December 12, 2017
The attack on United Nations peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) by lesser-known violent extremists called the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) indicates that the group poses a more serious threat than previously believed as it continues to ratchet up its activity in region, capitalizing on the persistent political instability in the DRC, according to an Atlantic Council analyst.

“If this attack was indeed carried out by the so-called Allied Democratic Forces, it is signals an escalation in the group’s violence that is not surprising given that it has, over the course of the last year or two, been ratcheting up its activity, fueled not only by possible links with other jihadist organizations, but also the failure of governance in the Congo,” said J. Peter Pham, vice president for regional initiatives and director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.

Pham added: “While the political crisis in the country and the dire humanitarian tragedy…are not linked directly to the threat of jihadist extremism, the latter can certainly exploit the former.”

On December 7, fifteen United Nations (UN) peacekeepers were killed and fifty-three injured in an attack on a UN operating base in North Kivu, a remote region of the DRC bordering Rwanda and Uganda. Due to political instability, humanitarian concerns, and increasing security risks, the UN operation in the DRC is the largest of its fifteen missions, with over 22,000 personnel serving in the country. The blue helmets at the North Kivu base are part of a rapid intervention force with an offensive mandate, rare to the UN. Its forces are composed primarily of troops from Tanzania.

After an investigation, the UN identified the ADF as the militants behind the attack. " I would take the mission’s assignment of blame very seriously," said Pham.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres condemned the attack on peacekeepers as a war crime, noting it is the worst such attack in the UN's history. In response to the violence, he said: "I condemn this attack unequivocally.” According to Guterres, "these deliberate attacks against UN peacekeepers are unacceptable and constitute a war crime. I call on the DRC authorities to investigate this incident and swiftly bring the perpetrators to justice. There must be no impunity for such assaults, here or anywhere else."

However, Pham noted, this is not the ADF's first such attack on UN personnel, “especially since UN forces have joined Congolese military personnel in more robust operations against the group.” He described how, “in September, one peacekeeper died when fighters from the group assaulted a different UN post, while two others were killed in separate incidents in October.”

“The ADF has been around for more than two decades, most of that time largely ignored by all but the local communities whose lives it impinged on,” said Pham. However, he cautioned, over the years, “the group has carved out a sliver of territory in the eastern part of the Congo where…it has built up a fighting force which a UN committee of experts estimated several years ago to number upwards of 2,500.” Noting the ADF’s reported links over the years to broader jihadist networks such as al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda, Pham warned that the ADF constitutes an escalating threat which must be taken seriously, especially in light of the political turmoil in the DRC. 

Pham called attention to the security risks posed by the ADF in a congressional testimony in 2015, during which he noted: “The better-known terrorist threats…are not the only ones out of Africa that should be of concern; in fact, as past experience has shown, emergent challenges call out for perhaps even greater attention precisely because they are so poorly known, much less understood, but nevertheless can, as has been seen, evolve very quickly.”

“While it is too early to say whether the ADF will present as significant of a challenge as other jihadist groups in Africa," Pham said in response to the December 7 attack, "one cannot help but notice that this analytical myopia was what we witnessed with al-Shabaab in the first years of the twenty-first century and with Boko Haram a decade later – in both cases with terrible strategic and humanitarian consequences.”

While the ADF’s ramping up of violent attacks in the DRC poses serious humanitarian and security risks, the country’s political crisis adds another dimension to this complex threat.

The DRC has been plagued with political instability for years under the rule of its sitting president, Joseph Kabila. Defying his constitutional mandate, Kabila has retained his grip on power for nearly a year after his second (and last) five-year term expired in December 2016. Under the terms of a peace agreement brokered when he did not step down from office, the Kabila government has agreed to hold elections at the end of 2017, a timeline that the regime recently extended until the end of 2018. However, said Pham: “Few expect that promise to be kept.”

“In fact,” he added, “I know some members of the political opposition and civil society representatives even suspect the regime of encouraging attacks by groups like the ADF in order to use the violence as a pretext for delaying a transition.”

Such beliefs testify to the lack of trust in the Congolese body politic, “thus creating,” according to Pham, “precisely the context in which groups like the ADF can thrive.”

While in his 2015 testimony Pham noted that the ADF did not at the time pose a significant threat to the United States, its allies, or its interests abroad, he said “the international community needs to address the burgeoning threat.”

Earlier this year, in another separate congressional testimony, Pham cautioned: “There is a recurring trope that emerges time and again: terrorism in Africa generally gets short shrift and, when attention is focused on specific groups or situations that appear to be emerging challenges, the threat is either dismissed entirely or minimized—until the ‘unthinkable’ happens and tragedy strikes.”

Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council.

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