DUNGU, Democratic Republic of the Congo — The sun was disappearing behind hills thick with kapok trees when the Lord’s Resistance Army attacked a village near Masombo, just south of the South Sudanese border. Men and boys fled into the bush, afraid that the notorious dreadlocked gunmen might abduct them and force them to fight. The rebels, who once battled the Ugandan government but now mostly eke out a living by raiding villages in central Africa, herded the women into a thatched hut before ransacking their homes of food, clothes, and money. Then they melted back into the jungle.
Masombo is among the most isolated and remote places on Earth. A clutch of mud-thatch huts three hours by motorbike from the nearest Congolese town, it lacks cellular coverage and even the most rudimentary government services. Yet a detailed account of the assault last August — down to a tally of the peanuts and corn the LRA fighters had stolen — would arrive in the email inboxes of American military officers by dinnertime two days later.
It has been nearly five years since the San Diego-based NGO Invisible Children uploaded “Kony 2012” onto YouTube and watched it rack up more than 120 million views in a single week. The 30-minute viral video sought to make the LRA’s leader, Joseph Kony, and his crimes “famous” among young Americans. It was swiftly condemned for oversimplifying the conflict, and critics denounced the group’s co-founder, Jason Russell, as suffering from “white savior complex.” He had a public mental breakdown 10 days later, and his organization soon faded from view.
Since then, Invisible Children has quietly, but profoundly, transformed itself. With seed funding from a Texas hedge fund that financed a broader military effort against the LRA, it now runs a daring program to supply civilians with high-frequency radios to track rebel movements across a 61,000-square-mile expanse of Congo and the Central African Republic. The group cooperates closely with the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF), and United Nations peacekeepers, all of whom rely on the radio program’s data in the hunt for Kony.
Once dismissed as a group of amateur click-activists, Invisible Children is now on the front line of a covert war against the LRA. In its latest incarnation, the group has veered even further from standard humanitarian protocol, pioneering a controversial approach to humanitarian aid that treats intelligence gathering as a core objective and military force as a legitimate avenue of justice. Invisible Children sees this new approach as a welcome alternative to years of failed efforts to catch a bloodthirsty killer. Critics say the group may be putting many more people at far greater risk — not just its employees, but the very people it aims to help.
In August, I spent a week in Dungu, the base of Invisible Children’s radio operations in Congo. The LRA attacked the city in 2008, briefly terrorized the population, then fanned out into the surrounding wilderness. International agencies followed in their wake and, for a time, turned Dungu into something of an NGO boomtown. Today, U.N. peacekeepers from Morocco still man a small base on the grounds of a crumbling Belgian colonial-era chateau. Concertina wire rings the U.N. compound across the street, where visitors can rent enclosed beds advertised as dormitory pods for $50 a night. Unless you charter a plane or hitch a ride on a military transport, you must arrive in Dungu by sport utility vehicle, a spine-rattling 10-hour journey on pockmarked dirt roads through one of the poorest, most isolated regions of Africa.
Tucked into a small, darkened room at the Invisible Children compound is “Charly Papa Base.” That’s the code name for the switchboard that receives reports from volunteer operators at 36 radio stations scattered across a vast swath of impassable Congolese savannah and jungle and turns them into actionable intelligence. Joseph, a playful 30-year-old who favors cowboy suits and dashikis, commands the base and two fellow operators, Floribert and Ferdinand. (The last names of Invisible Children’s local radio operators have been removed to protect their safety.) Far-flung volunteers check in twice a day and report any LRA activity in Zande, Lingala, and French. Invisible Children runs a separate, smaller radio network across the border in the Central African Republic, where the LRA is also active.
On my first day in Dungu, Floribert began the morning ronde. He thumbed the handset’s call button and greeted the operators on the other end by their call signs. Crackling, staticky voices replied with the same greeting: “Bonjour, Papa!”
