ADF-NALU and Islam, militant and mercenary

Continuing the ADF project – Islam

In a recent piece for Al Jazeera I wrote that the Beni-based rebel group ADF-NALU is obscured by a culture of secrecy and multiple layers.

The ‘culture of secrecy’ derives in part from the militant Tablighi ideology at the core of the ADF and this ideology informs some of the practices of the group.  In the past the ADF had a website and occasionally issued press releases but they ceased public proactive communication after the website was shutdown.

The video footage above (and here) was edited by me out of a much longer sequence, it is a little over a year old. The principle language spoken is Kitoro. What it shows us apart from the indoctrination of children, which has long been a staple of the ADF, is a rebel camp that is highly organised, orderly and efficient (notice the clock on the tree in second clip).

When compared to earlier footage from 2007 you can see there has been a shift from a raggedy Mayi-Mayi-style outfit that is as poor as the communities in which it is embedded, to a well-dressed, well-financed operation.

A third change that can be seen in the newer footage is the adoption by the women (whether by choice, force or otherwise) of full niqab and abaya, often black. Previously Muslim women in ADF camps only wore the head scarf in various colours in common with Muslim women in many parts of Africa and they never covered their faces.

The danger of a single story when it comes to Militant Islam

I wrote previously that Islam in the Congo is almost invisible, despite the important contribution that various Muslim civil society groups have made to peace-building, development and education in the DRC.

Indeed, only since the assassination of Colonel Mamadou have many people become aware that Congo’s national hero was a Muslim.  This is another reason why he was the perfect man for the job of tackling the ADF and why his death is a massive blow to the wider community of Beni, particularly the large Muslim community.

For the Imam of Beni this lack of awareness of Islam in the Congo has been a source of great worry after the shrill cries of some civil society groups who were quick to jump on the ‘terrorist’ bandwagon.  If the ADF have in the past recruited from with the Beni Muslim community it has either been by force or because the youth of Beni Territory are utterly disenfrachised.

In the past Ugandan police and security saw ADF recruiters under every Muslim bed and unjustly victimised the very people they should have been supporting.   More recently a move to enforce licensing for Koranic schools in Uganda caused uproar in Muslim communities

One Muslim activist in Uganda told me that ADF recruitment tends to target those who have NOT had a good Koranic education precisely because they are more likely to be ill-informed and gullible.

As Sheikh Yahya Lukwago noted: “Catholics carry out almost a similar program, not to forget the Protestant church which practices Sunday-school theological teaching programs. All these programs are carried out for them to make sure that their children behave like Christians, why is our case different?”

Tablighi Islam

Tablighi Islam is a Sunni Islamic ‘reformist’ movement that arose in India partly in parallel with the reformist Hindu movements towards the latter stages of Empire.  Both need to be viewed historically through the lens of the colonial project to identify, classify and control which resulted in a separate legal system for Indian Muslims and a need for both Hindus and Muslims to compete in the wider world with Christianity.  In this way religous practices that were previously fluid and in places syncretic became concretised, codified and some of them became politically communalised to varying degrees of militancy.

The ideology of the ADF leadership was heavily influenced by Tablighi Islam from Pakistan. This has strong ideological overlaps with other militant Islamic groups

As a consequence of this extreme militant ideology, there were major schisms in Kampala between those who went the ADF route and other non-violent Tablighi adherents.  It also appears that this extreme militancy has gained a stronger foothold in the ADF camps in the Congo.

Tablighi is not the same as Salafism nor is it Wahabi in its orientation but as Stig Jarle Hansen told me in a much more in depth interview it is ‘ecclectic’ and it does seem to be a ‘vessel for radicalism’.

As such, it seems to draw in disillusioned youth who then sometimes become sufficently radicalised to shift a gear into violent activism. There are numerous examples of this including the UK bombers of the London Underground, the so-called ‘Underpants Bomber’ and so on.

