A series of attacks against civilian and government targets in North Kivu represents a resurgence in rebel activity in the volatile eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Most of the attacks have been attributed to the Allied Democratic Forces – National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (ADF-NALU), indicating the group has reorganised after its bases were overrun by Congolese and UN forces in February. The group’s revival raises questions over the effectiveness of the UN’s military offensive in the region and will increase the risk of renewed fighting between rebel and UN/Congolese forces in the Beni region in the short to medium term.
In the latest incident on 17 October, ADF-NALU rebels attacked the town of Eringenti, 50 km outside of the district capital of Beni, killing 22 civilians. The same day, heavily armed gunmen overpowered guards at the main jail in Butembo, freeing 390 prisoners, of whom only around 30 have since been recaptured. The army have also attributed that attack to the ADF-NALU, though local authorities have blamed armed criminal gangs. Nonetheless, both incidents come after further attacks attributed to ADF-NALU in North Kivu, including the killing of 26 civilians near Beni on 16 October, and attacks on 3, 5 and 8 October that left a total of 19 dead.
The ADF-NALU is an extremist Islamist sect that fled into the DRC from Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains in the 1990s, following clashes with the Ugandan army. Since then, the group has continued to terrorise local communities in North Kivu, carrying out repeated massacres and armed raids. The group is dependent on illegal logging and gold mining for funding, as well as extorting cargo and civilians in the Butembo, Beni and Oicha districts of North Kivu. The past six months have seen a notable drop in the group’s activities after the Congolese army supported by UN peacekeepers overran their bases, forcing the group to retreat into the mountainous region near the Ugandan border.
The latest violence, however, indicates that the group has since reorganised and is increasing the momentum of its attacks. Despite having just 400 fighters at its disposal, many of whom are armed with only machetes and other rudimentary weapons, the ADF-NALU poses a clear risk to civilians, mining operations, NGOs and cargo movement in the Beni region of North Kivu. If confirmed to have been involved in the jail raid at Butembo, this would further underscore the group’s capacity to attack secured facilities and the release of prisoners may have been aimed at increasing the size of its force in preparation for future attacks.
The resurgence of violence will raise questions over the effectiveness of the UN’s Foreign Intervention Brigade (FIB), the world’s first peacekeeping unit with an offensive mandate. Launched in 2013 and initially tasked with eliminating the remnants of the Tutsi-led M23 rebel group, the mission has had some successes in stabilising the volatile North Kivu region. However, the FIB’s long-term success is undermined by the lack of a political or social component to its military strategy aimed at reintegrating former fighters into society. In the past month, media reports citing local communities have claimed that some elements of the M23 are rearming in North Kivu, and the renewed attacks by the ADF-NALU also indicate weaknesses in the FIB’s approach. Without a clear strategy to disrupt the group’s revenues and reintegrate its fighters, the FIB will continue to struggle to stabilise the region.
Nonetheless, the surge in violence will place fresh pressure on the FIB to launch a renewed offensive against the ADF-NALU. This will increase the risk of heavy fighting, including artillery fire, in the Beni area and along the Ugandan border. There is a potential risk of spillover into Uganda’s tourism hub in the Rwenzori Mountains, though Kampala has deployed additional units to the area and this has previously proven effective at mitigating the threat. There is also the risk of protests in eastern DRC’s urban areas, with demonstrations demanding government action already reported in Goma, Beni and Butembo on 20 October. In the longer term, any future FIB mission is unlikely to completely neutralise the ADF-NALU, which has repeatedly demonstrated its resilience to military offensives. This will leave civilian populations, mining operations, NGOs and road cargo in the Beni area vulnerable to attack for at least the next six-month outlook.