With the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) becoming a member of the East African Community (EAC) in March 2022, the country now has access to more regional political and economic opportunities. But so does its local terror group, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) – as transnational organised crime thrives with development and, in turn, funds terrorism.
While terrorism and transnational organised crime are often seen as distinct from each other, with the two having different motives, and governments crafting different responses to these respective threats, their tactical and operational dimensions often converge.
Global terrorism networks such as Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda are increasingly converging with global criminal groups that traffic goods. This embeds these groups even further in global illicit financial flows that fund their activities. This convergence is clearly seen at the regional level where the ADF illustrates this interplay in East Africa.
The ADF is a classic example of a ‘nexus’ group, involved in both terrorist activity and transnational organised crime. Although it has historically operated out of western Uganda and the eastern DRC, recent recruitment activity from other East African countries presents a worrying expansionist trend.
In January, Kenyan Salim Mohamed was arrested by the Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC) in Beni (DRC). He told the authorities he was migrating from Kenya to South Africa through the DRC with two friends to find work. Rebels attacked their vehicle, he said, and they were held captive until the FARDC captured them.
Mohamed was, however, a member of the ADF and had experience with IS in Mozambique, Somalia, Turkey and Syria. He was out on bond over terrorism charges in Kenya and had jumped court bail in 2020. The day he was captured by the FARDC, a graphic video of him and two others in ADF regalia appeared online. They were supervising a child, who looked under five, beheading a dead man.
In the first week of February 2022, FARDC arrested three Tanzanian members of the ADF also in North Kivu’s Beni city. A FARDC spokesman said this was the first time Tanzanian nationals had been arrested for being part of the ADF. A week later, Zazrad Saidi, a female Tanzanian member of the ADF, was arrested in the same city.
The group has integrated itself into East Africa’s illicit regional border economy, where the resource-rich regions of Beni and Butembo have provided it with a sizeable source of income, and ready funding network.
The instability in the eastern DRC, compounded by a lack of oversight by officials, has meant that the North Kivu forests have been pillaged by the ADF and other armed groups, and local populations have been exploited. In the area under its control in 2011, the ADF imposed a hefty tax on the sale of all chainsaws used for felling timber and fined those who didn’t pay. This implies that the ADF is taking on a quasi-state role in this territory.
Gold mining in the eastern part of DRC is another cash source for the ADF. The group controls several mines around the Semliki River in Kaynama, east of Eringeti in Chuchubo, as well as in Kikingi. It has also exacted taxes from two larger mines along the Losselosse River. At one point, the ADF was taxing local miners around US$0.50 (1 000 Congolese francs) per person per week.
In Uganda, businesspeople in the petroleum and real estate industries allegedly fund the terror group and also launder the proceeds of its organised criminal activities. In October 2021, three people were arrested on charges of financing the ADF, to the tune of US$506 000 (USh1.8 billion).
The EAC’s integration pillars aim to enhance a regional market, foster a customs union, establish a single currency and forge a political federation among its member states. With a common passport, the movement of East Africans, including DRC nationals, is set to become easier. While this will increase integration across the EAC’s 19 political, economic and social sectors, there is also a risk that the ADF terror group will use this integration to advance its illegal activities, including the illicit export trade in timber and gold.
The DRC has acknowledged that it faces dire security problems in its eastern regions and is keen on a regional drive to tackle the protracted conflict. In April 2022, the East African countries offered to begin a consultative dialogue with all armed groups operating locally in the DRC. This dialogue seems to be directed at local groups that have surrendered and are calling for amnesty from the DRC government, such as the M23.
Concurrent to the dialogue, the heads of state also agreed to form a regional force. It is seemingly focused on nexus groups such as the ADF, foreign groups that do not disarm and return to their countries, and local groups that do not participate in the consultative dialogue.
Dialogue together with a regional force are steps in the right direction. But it is also crucial to respond to the ADF as a nexus organised criminal and terrorist group, rather than responding with siloed law enforcement or military operations.
Harmonised legal and operational frameworks that combine both organised crime and terrorism responses are needed to deal with the crime-terror nexus and erode siloed responses by governments. Rather than applying the penal code to one or the other, in prosecuting a nexus case, single legislation with provisions incorporating organised crime, terrorism, and the nexus are required as a necessary condition for prosecuting complex, cross-border cases.
Mohamed Daghar, Regional Coordinator, Eastern Africa and Richard Chelin, Senior Researcher, Southern Africa, ENACT Project