Fresh from a victory over the rebel troops of the Mouvement du 23 Mars (M23) in the unsettled but resource-rich Nord-Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Congolese army has launched an offensive against the self-described “Islamists” of the Allied Democratic Forces-National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (ADF-NALU) who have operated in that region since 2004.  After several years of dormancy, ADF-NALU renewed operations in July 2013 with a wave of raids, kidnappings, massacres of civilians and attacks on security forces and UN peacekeepers. The once poorly-armed ADF-NALU militants appear to be newly supplied with machine-guns, mortars and rockets to replace their previous reliance on machetes and knives. According to the UN, M23’s defeat was followed by large-scale surrenders by thousands of members of various militant groups in the Nord-Kivu region, but few of these came from ADF-NALU (IRIN, January 27).
The operation against ADF-NALU was intended to begin in December 2013 but was delayed after the intended leader of the campaign, Colonel Mamadou Moustafa Ndala, was killed by a rocket in an ambush originally attributed to ADF-NALU fighters in early January (Uganda Radio Network, February 1). Ndala was the Muslim commander of the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC) in the eastern DRC and the successful leader of Congolese Special Forces operations against M23. The loss of the capable and popular colonel represents a serious blow to the Congolese army, a situation made worse by the claims of a bodyguard who survived the attack that the attackers were uniformed members of FARDC. Two individuals have been arrested in connection with the incident, including Colonel Tito Bizuru, who is described as a Tutsi, the same ethnic-group that formed the base of the rebel M23 movement (AFP, January 3; Africa Review [Nairobi], January 7; Jeune Afrique, January 22). 
FARDC launched its operation against ADF-NALU in the Beni region of Nord-Kivu on January 16. As operations began, Uganda’s military confirmed that it would not play a direct role in the campaign, preferring to only share intelligence with FARDC while maintaining a sufficient presence on the border to prevent fleeing elements of the ADF from entering Uganda (Reuters, January 13; IRIN, January 27). On February 14, the Congo government announced the destruction of the ADF’s headquarters in the ongoing offensive and the death of 230 ADF militants opposed to the loss of 22 members of FARDC (AP, February 14). The elimination of the ADF HQ brought about a personal call of congratulations to DRC president Joseph Kabila from long-time rival Yoweri Museveni, the president of Uganda (Observer [Kampala], February 10).
A new UN Intervention Brigade (IBDE), formed mainly by 3,000 troops drawn from Tanzania, Malawi and South Africa under the broader command of the Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en RD du Congo (MONUSCO), has been deployed to the Nord-Kivu region with an offensive mandate enabling them to participate in operations designed to end the presence of a number of local and cross-border militant groups in the region. Acting in support of FARDC troops, the combination has so far been effective in ending the once-potent M23 threat and has begun to turn its attention to the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR, a Hutu rebel group from Rwanda) as well as the ADF, though Rwanda recently complained MONUSCO was not committed to taking the fight to the FDLR (New Times [Kigali], March 14). Other MONUSCO forces are opening operations further south in Katanga province, where a company of Egyptian Special Forces troops has joined some 500 MONUSCO troops in operations against the Mai Mai Kata-Katanga militia. MONUSCO, with a strength of 18,000 troops, has also deployed two Italian-made Falco surveillance drones based in Goma (capital of Nord-Kivu) to track ADF and FDLR movements in the area (VOA, December 4, 2013).
On March 1, two MONUSCO attack helicopters struck an ADF-NALU base northeast of Beni, an isolated town in North Kivu that has become a center for ADF activities (AFP, March 2). The aircraft involved were likely South African Rooivalk combat support helicopters, previously used against M23 and deployed several days after the ADF-NALU operation in support of a successful FARDC attack on a base of the Alliance des patriotes pour un Congo libre et souverain (APCLS), a militant group based on the Hunde ethnic group of Nord-Kivu province. Support from the Rooivalk gunships has been instrumental in the recent and unprecedented success of the FARDC forces in Nord-Kivu. The Rooivalk is a formidable weapon in skilled hands, with stealth capabilities, a nose-mounted, dual-fed 20mm gas-operated cannon capable of firing 740 rounds a minute and 70mm folding-fin aerial rockets. There are reports that ADF-NALU fighters have broken into small groups headed further north to the Ituri Forest in Orientale Province to evade the ongoing FARDC-UN offensive (IRIN, January 27).
Rebels in Exile: The ADF
The ADF has its roots not in the western Uganda region, but in Kampala and central Uganda, where a number of Ugandan Muslim followers of the Indo-Pakistani Tablighi Jama’at (a normally non-violent Salafist religious reform movement) became radicalized in the early 1990s, claiming political persecution after they opposed the government’s appointment of a new national mufti (chief interpreter of Islamic law). Under pressure from security forces, members of the group took refuge in the wild Rwenzori mountains along the Uganda-DRC border, where they formed the ADF as a means of resisting the Museveni government in Kampala with the assistance of the Sudanese military, which was seeking a proxy to combat Uganda’s support of the independence struggle of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). The ADF absorbed remnants of an earlier Rwenzori separatist movement and were joined by a number of Idi Amin loyalists who had sought refuge in southern Sudan and were likely encouraged by Sudanese intelligence to join the ADF.
An alliance was also created between the ADF and the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU), a group drawn from the Nande ethnic group of the Rwenzori Mountains. This alliance may have followed introductions provided by Sudanese intelligence officers (al-Jazeera, December 24, 2013). NALU was a relatively inactive movement at the time that had once been responsible for regional raids and a suicide bombing on a Kampala bus that killed 30 people. The ADF-NALU alliance was very active in the 1990s, attacking Ugandan security forces, bombing buses in Kampala and carrying out a number of massacres in their home territory.
