Uganda and Congo Are at War With the Islamic State

Denying the links between the Allied Democratic Forces and militant Islamists will endanger civilians.

By , the CEO of Bridgeway Foundation, which is dedicated to ending and preventing mass atrocities around the world, and , Vice President of Research and Analysis at the Bridgeway Foundation.
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Soldiers conduct a rapid deployment exercise on the outskirts of Mutwanga, which has been repeatedly attacked by the armed group Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), in Beni Territory, Democratic Republic of Congo, on May 24. ALEXIS HUGUET/AFP via Getty Images

On Aug. 26, as the United States was rushing to evacuate Americans and their allies following the Taliban’s rapid advance across Afghanistan, a suicide bomber attacked the crowds surrounding Kabul’s airport, killing 13 U.S. service members and as many as 170 Afghans. It was the deadliest day for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since 2011. Within hours, the Islamic State-Khorasan claimed the attack, a sobering reminder that despite the Islamic State’s territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria two years ago, the group has not disappeared.

In fact, its reach is spreading to new parts of the globe. Last month, the Islamic State claimed its first attacks in Uganda. And on Nov. 16, the Islamic State claimed two nearly simultaneous suicide bombings that rocked downtown Kampala, Uganda, and forced the closure of Uganda’s parliament.

The Uganda bombings were perpetrated by the Islamic State’s affiliate group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which calls itself the Islamic State Central Africa Province and is known locally as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). It is one of the deadliest armed groups operating in Congo. Yet there is a heated debate among Congo scholars and contemporary jihadism experts over whether or not the ADF is really tied to the Islamic State.

On Aug. 26, as the United States was rushing to evacuate Americans and their allies following the Taliban’s rapid advance across Afghanistan, a suicide bomber attacked the crowds surrounding Kabul’s airport, killing 13 U.S. service members and as many as 170 Afghans. It was the deadliest day for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since 2011. Within hours, the Islamic State-Khorasan claimed the attack, a sobering reminder that despite the Islamic State’s territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria two years ago, the group has not disappeared.

In fact, its reach is spreading to new parts of the globe. Last month, the Islamic State claimed its first attacks in Uganda. And on Nov. 16, the Islamic State claimed two nearly simultaneous suicide bombings that rocked downtown Kampala, Uganda, and forced the closure of Uganda’s parliament.

The Uganda bombings were perpetrated by the Islamic State’s affiliate group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which calls itself the Islamic State Central Africa Province and is known locally as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). It is one of the deadliest armed groups operating in Congo. Yet there is a heated debate among Congo scholars and contemporary jihadism experts over whether or not the ADF is really tied to the Islamic State.

The ADF is a predatory armed group that has committed egregious crimes against humanity with impunity for decades. Continued disagreement dilutes coordinated Western efforts in Congo to assist in finding a durable solution for the group’s escalating violence.

Those skeptical of the link are concerned that acknowledging a relationship between the ADF and the Islamic State risks obscuring the region’s local drivers of violence, such as competition for illicit economies, and encouraging failed counterterrorism policies that could do more harm than good to Congo’s civilian population. While we at the Bridgeway Foundation agree with the need for effective, nuanced policy that does not rely solely on the use of force, recent events and our ongoing fieldwork and research indicate that denying the ADF’s link to the Islamic State is a greater threat to civilians.


The ADF began in 1995 as a militant Islamist movement in Uganda and has held bases in the forests of eastern Congo for nearly two decades. Four years ago, the ADF’s operations stalled, and according to reports from former members, the group faced severe funding shortages and was on the brink of collapse.

Then, in 2017, the group began receiving money from Islamic State financier Waleed Ahmed Zein, a Kenyan currently under arrest in his own country for alleged facilitation of terrorism. Since then, ADF leader Musa Baluku has pledged allegiance to the international caliphate, the Islamic State has claimed its first attacks in Congo and now Uganda, and the ADF has displayed unprecedented levels of violence and radicalism.

