Inside ADF terror threat over Uganda, neighbours

Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) officers at the scene of crime in Komamboga, Kawempe Division in Kampala on Sunday. PHOTO/MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI

What you need to know:

  • The President has labelled the terrorists as pigs to portray them as sordid and unattractive to fellow faithful.

Last Saturday, a home-made bomb exploded in a northerly Kampala suburb, Kawempe, killing a 20-year-old waitress and injuring scores.
Police described the attack as an “act of domestic terrorism” which, under Uganda’s Anti-Terrorism Act, enacted in 2012 and revised in 2017, means any of 10 crimes committed to influence government or intimidate the public.

That is a broad stroke, which would mean anything and everything could be politicised and problematised as terrorism, beyond the specified offences in the law such as detonating explosion, making IEDs, mass killings, possessing or trading arms and ammunitions, among others.
Komamboga, where an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) ripped through revellers at a pork eatery at about 9pm last Saturday, is far removed from upscale neighbourhoods teeming with expats that the United Kingdom on October 14 warned faced a “very likely” terror attack.

In a tweet at 9:44am the next morning, President Museveni, writing in respect of the explosion, noted that “it seems to be a terrorist act”.
“The public should not fear, we shall defeat this criminality like we have defeated all the other criminality committed by the pigs who don’t respect life,” he tweeted.
If the blast is orchestrated by radical Muslims seeking to use the spectacle to project their power, recruit and attract financing, the President’s labelling of them as pigs then can be construed as calculated to portray them as sordid and unattractive to fellow faithful.
The Commander-in-Chief had invoked his old mantra for a new fleeting problem, but not without basis.

His government, which in 1986 shot its way to power by the bullet, has over the years decimated dozens of insurgent groups, including dislodging the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), which from 2018 became the Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP).
In short, ADF mainstream headed by Musa Seka Baluku following the April 2015 arrest in Tanzania of the group’s co-founder Jamil Mukulu, is now an affiliate of the Islamic State and focused on establishing a caliphate in eastern Africa, according to multiple security and intelligence agencies.

And that presents Uganda, the group’s birth place, a new security conundrum distinct from the conventional warfare of known frontline or geographic concentration that can be shelled with motor, overwhelmed with air firepower or encircled with pincer movement.
 Baluku, an Islamic scholar of sorts, held a high reputation as the group’s most senior cleric and in that capacity presided over its Sharia courts, dispensing punishment and favours, justice and rewards. Thus, he built his own power base of loyal fighters.
When Tanzanian forces seized Jamil Mukulu, born David Steven, and turned him over to Uganda to face trial on a plethora of capital offences, Baluku became a natural successor.

Once in-charge, and unlike incarcerated Mukulu who held political ambitions that moderated his beliefs and somewhat his violence, Baluku manifestly disposed to violent extremism.
This, according to highly-placed security sources, explains why he lurched ADF into Islamic State’s embrace when Mukulu spurned similar offers from the Sudan government under Omar al-Bashir and Somalia’s al-Shabaab.

From inside Luzira Maximum Security Prison in Kampala, Mukulu reportedly found a clandestine method to exercise residual command and control over ADF until Baluku reportedly married his daughter Sophie, and allegedly killed her alongside one of Mukulu’s sons.
The purging instilled fear, eroded tribal fights within the rank and file and tightened Baluku’s stranglehold over the mainstream ADF, which is reported to be recruiting on one-on-one basis in his Kasese home district, Isingiro and other western-flank districts straddling north to West Nile border with DRC’s Ituri province.

In a March 2021 report for George Washington University’s Program on Extremism titled, Islamic State in Congo, Tara Candland et al note that ADF’s dealings with IS may have started in 2017 before its formalisation in 2018 upon which IS’s central media units broadcast an April 2019 attack in DR Congo as the works of their Central Africa Province.
“There is no ADF anymore. Allah willing, ADF ceased to exist a long time ago. [...] Currently, we are a province, the Central Africa Province which is one province among the numerous provinces that make up the Islamic State that is under the Caliph and Leader of all Muslims...Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi,” the authors write, quoting ADF leader Baluku’s comments in a Mujahideen Television video released in September 2020.

And in March, this year, the United States confirmed that the Ugandan rebel band had subsumed under the global IS terror network, posing a threat to Uganda and other countries in the Great Lakes Region. That danger was manifest when Rwanda, Uganda’s southwestern neighbour that shares border with DR Congo, announced that its security forces on October 1 arrested 13 suspects assembling IEDs and “investigations have revealed that the terror cell worked with Allied Democratic Forces (ADF)”.

The group’s atrocities in DRC, whose eastern enclave is less governed, have risen since Baluku assumed full command and control amid an expanding territorial reach of its sleeper cells.
A day after the Komamboga explosion, Islamic State’s media posted that “ISCAP DR-Congo cell in Uganda has conducted a second terror attack in Kawempe area of the capital Kampala”.

