Game On Between Uganda’s Former Liberation War Allies
Game On Between Uganda’s Former Liberation War Allies
The Kampala Attacks and Their Regional Implications
The Kampala Attacks and Their Regional Implications
Strange fruit: campaign posters for NRM primaries for local elections adorn a tree, Kampala. CRISIS GROUP/Magnus Taylor
Commentary / Africa

Game On Between Uganda’s Former Liberation War Allies

John Patrick Amama Mbabazi (known as JPAM), the former prime minister and secretary general of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), is tired. He had an early meeting and then, indignity of indignities, he got stuck in traffic. We’re in Crested Towers, the high office block from where he used to run government business. Now it’s home to his nascent presidential campaign. The cause of the traffic jam was his estranged political partner, President Yoweri Museveni, whose convoy has the habit of causing chaos on the streets of the capital, Kampala. This is just one thing that Mbabazi, who recently switched from regime stalwart to opposition insurgent, is going to have to get used to.


When I last visited Uganda in March 2014, Museveni and Mbabazi were at each other’s throats. Mbabazi, the second most powerful man in the country, had been accused of developing parallel support structures within the ruling party to become its flag-bearer in the 2016 presidential election (he still denies this). Museveni, having removed presidential term limits in 2005 and, over 30 years, engineered a system in which he sits at the apex of decision-making, was not keen to leave. (His favoured eventual replacement would be his son, Mohoozi.)

Museveni responded to Mbabazi’s ambition by sacking him as prime minister, appointing a new secretary general of the NRM and announcing a plan for a “Single Candidacy”, that is, no one would stand against him for the party leadership.

On 14 June 2015 Mbabazi announced that he would run for the presidency. He would first try to muscle his way into the NRM leadership primaries. If that failed, he would compete as an independent and try to take his supporters in NRM with him. At the height of the internal struggle, NRM was said to be split down the middle between the president and the prime minister. Whether Mbabazi can retain this network following loss of the political office is as yet untested.

After declaring his wish to take his campaign on the road, Mbabazi challenged the inspector general of police to stop him: “He may put a mamba [armoured vehicle] at my gate .… If he puts a mamba [there], I will jump over it”. On 9 July, JPAM got beyond the gate, but not much further. He was detained for several hours when attempting to travel to eastern Uganda to meet with supporters in Mbale to hold what the Ugandan system technically calls a “voter consultation” in the pre-campaign phase of an election. Police stopped him before he even crossed the Nile at Jinja (two hours from Kampala).

Also on 9 July, Kizza Besigye, a three-time opposition presidential aspirant who is running again in 2016, was arrested leaving his house for a meeting at the U.S. embassy. Mbabazi tells me Besigye was “collateral damage”, caught up in the real game surrounding his own temporary incarceration. It is his candidacy, not Besigye’s, he says, that is “the biggest ever threat to Museveni’s leadership of Uganda”.

Besigye was Museveni’s doctor during the Bush War (Uganda’s liberation struggle) and is however a far more established opposition figure. He stood against Museveni in 2001, 2006 and 2011 gaining 27, 39 and 32 per cent of the vote respectively, despite Museveni’s enormous financial and organisational advantages, which go beyond those normally associated with incumbency. For the opposition to force a run-off against Museveni it must gain 50 per cent +1 vote (a simple majority) in the first round – something it has never been close to achieving. Could Mbabazi bring enough voters unhappy with Museveni’s long tenure but unwilling to vote for Besigye to deny the president a first round victory and push him into a head-to-head fight with one of his old comrades? Kampala buzzes with speculation over the likely outcome of Mbabazi’s campaign; Red Pepper – a tabloid-style newspaper and regular source of political gossip – ran a story as recently as 1 October saying that NRM had postponed its party primaries for fear that Mbabazi was preparing to insert his own supporters into key positions within the party.

News of Mbabazi’s supporters clash with police in Soroti, eastern Uganda.

