Examining Extremism: Allied Democratic Forces aka ISIS-DRC
July 29, 2021
The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) is a long-standing insurgent group with Ugandan roots that is currently operating in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). 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 DRC.
In 2019, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for an ADF attack and first referenced a “Central Africa Province.” These developments raise questions about the extent of the relationship between the ADF and Islamic State. The ADF’s proven adaptability and resiliency likely signify a continued and potentially increasing threat to civilians, security forces, and UN peacekeepers. Additionally, an overemphasis on the ADF’s links to the Islamic State could prompt security responses that intensify the ongoing conflict in eastern DRC.
The ADF formed in eastern DRC in 1995 through an agreement between portions of Uganda’s Tabliq Islamic sect and the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU) to fight the Ugandan government of President Yoweri Museveni. The ADF received early training and logistical support from the Sudanese government and translated these capabilities into violent attacks beginning in 1996, including a series of attacks in Kampala throughout the late 1990s, such as a bombing on a bar and restaurant on Valentine’s Day 1999 that killed four people and wounded 35.
These attacks prompted increased military action from the Ugandan People’s Defense Forces (UPDF), who used their military presence in eastern DRC during the First and Second Congo Wars (1996–2003) to launch offensives against the ADF. Successive governments in the DRC, by contrast, supported the ADF in order to disrupt the Ugandan and Rwandan military presence in the country. By 2001, the ADF was significantly degraded and sought to use the remote terrain of eastern DRC to remobilize through the recruitment of Congolese members.
During this time, the ADF developed significant economic stakes in the transborder Rwenzori economy, venturing into markets such as timber, gold mining, and agriculture. These activities not only deeply entrenched the ADF in broader political and economic dynamics in the area, such as local black markets and patronage systems, but also generated revenue and created economic interests for the ADF separate from its political objectives in Uganda.
At the same time, the ADF remained largely dormant in terms of violent activities, as evidenced by the low number of attacks against security forces and civilians from 2003 to 2012. In 2013, the ADF’s dormancy ended, and a far greater proportion of ADF violence began to be directed at the Congolese military. As violence mounted, the Congolese armed forces launched new operations against the ADF, prompting ADF leader Jamil Mukulu to flee to Tanzania where he was arrested in 2015 and subsequently extradited to stand trial in Uganda.
The ADF has used the name Madina at Tauheed Wau Mujahedeen (City of Monotheism and Holy Warriors—MTM) to either refer to itself as an organization or to ADF’s headquarters camp since at least 2012, and some propaganda content has shown an MTM logo reminiscent of international jihadist groups like al Qaeda. The Islamic State’s central propaganda apparatus first referenced its “Central Africa Province” in April 2019, taking credit for an assumed ADF attack in DRC. In March 2021, the U.S. Department of State designated the ADF (labeled “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – Democratic Republic of the Congo” in an accompanying press release) as a foreign terrorist organization.
The Department of State also individually designated Musa Baluku, the ADF’s leader, under Executive Order 13224. In September 2020, Baluku stated in one propaganda video that the ADF had ceased to exist and had incorporated itself into the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province, marking the ADF’s most explicit attempt to align with the Islamic State. Recent analyses contend that the ADF has split into multiple factions, with some members of the group rebuffing the ADF’s allegiance to the Islamic State and rejecting Baluku’s leadership.
Aside from a 1997 manifesto outlining the ADF’s aim of overthrowing the Ugandan government, the group offered little early public detail about its broader political aims, earning them the label of a “rebellion without a cause.” While Islamism has been a component of the ADF’s ideological program since its inception, the centrality of Islamism has ebbed and flowed, and it has historically been only one of several components animating ADF ideology. For example, in the mid-1990s the ADF had multiple components—one articulating the goal of creating an Islamic polity led by Jamal Mukulu and the other fighting for Bakonjo self-determination in the form of an sovereign kingdom.
Following the 2015 arrest of Mukulu, the ADF has released increasing amounts of propaganda that reflects ideological alignment with the Islamic State. This includes an increased focus on efforts to kill non-Muslim civilians. Additionally, the Islamic State’s propaganda apparatus has released multiple videos showing life inside ADF camps, including celebrations of Eid al-Adha. Within ADF camps, the organization enforces its own interpretation of sharia law and also runs an Islamic banking system into which members are obligated to deposit their money. Given speculation regarding a split within the organization, it is possible that the Islamic State–aligned faction represents only one segment of the ADF’s overall membership, led by Baluku.
The structure of the ADF is difficult to discern definitively. Previous analyses of the ADF that relied on interviews with defectors noted that senior commanders tightly control information about the ADF—making pronouncements on the group’s organizational character even more difficult. The organization is led by Musa Baluku, who served as a senior ADF Islamic legal official before consolidating power following Mukulu’s 2015 arrest. The ADF’s leadership also consists of individuals charged with specialized administrative functions including military command, food resupply, and finances. Additionally, Baluku leads a senior advisory council that unites the ADF’s executive and judiciary organs, on which he serves as the “supreme judge.”
