DR Congo: What Is the ADF, the Ugandan Rebel Group Hacking Civilians to Death?

1201 DRC ADF conflict
Congolese soldiers from the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) launch missiles during their military operation against ADF-NALU rebels outside the town of Beni, in North Kivu province, January 18, 2014. The ADF-NALU group have reportedly killed around 500 civilians in the past year, according to the U.N. Kenny Katombe/Reuters

Updated | Peace is little more than an abstract ideal in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The region has been blighted by war for more than two decades, killing approximately 5.4 million people and spawning a variety of violent militias competing for territory and supremacy.

One militant group has received increasing prominence in recent months following a series of deadly attacks. The U.N. blamed the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) for clashes on Sunday that resulted in the deaths of at least 24 people—including seven hospital patients hacked to death with machetes—in Eringeti, a town in northeastern DRC. The BBC reported that most of the 20,000-strong population of the town was also displaced by the violence.

The Kinshasa government has also reportedly blamed the ADF for almost all of the attacks over the past year near Beni, a town near the Ugandan border in DRC's North Kivu province, in which at least 500 civilians are thought to have died.

But what is the ADF and how much of a threat does it pose to security in DRC, one of Africa's most troubled countries?

What Is the ADF?

Active since 1996, the ADF is based in the Ruwenzori mountains in the border region between North Kivu and Uganda. According to the Jamestown Foundation, the group was originally active in Uganda and arose out of the union of two other groups. Also known as the ADF-NALU, the group is led by Jamil Mukulu, a Muslim convert from Christianity. Mukulu was arrested in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in April after years on the run and extradited to Uganda, where he faces charges of terrorism, murder and treason, leaving the ADF without a recognized figurehead who is currently active.

According to a U.N. Security Council (UNSC) report dated January 2015, the ADF suffered heavy losses following an offensive by the Congolese army (known as FARDC), backed by the U.N. mission in DRC (MONUSCO). Hundreds of ADF soldiers were killed and the group split into two factions, though the report warned that the ADF had capacity to rebuild due to its well-established recruitment and financing networks.

Is the ADF an Islamist organization?

The ADF is often described as Islamist and its initial aim was to overthrow the Ugandan government of Yoweri Museveni and install Sharia law in the country. The Congolese government has also previously linked the ADF with the Somali militant group Al-Shabab. However, the group has become highly localized in North Kivu since being ousted from Uganda and there is little evidence for national or regional ambitions based on Islamist ideology, according to Ben Payton, Head of Africa Research at Verisk Maplecroft.

"They haven't really made much of an effort to break out of the Ruwenzori mountains," Payton says. "Although they've been continuously active for about 15 years, I don't think you could say they are really waging any kind of jihad."

The UNSC report also found no "credible evidence suggesting that ADF has, or recently has had, links to foreign terrorist groups" such as Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabab or the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram. Nowadays, the group's membership is also largely non-religious, according to Phil Clark, lecturer in comparative international politics at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

"They often get described as an Islamic or Islamist force but I think that's a misnomer in the sense that they really don't propagate any coherent religious ideology," Clark says.

How Is DRC Dealing With the ADF?

The Congolese army has been applying pressure on the ADF since 2010 and the group now reportedly numbers around 500 combatants, according to MONUSCO. The U.N. heavily supports the army's operations and around 20,000 U.N. troops are in DRC.

However, cooperation between the Congolese army and the U.N. halted for several months this year after the U.N. demanded the removal of two Congolese generals accused of rights abuses in February. The U.N. did not drop the demands until July, and the lag in coordination created a window of opportunity for the ADF and other groups to scale up attacks, Clark says.

"The ADF is really making the most of this weak relationship between the U.N. and DRC at the moment," Clark says. "They see this as an opportunity to grab territory before that relationship is rebuilt."

International involvement in the conflict will also step up after France announced on November 25 that it was sending 300 special forces to DRC to assist with training the army against the ADF.

What Threat Does the ADF Pose to DRC's Elections?

Elections are slated for November 2016 in DRC, and the uptick in ADF activities is another factor complicating the electoral process. Amnesty International raised concerns about an alleged crackdown on political activism by President Joseph Kabila, who is due to step down amid fears he may seek an unconstitutional third term in office. According to Payton, there are also a range of other armed groups—as many as 70 across the country—that could pose a security risk to the elections. While he says the ADF ranks as one of the most active and dangerous militias active in DRC, Payton says that the local nature of the group means it os unlikely to undermine the national elections.

Correction: This article originally misspelled the name of Ben Payton.