On Monday 7 September, Mbabazi finally made it to Mbale. The plan was to conduct further supporter meetings in the east, at Kapchorwa and Soroti, unprepossessing towns in the politically marginalised eastern region. Mbabazi’s team felt sure he would get adequate support there to give his campaign some momentum. The first two of the three sessions went off without a hitch. Police presence was unobtrusive and JPAM seemed to be warming to the task. He wore local dress and smiled. Crowds – supportive and curious – thronged the venues. All received a free soda, and the atmosphere was party-like.

In Mbale, JPAM was presented with a large golden key, intended to represent his imminent installation as the custodian of State House. But politically, as well as geographically, it’s a long way from Mbale to Kampala.

By 9 September, something had shifted in the political firmament. Whether the result of a directive from the leadership or simply hot-headed local policing, a crowd in Soroti was, with limited provocation, tear-gassed, and a planned meeting in Jinja was cancelled, the electoral commission releasing a statement that Mbabazi is not allowed to hold “rallies”, only “consultations”, until the campaign has formally begun. The distinction is, at best, academic. Mbabazi’s crime was clearly one of excessive popularity.

Jinja police released their own statement, that the hall Mbabazi was going to use for his meeting was booked for the whole month, and there was no other venue. Mbabazi says his team booked and paid for it long before. But he can’t win the argument. The Jinja trip is off. It was never really about the hall.

JPAM returned to Kampala amid more tear gas. His supporters and onlookers, in the mood for some anti-NRM excitement, surrounded his car. Game on.

Power to the people (mural, Uganda Electoral Commission, Kampala).

While Mbabazi was out east, the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) was gearing up for the campaign. It first re-elected Besigye as its flag-bearer. But Besigye’s view of running again has, for the past few years been, at best, ambivalent.

When he lost heavily in 2011 Besigye decided to take a back seat in FDC and let former army chief Mugisha Muntu take over the leadership. Muntu has a solid track record and is a better organiser, but he lacks Besigye’s charisma on the campaign trail. Besigye has name recognition but his reputation is divisive, that of a dangerous radical who abandoned the liberation movement instead of working within it.

After 2011, Besigye seemed to conclude that it was pointless to run against Museveni unless the electoral system was reformed; within the current rules, Museveni, who controls state resources, the electoral commission and security services, is unbeatable at the ballot box. Museveni agreed, asserting in 2011 that he would chew up anyone who stood against him “like a samosa”. An electoral reform bill, which includes clauses intended to make the electoral commission more independent, has been submitted to parliament but is stuck in committee and highly unlikely to progress before the elections.

Since his last electoral defeat, Besigye has changed tack, seeking to highlight the impact NRM’s poor economic management is having on ordinary people. He linked up with “Activists4Change”, a civil society coalition formed to launch “Walk to Work” protests; covered in detailed in Crisis Group’s 2012 Uganda report “Uganda: No Resolution to Growing Tensions”. The plan was to draw attention to the plight of those suffering under cost of living increases, notably a 50 per cent fuel price jump, which had forced many to resort to the only form of transport they can now afford.

The protest was a clever idea, based on the premise that Museveni could not object to Besigye simply doing what many poor Ugandans do every day. He was wrong: his own journey to the office attracted thousands of followers, and the police intervened with tear gas, beatings and the arrest of Besigye, who was also shot in the hand with a rubber bullet and, in a separate incident, a video of which was widely viewed internationally, tear-gassed in the face through the smashed glass of his car window.

The season of electoral rallies approaches.

While Besigye, for reasons described above, remained distinctly sceptical about the utility of running against Museveni for a fourth time, the opposition movement as a whole decided this year that it would attempt to unite around a single candidate and form The Democratic Alliance (TDA, essentially FDC and some smaller parties). This was a bold symbolic step but one likely to have limited impact at the ballot box, where the non-FDC opposition won only about 4 per cent of the vote in 2011.

Some wondered whether the professional coordination of the TDA launch suggested the hand of Mbabazi. If he played a significant organising role, he was keeping his cards close to his chest, initially refusing to be drawn on whether he would be a candidate for the alliance’s leadership. After missing an initial deadline, Mbabazi eventually presented his credentials. This precipitated an argument within the movement over whether it would be best served by his crossover appeal or Besigye’s electoral experience. A Mbabazi/Besigye ticket could attract more overall support, Journalist Andrew Mwenda wrote recently in The Independent, a Ugandan current affairs magazine: “The salvation for the opposition … is to have both Besigye and… Mbabazi in the race …. Mbabazi can eat into Museveni’s vote and appeal to many independents uncomfortable with Besigye”.

