June 23, 2023
IntelBrief: Uganda School Attack Shows Jihadists’ Continued Reach
Militants belonging to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an Islamic State (IS) -affiliated terrorist group based in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), launched a devastating attack last weekend on a private boarding school in Uganda, killing 42 people – including 37 students – and abducting several others in a brutal cross-border assault. Militants firebombed student dormitories while fleeing students were hacked to death with machetes or gunned down. Six students were reportedly abducted, three of whom have since been rescued. After carrying out the deadliest attack in Uganda in over a decade, the jihadists fled back over the border into DRC. On Monday, Ugandan police announced they had arrested 20 suspected ADF collaborators in connection with the attack.
The ADF is primarily comprised of Congolese and Ugandan militants, but also includes foreign fighters in its ranks from Kenya, Tanzania, and Burundi. Additionally, it communicates directly with other Islamic State affiliates, including those in Mozambique and Somalia, and IS provides its sub-Saharan African affiliates with financial, logistical, and propaganda support. The ADF has been at war with the Ugandan government since the 1990s. The group established ties with IS in 2018 and claims to operate under the banner of the Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP).
The school attack is indicative of a growing trend throughout sub-Saharan Africa, where fragile states with weak security forces, porous borders, and an abundance of small arms and light weapons struggle to contain jihadist terrorist groups linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State. As entire regions have been overrun by terrorist and insurgent groups, the United States and Western countries are devoting fewer resources to counterterrorism in Africa, while Russia is using the private military company Wagner Group to fill the power vacuum in parts of the Sahel, Central Africa, and elsewhere on the continent.
Islamic State affiliates operating in Africa have become a major focus of the group’s post-“Caliphate” strategy, wherein once peripheral or marginal groups have increased the frequency of their attacks. Groups like Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), Islamic State Greater Sahara (rebranded as Islamic State Sahel), and ISCAP have also enjoyed success in recruiting new members, capitalizing on grievances in these regions and leveraging the IS brand and propaganda apparatus. Thousands of jihadists are active in eastern Congo alone, where militants have beheaded civilians, burned churches, and carried out suicide attacks. According to the UN peacekeeping operation in the DRC (MONUSCO), the ADF was responsible for killing over 1,300 civilians in 2021 alone, and even managed to set off explosions in the Ugandan capital that year. The group has been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Both Congolese and Ugandan security forces have been unable to contain the growing ISCAP threat, while the DRC is also plagued by conflict with other terrorist groups, including the March 23 Movement.
Within the broader constellation of IS affiliates, sub-Saharan Africa has been a region of substantial growth, and the center of gravity for jihadist terrorism more broadly. In Syria and Iraq, Islamic State fighters are struggling to mount serious offensives, have been deprived of territory, and face near-constant assault from various actors operating in the region, including U.S. special operations forces that have eliminated two successive IS leaders in the past year. As Islamic State’s presence and popularity have declined in areas including Libya, Yemen, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and Southeast Asia, that void has been filled by its African affiliates and the Afghanistan-based Islamic State Khorasan (ISK). Earlier this week, UN Assistant Secretary-General Khaled Khiari said that “Africa has emerged as the key battleground for terrorism, with a major increase in the number of active groups operating on the continent.” He noted that political, economic, and social grievances, in addition to porous borders and “identity-based mobilization” have all put Africa at the forefront of terrorism and insurgent-related violence.
Perceived as being more locally and regionally focused than Islamic State core in Syria, Africa-based jihadist groups are often considered to be less threatening to Western security interests and homelands, and thus these threats are not considered a top priority for many Western capitals. As governments continue to move away from counterterrorism to dedicate greater resources and bandwidth to great power competition, the threat posed by terrorist groups in Africa will likely metastasize; attention further afield to South and Southeast Asia appears even more limited. These groups have taken advantage of permissive security environments to expand and rebuild. Over time, counterterror experts fear that groups active on the continent could switch focus and begin planning external operations outside of their areas of operation. ISWAP has been successful in positioning the organization as attractive to jihadists beyond Nigeria. Al-Qaeda-linked groups are also in flux. In 2019, Filipino authorities arrested Cholo Abdi Abdullah, a Kenyan al-Shabaab fighter who was planning to conduct a high-profile terrorist attack against the United States. Furthermore, these groups could also seek to recruit foreign fighters from beyond Africa to join their organizations, introducing fighters with diverse skill sets, expertise, and backgrounds. Scholars have also suggested that the men and boys currently in Northeast Syria, particularly those who may have escaped detention centers or are “floating” in the region, may also find themselves recruited for battlefields in Africa or South Asia if jihadist groups seek to boost their capacities and numbers.