There was news from a radio station code-named “Charly November,” which began reporting the attack on the village near Masombo two days prior. Floribert and Ferdinand, a former seminarian with a friar’s plump cheeks, interrogated the faraway volunteer operator, asking for ever-more-specific details. The Dungu operators weren’t even sure where Masombo was located. The maps at the office didn’t show the town anywhere; all they had was a crude drawing sketched from memory by Prosper, the office engineer who remembered the area from 20 years of peddling goods around the region by bicycle and motorbike. The three men huddled around the radio receiver for two hours, scratchy voices filling the darkened room with the grim details of the attack.
As I sat listening, I looked out the office’s narrow window. In the courtyard was a wall decorated with murals drawn by recently returned child soldiers — blood, gore, and remarkably accurate depictions of AK-47s, heavy machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades. It was a stark reminder that the LRA’s campaign of terror, in which it has abducted 30,000 child soldiers and killed more than 100,000 civilians since its founding in northern Uganda in the late-1980s, is not yet finished.
The impetus for Invisible Children’s radio network was a massacre in northeastern Congo in December 2009 in which the LRA killed at least 321 civilians and abducted 250 others, including at least 80 children. The four-day rampage was brutal, even by LRA standards: Rebels tied victims to trees and crushed their skulls with axes and burned to death a 3-year-old girl.
But the region is so isolated that details of the attacks took more than three months to emerge; Human Rights Watch published the first comprehensive account in March 2010. Shannon Sedgwick Davis, the CEO of Bridgeway Foundation, the charitable arm of a Texas hedge fund that donates half of its after-tax profits to organizations working to end genocide, learned about them only after speaking with Ida Sawyer, the Human Rights Watch researcher who wrote the report. Davis asked what her foundation could do to help combat the LRA. “Two things kept coming up,” Davis said of her conversation with Sawyer and later consultations with State Department officials: better “communications and training” for soldiers and civilians on the front lines.
She set to work improving both. Davis says that she and Laren Poole, one of the co-founders of Invisible Children, which she persuaded to take over an existing radio network run by a Catholic priest, had become “aligned in thinking that our more traditional approaches to the LRA were not having the results we had hoped.” Davis initially bankrolled Invisible Children’s radio network as a village-to-village warning system, but it quickly began doubling as an intelligence arm for the UPDF and its partners. (Bridgeway gave Invisible Children grants totaling $135,000 to get the network off the ground.)
By March 2010, Bridgeway was also financing what looked increasingly like a private war against the LRA — and Invisible Children’s fingerprints were evident on these more overtly militaristic initiatives as well. When Davis began searching for military contractors to train Ugandan troops hunting for Kony, Poole put forward the name of Eeben Barlow, a veteran of the Civil Cooperation Bureau, South Africa’s apartheid-era covert government military unit that carried out assassinations. After the end of apartheid, Barlow had earned some renown as founder of the private military contractor Executive Outcomes, which fought in civil wars in Sierra Leone and Angola and was fictionalized in the 2006 film “Blood Diamond.” Davis hit it off with Barlow and, between March 2011 and January 2012, his new company, STTEP International, trained hundreds of Ugandan troops.
To help the UPDF chase Kony across the rugged central African bush, Davis also contracted with a private air transit company to provide the Ugandans with a bush plane and Bell helicopter for their exclusive use. Even after President Barack Obama ordered roughly 100 American military advisors and air support to the region in October 2011, Ugandan military officers told me that they still preferred Bridgeway’s plane and helicopter, which required no waiting period or oversight. Bridgeway spent roughly $12 million on its counter-LRA programs between 2010 and 2015, Davis told me, adding that it was the first time she had publicly stated that figure.
To manage the radio network, Invisible Children hired Camille Marie-Regnault, from France, and Pauline Zerla, a Belgian with a family connection to the region: Her mother was born in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) to a bureaucrat in the Belgian Congo colonial administration.
