On April 18, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (I.S.I.L. or I.S.I.S.) claimed responsibility for an attack in the Democratic Republic of Congo, sparking further tension in a region burdened by years of conflict, as well as the recent outbreak of the Ebola virus.
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 (A.D.F.), 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 have announced that the jihadist group have now claimed responsibility. The recent attack thus signifies the first attack in the Democratic Republic of Congo that I.S.I.S. has acknowledged, and comes at a time where links between the A.D.F. and the so-called Islamic State have raised international and national suspicions.
Start of a New Coalition?
Earlier this month, Congolese President, Felix Tshisekedi said he expects that the Islamic State might try to bolster its presence in the region following the destruction of its self-proclaimed caliphate centred in Syria and Iraq. He remarked that “it’s easy to see how the defeat of Daesh, the Islamic State, in Syria and Iraq could lead to a situation where these groups will now come to Africa and take advantage of widespread poverty and chaos.”
The Congo Research Group housed within the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, released a report in 2018 titled ‘Inside the A.D.F. Rebellion’, where they discussed the group’s several connections to other militant Islamist groups. According to the report, the A.D.F. had received money from a financier linked to I.S.I.S. in November 2018. In addition, a book issued by the Islamic State was reportedly found in the possession of a dead A.D.F. combatant late last year suggesting further ties with the extremist organization. Similarly, interviews conducted with A.D.F. defectors suggest that the group have been making tentative attempts to align with other jihadist groups to help increase the strength of their forces. While videos posted by members of the A.D.F. last year showed the group referring to themselves as Madina at Tauheed Wau Mujahedeen’(‘The city of monotheism and holy warriors’), and presenting flags similar to those used by Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Africa Command, Samantha Reho, has claimed that the A.D.F. has “meaningful ties” to I.S.I.S., and in a joint statement released on April 12, the U.S. and Congolese governments have confirmed that Congo would now join the international coalition fighting against the so-called Islamic State.
However, several statements have been released casting doubts over the reliability of the evidence surrounding the link between the two groups. For example, Congo Research Group Director, Jason Stearns, remarks that “the A.D.F. is still an extremely reclusive group” adding that both the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda have been vying to attract ‘anti-terrorist’ assistance from the United States. Indeed, establishing a link between domestic rebel groups and an international terrorist organization could help secure the much needed financial assistance.
Additionally, the claims of the so-called Islamic State have not been independently verified. The extensive violence in the region near the border between Congo and Uganda, combined with the ambiguity surrounding the actions of the A.D.F., leaves the responsibility of attacks shrouded in mystery. For instance, since October 2014, more than 1000 people have been massacred in the Beni territory of Congo and Congolese officials tend to blame the violence on the A.D.F.; however, this is often done without producing any evidence of the group’s culpability. Furthermore, research conducted by a U.N. Group of experts suggests that many actors, not only the A.D.F., have been responsible for the killings, and that even the Congolese government have been involved in some instances. In addition, the lack of defections, strict internal procedures, and limited public communications has made it difficult to ascertain the motives, internal structures and support base of the secretive A.D.F.
However, the recent arrest of Waleed Ahmed Zein, may be the first material evidence of the link between the A.D.F. and global jihadist networks. Zein, a Kenyan national, was arrested in July 2018 on charges of financing terrorism and was sanctioned by the U.S. Government in September 2018 with sources close to the U.S. and Ugandan governments confirming that Zein had sent money to the A.D.F. While this is very suggestive, it still remains unclear how closely the A.D.F. is in touch with such jihadist networks or what offer forms of support the rebel group may be receiving.
The indication of support from the international community appears to be a welcome development; however, the strength of the evidence highlighting the alignment of A.D.F. with I.S.I.S. 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 and Uganda.