While there is consensus among Congo experts, analysts, and counterterrorism practitioners that the Islamic State has never had, nor does it currently hold, direct command and control over ADF operations, there is a significant relationship between the groups. And ignoring or minimizing this connection makes it much harder to protect civilians against the ADF as it now operates—as both a local violent group and an established player in a global extremist network.

Continued disagreement about the ADF’s links to the Islamic State dilutes Western efforts to assist in finding a durable solution for the group’s escalating violence.

A few years ago, the Bridgeway Foundation partnered with Human Rights Watch and New York University’s Congo Research Group to establish the Kivu Security Tracker, which employs a strict independent verification methodology to monitor and analyze violence in eastern Congo. Bridgeway Foundation data analysis shows that since April 2017, when incident tracking began, the ADF has been responsible for 69 percent of civilian deaths in Congo’s Beni Territory—and 85 percent in the past year. The total annual number of ADF attacks has increased 837 percent since the group’s first documented links with the Islamic State in 2017.

The group is also pushing into new territories, waging campaigns in Congo’s northern Ituri province. Baluku has framed these attacks as a “conquest war,” telling his fighters in a camp speech: “The Islamic State declared a few days ago that we were going to fight and conquer new areas. This is a war purposely to bring more new areas under our control.”

According to our analysis of tracker data, the ADF’s area of operation is now four times larger than it was in 2017. And the group’s attacks are not just more frequent and widespread; they are also deadlier. In 2020, the ADF committed 22 massacres that each killed more than 10 people. Violence is even worse this year: The group has committed 22 such massacres in just the first six months, and May was the deadliest month in the group’s history.

The ADF is also showing disturbing evidence of a new modus operandi. On June 5, the group released its first beheading video. Although the ADF has committed beheadings for years during violent attacks, the group has not previously been known to use brutality as propaganda to sow terror in the wider population. Violent, graphic video productions are a hallmark method of other Islamic State affiliates, and the fact that the ADF has adopted the practice emphasizes the degree to which the ADF’s ideology and communications strategy are being influenced by the Islamic State.

On June 18, the ADF released a second beheading video. Eight days later, a third video began to circulate showing three men and a woman in civilian clothes tied up in a forested setting. More than a dozen boys and men are gathered around them. A light-skinned man speaking Swahili with a Kenyan accent declares that, according to Allah, the only way to achieve victory is to cut off their enemies’ heads.

The beheading videos are just one example of how the ADF’s ties with the Islamic State have changed the group’s methods of violence. The ADF began preparing its fighters to use suicide belts in March, communicating to its members that all great jihadis, including former Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, wore them, and in recent months, the group committed its first confirmed urban bombings in Congo.

On the evening of June 26, the ADF exploded a roadside bomb on the underside of a large fuel transport truck parked near a petrol station. The next morning, in Beni in eastern Congo, another bomb exploded. Unlike the previous night’s attack, this device was remote detonated, which represents an evolution in the group’s technology. A third explosion occurred that night outside of a bar near the city center in what the Islamic State claims was a suicide attack—its first in Congo.

Since then, violence has spread to Uganda. Ugandan officials report that on Aug. 27, security forces thwarted a suicide bombing plot targeting the funeral of Paul Lokech, a Ugandan lieutenant general who played a prominent role in the defense of Mogadishu as part of the 2011 African Union Mission in Somalia and also in operations in eastern Congo during the late 1990s and early 2000s—including against the ADF. According to local authorities, a member of the suicide bombing cell was found with “a homemade bomb, suicide vests, detonators, ammonium sulphate, switches, and mobile phones.” Evidence indicates his cell was directed by ADF leaders in Congo.

On Oct. 7, a bomb exploded at a Ugandan police base in Kampala’s Kawempe neighborhood, and the next day, the Islamic State said its fighters had targeted a “crusader Ugandan police station with an [improvised explosive device].” On Oct. 23, three men posing as patrons entered a pub and deposited a plastic bag of explosives under their table before leaving. One person was killed in the blast and several others injured. The next day, the Islamic State reported that “a security detachment” from its Central Africa Province “detonated an improvised explosive device on a group of spies and members of the crusader Ugandan government” at a restaurant in Kampala. On Oct. 25, a bomb went off on a bus, killing the alleged suicide bomber and wounding others.