Marie-Regnault, 26, and Zerla, 30, are upbeat and tireless when we meet, often working 14-hour days in the field. Zerla in particular exudes a bubbly naiveté that might seem familiar to Invisible Children’s critics. As we drove along the dangerous “Route Quatre” from the Congolese border to Dungu, our sport utility vehicle became stuck in a 3-foot-deep pool of mud. The enormous Invisible Children decal remained visible on the truck’s hood as we spun our wheels in vain. I asked what would happen if the LRA came upon us now.
“I’ve always wondered about that,” Zerla said, and then cried in a singsong voice: “They will defect, and we will take them home!”
Zerla and Marie-Regnault have worked hard to increase cooperation with troops working to rout the LRA from the region, which by the time the two were hired in 2014 included Ugandan and Congolese soldiers, U.N. peacekeepers, and U.S. military advisors. The nonprofit’s alliance with the U.S. military in particular is extraordinary. Invisible Children staff meet frequently with AFRICOM leaders in Dungu. Sean Poole, the director of programs at the NGO (and no relation to Laren), has traveled to Stuttgart, Germany, where AFRICOM is based. When we first spoke last April, Sean had just met with American military advisors in the Central African Republic who told him that more than 70 percent of their LRA intelligence came from Invisible Children’s early-warning network.
AFRICOM officers have asked to tune into daily calls directly. Invisible Children has refused, though it would not be difficult for the U.S. military — or anyone else — to listen in anyway. Several of the NGO’s employees bristled when I called their work intelligence-gathering. They noted that in addition to aiding the military effort, the radio network warns villagers about recent violence in their areas and helps keep American policymakers focused on the LRA by gathering data that highlights the rebel group’s continuing threat.
An AFRICOM spokesman declined to speak with me during my visit to Dungu. I had more luck with Lt. Col. Islam Arif, a Bangladeshi officer tasked at the time to the U.N. peacekeeping mission’s Joint Intelligence and Operations Center (JIOC) when I arrived unannounced at his air-conditioned trailer at the U.N. airbase. Arif explained that the early-warning network is integral to his intelligence gathering. Invisible Children is the only NGO invited to his weekly intelligence meetings. “With Invisible Children we are” and made a fist with his hand. JIOC collaborates with AFRICOM and the Ugandan and Congolese troops hunting Kony. As our interview wrapped up, Marie-Regnault entered the office, and Arif gave her a double-cheek kiss.
The military alliance is just as tight across the border in Obo, an even more remote settlement in the Central African Republic that is essentially a 3-mile dirt road connecting the Ugandan military base on one end and the AFRICOM and U.N. bases on the other. Between 2011 and 2014, U.S. warplanes based in Obo air-dropped defection pamphlets over the Central African savannah with “come home” messages designed by Invisible Children, according to Sean Poole. (He added that the majority of the NGO’s leaflet air drops were done independently from the U.S. military.) Invisible Children’s compound sits beside a shantytown of crude huts that house Ugandan troops. At night the front yard glows with the smartphone screens of soldiers trying to poach their wireless internet. Zerla was posted in Obo for two years, and during that time she was known to sprint across the airfield to alert Ugandan officers about actionable intelligence.
Invisible Children sees nothing remarkable about its military cooperation. But its approach contrasts sharply with other nonprofits in the region. For example, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), a Baltimore-based nonprofit, runs a parallel network of nearly 100 radios in the region. Like Invisible Children, CRS conducts twice-daily calls with villages in its network. CRS, however, does not share its data directly with the U.S. military.
“We will not expose the communities to the risk of being perceived to be collaborating with the military,” said Michael Stulman, a Senegal-based press officer for the nonprofit, by email.
The American Red Cross has long set the industry standard for independence from armed actors. While the Red Cross works with governments, militaries, and rebel groups to provide emergency medical services, a spokeswoman told me, it enforces a policy of neutrality in war zones. “In order to continue to enjoy the confidence of all,” Jenelle Eli, a spokeswoman, wrote in an email, “we may not take sides in hostilities.” The NGO-military firewall has cracked in recent years, with several humanitarian espionage operations directed and funded by the U.S. government coming to light. In 2015, for instance, The Intercept revealed that the Pentagon had long used an evangelical Christian NGO to spy inside North Korea. But the case of Invisible Children remains unique — both for the group’s self-initiated collaboration and its willingness to speak openly about it.
