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Evaluating CT Efforts Against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in Democratic Republic of Congo

Adam Stevens, AFRICOM


Despite tracking its lineage back more than 30 years, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) is one of the least understood and least discussed terrorist organizations in Africa. In just over a four year period between 2014 to 2019, the ADF was responsible for roughly 700 deaths;[1] In the period between October 2019 and November 2020, the ADF has killed more than 800 people.[2] This is a roughly 337% increase in killings. The spike in activity is a response to the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, known by the French abbreviation FARDC, and United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) establishing peacekeeping operations in the North Kivu region in October of 2019.[3] Attacks by ADF take place almost exclusively in the North Kivu region in the Democratic Republic of Congo, on the border with Uganda. Counterterrorism and peacekeeping operations have bred a response that cannot be managed adequately as presently constituted. Security forces are at a crossroads: FARDC and MONUSCO can either leave North Kivu in hopes they inspire a détente, or they can increase their efforts and attempt to dismantle the AFD’s hold in the region. The ADF’s reign of terror will likely continue unless security forces choose which path they will take.

The majority of ADF violence takes place in Beni, DRC, West of the Rwenzori Mountains. The DRC could seek support from U.S. forces stationed in Entebbe, Uganda.[4]

The National Army of Liberation of Uganda (NALU) was formed in 1988. In 1995 they migrated from western Uganda to eastern DRC, where the group merged with ADF to form ADF-NALU.[5] The ADF is a Salafi Islamist organization operating from the Rwenzori mountains. They were led by Jamil Mukulu until his arrest in 2015.[6] Since their emergence in 1995, they have largely flown under the radar. They have consolidated their actions to the North Kivu region of the DRC. For nearly half a decade they killed 14 people a month, since security forces cracked down in late 2019, that number has risen to nearly 62 people a month. The attacks perpetrated in the last 13 months have been classified as massacres: ADF attacks have made headlines for the large numbers killed in each incident. In mid-November, DRC security patrols found the bodies of 35 people whose lives were claimed in two incidents ascribed to ADF.[7] In another incident in October, “Seventeen men and two women died, ‘40 houses and a church [were] burned down [and] several people [were] missing.’”[8] Despite being one of the least reported on terrorist groups in Africa, ADF’s finally started making headlines over the past 13 months for the number of victims, and the brutality of these killings. The Democratic Republic of Congo ranks as 9th on the Global Terror Index’s worst-affected nations due in large part to the ADF’s reign of terror.[9]

After over 30 years of existence, how has ADF continued to keep recruiting? Though the nations of Central Africa are disproportionately Christian, North Kivu, DRC has a sizeable Muslim population. ADF likely draws on the concentration of Muslims in this region. ADF has many areas to exploit when trying to recruit members to their cause: The DRC has a young, poor population; nearly 70% of the population are under 25 and a similar percentage live under the poverty line.[10] Young, poor, and part of one of the smallest religious minorities in the nation, these people are ripe to fall prey to ADF propaganda, which can promise security and community based on shared faith. Economic tensions will only be exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The demographic most appealing to ADF recruiters are likely the hardest to be hit by the global pandemic. ADF may also draw in sympathizers and recruits from around the world with its links to ISIS. Since 2019 several attacks attributed to the ADF have been claimed by ISIS. It is unclear how connected the two groups are, but even rumours of a link will peak the attention of hardline Salafists throughout Africa. Finally, due to its large population of young, and poor individuals, Africa is one of the worst offenders of child soldier recruitment. When all else fails, ADF has no shortage of vulnerable youth to indoctrinate with or without force.

Operations conducted by MONUSCO and FARDC have proven to only add fuel to the fire, in the form of nearly one thousand dead in a span of thirteen months. Security and peacekeeping forces will need to adjust their tactics in order to stop the killing. The first option available is to back their forces out of North Kivu. ADF's actions have largely been spurred by the increase of forces in the region back in the Fall of 2019; FARDC and MONUSCO could hope to negotiate a peace agreement or armistice in North Kivu in exchange for a retreat of DRC military forces from the region. If increased forces is what spiked the killing, perhaps reducing forces can reduce the killing. If saving civilian lives is the goal, capitulating ground in exchange for an uneasy peace may be the expedient way to address the issue. A path of least resistance may be just what DRC forces are looking for: Early this year nearly 100 soldiers were killed or wounded in a battle with the ADF.[11] Since the onset of this increased conflict, FARDC and MONUSCO have proven woefully outmanned and outgunned, and they have paid dearly. FARDC has not deployed enough men to rebuke ADF and has chosen largely to act alone. Retreating may be the path of least resistance but it is also the path with the most limited goals. Though it may be possible to spare civilian and military lives and achieve a shaky détente, the ultimate goal of ridding the DRC of ADF will not be met. In the best of circumstances, this would return the DRC back to where it started, losing 400 civilian lives to ADF over the course of 4 years. In a worst-case scenario, removing FARDC would leave the region defenseless and ADF would continue to kill at high rates. It is unclear how this action would result but it is clear that this option would be the DRC choosing the lesser of evils in a no-win scenario.

