The Bewildering Search for the Islamic State in Congo

The Bewildering Search for the Islamic State in Congo

The Bewildering Search for the Islamic State in Congo

Will a Texas hedge fund drag the US into another dangerous quagmire?


In 2003, three American college friends set out for Uganda. As they traveled through the north of the country, they were so moved by the suffering caused by the conflict between the government and the warlord Joseph Kony that they started an NGO called Invisible Children to spread awareness about the crisis and raise money for relief projects. Their work eventually drew the attention of Shannon Sedgwick Davis, a young Texas lawyer and CEO of the Bridgeway Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Bridgeway Capital Management, a multibillion-dollar hedge fund with investments in oil, pharmaceuticals, and consumer products. For years, Davis had been troubled by the limitations of charity, which she likened to “putting Band-Aids on bullet holes.” In January 2009, she was nursing her 1-month-old second child when she read a report from Human Rights Watch, a Bridgeway grantee, about a series of massacres committed by Kony’s forces. Having fled Uganda, they’d stormed through a cluster of hamlets in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, abducting children and killing their parents. Davis was so outraged that she resolved to seek a new approach to Bridgeway’s work. Documenting atrocities would no longer be enough. The foundation would now endeavor to stop them, militarily.

Davis funded Invisible Children to lobby the Obama administration to pass the 2010 Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, which called for the development of a military strategy to end the crisis. She then flew to Uganda and persuaded the country’s senior military commanders to host a contingent of US Special Forces troops to help them track Kony down. After Invisible Children’s YouTube video “KONY 2012”—in which cofounder Jason Russell explains why Americans need to take a stand against Kony—was retweeted by Rihanna, Oprah, and other stars and watched by over 100 million people in six days, Congress swiftly passed a series of bills that allocated more funding to the joint US-Uganda mission to kill or capture Kony.

That mission failed, and after the Pentagon had spent more than $780 million on it, President Donald Trump quietly shut it down in 2017. But now the Bridgeway Foundation appears to be luring the Biden administration into another, far more dangerous Central African venture on the basis of evidence that may have been extracted under torture, or at least the threat of it. As the Kony mission was winding down, Laren Poole, one of Invisible Children’s founders and now chief operations officer of Bridgeway Foundation, formed a relationship with officers from Uganda’s security forces who’d been warning for years that a Congo-based rebel group known as the Allied Democratic Forces, or ADF, received weapons and training from radical Islamist groups and was planning to turn a swath of central Africa into a caliphate.

Scholars who have studied Congo’s enormously complex violence have long been skeptical about Uganda’s claims, but in March, Bridgeway’s Poole, in collaboration with researchers from George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, released “The Islamic State in Congo,” a report claiming that the ADF has aligned itself ideologically with the Islamic State and was receiving material assistance from the group. Later that month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken designated the ADF—or ISIS-DRC, as the State Department calls it—a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The label opens up Pentagon funding lines that could be used to train and equip the Congolese military to fight the rebels. US troops, recently deployed to help the Mozambican army go after rebels allegedly linked to the IS, could be pulled in to pursue the ADF as well.

Most of the new information in the Bridgeway/George Washington University report is based on interviews carried out by Bridgeway staff and Ugandan officials with alleged ADF members. But Ugandan security forces are notorious for kidnapping and torturing Ugandans, including opposition supporters, writers, and even a legislator. For years, a unit within Uganda’s Chieftancy of Military Intelligence known as the Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force—whose director appears to be involved in Bridgeway’s research—has also been kidnapping and torturing Ugandan Muslims and forcing them to confess to belonging to the ADF. Why is Bridgeway, a foundation that claims to be working to end crimes against humanity, involved with one of Africa’s most ruthless security agencies? And is the Pentagon preparing to inflame yet another dangerous foreign quagmire on highly dubious grounds, even as it tries to extricate itself from Iraq and Afghanistan?

The ADF was created in Uganda during the 1990s by Muslim youths who were angry about the corruption of Uganda’s strongman leader Yoweri Museveni. After Ugandan forces attacked the group’s training camps, it fled into the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, eventually settling down in Beni territory, home to an unexploited oil field on the edge of a region rich in gold and coltan, a material used in computer chips. For years, the ADF operated as a sort of local mafia in Beni territory. It carved out settlements in the forest; planted bananas, coffee, cassava, and rice; excavated small gold mines; harvested timber; and ran shops, pharmacies and transport businesses. The ADF could be fierce—forcing locals to work for it and killing or kidnapping those who crossed it or failed to pay their bills—but, at least until 2011, local Congolese tended to view it as less wantonly destructive than the notoriously corrupt Congolese army. But after Congolese and UN forces launched a series of assaults on the ADF, first in 2005, and then in 2010, 2013–14, and 2019, the group committed gruesome reprisals, murdering soldiers and villagers and kidnapping children, much as Kony did in Uganda.

As the ADF crisis escalated, the Ugandans amplified their warnings about the group’s links to militant Islam. Then, in 2019, the story took a dramatic turn when ADF leader Musa Baluku pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, and the IS began claiming credit for attacks believed to have been committed by the ADF. Later that year, officers from the US Africa Command, or AFRICOM, met with senior officers from the armies of Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi to plan a possible anti-ADF offensive.

Those who study the region were apprehensive. United Nations investigators have been unable to find evidence that the ADF’s operations had significantly changed since 2019, or that the group had received significant material assistance from the Islamic State. In pledging allegiance to the IS the ADF may be reaching out for solidarity with other beleaguered Islamist groups who see themselves as victims in the West’s War on Terror—which they see as a war on Muslims; the IS, in claiming credit for ADF attacks, may similarly be attempting to aggrandize itself as it loses ground in Iraq and Syria. In its messaging to local communities, the ADF has made it clear that its attacks would stop if government forces withdrew. This suggests that the ADF’s aim—unlike that of the IS—is not to conquer territory and establish Sharia law but to be left alone. In any case, only about 2 percent of Congo’s population is Muslim; convincing millions of Christians to live under Sharia law seems unrealistic, even for a group as ambitious as the Islamic State.

Around the time the Kony mission was closing down, Bridgeway’s Poole began working with Ugandan authorities to gather more information about the relationship between the ADF and the IS. Much of this effort involved interviewing former ADF members, some of whom may have been granted amnesty by the Uganda government, which often involves cash payments in exchange for collaboration; others were apprehended in Uganda, allegedly carrying out errands for the ADF, or were caught attempting to cross the border to join the group. Most of the new information in the Bridgeway/George Washington University report is based on these interviews, and summaries of some of them leaked to journalists. Sources told the interviewers that the ADF runs a strict Sharia program with penalties such as the cutting off of hands and beheadings for adulterers; some spoke of shady money transfers from Turkey, Kenya, and the UK. Others described a vast recruiting network throughout eastern Africa. One said he’d transported mysterious chemicals for the group, whose purpose he didn’t know.

Some of the interviews with ADF informants were carried out by staff from Bridgeway and another nonprofit called the Virunga Fund; others were conducted by Ugandan officials reporting to “DCT,” the official Ugandan abbreviation for “director of counterterrorism.” The DCT heads the notoriously brutal Joint Anti-Terrorism Taskforce, a unit within Uganda’s Chieftancy of Military Intelligence. The summaries of the Ugandan officials’ interviews conclude with the words, “For Interrogation,” or “For Joint Interrogation” in bold type. At first glance, it’s not obvious what this means—unless you know something about the methods of the Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force.

Since 2006, the Joint anti-Terrorism Taskforce has been arresting and torturing Muslims inside Uganda and forcing them to sign confessions saying they are working secretly with the ADF. Poole, Davis, and US State Department officials should know this, because in 2009, Human Rights Watch documented 106 such cases, and there have been many more since. Typically, a suspect would be apprehended by armed men—sometimes uniformed, sometimes not—and then thrown into a vehicle, blindfolded, and driven to what Ugandans call a safe house but is actually a state-run torture chamber. Suspects were then ordered to draft confessions, and if they refused—as most did, having no idea what the officers were talking about—were beaten with whips, canes, chairs, shoes, and other objects. Some were electrocuted, others doused in water; some were forced into stress positions so they couldn’t sleep, and some had chili peppers rubbed into their eyes. Several of these “ADF suspects” were killed, including Saidi Lutaaya, according to a nurse at the hospital where he died. Another nurse told Human Rights Watch that Lutaaya “had a hole in his foot and the bone of his lower leg was out.” He’d also clearly been hit in the head with a hammer, and blood was oozing out of his body.

Uganda’s foreign aid donors largely ignored these abuses. In 2014, both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized Museveni for signing a harsh anti-homosexuality law, which was quickly overturned. When Human Rights Watch released its 2009 report on the torture of ADF suspects, the State Department noted it in its annual Human Rights report, but nothing was said publicly. During the Obama years, Museveni’s regime would receive billions of dollars in aid, including $270 million in military assistance.

This blind-eye diplomacy is probably explained by Uganda’s long-standing security relationship with the United States. In 2006, Museveni was the first African leader to volunteer troops to the African Union-sponsored—but largely US- and European Union–funded—mission against Al Shabab in Somalia, and Ugandans also serve under US command in Iraq, reducing the Pentagon’s reliance on American soldiers there.

So the torture continued. Beginning in 2015, a spate of high-profile murders occurred inside Uganda. Masked men on motorcycles assassinated a senior prosecutor, a senior police officer, and several Muslim sheiks. In the aftermath of each killing, dozens of Muslim men were rounded up and accused of masterminding the murders on behalf of the ADF. But when the defendants arrived in court, they claimed to have been tortured.

The purpose of the torture is unknown, but it may have to do with Museveni’s interest in gathering fake evidence to persuade the international community that the ADF’s dastardly plans justify continued support of his regime. It’s also worth noting that the ADF operates on territory Museveni may want to control. In 2006, around the time the Joint Anti-Terrorism Taskforce began rounding up Muslims, the Irish exploration firm Tullow struck oil in western Uganda, just over the border from Beni. Uganda’s reserves are estimated to be worth billions of dollars, but the oil is thick and waxy, and pumping it to the East African coast for export will require a heated pipeline, whose construction will be considerably more cost effective if it carries oil from linked reserves on the Congo side of the border. Eventually, Tullow sold its stake in Uganda to the Franco-American oil company Total, which has conducted seismic testing in precisely the area of Beni territory where most of the violence over the past decade has been concentrated. Since 2016, the French military has also been training the Ugandan army in mountain warfare techniques along the border with Beni, purportedly to defend against terrorists, including the ADF.

In their “Islamic State in Congo” report, Poole and co-authors claim that all their interview subjects were treated well, but they don’t explain how they can be so sure none were bribed, tortured, or threatened with torture. And Bridgeway did not respond to multiple interview requests. Its report also displays remarkable naïveté about their Ugandan partners. For example, it describes a dramatic 2018 Ugandan security force raid on Kampala’s Usafi mosque where ADF suspects were allegedly stockpiling weapons. But Ugandan newspapers report that many Ugandans viewed the raid as a sting operation designed by Ugandan spies to lure gullible dissidents into joining what they thought was the ADF. The Usafi mosque had for years been run by a quiet, scholarly imam who was replaced, against the wishes of many of its members, by the far more radical Abdul Rahman Faisal, who openly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, urged all Muslims to help build the caliphate in Congo, and proclaimed that anyone who hadn’t killed a non-Muslim wasn’t a real believer. Faisal even criticized Museveni on the mosque loudspeaker, an offense that is typically met with jail, torture, or worse. This went on for years.

“I have no doubt in my mind that Abdul Rahman Faisal has been working with the state,” a senior sheikh told a Ugandan reporter, a view shared by numerous other sources. But in their report, Bridgeway’s Poole and colleagues describe the Usafi mosque as if it were a real ADF cell.

The ADF has certainly been responsible for many atrocities, but much of the violence attributed to it, including at least one instance described in the Bridgeway/George Washington University report, was almost certainly carried out by other armed groups, and Congolese army officers have themselves led massacres that were blamed on the ADF. The mayhem is so bewildering that even seasoned Congo experts can’t agree on what’s going on.

Most organizations working in developing countries deliver health services, build schools, or advocate for human rights. But Bridgeway’s unusual approach is in line with ideas advanced by supporters of muscular humanitarianism around the turn of the 21st century who claimed that some atrocities, such as genocide, are so evil that they justify an armed response. In 2005, the United Nations unanimously endorsed this concept, calling it the Responsibility to Protect, or R2P.

The problem with R2P is that it doesn’t include a prior obligation to understand the conflicts waded into. What might look from Washington, D.C., or Texas like a simple contest between good and evil will inevitably be a more complicated fight on the ground. This is something the Pentagon should have learned the hard way in Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and so on.

Washington would make the best use of international aid dollars if it stopped pouring money into the coffers of corrupt and manipulative dictators like Museveni, spent less on meddling in conflicts it doesn’t understand, and urged nonprofits like Bridgeway to go back to health care, education, and reporting human rights abuses, no matter who commits them.

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