What do we know about Islamic State group in the DR Congo?
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An armed Islamist group known as the Allied Democratic Forces or ADF has carried out at least two attacks on villages in the area of Béni in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo since December 28. One of the attacks was claimed by the branch of the Islamic State organisation in Central Africa. What are the links between these two groups and is the Islamic State’s influence growing in the region?
The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) started off as a rebel group from Uganda opposed to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. In 1995, this Muslim-majority group moved into the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
One of the most violent of the many armed groups in this region, the ADF is accused of having massacred around a thousand civilians since October 2014, even though they have never officially claimed responsibility for these attacks.
In the past two weeks, there have been several deadly attacks on villages in the Béni region, which have been attributed to the ADF.
On December 28, armed groups attacked positions held by the Armed Forces of the DR Congo (known by the acronym FARDC) near the village of Loselose, located about 40 kilometres from the capital of Béni. They occupied the village for three days before being pushed out by the Congolese Army on January 1.
This attack was claimed by the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province (ISCAP) in a statement. They repeated these claims in a video emblazoned with the emblem of Amaq, the propaganda wing of the IS. The video, which lasts less than a minute, shows buildings burning while one of the combatants, who speaks in Kiswahili says, “We are happy to have attacked the second garrison of the infidels we encountered in the village of Loselose. They all fled and now we are burning the village.”
In the video, you can see a child among the soldiers.
Fourteen Islamist fighters and two soldiers from the FARDC (the Congolese army) died fighting over the village, according to Anthony Mwalushayi, the spokesperson for the Congolese Armed Forces (the FARDC), who spoke with the FRANCE 24 Observers team.
Mwalushayi also reported that “two white men, probably Arabs” were found amongst the dead militants, who he said were “surely instructors who came to train the fighters and reinforce their ideology”. The FRANCE 24 Observers team is not able to independently verify this information.
Mwalushayi said this was the first time that he had witnessed “white” or Arab-origin fighters in the ADF. Most members of the ADF are from Uganda, but Mwalushayi said that there were also fighters from “Chad, South Africa, Tanzania and Mozambique.”
No documents confirming the presence of the Islamic State in the zone were found after the fighting or on the dead militants, according to both Mwalushayi and local civil society leaders.
On January 5, several days after the fighting in Loselose, another attack attributed to the ADF took place in the neighbouring village of Mwenda.
“During this attack, 22 civilians were killed. The assailants primarily used blades, resorting to firearms to finish off their victims,” a community leader named Paluku Batoleni Wilson told the FRANCE 24 Observers team. Wilson serves as the president of the civil society in the sector of Ruwenzori.
The Islamic State group didn’t claim this attack, even though it took place in the same zone as the attack on December 28.
"It is difficult to know if all or only part of the ADF has joined the Islamic State."
The Islamic State organisation seems to be claiming some attacks carried out by the ADF and not others. So what is the nature of the relationship between these two organisations? Matteo Puxton, a specialist in the Islamic State organisation’s military strategy, studied the activities of jihadist groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo between 2019 and late August 2020.
There is nothing new about the Islamic State organisation carrying out attacks in Béni. The very first attack that they claimed in Central Africa was on April 16, 2019. It was an attack on Congolese army barracks in the village of Bovota [Editor’s note: located 80 kilometres from Béni]. This attack was claimed in a statement released by Amaq, the propaganda wing of the Islamic State group.
The first IS video claiming an attack in the region was released on July 14, 2019, three months after the first statement was released. The video is barely 20 seconds long and it shows the bodies of Congolese soldiers who had been killed by improvised explosive devices two days earlier in Oweisha, a region near Béni.
A video pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was posted on July 24, 2019 [Editor’s note: Al-Baghdadi, who was formerly the head of the Islamic State group, has since been killed]. Most of the video was filmed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but some of the footage comes from Mozambique, where Ansar al-Sunnah, another Islamist milita group, also pledged allegiance to the Islamic State organisation.
The part of the video filmed in the DRC shows a chief, Abu Abdul Rahman, who they refer to as a sheikh. There are a number of child soldiers who appear in the video. Most of the weapons carried by the jihadists were taken from the Congolese Army or from the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (known as Monusco), which has been fighting the ADF alongside the army. Most are PKM machine guns, RPG-7 rocket launchers and Galil MAR assault rifles.
However, since the Islamic State first claimed an attack in the region in April 2019, they have released various documents about their involvement in Central Africa including published statements, articles in weekly newsletter alNaba and photos and videos via their propaganda arm Amaq.
Another sign of the link between the ADF and the Islamic State organisation came after the arrest of Waleed Ahmed Zein, a financiere of the Islamic State organisation, in Kenya in July 2018. An investigation revealed that he had also transferred around $150,000 [122,500 euros] to the ADF.
These items of propaganda and this financial link show that there are ties between the Islamic State group and the ADF, but they remain opaque. It’s hard to know if the entire ADF is aligned with the Islamic State organisation or just part of the group.
Another intriguing element is that, this year, members of the ADF have been publishing increasing numbers of autonomous propaganda videos on WhatsApp, meaning that they aren’t disseminated by an official branch of the Islamic State organisation.
However, these autonomous propaganda videos, which don’t have a logo associated with the Islamic State group, show us that the link between the propaganda wing of the ADF and the Islamic State organisation isn’t completely established because, in general, when the Islamic State organisation takes control of another group, they end all autonomous propaganda production.
It is thus impossible to know if all of the ADF have aligned with the Islamic State group or not. There are two possibilities. The first is that the entire ADF has pledged itself to the Islamic State organisation but the IS organisation isn’t claiming all of the attacks. There is a historical precedent for this— the IS organisation didn’t claim some of the attacks its members carried out in Syria and Iraq, for example. It’s also possible that some factions of the ADF haven’t established links to the Islamic State group, which would explain why the latter hasn’t claimed responsibility for attacks carried out by these unaligned factions.
According to a report published by the Congo Study Group in November 2018, the ADF has historically been divided into two main groups. One operates near the village of Mwalika, located in the south of the Béni region in the floodplain of the Semuliki River. The other operates in an area called the “Triangle of Death” to the east of the road between Béni and Eringeti. The report cites numerous Congolese fighters as well as intermediaries with close contact with the group who say that certain factions have splintered off and no longer follow ADF orders.
After the Islamic State organisation was defeated in its bastion in Iraq and Syria, the terrorist group began to work to reinforce its branches in Africa and, to a lesser extent, in the south of Asia. The new centre of the Islamic State organisation is shifting from the Middle East to Africa, according to the latest edition of the Global Terrorism Index, published on November 25, 2020. The report states that victims of the group in sub-Saharan Africa increased by 67% as compared to 2019. The report adds that, in 2019, the Islamic State organisation was responsbile for the largest number of terrorism-related deaths in sub-Saharan Africa, killing 982, which represents 41% of the overall victims of terrorism”.