There are a few essentially Tablighi aspects that I would argue are exemplified in the ADF. Only recently has it become compulsory for ADF members to become practicing Muslims. This was not ‘normal’ Tablighi pratice but may be a way of ensuring a tight ideological base and certainly seems to be a practice of more overtly militant Tablighis.

Generally speaking, Tablighi Islam does not seek to convert non-believers rather it sees its goal as the ‘perfection’ of Islamic practice (by their own definition) of other Muslims.

It is common to represent Tablighis as ‘apolitical’ and this is cited as one reason why up until now in the UK the authorities have allowed them a free hand in the seeing them as ‘benign’. Without trying to suggest that all UK Tablighis are the same, I would argue that this is an example, so common elsewhere, of dividing the world into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ and leaving out all the shades of grey.

Perhaps a better way of looking at Tablighi Islam is that they don’t see a need to participate in ‘local’ politics as for them the process of change to an Islamic Caliphate is long term and anyway they see the nation-state as invalid in the first place so why engage with it?

Tablighis often operate in small local groups, are intense about discipline and insist on subordination to leaders. The ADF have cells beyond Uganda and DR Congo and some previous attempts at amnesty and disarmament talks have stalled due to an inability to get the various members of the Command Group all together and also the vested interests of those beyond the group who have no desire to see the rebels disarm.

Another difference between Tablighis and other Muslims groups is a requirement to travel for at least 40 days per year to perform ‘Dawaa’ or missionary activities. If you see your ‘Dawaa’ as being the organisation and survival of a rebel group, ‘travel’ takes on a whole new meaning.

Islamist radicalism in the ADF has always underpinned the vision of the leadership but I would argue that this vision has evolved over time into something much harder than previously.

However, many of the ADF troops have been either forcibly or coercively enlisted so it is highly unlikely that there is a unified motivation that propels them.

A Caveat

By showing some of the video footage and writing a little about the Islamist aspect of the ADF there is a danger that my description of them as ‘multiple layered’ gets forgotten.  Too often analysis of the rebels has either dismissed the Islamist aspect altogether and said they were ‘Congolese’ (as if being Congolese negated the possibility of also being Islamist) or, as after the first Kamango attack in July 2013, swallowed the shorthand for ‘terrorism’ in East Africa, which at the time was ‘Al Shabaab’ and shouted it loudly.  As I hinted at the time, few considered that it may be both. That’s why I like the metaphor of Russian dolls… one inside the other.

For me, one useful way of looking at it has been the idea developed by David Kilcullen when writing about the Mumbai attacks, of ‘nested threats’.   While he is writing about the shift of guerrilla warfare from ‘out of the mountains’ to the urban coasts,  (and I have a problem with Kilcullen’s use of the word ‘systems’ when talking about cities),  his idea of the city as nested within regional, national, and transnational networks and spheres with coasts being key sites of exchange can equally be applied to a more ‘bush-based’ guerrilla activity that operates along borders.

Kilcullen’s proposal that the Mumbai attackers were a ‘hybrid organisation’ can also be  applied to the ADF who are hybrid not only in the sense that they were formed from an amalgamation of  various individuals and groups, but are also the product of 20 years of operating and living in a borderzone guerrilla war that has blurred the lines between criminal, rebel, citizen, soldier and state.

These blurred lines lead us away from any Islamic militancy and merge instead into a local and regional politics that has been carved out with the aid of a violent military entrepeneuralism.  It feeds into all the highly localised complexities of land disputes, politicised identies and a population that feels disconnected from ‘the state’.

The challenge of dealing with the multi-layered problem of the ADF requires much more than military solutions. The problem lies in inadequate assessment and planning and a desire to forge ahead with headline-grabbing announcements and responses.

In Beni, two things are constantly said to me: there’s a need to understand the dynamics of “Le Politique” – which means the local power-brokers in Beni and Butembo; and “C’est une guerre médiatique”.

This media war is practised at all levels in the Grand Nord whether by public pronouncements, the hidden terror of abductions and threats or with high profile and extreme violence, all are designed to send a message.

The danger lies in reading and responding to those messages instead of the interests and realities they represent.



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