Polling conducted in July 2015 by Research World International into a possible three-horse race found 55 per cent for Museveni, 18 per cent for Besigye and 14 per cent for Mbabazi, with 13 per cent who were “undecided” or “don’t know”.

These numbers show that a Besigye-Mbabazi electoral alliance would not necessarily improve on the 2011 opposition performance. But what such a poll doesn’t reflect is the potential the opposition may have to build further support once it starts campaigning and gains greater attention from an often politically apathetic public.

Godber Tumushabe from the TDA explains why it is, despite the numbers, optimistic about 2016: “For [Museveni] having spent five years campaigning, 55 per cent is pretty bad”. He also raises a point that many others touch on; for Museveni, the exercise of government is first about staying in power. This is not to say that NRM has no significant achievements; it has presided over a massive expansion of the state and, for the majority of Ugandans, an increase in prosperity. But the narrative is shifting increasingly toward the efforts required to keep the “Old Man” in power and preserve the patronage-driven system developed to achieve this end.

A stained cuticle is the mark of participation during voting season.

In contrast to the lack of change at the top, Ugandan politics is highly competitive at the local level. It still hugely favours the nationally embedded structures and deep pockets of the NRM, of course, the only party able to field candidates for every parliamentary seat. But dissent is expressed more obviously through constituency battles and NRM primaries, rather than at the presidential level. As journalist Angelo Izama writes here, there is about a 50 per cent chance of a legislator losing if he or she chooses to run again at the next election. Coupled with a lively media and civil society, there is potential for opposition politics to gain traction, certainly in the urban centres (as Besigye’s relative success has proved).

The unknown potential of the opposition alliance may be why Mbabazi has been so obviously obstructed in his attempts to conduct even his innocuous sounding “consultations”. Museveni fears him. And he is specifically alarmed that Mbabazi is not running with a party behind him, but rather as a representative of “the original NRM”. Mbabazi’s plan after winning the presidential poll would be, quite evidently, to reinsert himself into the NRM architecture as a compromise or “change” candidate.

Mural on the wall of the Uganda Electoral Commission, Kampala.

It’s difficult to find a serious, non-partisan commentator who thinks Mbabazi will win. But is this analysis simply the conservative instinct of the ‘incumbency matters’ reading of African politics? Did Mohammadu Buhari’s victory in Nigeria this year usher in a new era of possibility for opposition parties across the continent? There is some cause for optimism among the Ugandan opposition – particularly the pressure placed on Goodluck Jonathan by international actors to respect the results – but Nigeria’s fight against insurgency in its north east (the spark which ignited the Buhari campaign) is more obviously a preoccupation of voters than Uganda’s slow drift toward authoritarianism. Museveni can also reasonably claim that, unlike Jonathan, he defeated a religious-based northern insurgency (although it took twenty years).

There is also widespread scepticism about Mbabazi’s chances in part because he does not cut a convincing opposition figure. He was a leading player in the regime until 2014 and as prime minister ushered through legislation such as the Public Order Management Act, which will likely now, in an irony not lost on Ugandans, be used against him to break up political meetings that have not been specifically cleared by the security services. Uganda’s parliament has officially exonerated him from alleged association with a high-profile corruption case. Mbabazi has moreover never been particularly popular with the public; he was respected for his abilities as a political operative in concert with Museveni’s power and charisma but not loved.

Perhaps more significant still, Yoweri Museveni has not spent 30 years in power without finding ways to entrench his position. Most obviously, he has built up the security services and kept them occupied and loyal. First this was with the long-running war against Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). More recently they have been deployed in the profitable African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia (the Ugandan deployment to AMISOM receives training and salaries from the European Union and the U.S.) with no sign of withdrawal despite recent heavy losses.