Then, on Nov. 16, suicide bombers detonated devices in downtown Kampala near the central police station and parliament building. Three people were killed and more than 30 people injured in the attack. Ugandan police announced they shot and detained a fourth bomber before he could complete his mission. The Islamic State claimed the attacks the same day, declaring Uganda and the fighters of the Islamic State in Central Africa at war.


Along with operational shifts in violence, the ADF’s already radical ideology has evolved to mirror the Islamic State’s. In May, the group carried out its first targeted assassinations of religious leaders in Congo. On May 1, ADF operatives killed Sheikh Ali Amin Uthman, the leader of the Muslim community in Beni and a vocal ADF critic, during evening prayers at his mosque.

Another prominent Muslim leader and ADF opponent, Sheikh Djamali Moussa, was killed on May 18 in Mavivi, a few miles north of Beni. These assassinations are consistent with the ADF’s recent adoption of takfiri ideology, an extreme interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence that allows one Muslim to declare apostasy against a fellow Muslim, thereby justifying violence against that individual.

The ADF’s expanded violence, increased lethality, and evolving propaganda correspond with higher levels of external funding and an influx of regional foreign recruits.

Baluku has fully embraced takfiri ideology in multiple sermons, explaining, “Allah has given us the permission to kill all those hypocrites that work for and help infidels against Muslims.” This is a largely symbolic declaration as the vast majority of the eastern Congolese population is not Muslim. But this does represent a radical shift in ideology; Jamil Mukulu, the group’s former leader, opposed takfiri ideas and the Islamic State alliance.

The ADF’s expanded violence, increased lethality, and evolving propaganda correspond with higher levels of external funding and an influx of regional foreign recruits, most from Tanzania, Burundi, and Kenya. While there have historically been isolated fighters from these countries in the group, recent defectors report that since the ADF’s affiliation with the Islamic State, there have been more foreign recruits, their recruitment is often ideologically driven, and foreigners receive special treatment and prominence within the group.

For example, one of the perpetrators shown committing violence in the first beheading video is a Kenyan named Salim Mohammed Rashid, who was arrested in Turkey in 2016 for attempting to join the Islamic State in Syria and then arrived in the ADF camps in early 2021. The use of foreign recruits in propaganda will likely draw more fighters from surrounding countries, bolstering the ADF’s numbers and capacity to do harm.


There is no denying the Islamic State is in Congo. Some analysts have argued that exaggerating the group’s strength or focusing exclusively on the link between the ADF and the Islamic State might lead to the implementation of harmful interventions and flawed policies, such as those used in Afghanistan and across the Middle East, or to misunderstandings about other drivers of violence in the area—such as economic and political disenfranchisement, predatory governments and security forces, and attacks by other armed actors.

Yet to downplay or dismiss the link between the ADF and the Islamic State is to ignore the main cause of worsening mass atrocities in eastern Congo—and to miss opportunities for robust policies, such as targeted defection messaging and active counter-radicalization measures that can protect civilians and reduce transnational violent extremist networks’ ability to do harm.

The international community needs a new approach to counterterrorism that prioritizes civilian protection and addresses local and international drivers of violence.

As long as there is disagreement or misunderstanding about how and why groups like the ADF are growing, there will continue to be inadequate responses to atrocities.

Shannon Sedgwick Davis is the CEO of Bridgeway Foundation, which is dedicated to ending and preventing mass atrocities around the world. Her book, To Stop a Warlord, details the Foundation's unprecedented collaboration to stop the atrocities of Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army. Twitter: @shannonsedg

Tara Candland is Vice President of Research and Analysis at the Bridgeway Foundation and coauthor of "The Islamic State in Congo," a report published by George Washington University's Program on Extremism.

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