However, Ugandan operations in the DRC in 1999 weakened the group and by 2004, operations by the Uganda Peoples Defense Force (UPDF) had forced the movement out of its western Uganda bases and across the border into the lightly governed Nord-Kivu province of the DRC. The discovery of oil in Bundibugyo, a small district at the foot of the Rwenzori Mountain range along the border with the DRC, appeared to revive the movement. The ADF attempted to destroy new oil facilities in western Uganda in 2007, but a powerful response from the UPDF eliminated nine of the group’s commanders and temporarily ended the ADF threat (New Vision [Kampala], June 19, 2007).
ADF leader Jamil Mukulu is a convert to Islam from Catholicism and is believed to have been part of Osama bin Laden’s group in the Sudan in the mid-1990s, followed by training in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Military operations are led by Hood Lukwago and commanders Amis Kasadha, Muhammad Kayira and Filipo Bogere Muzamil (Observer [Kampala], January 10, 2013). Mukulu is rumored to spend his time in London, the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi (known as “Little Mogadishu”) and the coastal region of Tanga in Tanzania (desc-wondo.org, July 20, 2013). Most ADF leaders come from Muslim-dominated regions of central Uganda. Muslims are a minority in Uganda, forming about 15 percent of the total population.
Though the Muslim leadership of the ADF adopts an Islamist stance, it has never released anything in the way of a political program and now relies heavily on non-Muslim recruits from the DRC. The ADF relies on illegal timber-cutting and gold mining in Nord-Kivu for revenues, as well as funds raised in the Muslim communities of east Africa. In the Beni region, ADF fighters had settled into the local community, running car and motorcycle taxis and marrying local women (al-Jazeera, December 24, 2013).
Like other groups active in the northeastern Congo that have experienced difficulty in recruitment from their original core (in this case Ugandan Muslims) through physical isolation or failure to establish a popular following, ADF-NALU enlarged its following through abductions, the use of kadogos (child-soldiers) and financial enticements for local Congolese youth who may now form up to 50 percent of the movement. Other recruits appear to have been lured from Kampala by promises of employment in western Uganda (New Vision [Kampala], April 11, 2013). ADF-NALU can likely field some 1,200 to 1,600 fighters, of whom only 800 could be regarded as effectively trained, but their intimate knowledge of the inaccessible Nord-Kivu border region and deep roots in the local non-Muslim Bakonjo community will complicate efforts to eliminate the movement.
The Ugandan Role
Ugandan military adventures in the DRC have proved lucrative in the past; the Ugandan military presence in the Congo from 1998 to 2002 allowed senior ranks to make small fortunes from illegal mining and timber exports, but ultimately resulted in a 2005 International Court of Justice ruling against Uganda that found that state guilty of grave human rights abuses and the plundering of the northeastern Congo’s wealth. While Kinshasa is looking for $10 billion in reparations, Uganda has yet to make any payments (Daily Monitor [Kampala], July 21, 2013; Institute for War and Peace Reporting, July 31, 2007).
Uganda has become a heavily militarized state that requires continuous threats to justify the continued diversion of a large part of the nation’s budget to support a large military base and its various operations. The UPDF’s lead role in the African Union’s military mission in Somalia has provided Uganda with a well-trained, well-equipped core of troops with significant combat experience. Some Ugandan opposition figures fear the revival of ADF-NALU activities and anecdotal allegations of ADF cooperation with Somalia’s al-Shabaab Islamists will lead to new military activities in the cross-border Rwenzori region (for alleged ADF ties to al-Shabaab, see New Vision [Kampala], July 12, 2013, Observer [Kampala], July 14, 2013). Asuman Basalirwa, leader of the largely Muslim Justice Forum party (popularly known as “Jeema”), maintains that the ADF has no relationship with political Islam and suspects Uganda’s powerful military establishment of exaggerating the Islamist element of the ADF to attract US funding: “Reports of war are commercial projects by security agencies… They are used to justify increased budgetary allocations and supplementary budgets” (Daily Monitor [Kampala], July 21, 2013).
The resumption of military activities by newly armed ADF-NALU fighters last year suggests that the group has found a new sponsor. Uganda’s military has suggested Sudan is still supplying the group but cannot yet provide evidence to support this claim (al-Jazeera, December 24, 2013). Sudanese-Ugandan relations entered a steep decline several months before the militants resumed operations. However, the Ugandan military has become too strong for groups like ADF-NALU or the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) to operate on Ugandan soil. Under military pressure in Nord-Kivu from combined Congolese/UN forces and facing UPDF troops along the Ugandan border, ADF-NALU has little choice but to disperse into the Ituri Forest and wait out operations. Kinshasa’s challenge in the region is to provide a permanent security regime to establish its sovereignty in the region and prevent the re-entry of militants into areas where they had previously been cleared. FARDC appears to be gaining confidence through its joint operations with the UN Intervention Brigade; the question is whether it will have the trained manpower, equipment and funding to secure this resource-rich region once UN forces have stood down.
Andrew McGregor is Director of Aberfoyle International Security, a Toronto-based agency specializing in security issues related to the Islamic world.
1. For earlier assessments of the ADF, see Andrew McGregor, “Oil and Jihad in Central Africa,” Terrorism Monitor, December 20, 2007 and “Ugandan Rebel Movement Reemerges along Oil-bearing Ugandan/Congolese Border,” Terrorism Monitor, July 24, 2007.
2. Video of the incident can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P6hPwdgwH0E. For the Mouvement du 23 Mars (M23), see Terrorism Monitor, January 4, 2013; Terrorism Monitor, July 26, 2012; a profile of M23 leader General Bosco Ntaganda is available in Militant Leadership Monitor, August 31, 2012.