by Elizabeth Kendal
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is estimated to be 92.2 percent Christian (of whom around half remain animist) and 1.9 percent Muslim. Islam entered DRC from East Africa’s Swahili Coast at least two centuries ago, as locals adopted the Arab beliefs, customs and Swahili language of the slave traders who settled in the region. While Islam is not new to DRC, fundamentalist Islam – which is pro-Sharia, pro-jihad and anti-infidel – is a recent phenomenon. For many years, the main jihadist group, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF; formed in 1995), had been more criminal than ideological. Those days are over. Today, fundamentalist Islam is spreading rapidly in north-east Congo because Islamic jihadists – when not out killing and looting – are ‘inviting’ locals to convert and join them.
The main jihadist group in DRC, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), first formed in 1995. Originally a Ugandan outfit, the ADF – the like the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) – was established with the goal of overthrowing the Ugandan government of President Yoweri Museveni. To that end, both the ADF and the LRA received support from the Islamic regime in Khartoum, Sudan. Eventually, the Ugandan military managed to drive both the ADF and the LRA out of Uganda and into north-east DRC. WHile the remnants of the LRA eventually found refuge in the Kafia Kingi enclave, which borders north-east Central African Republic on the remote and disputed Sudan (Darfur)-South Sudan border, the largely-decimated ADF opted to consolidate in north-eastern DRC. For many years the ADF was more criminal than ideological; those days are over.
For background on the ADF see:
Examining Extremism: Allied Democratic Forces
By Jared Thompson, Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), 29 July 2021
In June 2014, Islamic State launched its Caliphate in Iraq and Syria with the stated objective of baqiya wa tatamadad, or “remaining and expanding”. Subsequently, Islamic State franchises were established across the Middle East and North Africa, as well as in Afghanistan (ISKP) and Nigeria (ISWAP).
In 2017, ADF leader Musa Baluku (a Ugandan) forged connections with Islamic State. Then, in April 2019 – just weeks after fall of IS’ last hold-out in Syria – Islamic State released a video which indicated that former IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi had accepted an oath of loyalty from IS-Central Africa Province (ISCAP: with chapters in DRC and Mozambique). Since then, jihadist violence in north-east DRC has escalated sharply. While the leadership of the ADF – now known as ISDRC (the DRC chapter of ISCAP), comprises mostly Ugandan and Congolese Muslims, the rank and file includes numerous battle-hardened foreign fighters, as well as many abducted Congolese youths.
On 9 September 2021, Long War Journal (LWJ) released a detailed analysis of Islamic State’s expansion in north-east DRC, specifically in the two provinces that border Uganda: Ituri and North Kivu.
Analysis: The Islamic State’s expansion into Congo’s Ituri Province
By Caleb Weiss & Ryan O'Farrell, Long War Journal, 9 September 2021
“Since 2017, which represented the nadir of ADF operations and the group’s first confirmed contact with the Islamic State, there has been an 838% increase in attacks conducted by the ADF. Additionally, the overall square mileage of the group’s area of operation has likewise increased by 364% in the same timeframe. And perhaps most worryingly, the ADF has already committed 28 double-digit massacres in just eight months of 2021 while the group carried out 22 double-digit massacres throughout all of last year.”
|Between Horror and Hope in the Villages of Ituri. |
By Elena L. Pasquini, IPS, 6 Aug 2021
As reported by LWJ, the uptick in jihadist activity – which has been most acute since June this year – is focused almost exclusively in southern Ituri Province: on the strategic Route National 4 (RN4) – which links north-east DRC to northern Uganda – and near the town of Boga.
“The violence along the RN4 has primarily manifested in attacks on civilians. For instance, mass beheadings were reported along the road in both July and earlier this month [September]. On July 13, local media reported that at least 18 bodies, most of them decapitated, were found in several villages close to the town of Idohu – though exact details of the attack remain murky. While on Aug. 3, an additional 16 people were found killed near the same town.
“Other incidents explicitly targeting civilians include a July 30 ambush on a convoy of commercial vehicles, also just outside of Idohu. For its part, the Islamic State has directly mentioned the targeting of “Christians,” a catch-all term it uses for civilians in the area, just three times in Ituri since June. It has largely maintained that its battles have been against FARDC troops stationed along the highway.”