The size of the ADF has fluctuated significantly over time, often declining in response to military pressures applied against the group. The Congo Research Group estimated that the ADF directed approximately 110 fighters in 2012 before diminishing to as few as 60 by 2014 and regaining strength to roughly 200–300 in 2016.
The nature and extent of the ADF’s links to the Islamic State’s core structure continue to be a matter of debate. The U.S. State Department designated the ADF as a foreign terrorist organization in March 2021, and labeled the group “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – Democratic Republic of the Congo (ISIS-DRC),” but it did not provide extensive detail on the nature of the relationship between the ADF and the Islamic State.
A June 2021 report from the UN Group of Experts on the DRC, meanwhile, could not substantiate “direct support or command and control of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” with respect to the ADF. The Islamic State’s core propaganda apparatus regularlyclaimsresponsibility for attacks in the DRC. The UN Group of Experts on the DRC, however, has noted discrepancies in attack locations, times, and casualty numbers contained in such claims that raise questions about the depth of the relationship between the ADF and the Islamic State.
While Islamic State propaganda refers to both the ADF insurgency and the Ansar al-Sunna Wa Jamma (ASWJ) insurgency in northern Mozambique as a unitary Islamic State Central Africa Province, the two groups are operationally and geographically distinct. Overemphasizing the ties between the ADF and Islamic State could have unintended repercussions for civilians living in eastern Congo by potentially stigmatizing the local Muslim community and fueling an ongoing cycle of community violence. As a result, better understanding the nature of the ties between the two groups is a critical precondition for reducing the threat the ADF poses to local populations.
Tactics and Targets
The exact extent and nature of ADF violence is difficult to determine because of the sheer complexity of the conflict landscape in eastern DRC. An estimated 45 unique non-state armed groups operated in DRC’s North Kivu Province as of 2020, including the ADF, and many operate in overlapping areas. Additionally, reporting suggests that some armed groups may have attempted to obfuscate their identities during attacks, and attacks occurring in approximate ADF territory are often reflexively attributed to the ADF in local media. Accordingly, analysts should approach attack attribution and trend analysis with caution.
The ADF has executed attacks against hard targets such as prisons as well as security and international forces. In October 2020, the ADF attacked Kangbayi Prison in Beni, freeing more than 1,300 inmates in an effort to liberate ADF combatants and recruit new fighters. Additionally, suspected ADF fighters have repeatedly attacked peacekeepers assigned to the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). This includes a 2017 attack on a MONUSCO base in Semuliki during which 15 Tanzanian UN peacekeepers were killed and 53 were wounded. The United Nations subsequently concluded that “all available evidence” pointed to the ADF’s culpability.
The ADF has also carried out numerous and significant attacks against civilians, at times in concert with other armed actors in DRC. Specifically, the ADF participated in mass killings near Beni beginning in 2013 that left more than 800 people dead and 180,000 displaced—however, these killings were likely initiated by another armed group in coordination with the ADF and others. More recently, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for two bombings in Beni—including a suicide bombing that the group said was targeted at Christians in a nearby bar. These incidents are reflective of a broader increase in the use of improvised explosive devices by the ADF.
The ADF will likely continue to pose a durable threat to local civilians and security forces. Despite military operations, internal organizational shocks like the arrest of Mukulu, and reported schisms within the group, the ADF has endured as an insurgency. The group’s political identity expands beyond Islamism and is intertwined with dynamics in the Rwenzori border region, allowing the ADF to operationalize both religious and non-religious issues for recruitment and attacks.
Moreover, recent Congolese government efforts to stem violence—like President Felix Tshisekedi’s 2021 imposition of a “state of siege” in Ituri and North Kivu Provinces—have overly empowered the Congolese armed forces, an actor some view as a driver of the violence. Interventions designed to lower levels of ADF violence should take special care to address the ADF as only one factor in a broader conflict ecosystem and should address other relevant drivers of ADF recruitment and violence such as state predation, corruption, and poor public service provision.
International actors should judiciously analyze the ADF insurgency through the lens of its Islamic State connections to avoid increasing the threat posed by the ADF in DRC. Sects of the ADF have outlined their goal of creating an Islamic polity in central Africa for more than two decades. Solely focusing on the Islamic State’s recent entrance to the fray risks obfuscating the dynamics of the much larger conflict in eastern DRC, of which the ADF is but one component, and the ADF’s historical role.
Moreover, states like Uganda have previously overstated the ADF’s relationship with transnational Salafi-jihadist networks like al Qaeda in order to receive counterterrorism assistance and justify a militarized posture that can both be directed internally or projected across the border into DRC. Similarly overemphasizing the ADF’s relationship to the Islamic State could be appropriated to justify security responses to the insurgency that exacerbate the conflict and facilitate human rights abuses. The consequences of such a response could fall particularly acutely on civilians, as security force operations against the ADF have historically prompted reprisals against local communities.
Jared Thompson is a research associate with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.