Using his army to do challenging tasks in Mogadishu has helped Museveni, who has long styled himself as the indispensable “Bismarck of East Africa”, build Uganda into a crucial player in the region. As well as contributing the largest and longest-deployed contingent of troops to AMISOM, Uganda has 3,000-4,000 troops in South Sudan, who were instrumental in shoring up the government of Salva Kiir after the outbreak of civil war there in December 2013. Uganda, whose business interests and migrant population in South Sudan are considerable, has also been a crucial, if controversial, factor in the recently concluded peace talks, including a rapprochement with Sudan and its President Omar al-Bashir.

Instructions for would-be voters.

While Uganda’s drift towards authoritarianism, coupled with the high-profile introduction of legislation to criminalise homosexuality (not yet passed) and regulate the operational environment for NGOs (progressing through parliament), may not win approval from Western actors, Museveni has embedded himself to the extent that the internationals accept his military contributions with one hand whilst wagging a censorious finger with the other. His actions may not always be approved, but he has made Uganda a serious player in the region, one that cannot be lightly dismissed or sidelined.

Museveni has integrated his family and key supporters into the main security organs, making an unplanned change in leadership all the more unlikely. First, he has built up Mohoozi (his son) to become commander of the Special Forces Group, with authority over the best-trained and equipped troops in the country, including the elite Presidential Guard Brigade, whose loyalty is virtually assured.

Secondly, in 2005 Museveni appointed a hard-working army commander, Kale Kayihura, as his inspector general of police and increased his budget to recruit both greater numbers of conventional officers and large numbers of civilians, who have been deployed to assist police operations temporarily in past elections and will likely be so used again next year.

In 2011, 5,500 of these Special Police Constables were added to the force. The idea originated in donor-funded community policing programs that sought to more effectively connect the country’s stretched police resources with the communities they served. Plans in 2015/2016 are much more ambitious. Kayihura is training hundreds of thousands of “Crime Preventers” (some say as many as five million, but that figure hardly seems credible). As Fred Golooba-Mutebi wrote in The East African, “every time an election is coming up, for some reason the government somehow remembers that crime is a big problem”.

Crime Preventers were originally the idea of Blaise Mugisha, a student at Uganda’s premier university, Makerere. Following a highly reported incident of rape on campus, Mugisha met Kayihura and suggested a “National Youth Crime Preventer Programme” to empower young Ugandans to take control of their own security through training provided by the police. Kayihura may have hoped to greatly increase his local manpower with a cheap, if possibly unreliable, force. Secondly, it may have looked like a way to bring Makerere, previously an opposition stronghold, “on board”, by empowering a section of the student community keen to improve its own prospects through cooperation with the regime.

The Crime Preventers program now channels attempts by self-empowering youths to find a place for themselves in the patronage world of NRM politics. Mugisha, a personable and intelligent young man, tells me the program is about “people solving the problem” so that they can “benefit economically and create productive units”. But he and his comrades are being used by the NRM as the front for a project that is more about keeping the older generation in power than building a society able to gainfully employ their own generation.

It’s questionable, however, how much effective election management Crime Preventers might be able to contribute, given their desultory three-week training and lack of salaries. The concern is that they may be inserted in a disorganised fashion into closely fought local races, causing mayhem, or take the opportunity their new-found status may afford to extort fellow citizens.

The debate about militias intensified further when “Presidential Adviser” Major Kakooza Mutale, a grizzled Bush War veteran, announced that he was training his own group, the Kalangala Action Plan (last seen entering the fray during the 2001 elections), and would “do anything” to make sure Museveni remains in power. Erias Lukwago, Lord Mayor of Kampala and a Besigye supporter, countered that announcement, saying he too would have his own group, “Trust and Justice Solida”.

Mbabazi describes Mutale as “a clown”, and most doubt whether Lukwago’s group will actually be formed, but Ugandans are conflict shy, having long memories of what came before NRM.
Research World International’s poll illustrates this well. According to its figures, 45 per cent do not believe political power can change peacefully through elections; 61 per cent don’t think President Museveni can peacefully hand over power if defeated. The inference is: “Don’t cross the Old Man at the ballot box”.