A 20-year-old waitress, identified posthumously as Emily Nyinaneza, succumbed to injuries of Saturday’s blast at Uncle Sam’s and Ronnie’s Pork joints in Kampala’s Kawempe Division, although the terror group said its attack had claimed two lives.
Earlier, ISCAP claimed responsibility of an October 8, 2021 explosion as its first attack on the Ugandan soil, noting that it targeted a “crusader Uganda police” and injured its personnel besides damaging the post.
Uganda Police’s Anti-Terrorism Squad raced to the scene soon after the attack, but the Force afterwards remained wishy-washy about the incident.

Then the United Kingdom issued a “very likely” terror attack alert on October 14, which Uganda Police downplayed. It declined to raise the terror alert level days before the October 23 blast at the pork eateries near the more popular Digida hangout patronised by soldiers, police and covert operatives, among others.
Yet, about a fortnight ago, joint Ugandan security forces had in various sting operations rounded up a dozen men from Paidha in Zombo, the western Kasese District and Njeru in eastern Uganda, whom they have detained and are interrogating over alleged ADF links.

Intelligence tip
In addition, highly-placed sources told Daily Monitor that Kenya about two weeks ago passed intelligence to Interpol Uganda that an ADF acolyte in South Africa had wired money to Uganda for making IEDs and bankrolling the group’s activities.
However, Interpol Uganda Director Charles Birungi last evening said: “I have not personally come across that information.”

“What is clear is that there has been increasing terrorism threat; ISIS, al-Shabaab, ADF, and the IS affiliate in Mozambique (Ansar al-Sunna or al-Shabaab),” he said, warning unemployed Ugandans not to be gullible when tempted by extremists with job recruitment offers.
  Despite the documented threats and intelligence briefings, both by Ugandan, regional and international entities, Uganda police counter-terrorism tzar Abbas Byakagaba yesterday said there was no evidence linking the Komamboga attack, which they classified an “act of domestic terrorism”, to ISCAP.

The Force said it would conduct inquiries independent of the claims and, without disclosing clues its investigators are following, will catch the masterminds.
Whereas police Spokesman Fred Enanga told journalists on Sunday that the exploded IED was made out of bicycle hub bearings, nails, metal pieces and other explosives, it remained unclear if the device had been assembled in Uganda or elsewhere and just smuggled into the country through porous borders.
For instance, following ADF’s immersion into the transnational terror group, intelligence sources say al-Shabaab bomb makers moved from Puntland in January this year to train the former’s fighters in Ituri and North Kivu provinces on technology and techniques to use basic readily available materials to make explosives.

One such IED yesterday exploded on a moving bus in Mpigi, killing one and injuring a senior police officer, while Anti-Terrorism Squad detonated another explosive in an abandoned bag in Namasuba on Kampala-Entebbe highway.
Still, police did not raise the terror threat level, suggesting they may be looking elsewhere for masterminds of the attacks.

Western intelligence agencies intimate that ISCAP, the new ADF label, in Uganda actively radicalises particularly the youth and recruits online, including managing a mobile phone text-messaging app, Telegram, with about 950 subscribers, among them university students.

Its strength inside DRC is estimated to be 2,000-strong, massing numbers through abductions in Congo and individual enlistments from Uganda communities straddling the western frontiers.
The group’s presence adds to a plethora of other rebel and militia units, making for an unpleasant insecurity cocktail that Uganda, as early as May, planned in coordination with DRC, to launch an offensive against the forces.

UPDF’s Mountain Brigade commander, Maj Gen Kayanja Muhanga, met Congolese counterparts in Congo’s Beni town, a follow-up meeting happened in Fort Portal, Uganda, and a Ugandan contingent concluded reconnaissance inside DRC, but the planned operation lulled.
President Museveni later said publicly that Kampala was awaiting a greenlight from Kinshasa, although sources separately told this newspaper that a senior and powerful UPDF officer within the earshot of the commander-in-chief is against the mission, fearing it could entangle Uganda in a regional war like it happened during the 1997 to 2003 Congo invasion.

It is also understood that the Southern Africa Development Community (Sadc), of which DRC is a member, is opposed to Uganda redeploying in Congo.
According to State House sources, President Museveni in a May 18 meeting with United States Ambassador Natalie Brown, broached the plan to attack what he said were about 345 or so rebel groups gallivanting in eastern DR Congo, many cultivating openly and undisturbed.
The meeting happened in the tense moments of agitation in the country by election losers and mass arrests of Opposition supporters and international alarm over alleged government excesses.