On 10 March, the U.S. State Department designated “ISIS-DRC” a foreign terrorist organisation, and the group’s leader, Musa Baluku, a specially designated global terrorist.
On 6 May, the Congolese government placed the provinces of Ituri and North Kivu under martial law; a move that has proved largely ineffective. Unfortunately, as in much of Africa, corruption has crippled the security forces, leaving officers lacking supply and motivation. Human Rights Watch reports that between 6 May and 10 September at least 739 civilians were killed in Ituri and North Kivu provinces, almost all by ‘armed groups’. And the slaughter continues.
At around 10am on Wednesday 1 September, ADF/ISDRC jihadists ambushed a convoy traveling “on the Komanda-Eringeti road (RN4) in the Territory of Irumu”.
|Terror in Ituri.|
twitter, 1 September 2021
According to Fides, the convoy of vehicles from Bunia and Komanda (Ituri province) was heading south to Beni-Butembo (North Kivu province). Despite being escorted by armed UN peacekeepers and Congolese military at least four civilians were killed and 20 abducted, while 14 cars and two trucks were torched. More than 60 wounded and traumatised civilians were later rescued from the bush.
LWJ reports that at the same time as it is targeting communities along the RN4, “the ADF has also focused its efforts near the town of Boga, where it perpetrated a massacre of 55 civilians in May”.
|click on map to expand|
“In addition to its normal assaults against civilians and FARDC positions, [the ADF] has taken a slightly different approach to its Boga operations, by incorporating da’wah activities, or proselytizing, to [“invite”] civilians to adopt the Islamic State’s version of Islam. The implementation of da’wah in eastern Congo is a new phenomenon for ISCAP and a significant shift in the ADF’s historical modus operandi.
“For example, videos emerged on Congolese social media earlier this month purporting to show a group of Banyabwisha civilians near Boga pledging bay’ah, or allegiance, to ISCAP. The Banyabwisha community are a Kinyarwanda-speaking Hutu minority in Congo with long-standing disputes with other communities over land rights and are often accused of being foreigners and therefore ostracized.
“Since 2015, significant numbers have migrated into Irumu territory, precipitating disputes with resident communities and accusations of Banyabwisha involvement in Ituri’s other intercommunal conflicts.
“As these disputes have escalated, the ADF has inserted itself on the side of the Banyabwisha against their local rivals, providing military support and seemingly seeking to build the kind of domestic constituency that the ADF — long-dominated by Ugandans — have historically lacked in eastern Congo.
“It is likely the bay’ah videos came after the Islamic State’s men conducted outreach activities in order to bring the community under its fold. There is evidence of this occurring elsewhere near Boga, which has been documented by the Islamic State’s own central media apparatus.
“On Aug. 9, the Islamic State said that its men took over two villages in southern Ituri close to Boga, Malibongo and Mapipa. Attached to the communique was a photo purporting to show an ADF fighter “inviting Christians in Mapipa village to the Islamic religion.” The picture marked the first time that any jihadist da’wah activity has been explicitly shown taking place inside eastern Congo.
“While the ADF has in the past cultivated cooperative relationships with local communities — in particular significant intermarriage with prominent ethnic Vuba families, recruitment of Vuba combatants, and providing support to Vuba chiefs in land disputes with other groups during the early 2000s — it has not previously framed such outreach as da’wah.
“These recent claims of proselytizing to the Banyabwisha thus constitute the first time the group has been publicly shown explicitly proselytizing in Christian villages and a major shift in the ADF’s behavior towards Congolese civilian communities since its evolution into an Islamic State affiliate began in 2017.
“Such a model of outreach to nearby communities and potential voluntary recruitment from them has major implications for the ADF’s future trajectory, and one largely determined by the ADF’s unique context as compared to other Islamic State affiliates on the continent.
“Unlike most Islamic State affiliates, which typically recruit from and seek to govern – albeit brutally – local Muslim communities, the ADF operates in a part of Congo whose Muslim community represents only a tiny fraction of the population.