It is, however, becoming accepted that politicians will have their own private bands of heavies to deploy when the political debate moves beyond the ballot box and the debating chamber into the streets. And political debate is more commonly moving to the streets, as questions of transition and reform loom larger in the public imagination.

This election is likely to be closely contested, with personal animosity seeping into the bigger political questions. As President Museveni sees his former doctor and former prime minister preparing to face him on the campaign trail, perhaps he wonders: “Who next?”

All photos by CRISIS GROUP/Magnus Taylor

People extinguish fire on cars caused by a bomb explosion near Parliament building in Kampala, Uganda, on November 16, 2021. - Two explosions hit Uganda's capital Kampala on November 16, 2021, injuring a number of people in what police termed an attack on Ivan Kabuye / AFP
Q&A / Africa

The Kampala Attacks and Their Regional Implications

The Islamic State has claimed two suicide bombings in the Ugandan capital Kampala. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Dino Mahtani unpacks what happened and assesses the threat of further such attacks in East Africa.

What happened and who is allegedly involved?

On 16 November, a trio of suicide bombers targeted Kampala, Uganda’s capital city, one detonating his vest outside police headquarters and two more blowing themselves up near parliament. The attacks killed at least four other people, according to official reports, and wounded 37 more, 27 of whom were police officers. As the city reeled from the blasts, security forces hunted down a fourth bomber in north-western Kampala, shooting him before recovering his suicide vest. The police said they had recovered more explosive materials from a safe house the fourth attacker was using in a nearby suburb and were continuing to track other possible members of the “terror groups”. In a statement later that day, President Yoweri Museveni said the attackers were tied to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a rebel group that emerged in Uganda in the early 1990s and later fled into the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Its resurgence in the DRC since 2013 has been marked by the killing of thousands of civilians.

Hours after the president’s statement, the Islamic State (ISIS), which now counts the ADF’s largest faction as one of its affiliates, issued its own communiqué via its media agency Amaq, claiming the attacks as its handiwork. ISIS said the attackers were all Ugandan foot soldiers of its so-called caliphate. In recent weeks, the jihadist group and the ADF have been linked to a spate of bombings in public spaces in Uganda. On 8 October, ISIS said it was behind a reported bomb attack against a police station in Kampala. It then claimed responsibility for an explosion in a speciality pork restaurant and bar on the city outskirts on 23 October, which killed one person. Days later, a suicide bomber blew himself up on a bus on the way to the DRC border, injuring a few passengers. Ugandan officials said he was part of the ADF. Earlier in 2021, authorities say, the ADF was also involved in a failed bomb plot targeting a Ugandan general’s funeral and a failed assassination attempt directed at a government minister.

A main suspect in some of the bomb plots, according to Ugandan security officials who have spoken to Crisis Group, is a Ugandan individual, Meddie Nkalubo (known in ADF circles as “Punisher”), who is based in an ADF camp in the eastern DRC from where he coordinates cells in Kampala and elsewhere. In June, UN investigators working under a Security Council mandate covering the DRC reported that several ADF ex-combatants had identified him as the operator of a drone the ADF used in combat against the Congolese military, as well as an important bombmaker for the group. An ADF ex-combatant who worked for him and who has been interviewed by Crisis Group explained that Nkalubo is also an important disseminator of ISIS propaganda and instructional videos to cells not just in Uganda but elsewhere in the region.

In the aftermath of the attacks, Ugandan security forces have deployed large numbers of troops and police and put up several new checkpoints across Kampala. As of Friday morning, police say they have arrested at least 34 people, including six children, who are allegedly connected to the ADF, and have recovered more explosive materials as part of ongoing raids. They say they have killed at least four suspected ADF operatives who were crossing into a Ugandan frontier town facing the DRC. They have also shot dead a Ugandan Muslim cleric, Muhammed Abas Kirevu, at his home outside Kampala. The police say he was an ADF recruiter and was killed after allegedly trying to escape while police tried to escort him into a patrol car. His family have described his killing as “cold blooded murder”. Meanwhile, authorities say they are hunting down another cleric, Suleiman Nsubuga, suspected of recruiting and training fighters, and providing them materials to make bombs. Rights activists have voiced concerns that a broader crackdown could translate into heavy-handed repression which could enable militant recruitment.

