On the 18th of April 2019, Islamic State (IS) claimed its first attack in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In its statement IS mentioned the “Central Africa Province” of the “caliphate”, in reference to a potentially new IS front on the continent. This statement is troubling given the province continues to suffer from an ongoing Ebola epidemic and most of eastern DRC is besieged by rising militia violence. The IS claim also comes as a revelation to many after world leaders, such as Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, who have said the group is on the retreat after its presumed defeat in Syria and dwindling forces in Iraq.
However, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), formed after Boko Haram split in 2016, and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) are on the rise. Warnings of an IS threat in DRC emerged in Nov 2018 when the U.S. closed its embassy in the capital Kinshasa. Two US officials told CNN that the closure was in response to intelligence received that an ISIS-linked group could attack US interests in the country.
- ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reappeared in a video for the first time in five years on April 29, calling for attacks and promising continued war for the Caliphate.
- DRC’s North Kivu province remains one of the country’s most displacement affected regions with an estimated displaced population of over a million, and 100,000 in April alone.
- According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees(UNHCR), there are more than 100 active armed groups in eastern Congo; over a dozen are known to operate in the area of Beni, the site of the IS attacks.
- More than 1,000 people have been killed near Beni since Oct 2014; the government blames the majority on the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF)
The first, but not the last
In a later statement, regarding the 16 April attack, IS stated that “soldiers of the Caliphate” had attacked an army base in the village of Bovata in Beni region, about 5 km from Kamango “where they clashed with small and medium weapons.” Two Congolese soldiers and a civilian were killed. However, this was only the first of three reported IS-claimed attacks near Kamango in less than a month.
- On 21 April, a second attack left three soldiers dead and one wounded in the Butembo area, around 85 km southwest of Kamango.
- On 7 May, a third attack when what IS claims were affiliated fighters attacked a military base in Bunduguya, near the border with Uganda and less than 7 km north of Kamango.
The FDD’s Long War Journal has confirmed at least nine attacks in the DRC claimed by IS since 18 Apr that were not reported in the media.
A tentative alignment
A source from the UN peacekeeping mission and a civil society leader told Reuters news agency that witnesses at the scene attributed the attack on 16th of April to the ADF. The ADF was founded in 1995 in the DRC by members of the Uganda Muslim Freedom Fighters, who had the goal of overthrowing the Ugandan government and forming an Islamic state but were driven out. The group operates in the border area with Uganda in North Kivu. The ADF is accused of killing at least 700 civilians and more than 20 UN peacekeepers.
According to a report from December 2018 by Congo Research Group (CRG), an independent research group focusing on conflict in DRC, the ADF has been “making a tentative attempt to align itself with other militant Islamist groups.” CRG analyzed 35 videos posted on private social media channels between 2016 and 2017 and concluded that they reveal a “shift in the rhetoric employed by the movement, from a war against the Ugandan government to a broader struggle for Islam.” The same CRG report also shows links between an IS financial intermediary in Kenya and the ADF.
However, the early claims by IS and its apparent links to ADF need to be taken with some grain of salt. A recent article by the Defense Post points out that “despite these roots, the actual importance of Islam for the ADF has been debated” and the group’s primary objective could be to use Islam as “a tool to assist in more important political goals.” Even the Director of CRG Jason Stearns recognized in an interview with Bloomberg that “the ADF is still an extremely reclusive group,” and “both Congo and Uganda wish to attract anti-terrorist assistance from the US.”
“Lasting and expanding”
In April, prior to the first IS-claimed attack, DRC President Felix Tshisekedi on a visit to the U.S. said the ADF was infiltrated by members of IS. Tshisekedi and the U.S. issued a joint statement on Apr 12 saying Congo will “join the international coalition against the Islamic State.” Beyond the validity of the claims of IS’s affiliation with ADF and the depth of their collaboration, how these tentative ties will develop is yet to be seen. What is clear is that claiming these attacks in the DRC, the reappearance of al-Baghdadi, and the devastating bombings in Sri Lanka, are in-part a strategy to give at least the impression of the global reach of a now more covert IS. If it is more than just an impression, then unfortunately DRC would be fertile ground for a new IS arena.
Image: African Media Agency (link)