Sean Poole, the NGO’s director of programs, pushes back hard against the notion that Invisible Children was central to Bridgeway’s controversial military effort. In an email, he noted that of the $9 million Invisible Children has spent on the early-warning network, only about 5 percent has come from Bridgeway. But the two organizations are linked by more than just financing: Not only did Invisible Children’s co-founder suggest that Bridgeway hire Eeben Barlow’s mercenary outfit to train the UPDF, Laren Poole later traveled with Davis and Barlow to Kampala to meet with a Ugandan general to close the deal. Later, he took a job at Bridgeway to help coordinate the effort. Adam Finck, another longtime Invisible Children employee who remains on the NGO’s board, joined Bridgeway in 2014 to coordinate an LRA defection-messaging program that included air-dropping pamphlets over central Africa.
Invisible Children is expanding its cooperation with armed actors who want access to its valuable intelligence network. One day during my visit, the nonprofit hosted a workshop for radio operators living around Congo’s Garamba National Park to teach them to identify poachers, some of whom are LRA fighters harvesting ivory, which they later trade to Sudanese middlemen for supplies. The park recently created an intelligence unit, led by a French army veteran, to coordinate the movements of 150 rangers armed with AK-47s and a Bell helicopter. In a new partnership, Invisible Children is feeding information to park rangers on poachers’ movements. Unlike the LRA, which has become less violent in recent years as it seeks to keep a low profile, poachers armed with assault rifles have become more aggressive. Last April, just a few months before my visit, poachers murdered three rangers during a shootout in the park.
I dipped out of the training session to join the afternoon radio call. Floribert, the operator on duty, was receiving more news from Masombo, the border village attacked a few days before. While looting a hut earlier in the week, LRA fighters had found a uniform belonging to a villager who worked as a park ranger. They were now stalking his home, hoping to assassinate him. The ranger had fled with his family.
There was non-LRA news too. A radio operator in Bangadi reported that a pregnant woman had had an emergency cesarean section the night before. Her baby had died, and she had just passed away that morning. Her father-in-law was in Dungu visiting family, and he didn’t have a cell phone. Could someone notify him? Prosper, the 43-year-old network engineer, has a brow perpetually knitted in concentration. He seemed an appropriate bearer of the bad news.
Prosper and I drove his motorcycle to a nearby boardinghouse where the deceased woman’s father-in-law was staying. When we arrived, the landlord told us we were too late. The man had left for Bangadi that morning, as scheduled. He was on the back of a motorcycle, bouncing home. The road was bad. It would be five or six more hours before he learned that his daughter-in-law and grandchild were dead.
Isolated communities in Congo and the Central African Republic are desperate for more radios, which are often the only lifelines to the outside world. Villages use them to exchange news about commodity prices, request medical help, and keep in touch with family. In the fall of 2015, the mayor of a remote Central African village biked 70 miles over two days to reach the town of Sam Ouandja to request that Invisible Children install a radio in his community. Some villages also earn money by charging roving traders a few Congolese francs to make calls.
The men and women who volunteer as operators are a diverse lot, from Baudouin, a balding ex-park ranger with leopard-print Wellingtons, to Ambroise, a curious 23-year-old who has operated his village’s radio since he was 18. While he grumbled about the lack of pay from Invisible Children, Ambroise likes that the job broadens his horizons. Whatever their complaints, volunteer operators — and, indeed, many Congolese in this neglected region — are grateful to Invisible Children for providing connectivity in a corner of the country almost devoid of social services. But I sensed that operators were only partially aware of the risk they were running by becoming veritable intelligence operatives.
