DRC: Designating the ADF


On March 10, 2021 the U.S. government designated the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) as a terrorist organization. The group had been under U.S. sanctions since 2014 for their human rights abuses, and six of their leaders had been under a travel ban and assets freeze since 2019. These new sanctions provide additional legal tools for U.S. law enforcement and give the FBI the authority––in contrast with the Treasury Department, which is in charge of the other sanctions––to pursue criminal charges against members of the group or individuals in touch with it. In theory, the designation could allow the U.S. government, in collaboration with its counterparts in the region, to clamp down on financing and recruitment networks.

The most important aspect of the sanctions, however, is probably political, making the ADF part of the American-led war on terror. After all, the designation refers to the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – Democratic Republic of the Congo (ISIS-DRC),…also known as the ADF,” suggesting a broader rhetorical shift in how the group is talked about, at least by the U.S. government.

How accurate is this description? The new ISIS-DRC moniker––an American creation, since ISIS itself calls the group the Islamic State in Central Africa––obfuscates as much as it illuminates. It links the Islamic State to the ADF without explaining exactly what the nature of this relationship is. There is indeed evidence that the ADF has been in touch with IS––videos believed to have been published by the group show rhetoric and symbols that align with those used by ISIS, and since at least 2019 IS has been publishing reports about the ADF’s exploits, some of which are accompanied by pictures and videos that appear to have come directly from the ADF. According to a report released last week by George Washington University and Bridgeway Foundation (which provides funding to one of CRG’s projects, the Kivu Security Tracker), the ADF has also received funding from an IS-linked individual . In addition, Musa Baluku, the leader of the ADF, pledged his allegiance to ISIS in 2019, later reportedly going so far to say that the ADF no longer exists.   

Nonetheless, much is still unknown about these links. The UN Group of Experts on the DRC, which reports twice a year on support to armed groups, said again in December 2020 that it “was unable to confirm any direct link or support between ISIL and ADF.” 

More to the point, even if these links are further confirmed, they do not provide a full picture of the nature of the partnership between the two organizations. As the George Washington University report states, “there is currently little evidence of direct command and control by the Islamic State.” Indeed, seeing the ADF through the prism of terrorism risks boiling down a complex array of factors and motives to the simple trope of “terrorism,” which often portrays certain forms of violence (Islamic insurgents) as more abhorrent than others (state-led, for example), and which can leach the politics and context out of particular conflicts.

Three particular risks are worth highlighting in this terrorism designation:

  • Risk #1: Feeding into jihadi propaganda and recruitment

Critics of counterterrorism policy have pointed out the perverse consequences unleashed by the Global War on Terror, including stigmatizing Muslims and reinforcing Islamophobic stereotypes, facilitating covert intelligence-gathering, suppressing dissent, and sowing discord in targeted communities. While some of these policies can make it harder to join extremist organizations and to carry out attacks, they can also radicalize marginalized groups and end up fueling more violence. 20 years after 9/11, little progress has been made against violent jihadi networks in Afghanistan, Iraq, or the Sahel. 

These dangers are also present with the ADF. Its recruits largely come from East Africa––Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, Kenya, and Tanzania––as the Congolese Muslim population is very small, probably less than 5% of the total. Unfortunately policies in those countries have focused largely on security and have stigmatized Islam (see Yvonne Adhiambo’s striking protrayal of counterterrorism policies in Kenya in Dragonfly Sea). The danger of adding two new groups to ISIS’ sprawling network of affiliates––the U.S. also placed Ahlu Sunna Wal Jammah (ASWJ) in Mozambique, allegedly led by a Tanzanian, on the terrorism list––is that it could fuel hamfisted policies and do the ADF’s propaganda for it, spreading rather than containing violence.

This problem is far from just an African one. As The Brennan Center for Justice summarized

In 2010, the U.K. House of Commons called a British CVE program’s exclusive focus on Muslims “unhelpful…, stigmatizing, [and] potentially alienating.” A comprehensive 2011 literature review produced for the Australian government declared that the “dominant theme” in CVE research was that “strategies for countering violent extremism can erode democratic principles and social cohesion, increase radicalization and incite conflict and violence.”

The answer to this quandary is not to avoid speaking about violent interpretations of Islam, but rather to shift the way this conversation takes place. This will have to include a recognition of the legitimate grievances expressed by Muslims in these countries, along with good sensible law enforcement.

  • Risk #2: That the terrorist designation could amplify the current militarized approach 

As mentioned above, the roots of extremism lie not only with a violent interpretation of religious texts, but also in perceived grievances. A militarized response can feed into such grievances by stigmatizing entire communities and trampling on civil liberties. Moreover, around Beni every major military operation has been followed by a spate of massacres against the civilian population.

While it is unlikely that the U.S. will deploy combat troops to the Congo, the terrorism designation could lead to a “when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail approach.” The designation will open up new pots of funding and could shape the approach the Congolese government and its partners take regarding the ADF and the importance given to it, compared with other drivers of violence. For example, the U.S. government will now be able to access the Counterterrorism Partnership Fund (CTPF) or the Global Contingency Security Fund (GCSF), or could increase support through other international security assistance programs, which totalled $9 billion in 2020. This injection of funding could further exacerbate the corruption and patrimonialism that has hamstrung the security forces.

The State Department had repeatedly sanctioned the DRC for its lack of protection for child soldiering and human trafficking. This led to legal prohibitions on aid, subject to a presidential waiver. In 2019, for the first time in years, President Trump did not grant waivers for the DRC, bringing an end to most forms of military aid. Military aid dropped from $10-12 million per year to a mere $2.1 million projected for 2021.

Even before the terrorism designation, the U.S. had restarted military cooperation after the Congolese set up human trafficking safeguards. This will allow Congolese officers to come to the United States to be trained, and opened up the possibility of the U.S. scaling up training and equipping in the DRC. By placing the ADF on the terrorism list, there is the possibility of much tighter collaboration––following terrorist attacks in Niger, for example, that country received an average of $43 million per year in security assistance between 2012 and 2016. 

  • Risk #3: That this could lead to a lack of accountability for the Congolese state

All this talk of the ADF eclipses the role of the most important actor in the eastern DRC: the Congolese state. This is not to say that the state compares with the ADF in terms of responsibility for the violence; it does not. But when President Tshisekedi speaks of violence in the eastern DRC, he seems to focus in particular on the ADF and to speak mostly in military terms. He famously said he would relocate the army headquarters to Beni, and that he would himself be willing to die for peace in the eastern Congo. However, two years after his inauguration his government has not been able to articulate a strategy for dealing with armed conflict. The demobilization program is largely mothballed––despite thousands of voluntary defections––and the stabilization program STAREC is moribund. 

All this despite the 5.5 million displaced people in the eastern Congo, the highest number ever, and the presence of 120 armed groups. While the ADF is indeed the deadliest of all these groups by a long stretch––at least 40% of those killed in the past year died at the hands of the ADF––it is difficult to see a solution to the conflict around Beni, or indeed to the violence in the DRC in general, without a transformation of the Congolese state. Roughly half of the human rights violations in the country can be attributed to state security forces, and it is hard to make any progress on key structural reforms––land tenure, job creation, community reconciliation, or local administration––without reforming the state. The worry here is that the government will feel empowered by U.S. support to focus on military operations and not on all of these other issues.

In the end, whether the terrorism designation helps or hinders will depend on whether it is inserted in the broader, comprehensive strategy that is still desperately needed.