The 2021 transformation of the Islamic State’s Congolese branch

    Abstract: The Congolese branch of the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province (ISCAP-DRC), locally known as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), is a rising threat to the region. Not only did it inflict more fatalities than ever before in 2021, but last year was also the most operationally transformative for the group since it declared allegiance to the Islamic State around 2017. Thanks to its increased integration into the Islamic State, ISCAP-DRC’s modi operandi evolved in seven key areas—from a surge in Islamic State-supported propaganda to its first use of suicide bombings—that have contributed to the group’s escalating terror campaign in Congo and abroad. Together, these changes have enabled the ADF—already the deadliest group in eastern Congo—to become a bolder and more lethal terrorist organization, poised to further export its operations to the region.

    On November 16, 2021, three suicide bombers detonated themselves in two locations in downtown Kampala, Uganda, killing at least four civilians and wounding 30 others.1 While resulting in fewer casualties than the suicide bombings Kampala witnessed in the summer of 2010,a the November 2021 bombings had significant implications for regional security. First, the attacks were perpetrated by the Congolese branch of the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province (ISCAP-DRC), more commonly known by its local name, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).b Second, the blasts were the first suicide bombings claimed by the Islamic State on Ugandan soil and outside of the ADF’s primary area of operation within the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, suggesting a desire by the Islamic State to project its power to new territories. And third, the bombings came on the heels of a coordinated—but ultimately unsuccessful—attempt by the ADF to bomb multiple civilian targets in Rwanda2 and amid credible reports of the ADF’s efforts to establish cells in surrounding countries.3

    This article seeks to unpack the ADF’s transformation within the wider context of the overall operations of ISCAP-DRC last year. Specifically, this article argues that 2021 was the group’s most operationally transformative year since joining the Islamic State around 2017, with the ADF both pushing and being pulled toward adopting the norms and practices of its adopted parent organization. As will be outlined below, in addition to newly implementing the tactic of suicide bombings, the group also began exporting its violence beyond the borders of the DRC to Uganda and Rwanda, deepened its recruitment of foreign fighters, began clashing with other armed groups in the Congo on a more regular basis, began publicly emphasizing proselytization within the DRC, began filming and releasing beheading videos, expanded its use and capabilities with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and, by more deeply integrating its media efforts with the Islamic State, greatly expanded its propaganda production. Taken together, these changes, all explained and enabled to varying degrees by the group’s deepening linkages to the Islamic State’s transnational network, constitute a significant transformation in the group’s modi operandi.

    Based on primary source fieldwork and research conducted by the authors across the DRC, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and Somaliland between November 2020 and April 2022 in addition to open-source research in French, English, Arabic, and Swahili, this article argues these operational transformations were the direct result of the ADF’s integration into the Islamic State. With the support of the Islamic State, particularly in terms of financing and propaganda, ISCAP-DRC has fully transitioned from a group traditionally only focused on Uganda and eastern Congo, to a wider, more regional terrorist threat. And if its operations in 2021 are any indication, the group’s propensity for exporting its violence across East and Central Africa will continue to deepen and expand if left unchecked.

    Starting with a brief background of the ADF’s history and transition into a so-called province of the Islamic State, this article then provides a chronology of key developments in 2021, including the group’s operations across the DRC and the wider region and the joint military campaign launched against it by the DRC and Uganda in late 2021. It then examines significant changes across seven dimensions of the group’s operations in 2021, with these shifts all explained to varying degrees by the group’s deepening integration into the Islamic State’s transnational network. MORE

    SOURCE: Combating Terrorism Center at Westpoint

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    Evarist Chahali

    Evarist Chahali

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