by the ADF since at least 2012, when a stamp with that name was found on internal documents. At the time, the UN Group of Experts believed that MTM was the name of a camp, not an organization. Recent ADF defectors have given contradictory information, some saying that MTM is still the name of Madina camp – that name has been used over time to connote different key ADF camps – while others say it is used interchangeably for ADF.5 This suggests that these rebranding efforts are aimed mostly at external consumption, and confirms previous reports of a heavily compartmentalized organization, with little information flowing between senior commanders and rank-and-file troops. Defectors also depict a secretive command that provides little information, even to junior commanders.6

ADF and ISIS : Beginnings and Objectives

Information about the membership and objectives of the ADF is scant and often reflects the narrative of its adversaries rather than a factual analysis based on knowledge of the movement, but in 2017, the ADF in DRC began to emerge as a new destination for would-be Islamic State recruits in Africa. Though the Islamic State certainly does not regard the ADF as part of its Caliphate, and many would describe it more as a criminal enterprise or local rebel group than a terrorist one, some ADF members have expressed support for the Islamic State and the Islamic State could well see advantage in having a territorial foothold in sub-Saharan Africa. DRC is easy to reach, both for new recruits and for experienced fighters from Iraq, Syria and other areas where the movement is under pressure from ground troops and airstrikes, and the ADF has already gained recruits from Kenya and Tanzania, as well as Uganda.7 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; but no agreement had been announced by July 2018, although talks were said to have gone well. Speaking at the Fifth Head of Intelligence and Security Services of Member States of IGAD and EAC in Entebbe in May 2018, Col. Kaka Bagyenda, the Director General of Uganda’s Internal Security Organization, said that there was proof that the Islamic State was collaborating with the ADF in DRC.8

For ADF to be recognised as an official province of the Islamic State it would have to agree to a more distinct ideology and to have the Islamic State oversee its activities. This would require a greater investment of resources than the Islamic State currently has available, but it would gain a safe base in Africa, well protected from ground and air attack, and a launch pad for attacks across the continent. However, a major obstacle to any merger between the Islamic State and ADF, apart from their divergent objectives, is Sheikh Jamil and those ADF members who still support him.9

Recent Evidence of ADF Links to ISIS

In February 2019, DRC soldiers found an ISIS-produced book on the body of a dead ADF militant. This book was identified as ‘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.10

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.11

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.12

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.13

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 travelled 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.14

Conclusion

As laid out in some reports, targeted and responsible military operations against the various armed groups in the area are part of this. But, given how interwoven the ADF is with other, local armed groups, this will also require rendering local administration and security services more accountable, dismantling networks of smuggling, racketeering and jihadism, and targeting the regional recruitment and support networks of the ADF. However, the strength of the evidence highlighting the alignment of ADF with ISIS still remains in question. It is clear that more details are needed to better inform both national and international responses to the violence as finding a resolution to the conflict requires dealing with the multiple complexities of the attacks occurring in Congo.

Notes

1-         Strategic Intelligence, ‘’ISIS-Central Africa Province; A Growing Threat As It Expands To DRC And Mozambique’’, June 10, 2019. https://intelligencebriefs.com/isis-central-africa-province-a-growing-threat-as-it-expands-to-drc-and-mozambique/

2-         Ibid.

3-         Ibid.

4-         Report on ‘’ Inside the ADF Rebellion : A Glimpse into the Life and Operations of a Secretive Jihadi Armed Group’’, Congo Research Group, November 2018. https://insidetheadf.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Inside-the-ADF-Rebellion-14Nov18.pdf

5-         Ibid.

6-         Ibid.

7-         Report on ‘’The Islamic State in East Africa’’, European Institute of Peace, September 2018. http://www.eip.org/sites/default/files/Report_IS%20in%20East%20Africa_October%202018.pdf

8-         Ibid.

9-         Ibid.

10-       Robert Postings, ‘’ The tentative ties between the Allied Democratic Forces and ISIS’’, The Defense Post, December 4, 2018. https://thedefensepost.com/2018/12/04/tentative-ties-allied-democratic-forces-isis-dr-congo/

11-       Ibid.

12-       Ibid.

13-       Ibid.

14-       Ibid.

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