Analysis of the ISIS-DR Congo's prison break

    On August 10, 2022, the Islamic State’s Central African Province (ISCAP) raided the Kakwangura Central Prison in Butembo, a city in North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The city sits on the outskirts of the Virunga National Park, known to be one of ISCAP’s traditional strongholds which hosts a number of the group’s camps.

    The attack only lasted 15 minutes, in which the militants engaged in a firefight with prison guards and police officers. According to local news outlets, 80 ISCAP fighters were involved in the assault. Over 800 inmates were freed and at least 2 policemen were killed during the attack.

    According to an infographic released by Islamic State media the following week, 3 groups of fighters attacked the prison complex simultaneously. The first group acted as the primary assault force; the second group was tasked with freeing the prisoners; and the third group secured the perimeter and all roads leading to the prison.

    A video was later released by the group showing its fighters holding a prison door open as dozens of inmates escape. The cameraman can be heard chanting “dawlat al-Islam baqiyah!”, a common phrase used by the Islamic State group across the world, which roughly translates as ‘the Islamic State is everlasting’. Militants in Nigeria were also heard shouting the phrase in a video of a mass prison break they carried out in July, near that nation’s capital.

    Screenshot of the inmates escaping their prison cells (Source: Rocket.Chat)

    ISCAP has held lucrative connections in Butembo city for almost a decade, dating back to its predecessor group, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). According to a 2014 UN Security Council report, the ADF maintained a series of businesses and support networks throughout the city, including transportation, funding, and local gold mining and timber harvesting. Another report released in late-2015 describes how Butembo was used by the ADF as a recruitment hub and a main transit point for its illicit trade routes. This confirms how well-entrenched ISCAP was in the Butembo community prior to the attack.

    Local security officials have since confirmed that the country’s armed forces have recaptured over 250 of the escapees, but hundreds still remain on the loose. One of the recaptured individuals is Kakule Nzole, known as Kizito, who was considered one of ISCAP’s leading members and helped coordinate the attack from within the prison.

    Satellite view of the Butembo prison (Source: Google Earth)

    In the days following the prison break, a video was released by the Islamic State’s central news agency, Amaq, showing a group of Christian escapees being converted to Islam at one of ISCAP’s camps. It is likely that these individuals were given a choice to either embrace Islam or be killed. The escapees then appear to be taken through a series of indoctrination lectures.

    Giving Christians a chance to repent and join Islam suggests ISCAP is desperate for new recruits. The group is likely seeking to bolster its numbers in response to a newly formed coalition of East African states that have deployed to the DR Congo to combat armed groups, including ISCAP and the M23 Movement.

    Christian escapees being converted to Islam (Source: Rocket.Chat)
    Escapees receiving a lecture from an ISCAP member (Source: Rocket.Chat)

    This is the third major prison break carried out by the Islamic State this year. In January, the group freed hundreds of prisoners in Syria, and in July they freed hundreds in Nigeria.

    These kind of prison attacks have been occurring at an alarming rate. They reflect similarities to ISIS’s ‘Breaking the walls’ campaign years ago, where 8 major successful prison breaks in Iraq freed thousands of fighters, increasing the group’s strength and allowing it to rapidly expand its territory across Iraq and Syria. A similar trend is now being seen on the African continent which could prove to be catastrophic if it continues to occur.

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    Evarist Chahali

    Evarist Chahali

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