Despite the arrest of its leader, the resurgence of an terror group hitherto presumed to be “weak and fragmented” has left Central and East Africa on uneasy alert, writes Wanjohi Kabukuru.
The elusive Jamil Mukulu was not a household name outside Uganda, DRCongo, Tanzania and Rwanda until he was finally arrested in Tanzania in April, after his 25-year lucky streak, running from capture, came to an end.
Mukulu is the leader of the little-known Alliance of Democratic Forces – National Army for the Liberation of Uganda, (ADF-NALU). A few days after Mukulu’s arrest, ADF-NALU attacked a Tanzanian contingent of the UN Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the DRCongo (MONUSCO) and killed two soldiers in what was seen as retaliation for Mukulu’s detention.
Last November, Mukulu was sentenced to death in absentia by a military court sitting in North Kivu, DRCongo for the killing of a Congolese army officer, Colonel Mamadou Ndala. At present, Tanzania is inundated with diplomatic overtures by all the East African member nations seeking to interrogate and charge Mukulu. In 2013, with the backing of the US, the UN Force Intervention Brigade, made up of troops from Tanzania, Malawi, and South Africa, attacked several ADF-NALU bases in North Kivu as it pursued the M23 rebel group, which was its primary target.
Mukulu’s arrest comes in the wake of what was being seen as the re-emergence of a bolder ADF-NALU after it conducted a series of well-publicised daring attacks which resulted in close to 100 deaths late last year. In November 2014 the group attacked villages in Beni killing 26 people. This resurgence of the group, which had hitherto been presumed to be “weak and fragmented”, has the region worried owing to the renewed tactical killer capabilities it has recently demonstrated.
Even though it is one of the longest-surviving terror groups, ADF-NALU is also the only Islamic militant entity in DRCongo. And although it has never scored a major victory in the battlefield it has never been vanquished either, despite combined UN peacekeepers, Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) and Congolese army (FARDC) efforts against it. Outside Uganda, DRCongo and Sudan, ADF-NALU has in the recent past attracted more attention. Its alleged ties to Somali Islamist militant group al-Shabaab, and therefore with Al Qaeda, to whom the Somali group is affiliated, as well as increased numbers of militants – upper estimates place them at 2,000 – merits this attention.
Disgruntled Idi Amin remnants
Tracing its roots in the late 80s, ADF-NALU came into being in western Uganda where it was formed by disparate groups and disgruntled remnants of former Ugandan President Idi Amin, who found a safe haven in Eastern DRCongo.
In DRCongo, the group is said to have received support from then-president Mobutu Sese Seko, who financed it with the aim of destabilising Uganda. Other than Mobutu, ADF-NALU is also said to have been receiving support from Sudan’s intelligence services and Islamic groups to fight a proxy war against Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni’s open support for South Sudan. With the support of Mobutu the group raided western Uganda in mid 1995 but was repulsed by the UPDF, who pushed them deep into DRCongo. Mukulu is a former Catholic who converted to Islam and says his militant group is out to defend the rights of Muslim minorities in Uganda.
Uganda’s spy agency, the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) has on several occasions linked ADF-NALU to al-Shabaab. Though linked to other groups in the global Jihadi firmament, ADF-NALU has not attracted as much attention as Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), Ansar Dine, al-Shabaab or Boko Haram. But even with a low-profile status, Mukulu’s arrest in Tanzania has raised fears that ADF-NALU might operate active and sleeper cells in the wider East African Community.
“They have cells in Uganda and Kenya and were responsible for several bombings and grenade attacks in Kampala in the 1990s and early 2000[s]. ADF-NALU is capable of disorganising Kampala and Nairobi from what I gather…ADF is linked to Al-Qaeda and its members are well trained in Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries,” says Ugandan investigative journalist Barbara Among. So far, the security agencies have not said anything about Mukulu other than confirm his arrest. Among, who has investigated the ADF-NALU, says sources close to Mukulu believe he possessed 10 different passports including Kenyan and diplomatic ones and these aided his escapes from capture. In July last year the UN Security Council imposed travel bans and froze Mukulu’s assets.
“But Mukulu has always elusively travelled between Kenya and Uganda,” stresses Among.
Revelations that Mukulu was a frequent visitor to Kenya and his arrest in Tanzania buttress the belief within security corridors that ADF-NALU collaborates closely with al-Shabaab and has tentacles across the wider Eastern and Horn of Africa as well as the Indian Ocean. This also draws parallels to the inter-agency cooperation between Kenya and Uganda on anti- and counter-terrorism. In the aftermath of the 11 July 2010 terror attack at Kyadongo rugby club that killed more than 74 people, which Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for, Kenya detained a dozen Muslims and later renditioned them to Uganda.
The International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), which is an inter-governmental security-oriented body bringing together 12 African nations has been keeping close tabs on ADF-NALU. According to ICGLR, the militants are involved in pillaging DRCongo’s natural resources with timber, gold and diamonds topping the list, although some researchers dispute the scale of these operations.
Nevertheless, cross border concerns about ADF-NALU are clear. In early January 2013, the then Chief of Kenya’s Defence Forces (KDF) General (rtd) Julius Karangi made a rare public admission that Kenya too was keenly watching ADF’s activities.
“Our interests in the ICGLR are guided by threats of an Al Qaeda-oriented group known as the Allied Democratic Forces thriving in the DRC,” said Gen. Karangi in a speech to the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM).
Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya have in the last decade found themselves at the crossroads of terrorism, largely due to their troops’ presence in Somalia. On a number of occasions al-Shabaab has cited Uganda’s contribution of 6,223 troops and Kenya’s 3,664 soldiers for the African Union’s Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) as the reason that the two countries have become targets for retaliation.