“There’s a very clear pattern of the LRA targeting civilians collaborating with security forces,” said Matthew Green, the author of The Wizard of the Nile, a 2008 book on the LRA, who briefly met Kony during failed peace talks in 2006. “And that vengeance comes in the form of mutilations and killings.”
Invisible Children clothes its operators in T-shirts with a logo — a handset surrounded by emanating radio waves — emblazoned on the chest. The longer I stared at it, the more it resembled a bull’s-eye.
Zerla and Marie-Regnault, the managers of Invisible Children’s field programs, insist that operators are in minimal danger: Radio frequencies are secret, and they have code words and security protocols.
On my last full day in Dungu, I drove with two operators to check on a malfunctioning radio in Duru, a town some 50 miles away, near the South Sudanese border. On the way back, we stopped in a flyspeck village with a high-frequency radio operated by Catholic Relief Services. A Congolese army officer was inside using the radio, which would be against Invisible Children protocol. I asked the operator if the army listens to his daily calls. Absolutely not, he replied. They do not have our frequency.
A few kilometers down the road, I stopped at several Congolese army checkpoints, which are usually just two or three soldiers living in thatched huts and farming small plots to feed themselves. The checkpoints appear every few miles or so marked by dummies dressed in helmet and fatigues, both to alert drivers and sometimes draw LRA fire as soldiers beat a retreat. At the second checkpoint, I introduced myself, handed out cigarettes to lighten the mood, and asked the Congolese soldiers if they ever listened in to the CRS radio network.
“Every day!” an officer cried in French. He puffed on his cigarette and then recited the two daily call times.
The four-digit frequency, which is displayed prominently on a radio’s digital handset, is all the Congolese military would need to eavesdrop on Invisible Children as well. That’s a problem, given that their operators routinely report local soldiers for theft and rape — and the LRA for far worse. Kony himself may be dialing into the twice-daily rondes for all Invisible Children knows: He uses high-frequency radios to direct his scattered fighters from the safety of Sudan, where he is believed to have taken refuge some 450 miles away. There is no way to know who is on the line.
Zerla told me that no operator had ever been targeted for violence, a claim that Invisible Children’s local staff contradicted. When I visited Obo, Miller Moukpidie, whose job involves trying to get LRA fighters to defect, told me that a few months prior, an operator in Rafai, a town in the Central African Republic that is controlled by ex-Séléka rebels who briefly toppled the central government there in 2013, reported an LRA attack. American and Ugandan troops responded within a few hours; when they left, the rebels running the village beat the operator, believing that he was collaborating with the LRA (he was not) and the U.S. military (he was). Sean Poole later told me that he had no record of an assault, although he acknowledged that Invisible Children did organize a workshop to “defuse these tensions” between ex-Séléka rebels and community members.
Moukpidie also told me that several years ago, the LRA raided the Central African village of Kpabou. Gunmen asked if anyone had a phone, and residents immediately led them to the home of an Invisible Children operator with a Thuraya satellite phone, which the group distributes in some areas of the Central African Republic where installing a high-frequency radio is too difficult — or where it might attract the wrong attention. LRA gunmen stole the phone and held the operator captive for a week. Sean Poole said he had no record of such an attack, although he did point to a December 2014 attack on Kpabou that was reported by satellite phone in which the LRA abducted 10 civilians and stole a high-frequency radio battery for its own use.
“There will always be risks,” Zerla told me in her office one night. But, of course, it is not Invisible Children’s Western staff taking them. Last year, a community liaison for the CRS radio network was murdered by the LRA.
I first asked Zerla about her relationship with the U.S. and Ugandan militaries a few hours after we crossed the Congolese frontier. “You don’t ask that many questions because you don’t need to know,” she told me cheerfully. A week later, I pressed her again on this point. We were eating lunch on the terrace behind Invisible Children’s offices in Obo. I asked if she was comfortable being in the dark about how military commanders used the intelligence she provided.
“To me, we don’t help the U.S. military or the UPDF. We help the mission,” she said, meaning the shared goal of countering the LRA. “Anything that would hurt someone we don’t share.”