The DRC government has a history of abstaining from labeling such actors as “terrorists” with such terms being largely used to label political dissidents.[12] Despite the government's dubious inability to label such armed actors terrorists, there would be clear political ramifications of capitulating North Kivu to ADF. Earlier this year saw, “...demonstrations in the city of Beni, where local people accuse the UN peacekeeping force MONUSCO of failing to protect them.”[13] To have sparked mass murders across the province and then leave with tails between legs would be the ultimate disgrace for any government; it is unlikely any political organization could survive such a scandal. A more likely approach is to lean into operations to dispel ADF from North Kivu.

In late 2019, when FARDC announced its initial action against the ADF, it declared that it would need no international support and was fully capable of pushing out the ADF solely with DRC forces.[14] Failing to provide the requisite manpower, and strategic allies, the numbers indicate FARDC has failed to meet the expectations of that claim. Even when MONUSCO agreed to join in joint monitoring in early 2020, the killings have mounted. It is likely FARDC will need international intervention and more than just blue helmets. The ADF-NALU originated in Uganda nearly 30 years ago but has since halted most activity within it. The Rwenzori mountains, where the ADF operates from, act as a physical borderline between Uganda and Congo. The DRC might ask for the aid of Ugandan security forces. Should FARDC be successful in pushing out the ADF, Uganda is the logical destination for the rebels to regroup and call home. If Uganda can supply the requisite manpower and artillery, the joint forces may be able to choke the ADF bases of operation and dispel them from the region altogether. Joining forces with Uganda has the benefit of launching a two-front assault from both sides of the Rwenzori, pinning the ADF, leaving them few paths to victory.

North Sake, North Kivu, DR Congo. MONUSCO troops from the Guatemalan Special Forces Contingent conducting tactical training in readiness for future operations.[15]

Alternatively, the DRC could turn to western powers; The United States has a military base in Entebbe, Uganda only some 300 miles from the city of Beni in the heart of North Kivu, DRC. The DRC government could request air support for FARDC forces. The close proximity should allow for ease of access for U.S. aircraft to provide targeted airstrikes in the Rwenzori mountain region. Coordinated U.S. airstrikes with DRC artillery could provide the necessary firepower to even the odds against the raging militia. This path requires less additional manpower from FARDC or the Ugandan military and has the bonus of being a short distance from U.S. military personnel. However, in the short term, the U.S. may be reticent to provide military aid. The Trump administration has begun to pull troops from Africa. Notably, the U.S. has pulled American soldiers from Somalia in an attempt to fulfill a Trump campaign promise of ending foreign wars.[16] The collateral damage to Uganda may prove as a worthy incentive. Should the ADF transition some of its forces towards Uganda, the U.S. will be inclined to protect its base in the area.

Security forces attempting to maintain peace and dispel ADF from the Democratic Republic of Congo are at a crossroads as they attempt to meet this challenge. With such a notable spike in violence, FARDC and MONUSCO must take action. They could attempt to broker a peace treaty or organize some sort of de-escalation, or they could take further action in North Kivu. The best military actions would likely require international aid: The DRC could turn to Uganda or the United States as allies in the fight against the ADF. Whatever path they take, they cannot stand pat. The road they have embarked on is much more dangerous than they anticipated. Should they seek to forge ahead, they likely need assistance, or they could cut their losses and turn back in hopes of instilling calm.

At The Counterterrorism Group (CTG), the AFRICOM Team is committed to reporting on incidents and groups of all sizes and notoriety: The Allied Democratic Forces can trace its lineage back over three decades, yet has made few headlines in that time. The AFRICOM team is closely monitoring the situation in the North Kivu region. CTG will continue to report on this situation and the ramifications of increased tensions in the DRC. The Counterterrorism Group is dedicated to detecting, deterring, and defeating terrorism worldwide, through our 24/7 monitoring of terrorist activities and international counterterrorism efforts.

________________________________________________________________________The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] The Ever-Adaptive Allied Democratic Forces Insurgency, Africa Center for Strategic Studies, February 2019,

[2] Rebels kill at least 35 in eastern DR Congo, Anadolu Agency, November 2020,

[3] ADF Militia Kills at Least 15 in Eastern DR Congo, The Defense Post, October 2020,

[4]Beni, Rwenzori, and Entebbe” by Adam Stevens via Google Maps

[5] National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU), TRAC,

[6] The Ever-Adaptive Allied Democratic Forces Insurgency, Africa Center for Strategic Studies, February 2019,

[7] Rebels kill at least 35 in eastern DR Congo, Anadolu Agency, November 2020,

[8] ADF militia kills scores in eastern DRC, TRT World, October 2020,

[9] Global Terrorism Index 2020: List of 10 worst-affected countries; India ranks 8th, CNBC, December 2020,

[10] Congo, Democratic Republic of the, Central Intelligence Agency,

[11] DR Congo Army says ADF Rebels Killed 30 Soldiers, VOA, January 2020,

[12] Country Reports on Terrorism 2019: Democratic Republic of the Congo, U.S. Department of State,

[13] DR Congo Army says ADF Rebels Killed 30 Soldiers, VOA, January 2020,

[14] DR Congo army launches ‘large-scale operations’ against militias in Beni territory, The Defense Post, October 2019,



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