TOOn the border between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda, in a vast territory stretching from the high Rwenzori Mountains to the lush rainforest of the Semliki Valley, one of the most active militant groups in the world is responsible for the massacre of hundreds of civilians. .
The ADF (Allied Democratic Forces) was originally a Ugandan rebel opposition group rooted in a radical agenda of religious militancy. Taking advantage of the regional power vacuum, the group fled to Beni territory in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo to seek refuge from the Ugandan army.
Founded in 1995 by radical preacher Jamil Mukulu, a Ugandan Christian who converted to Islam, the ADF has been able to survive repeated attempts to eradicate it by establishing cross-border networks. After fleeing to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the militants regrouped and were able to survive multiple waves of attacks, although their founder was arrested in Tanzania in 2015 and prosecuted in Uganda for war crimes.
Under the new leadership of Seka Musa Balaku, Beni and the surrounding jungle have become a safe haven for the ADF. The group is believed to be able to sustain itself by integrating into the local cross-border economy, exploiting the local trade in gold, cocoa, coffee and timber. These natural resources are sold to Burundi, Uganda or Tanzania. Porous roads across borders and the complicity of some officials pose a small obstacle to illegal trade.
New recruits from the area and neighboring countries join a network of hidden fortified camps throughout the region. Social media images and reports of ADF deserters and ex-combatants show strictly managed places where recruits receive religious education and military training. In February, Congolese soldiers (Forces armées de la République démocratique du Congo – FARDC) allegedly captured an ADF militant from the neighboring Central African Republic, 1,300 kilometers from Beni, when he was crossing the front line. Other fighters from Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi were captured in previous operations, hinting at the potential attraction of foreign jihadist fighters in eastern and central Africa.
Over time, the group’s opposition agenda against the Ugandan government was sidelined by its increasingly extreme Islamist stance. In Beni territory, the group calls their headquarters camps ‘the Madina complex’, a reference to Madina’s name in Tauheed Wau Mujahideen (MTM), “The City of Monotheism and Holy Warriors”, which it adopted in 2016 in an attempt to a wider audience. This strategy culminated in the ADF’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State in 2019 and its recognition as part of the Islamic State’s “central African province”.
Isis remnants in the Middle East have bragged about the exploits of their brothers in Africa and provided regular coverage of ADF operations on their media channels. Recent images, of increasing quality and in several languages, showed an ADF ambush that claimed the lives of several people traveling in a truck, the ADF invaded the positions of the FARDC while shouting jihadist slogans and fighters praying in the jungle.
However, there are doubts about the extent of Isis’ control over the ADF. In 2018, a Kenyan financier linked to Isis was arrested after transferring money to the group, but the complex nature of the fighting in eastern DRC makes it difficult to determine the existence of a direct chain of command. But there has been an increase in the number of massacres in the region.
The FARDC has been conducting large-scale military operations against the ADF since 2019. However, Congolese troops are ill-prepared for sustained operations, isolated in positions on the ground with few rations and ammunition. Difficult terrain means limited medical assistance for the wounded, and commanders also complain that their troops are vulnerable to malaria. Two years after the offensive, the ADF has recovered most of its positions and adopted new tactics, dividing its guerrilla forces into various sectors. The cost of FARDC troops is high in a conflict in which the insurgents have the upper hand, taking weak positions and moving at will in the jungle to escape counterattacks.
The specialized units of the UN stabilization mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Monusco) are deployed alongside the FARDC with a solid mandate to take the fight to the rebel group. But, despite the use of reconnaissance drones and helicopter gunships, the Force Intervention Brigade has also come under fire. In 2017, insurgents attacked a remote outpost on the Semuliki River, leaving 14 Tanzanian soldiers dead and more than 50 injured, the worst loss of life for a peacekeeping force outside of Somalia. Since then, the base has passed under the control of the FARDC. It stands unkempt and overgrown, surrounded by dense jungle and displaying a sad scrawled sign – “Welcome to Semuliki et Bon Voyage” – to greet passing troops.
Setbacks and risk pushed UN units to adopt a more moderate stance, prompting protests from Congolese citizens who blamed the international community for failing to prevent the killings. In a region that is home to more than 120 armed groups, the ADF is the most murderous and civilians are the most affected. In 2020, the group was responsible for some 155 incidents and 40% of all violent deaths in the region. This year, their attacks have so far killed 200 people and displaced some 40,000 more. The militia is known for burning villages, using heavy weapons, machetes and knives, and kidnapping women and children.
Military operations to restore security are of little help to civilians in Beni, as retaliation by the ADF can be brutal.
The city of Mutwanga, a coffee and cocoa producer, is largely abandoned by its people. In other places, communities are isolated from the outside world. The border towns of Nobili and Kamango have come to a standstill when FARDC operations block access to the road, cutting off the only lifeline to Beni and the rest of the Congo.
Beyond debates about the complexity of the ADF’s affiliations with local and international groups, the reality is that the resource-poor Congolese military is unable to tackle this jungle insurgency, making the region unsustainable for the communities that call it home.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism