Uganda: New danger from Ugandan rebel group?

Institute for War and Peace Reporting
An Islamic guerrilla group previously thought to be a spent force is regrouping and rearming, according to Ugandan security officials.
Security officials in Uganda are warning that the country faces a real threat from an Islamic group that many believed had been defeated.
Most foreign reporting on Uganda’s security problems focuses on the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, a guerrilla force which professes Christian values but has pursued a particularly brutal insurgent war in northern Uganda for two decades.

But there is growing concern about another group, the Allied Democratic Forces, ADF, a resurgence of which could again threaten Uganda’s southwestern flank.

The ADF’s base in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, places it among the many cross-border security problems facing the Great Lakes region.

The fact that the United States government is planning to help monitor the activity of armed Ugandan and Rwandan factions operating out of the DRC seems to reflect the growing concern in the White House about the potential for African instability to breed international terrorism.

US interest in Great Lakes security grew after the 1997 bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and a failed plot to attack its Kampala mission.

Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, the US government added the LRA to its list of terrorist organisations. It subsequently established the 100-million-dollar East Africa Counterterrorism Initiative, intended to provide regional states with a range of tools from police training to methods of countering money-laundering and other financial abuses by illegal organisations.

“There is a general interest on the part of the United States and members of the international community to help reduce the level of internal violence in Africa," said Dr Calestous Juma, professor of international development at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"Concerns over the spread of terrorism are only a part of the equation."

Yet while it is still concerned about the LRA, the US recently dropped the Islamic ADF from its list of designated terrorist organisations.

From 1996 onwards, the ADF grew into an increasingly potent rebel force – assisted by the Sudanese government - but in 1999 the Ugandan armed forces began to gain the upper hand and by 2001, they had effectively defeated the group.

Now it’s back, according to security officials interviewed by IWPR.

“The long absence of a central government in Congo [DRC], hampered by a UN peacekeeping force without a strong mandate to disarm and reintegrate fighters, has given the ADF time to regroup there,” said Lieutenant-Colonel James Mugira, Uganda's acting chief of military intelligence.

According to Mugira, the ADF has been receiving funding, operational training, and weapons such as Kalashnikov assault rifles, mortars and bomb-making equipment from Islamic fundamentalist groups in Muslim countries.

Captain Joseph Kamusiime, operations officer in charge of Uganda's joint anti-terrorism unit, says that while the ADF has reportedly received help from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, one of its main supporters is Hassan al-Turabi, leader of the Sudan-based National Islamic Front.

Kamusiime believes Turabi wants to see the "Islamicisation” of Sudan’s neighbours including Uganda.

Earlier this year, the ADF's leader, Jamil Mukulu, began distributing tape recordings of religious sermons in which he incited members to attack the government of President Yoweri Museveni, and criticised ADF members who had surrendered to the army.

Captain Kamusiime said the sermons preached that "Muslims should kill non-Muslims, and kill also Muslims who are not fighting for jihad".

In another recording, continued Kamusiime, Mukulu takes aim at the West, saying, "Let curses be to Bush, Blair, the president of France - and more curse goes to Museveni and all those fighting Islam."

Kamusiime concluded, "This is mujahedin kind of propaganda, and we think it's dangerous, especially if the message is conveyed to someone who's not educated." He added that 50 per cent of Uganda's population is illiterate.

Kamusiime estimates that there between 650 and 1,000 armed ADF fighters based at two camps in eastern DRC, and said that Mukulu has recently sent funds to these groups to help them recruit new members.

The United Nations mission in DRC is less convinced about the threat posed by the Ugandan rebel group. It comes up with a similar estimate of 1,000 fighters in the country, but its deputy spokesman Mamadou Bah says that "some of them are camp-followers or other kinds of people who make the ADF fighters seem much more than they actually are".

Under a tripartite agreement designed to disable the various DRC-based insurgent forces, the US, Uganda and Rwanda share information about rebel activity both with each other and with the DRC government. The groups under scrutiny include the Interahamwe, the remnants of the Hutu forces responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Within Uganda, the US government remains especially concerned about the LRA, which Ugandan intelligence and army sources say received military training at al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden's farm in Sudan in the mid-Nineties.

The US provides Museveni's government with non-military assistance such as vehicles and radios to help it combat the LRA.

Even though the LRA is avowedly Christian in outlook, it has received backing from Sudan's Islamic government, which has traditionally been opposed to Museveni because it alleged he was helping the Sudan People's Liberation Army, the rebel force which made peace with the Khartoum government only this year.

Despite the fact that the LRA still has a place on the US list of terrorist organisations while the ADF no longer does so, Ugandan officials insist that Mukulu's group is may be more of a menace to the international community as well as to the country itself.

"The LRA is an insurgent group which is using terrorist targets to further their cause. They're not targeting Americans [or] Israelis," said Kamusiime.

“The ADF, however, is motivated by Islamic fundamentalists - more in line with al-Qaeda ideology like other African terrorist organisations with global reach, such as the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, and Somalia's Al-Ittihad al-Islamiya.”

Four years ago, the Ugandan government unsuccessfully tried to get an international arrest warrant issued for Mukulu, and now it plans to post his photo on the internet in a bid to capture him.

"We know he's going to be a very, very dangerous person,” said Mugira.

“We think he'll become the next Bin Laden of Africa."

Fawzia Sheikh is a Canadian journalist based in Kampala.
Originally published on 6 June 2005.