A Look at the US Response to Islamic State-Linked Militants in the DRC
November 16th was a horrific day in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. A coordinated pair of suicide attacks near the parliament and a checkpoint of the central police station resulted in the deaths of three civilians and one police officer along with the attackers. In addition, there were reports of other devices being discovered in other areas of Kampala.
It has been determined that these bombings were the latest incidents in a series of attacks within Uganda since June 1st. On that date, a vehicle carrying General Katumba Wamala was attacked by gunmen. The attack resulted in the death of his driver and daughter. Within a month, Ugandan authorities would announce that the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and Islamic State (IS) had trained the attackers at a camp located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Who exactly are the ADF? The first sentence of a brief prepared by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), offers a straightforward description. The authors of the report define the ADF as “a long-standing insurgent group with Ugandan roots that is currently operating in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.” Regarding the issue of ideology, the CSIS report argues that “while the ADF’s ideology has historically contained some Salafi-Jihadist elements, it has also recruited along secular ethnic lines and is deeply entrenched in the broader political and economic dynamics of the Rwenzori border region between Uganda and the DRC.” The Africa Center for Strategic Studies addressed the group, writing in 2019 that they are one of the most misunderstood militant organizations in Africa.
The origins of this violent movement require an explanation. The group emerged in 1996 as a result of a merger among several insurgent movements that operated at the time in Uganda, including the Allied Democratic Movement, the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU), the Ugandan Muslim Liberation Army along with the militant members of the Tablighi Jamaat movement. The ADF is estimated to have around 500 active fighters, according to a recent report by Vice News.
Why should attention be levied upon this group? One reason is that the ADF does not solely operate in Uganda anymore, it now has a regional impact. Case in point, the DRC is the site of frequent attacks by the ADF.
The group’s links to the Islamic State — dating back as far as 2017 with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi first mentioning the ADF in 2018 — have become a notable cause of concern and have drawn international attention. In 2019, IS began claiming attacks in the DRC which increasingly caught the eye of decision-makers in Washington. The group is considered a wing of the Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP), with the other wing being concentrated in Mozambique.
On March 10th of this year, the US State Department made two important designations regarding the ADF/Islamic State of Iraq and Syria-Democratic Republic of Congo (ISIS-DRC) and its leader Seka Musa Baluku. First, the group was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), while both Baluku and the group were also named as SDGTs (Specially Designated Global Terrorists). The group is blamed by the United Nations for killing over 800 Congolese soldiers and civilians in the Congo during 2020.
The US State Department defines an FTO as a foreign group identified by the Secretary of State in accordance with section 219 of the Immigration and Naturalization Act. Under these terms, the Secretary has to determine that the group is A.) foreign, B.) engaged in terrorist activity, and C.) that its activity threatens either the national security of or the interests of the United States.
An SDGT is defined under Executive Order (EO) 13224 as a group or individual that the Treasury Department’s OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) finds to have committed acts of terrorism or poses a significant risk of committing acts of terrorism. These groups can also be found to provide support, financial assistance, or have associations with terrorists or terrorist groups that are already designated by OFAC as a terrorist or terrorist group. The relationship between ADF and IS fulfills said criteria. So far, it appears that the sanctions have not had much of an impact on the activities of the group.
The March 10th decisions by the State Department are not the only actions that have been taken by the United States in the past couple of years regarding the ADF. In October 2020, the Trump Administration signed an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) with the DRC government. This MOU reestablishes the relationship between the two militaries that was suspended due to policy and legal restrictions levied against the DRC Military during the Kabila administration. At the end of January 2021, a delegation from AFRICOM (United States Africa Command) arrived in Kinshasa to discuss the objectives of the MOU. However, it should be noted that to this date no such arrangement exists between the United States and Uganda to confront the ADF militarily.
This arrangement facilitated the deployment of 150 members of the US Special Forces to the eastern DRC in August 2021. Interestingly, members of the US Military assigned to this mission were introduced to President Tshisekedi. This is noteworthy as these were members of the US Special Forces, and, naturally, they were tasked with covert operations in the country. A press release from the US Embassy in the DRC reports that the US operators left the country around September 9th after conducting an assessment of the situation in eastern DRC.
The US effort is not the only operation that will be targeting the ADF/IS in eastern DRC. In early December 2021, the Uganda People’s Defense Force sent troops across the border to locate and destroy ADF camps that pose a risk to the stability in both countries. On December 8th, President Museveni of Uganda briefed members of the US Security Council on the joint operation between Uganda and the DRC. The DRC has also reached a deal with MONUCSO (United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) to join in the operations against ADF/ISCAP forces. However, just a mere 48 hours later, the group launched a new attack within the DRC itself.
It is too early to determine how much success the efforts of the Ugandan Military, UN Peacekeepers and the Congolese Military will have in the eastern DRC in countering the ADF/ISCAP insurgency. The situation appears to be cyclical in nature. That said, the media coverage of the Ugandan intervention has been generous of the latter’s efforts, while it often takes days for word of attacks by the ADF to hit the newswires. This disparity in media coverage makes it very difficult to properly analyze and accurately assess the situation. This has caused some problems when reports of some incidents are initially blamed on other regional insurgent groups.