Mr Museveni reportedly told the US envoy that preoccupation with human rights when smoking gun of insurgents and terrorists in eastern DR Congo posed an existential threat, was misplaced priority.
He allegedly said US backing would be welcome in the event Uganda launched an offensive to flush out the outlaws including ADF and, according to another State House source, Ambassador Natalie promised nothing beyond moral support. Also known in global intelligence circles by the moniker Medina at Tauheed Wau Mujahedeen or MTM, ISCAP’s backing by Islamic State is evident in the former’s attacks being broadcast on the latter’s central communication outlets.

The group under Baluku, according to analysts who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss classified information, is a more radical version of ADF than the Mukulu faction that as well is hibernating in eastern DRC, without attracting scrutiny.
With forays into Rwanda, a network inside Tanzania, trainers reportedly trooping from Somalia and Puntland and money for bankrolling activities flowing, either in dollar bills and or wired digitally from South Africa, Kenya and Uganda to Congo, being an IS affiliate makes DRC-based ADF a regional terror nightmare.

A meeting of East African police chiefs held in Kinshasa agreed on member states sharing intelligence to fight violent extremism and particularly to degrade the capabilities and disrupt financing to defeat the planned Islamic caliphate in the volatile region.
However, political dynamics, such as frosty Uganda-Rwanda relations, has proven an impediment in sharing intelligence and agreeing on common action against common enemy, according to western intelligence sources.
At home, Ugandan security and intelligence agencies are fighting for supremacy, each seeking to overshadow the other and taking the shine for successful counter-terrorism operations.

Sources said as a result, credible intelligence prepared for the President is either skewed or falsified to present the pre-eminence of domestic political threats, which some top spies dangle to catch his attention and, with it, cash flows for muffling the contrived threat.
Such diversions, adds another source, haemorrhage resources away from national security operations to regime survival clampdown against opponent, leaving the country exposed and scrambling when suspected extremists start causing carnage in the country using rudimentary explosives as they are doing.

“ADF presents a real threat to Uganda and the region, but we are spending more money on chasing political opponents instead of strengthening capabilities of our intelligence agencies and using the actionable intelligence they generate to inform counter-terrorism measures,” said a source, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Uganda has motley security and intelligence organs, but not a national counter-terrorism policy, which would prescribe organisational structure, mandates and accountability for operations.

Already, ADF or ISCAP is reported to have trained a horde of tech-savvy youngsters and they in some cases fly drones for reconnaissance or filming their attacks, meaning the group could in future begin using the unnamed aerial vehicles to spy on or attack targets across borders from Congo.
That is more trouble --- a moving target without a frontline, stress-testing Uganda’s military famed in conventional warfare.

As Candland et al note in their report, Islamic State in Congo, for George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, “with formal Islamic State affiliates and pro-Islamic State groups dotted across Africa, the potential for transnational collaboration and the migration of increased numbers of regional foreign fighters may threaten regional stability”.

Who is Musa Seka Baluku, ADF chief?

ADF chief, Musa Seka Baluku

    In his adsss Born in 1975 or 1976 in Bwera (Kasese District), Baluku is from Uganda’s Mukonjo tribe, unlike the bulk of the ADF’s commanders who are from the Basoga tribe.
    Orphaned by the age of ten and raised by extended family, Baluku received an Islamic education at the Bugembe Islamic Institute and was an imam at Malakaz, a Tabligh mosque, during his studies.

Towards the end of his time at Bugembe, Musa started a home mosque in Bwera. During this time, Baluku confided in close acquaintances that he wanted to participate in jihad. While it is not known how Baluku became connected to the ADF, he joined the rebel outfit in 1994 and soon after departed for their camps.
     This makes Baluku part of the first wave of ADF members who joined in the 1990s and was with the group when it moved from Uganda to DRC in the late 1990s.
Baluku has occupied several roles in the ADF, including that of chief Islamic judge, a role he ascended to with little battlefield experience.

In 2007, Baluku became political commissar (PC) in charge of all ideological and religious teachings reportedly after mounting an unsuccessful campaign to become the head of the army.
The position, decided by vote, went instead to Jaguar Winyi, seeding fissures between the more radical elements aligned with Baluku and the more traditional historical members.

    The current ADF military commander, Hood Lukwago, sided with Baluku during the 2007 vote and subsequently ascended to the head of the ADF military wing, where he remains today, helping to maintain its continuity and effectiveness during its recent metamorphosis.
    During his tenure as chief judge, Baluku earned a reputation for being violent, presiding over beheadings, crucifixions, and death by firing squad.
    Many defectors interviewed for this report suggested that Baluku is seen as an extremist even among his peers in the ADF, and his brutality has further alienated members, with many defecting or living in exile.

    For those who stayed, however, Baluku’s extremism and brutality helped to further polarize the ADF and facilitate his rise as commander. With Makulu gone, Baluku was voted to assume the role of overall leader.

Extracted from Candland et al, Islamic State in Congo, Georgetown Washington University’s Program on Extremism,