“Instead, much of the ADF’s manpower is composed of foreign recruits who enter Congo to voluntarily join the ADF or who are tricked through false promises of employment. Within the group, Congolese form the second largest nationality after Ugandans — the nationality of most of the leadership — but Congolese members are typically press-ganged into the group following kidnappings.
“This significantly restricts the ADF’s ability to expand outreach to local communities, much less govern them according to its interpretations of Islamic law.
“This recent outreach to Banyabwisha communities – framed by the Islamic State as seeking the conversion of Christians – is thus the ADF’s first foray into circumventing that unique hurdle to its adoption of the Islamic State’s typical strategy of embedding itself in local communities.”
On Thursday 8 April, Congolese prelates of the Catholic Church held a press conference in which they protested the “Islamisation” of the north-east. According to the prelates, civilians who had escaped after being abducted by ADF forces had spoken of being “forced to convert to Islam”. The prelates denounced the “Islamisation of the region to the detriment of religious freedom”.
Asked to elaborate, Church spokesman Donatien Nshole said: “The problem here is a faction of Islam that forces people to become Muslim.”
According to Nshole, who is also an abbot, around 7,500 civilians had been kidnapped in Ituri and North Kivu over the past year.
On 15 April the Wall Street Journal published a feature article entitled, “Islamic State Seeks Revival in Christian Countries”. The authors report that, after being decimated in Syria, IS “is starting to target Christian-dominated countries, grafting onto Islamist terrorist groups that have emerged among disenfranchised Muslim minorities”.
According to WSJ, in recent years the ADF has swelled from around 200 to more than 1,500 fighters. “Defectors say the group’s fortunes started to reverse around the time Waleed Ahmed Zein, an ethnic Arab from Kenya, began sending donations to Mr. Baluku. The Kenyan was receiving funds from his father, who had traveled to Syria, where he had become a member of Islamic State… New weaponry helped the militants mount more deadly attacks on Christian villages and military patrols…
|On Sunday 27 June, two IEDs exploded |
inside a Catholic church in Benin, North Kivu,
destroying furniture, blowing out windows,
killing one worshipper and wounding several others.
(image: Jerry Nugwa and Martial Mukeba)
A defector known as Mr Ssali – who lives under protection in a Kampala safe house – told WSJ: “Children as young as 10 carried machine guns and were taught Arabic and Islamic State ideology. Stealing an item worth more than $2 was punishable with a hand amputation. Anyone spreading a rumor had their mouth sewn shut with wire. Turning a flashlight on when drones were flying overhead was punishable by death.”
Mr Ssali told WSJ that the ADF’s military tactics emphasised extreme violence. He said that that during a raid on a banana plantation, fellow fighters beheaded a couple and took their children, chickens and goats as booty. After witnessing executions, Mr Ssali decided to flee.
While Christians are the primary target, local Muslims are also being pressured to convert to Islamic State’s brand of fundamentalist Islam. Local Muslim imams who resist have been brutally assassinated.
CONSOLIDATING AND EXPANDING
A couple of years ago many analysts suspected the relationship between IS and the ADF was nothing more than a marriage of convenience: all boast with little substance. Now however, as LWJ explains, the links between the ADF and IS are so close that IS-central is able to provide precise and accurate details of a massacre and claim responsibility in a propaganda video before the DRC media can even report it.
By these means – jihad and da’wah – Islamic State is working to consolidate and expand in the remote north-east border regions of DRC. If successful it may well move to expand further, not only into Uganda, but possibly, in the future, into South Sudan and the wider “Christian” region.
Slaughtering Christians – Islamic State Central Africa Province’s (ISCAP) Regular Tactic For Expansion.
Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM), 2 April 2021
The government of DRC has arrested a Jordanian national who is believed to have been in charge of ADF/ISDRC's drones. He was arrested on 18 September in Makisabo, near the city of Beni in North Kivu province. According to documents seen by Reuters, however, the man was carrying a Kosovo residence permit, identifying him as a 40-year-old Saudi Arabian national. Laren Poole, who monitors the ADF/ISDRC, told Reuters, "If this individual is confirmed to have been sent by the Islamic State's central leadership, it would also be the first clear indication that the Islamic State is providing their Congo affiliate with direct technical assistance." (Reuters 22 Sept 2021)
Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Research at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom Inc (CFF) and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.
She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).