But since Invisible Children doesn’t know how exactly the information is being used, isn’t it possible that someone could get hurt, I asked.
“I think it’s possible,” she replied, drawing out the middle of the word.
She became increasingly frustrated with my questions and began to punctuate her answers with “Do you understand?” and a patronizing squint, as if I were a particularly dense student failing to grasp a simple math problem. I continued to ask probing questions, and she became so agitated that she stood up from the table, walked over, and loomed above me.
“Invisible Children is the LRA,” she said. “That’s what we do. That’s the only thing we do.” She glowered at me and added: “I have to go to work now.”
The Bridgeway Foundation’s support for Invisible Children continues; it donated nearly $500,000 to Invisible Children and The Resolve, a partner organization that operates the public LRA Crisis Tracker website, over the last two years. But the foundation no longer provides air support and military training to the UPDF, and since 2015, Bridgeway has considered its counter-LRA work mostly finished.
“We evaluated the situation,” Davis told me, “and made the hard decision that we were going to step back and look for what next area we would do funding in.”
Invisible Children wants to stay in the region for as long as possible. The group’s data, gathered over the radio network, shows an uptick in violence: The LRA abducted 722 people and killed 21 last year, up from 603 and 11, respectively, in 2015. But Invisible Children is running out of money; spending fell from $15.5 million in 2013, when the group was flush with cash, to $2 million last year. It is already one of the last NGOs in Dungu. The radios will remain, an emergency hotline to which anyone can listen and no one will respond.
Last summer, the Ugandan military announced that it would draw down its counter-LRA deployment. Brig. Kayanja Muhanga, who was preparing to redeploy to Mogadishu, told me that the number of Kony’s fighters was dwindling, and other hotspots more central to Uganda’s national interests — like Somalia and South Sudan — now required greater attention, which is why the UPDF considers its mission in central Africa more or less complete. Meanwhile, the election of President Donald Trump foreshadows the end of America’s $100-million-a-year anti-Kony advisory effort as well: After the election, the president-elect’s transition team circulated a four-page list of Africa-related questions around the State Department. “The LRA has never attacked U.S. interests,” it stated. “Why do we care? Is it worth the huge cash outlays?”
“The UPDF is leaving,” said Jolly Okot, a former LRA abductee whose story initially inspired Invisible Children’s founders, when I visited her at her office in Gulu, Uganda. “The U.S. is not going to help. The Congolese army is worse than nothing at all. What will happen to those operators? Think about it.”
On my last day in Dungu, the plane taking us to Obo arrived an hour early. A gardener loaded our bags into a Land Cruiser, and I made my farewells. I promised to write Joseph on WhatsApp. He smiled and retreated into the darkened radio room to join his colleagues. The operators expected more bad news from Masombo, the village attacked just before I arrived — and where LRA gunmen had shot a motorcycle passenger just a day earlier. It was 10 a.m., still several hours until the afternoon radio call.
We drove through Dungu, past the rotting, rusted signs of long-departed NGOs, to a grassy airstrip maintained by the local Catholic diocese. I climbed into the co-pilot’s seat of a Cessna Caravan 208. It is the same model aircraft that Invisible Children will likely charter when the money runs out, the adventure must end, and Zerla, Marie-Regnault, and the other Western employees leave Dungu for good. We sprinted down the runway, leaned back, and wobbled skyward. Beneath us, a jungle of triumphs and horrors unfolded unseen. Babies lived. Mothers died. Rice was harvested. Dreadlocked gunmen emerged from waist-high elephant grass, fingers pressed to their lips. Somewhere below, the operators sat in darkness, listening to static.
Reporting for this piece was facilitated by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Editor’s Note: In the above photographs, the faces of some Invisible Children staff members and operators have been obscured to protect their identities.
David Gauvey Herbert is a writer based in Brooklyn. He covers national security and true crime, most recently for Businessweek, The Atavist Magazine, and Quartz. (@gauveyherbert)