How has the ADF evolved while affiliating itself to Islamic State?

Originally composed of both Christian and Muslim fighters, the ADF began as an alliance of rebels seeking to oust President Museveni’s government. Its insurgency was routed by Ugandan troops in the mid-2000s, forcing it to flee to the eastern DRC, where it classed itself as an armed Islamist group. Although its activities are centred in the DRC, the ADF recruits heavily in Uganda, where it draws upon a wellspring of discontent among Ugandan Muslims, who make up roughly 14 per cent of the population according to official estimates. Some Muslims accuse authorities of religious discrimination, as seen in particular in mass roundups of young Muslims after high-profile security incidents.  

For a time, the ADF appeared to have faded away in the DRC, but it has rebounded significantly since 2013, when it embarked on what would turn into a years-long spree of killing civilians and attacking security forces. The group became increasingly active in the run-up to national elections then slated to take place in 2016. During that period, it developed alliances with other local militias and armed groups opposing the state, plus, reportedly, with officers in the DRC’s army, while also taking sides in various local intercommunal disputes, all of which together created fiendishly difficult and bloody conflict dynamics for Kinshasa and the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC to have to bring under control. By the beginning of 2017, however, the ADF had petered out in the group’s stronghold of North Kivu province, as it faced supply and finance shortfalls following a period of intensive pressure from the DRC military. The ex-combatant interviewed by Crisis Group said food supplies were scarce until at least March 2017, after which the group began to recuperate again.

The [Allied Democratic Forces'] resurgence from 2017 coincided with a closer association with ISIS.

The ADF’s resurgence from 2017 coincided with a closer association with ISIS. The group appeared to have established links with Waleed Zein, a Kenyan national now in custody in his home country and sanctioned by the U.S. for his alleged role as a financial conduit between ISIS and the ADF. It also welcomed into its ranks another fighter known as Jundi, whom ADF ex-combatants identify as a Tanzanian national and the man who first brought the ISIS flag to ADF camps. In April 2019, ISIS claimed its first attack in the DRC, carried out by the ADF. Musa Baluku, leader of the group’s largest faction, now appears to be a self-proclaimed ISIS devotee. In a 2020 video seen by Crisis Group and referred to in a report from George Washington University, he stated that the ADF “ceased to exist a long time ago”, adding that he and his fighters, numbering several hundred, were now part of ISIS. A rival faction, made up of no more than dozens of people loyal to Baluku’s predecessor, Jamil Mukulu,  now in custody and on trial in Uganda, is considered by DRC’s security officials to be only a minor threat.

Since 2020, Baluku’s group has also started moving north from its heartland in North Kivu into Ituri province, where violence involving predominantly ethnic Lendu militias has been escalating since 2017. DRC and UN officials say the ADF’s movement in this direction was spurred partly by renewed military operations launched against the group in North Kivu in October 2019. Since entering Ituri, the ADF has attempted to expand its collaborator network in the province. It has tried to recruit from among ethnic Hutu migrants who have settled in large numbers in Ituri’s south and are at odds with other local communities. Some of the latter community leaders have at times helped the DRC’s army track down the ADF. A “state of siege” declared by the DRC’s President Félix Tshisekedi in May, placing provincial authority in North Kivu and Ituri in military hands, has so far failed to stem the ADF’s continued expansion and deadly attacks.

Baluku’s faction appears meanwhile to have benefited from an influx of foreign fighters and advances in its deployment of improvised explosive devices (IED) and use of drones. DRC security officials and the former ADF combatant interviewed by Crisis Group noted that the group has since 2018 absorbed more foreign fighters, including from Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya, and also gave combat training to Mozambican al-Shabab insurgents from Cabo Delgado as late as that year. UN investigators also stated in a June 2021 report that “the involvement of ADF combatants from outside the Democratic Republic of Congo contributed to modest advancements in improvised explosive device construction techniques”, listing Burundians, Kenyans and Tanzanians as especially important to that development. The investigators cited an uptick in the ADF’s deployment of such devices on the battlefield, although many of the bombs are still rudimentary and fail to detonate. They also documented the group’s use of at least two surveillance drones in support of combat operations.

