A closer look at Congo’s Islamist rebels

A man looks inside an overturned truck in the middle of National Road 27 in Ituri province in northeastern Congo on Sept. 16. On this road, vehicles travel in convoys escorted by police and soldiers because of recurring attacks by armed militias. (Alexis Huguet/AFP/Getty Images)
A man looks inside an overturned truck in the middle of National Road 27 in Ituri province in northeastern Congo on Sept. 16. On this road, vehicles travel in convoys escorted by police and soldiers because of recurring attacks by armed militias. (Alexis Huguet/AFP/Getty Images)

Since the start of 2019, more than 1,000 civilians have been killed in and around eastern Congo’s Beni region. These atrocities — which U.N. monitors have said may be war crimes — are the latest in periodic waves of massacres in the area since late 2014.

This violence followed the start of a large-scale Congolese army offensive against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an Islamist rebel group originally from Uganda that has been active in Congo since 1995. As the Congolese army overran rebel camps and killed and captured dozens of combatants late last year, attacks on civilians rose in nearby areas.

The Congolese government, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, and national and international media have placed the blame almost entirely on ADF. Indeed, the rebel group seems to have carried out a substantial proportion of the attacks for strategic or retaliatory reasons.

However, research institutes, journalists and other close observers of the situation in Beni suggest that other armed groups and government forces are also involved in the violence. Here’s what you need to know.

What’s the full story behind this violence?

The narrative that ADF, Congo’s only Islamist rebel group, is the sole perpetrator of violence in Beni has evolved alongside a related story — that ADF is linked to or part of the Islamic State (ISIS). The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for some attacks on the Congolese army in Beni. Moreover, recruitment videos circulate in which ADF members make reference to the Islamic State.

A June report from the U.N. Security Council’s Group of Experts on DRC, however, found no direct evidence of substantial links between ADF and ISIS. Claimed attacks by the group did not fully match events on the ground. Moreover, as the Group of Experts pointed out, ADF continues to use crude improvised explosive devices, which are unlike the advanced bombs made and used by the Islamic State. The Congolese army’s ongoing offensive against ADF has failed to turn up any documents, testimony or items that substantiate an organizational connection to the Islamic State.

Why does this inaccurate narrative persist?

For years, international media coverage and activism by a number of local and international organizations have amplified the narrative of ADF as an Islamic State affiliate. These reports portray a coherent narrative about sustained links between ADF and the Islamic State. This narrative mirrors the stance of the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Africa Command (Africom), which in 2019 reportedly was interested in supporting operations against ADF.

Popular conflict databases used by academics and journalists also play a role in continuing the story of reputed ADF-ISIS links. Here’s an example: The Armed Conflict and Event Location Database (ACLED) ascribed two incidents that took place in eastern DRC in November 2019 to the Islamic State, and blamed the group for eight additional attacks from May through August 2020. Such reporting appears to buy into — and amplify — Islamic State propaganda concerning claims to have created what they call their Central Africa Province.

This narrative may help hide the underlying causes of violence

The widely held assumption that ADF is almost solely responsible for violence in the Beni area diverts attention from the need for better information about the full story behind this violence. Misidentifying the perpetrators­ or ignoring their collaborators may ignore the local conflicts, elite competition and economic racketeering that have been key drivers of earlier waves of violence — and leave unaddressed the root causes of violence in the region. U.N. monitors, for instance, dismissed allegations that ADF specifically targeted Christians, instead finding that ADF attacks “without distinction based on religion or ethnicity”.

An added challenge is that the idea that ADF has meaningful links to international Islamist organizations may be limiting government and U.N. protection efforts. This error of judgment was evident in late 2014, when an earlier series of massacres took place in Beni. Just a few weeks before the killings began, as later research by Daniel Fahey revealed, a mysterious “Mr. X” convinced U.N. intelligence analysts that Taliban-trained Boko Haram fighters were on their way to Beni to carry out sophisticated attacks on U.N. bases. That story turned out to be false, but it appeared to be a well-timed act of subversion that put the U.N. mission on a defensive stance and significantly limited the U.N.’s ability to safeguard local populations.

What are the broader implications?

Eastern Congo may reveal clues about other areas of violent conflict, in particular places such as Mozambique, where Islamist rebel groups have alleged links to the Islamic State. While examining the nature of these links is undoubtedly important, focusing solely on these connections may divert valuable resources and attention away from efforts to protect civilians. Moreover, this narrow focus may confuse the motivations of other armed groups and the reasons people choose to fight.

This year’s U.N. Group of Experts report is unlikely to quell the international community’s singular focus on ADF or the claims about Islamic State links. But it might serve as an impetus for more focused and determined efforts to protect civilian populations. The conflict unfolding in northeastern Congo will continue to be a humanitarian tragedy whether the Islamic State is there or not.

Daniel Fahey, PhD, is a consultant on conflict and natural resources and a former finance expert and coordinator of the U.N. Group of Experts on DRC.
Judith Verweijen, PhD, is a lecturer in international relations at the University of Sheffield who examines the microdynamics of protracted violent conflict, focusing on DRC. Follow her on Twitter at @judithverweijen.

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