DRC’s neighbor Uganda would like you to believe that the ADF has been infiltrated by international jihadi extremists. For instance, Lt. Colonel Paddy Ankunda, spokesman for the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF), said, “There is no doubt; ADF has a linkage with Al-Shabab. They collaborate. They have trained ADF on the use of improvised explosive devices.”
However, little is known about the secretive ADF, a Ugandan-led rebel movement which established well-organized camps in northeastern Congo since the early 2000s. While in-depth research explores the group’s early years in Uganda, there has been little to no in-depth academic analysis on its activities since the ADF resurfaced in the Congo in 2010. Research on the ADF is particularly difficult, given that the highly secretive movement has retreated into eastern Congo’s forests.
Founded in 1995, the ADF claimed its goal was to overthrow the Ugandan government and create an Islamic state. But during the past decade, its actions have shown no clear commitment to this goal, except as a narrative to unite ADF members. By the late 2000s, the ADF’s leaders had ceased making public proclamations, started avoiding media, and harshly punished members caught trying to escape. By tightly controlling movement within and between its forest camps, and allowing very few members to travel “outside” to such places as the town of Beni, the ADF leadership minimized any interactions that might reveal the group’s objectives and activities.
This mysterious mode of operation worked to the rebels’ advantage. Existing largely under the radar allowed the group to survive, despite repeated attacks by the Congolese army.
How others use the ADF’s secrecy to their own advantage
But its secrecy has also helped the Ugandan government. In a recently published article on the ADF, we show how the lack of knowledge about the ADF has allowed various political players to craft narratives about the ADF that further their own political objectives.
For example, the Ugandan government has consistently framed the ADF as an Islamic extremist terrorist group, but adjusted this master frame to the political context. Doing so brings various advantages. Regionally, Uganda used the ADF as a (post facto) excuse for invading the DRC in 1998, to eliminate the ADF’s terrorism against Uganda.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission paints its own picture of the ADF as well
Originally called Monuc (“Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies en République Démocratique du Congo,” 1999-2010) and later renamed Monusco (2010-present), Monuc focused on other Congolese armed groups, considering the ADF to be little more than a local nuisance.
Why did Monusco abruptly shift its position on the ADF, apparently without paying much attention to the lack of evidence for in-depth links to jihadi groups? That’s in part precisely because until then Monusco had ignored the group. Monusco’s intelligence analysts had focused for several years on other armed groups. As Séverine Autessere, an associate professor of political science at Barnard College, has shown, Monusco has often relied on a very limited pool of informants. That results in partial and superficial analyses and an inability to tell who is relevant, who can be relied upon, and whose messages are misleading. With no permanent intelligence presence in Beni, Monusco concluded that ADF was a jihadist group based on information from a single, dubious source.
Then, in October 2014, mass killings began in the Beni area. Monusco’s intelligence units and leaders routinely identified the ADF as an international terrorist organization that was uniquely responsible for the massacres, although there were many indications that other armed actors were involved. In using this narrative, it was echoing the Ugandan and Congolese governments. For example, Monusco chief Martin Kobler repeatedly referred to ADF as “terrorists” in his public statements.
Getting it wrong can have serious consequences
Failing to understand what the ADF is — and is not — made it far more difficult to help the citizens of Beni. Instead of focusing on the real sources of this Congolese crisis of violence, this focus is blurred by political motives (Uganda) or intelligence failures (Monusco).