DRC authorities are meanwhile investigating whether a Middle Eastern individual they arrested in September at a location close to ADF camps in North Kivu is affiliated with ISIS in any way. The man was reportedly travelling on a Jordanian passport. After they arrested him, officials in Kinshasa say, they found drone management and bomb-making instructional materials as well as jihadist propaganda among his possessions. They have provided no evidence supporting this claim, however.

How does this all relate to other jihadist threats in the region?

The attack in Kampala comes as officials in other East African countries have begun to raise the alarm, warning of a possible surge in plots involving not just ISIS and its affiliates, but also Somalia’s Al-Shabaab movement, which swears allegiance to al-Qaeda. Al-Shabaab has conducted major attacks in Kenya and Uganda over the last decade or so.

In early October, authorities in Rwanda, next door to Uganda, announced that they had arrested thirteen individuals involved in a failed plot to detonate explosives in public spaces in the capital Kigali. Some of the suspects were allegedly found in possession of bomb-making equipment, including wires, nails, dynamite sticks and phones. Rwandan officials had told Crisis Group prior to the Kampala attack that they had obtained evidence that some of those arrested were in communication with Nkalubo. They said it was proof that the plot was connected to the ADF. One of the arrested suspects has reportedly stated that the plotters were looking to punish Rwanda for its military intervention in Cabo Delgado, where its troops deployed in March in support of government efforts to stem the al-Shabab insurrection that ISIS has also claimed as its affiliate in 2019.

Kenyan and Tanzanian authorities ... report observing the return of significant numbers of their nationals who have served in militant groups abroad.

Kenyan and Tanzanian authorities meanwhile report observing the return of significant numbers of their nationals who have served in militant groups abroad. Over the last few years, both countries had clamped down on domestic jihadist networks connected to Al-Shabaab in Somalia. These networks recruited from pools of disillusioned youth in Kenya’s north and along the Indian Ocean coast. Some of those youth fled the crackdowns, especially after 2017, and moved to the ADF or Mozambique’s al-Shabab, where they have been influenced by ISIS propaganda. Following foreign military intervention in Cabo Delgado, security sources say, many of these Kenyan and Tanzanian fighters, the latter of whom have occupied senior positions in al-Shabab, are retreating home.

These fighters’ return via Tanzania has coincided with other significant developments. In August, a lone shooter embarked on a killing spree near the French embassy in the main city of Dar es Salaam. Tanzanian officials are close-mouthed about his origins. Somali intelligence sources, however, say the man was a former member of Somalia’s Al-Shabaab who travelled to Mozambique in 2020 to join militants there. Sources close to the ADF, meanwhile, say the arrested Middle Eastern man mentioned above, prior to crossing into the DRC, had also stopped for nearly two weeks in August in the Tanzanian town of Kigoma, where he may have provided training to East African nationals. Immigration data, seen by Crisis Group, proves his presence there, although Crisis Group has not been able to independently confirm he provided training.

In the last few weeks, Kenya’s security services have issued a number of warnings, including in an official memorandum that was leaked in late October, that both ISIS and Al-Shabaab are looking to unleash fresh attacks along the Kenyan coast. One official told Crisis Group that Al-Shabaab would likely want to compete with ISIS for headlines if it learned that the latter was plotting new operations.

What are the prospects for the Islamic State’s growth in the region?

In March, the U.S. designated the ADF and Mozambique’s al-Shabab as branches of ISIS. It stopped short, however, of recognising these groups as constituent parts of the Islamic State in Central Africa Province, the core group’s preferred name for what it would still like to present as a caliphate with wholly integrated outposts. While fighters from both theatres of war have undoubtedly mingled, they are still pursuing local battlefield objectives under separate chains of command. DRC and Mozambican authorities, however, are worried that ISIS may try and channel more assistance to both of them. Meanwhile, it is claiming ever more attacks committed by the ADF and Mozambique’s al-Shabab on its media channels.

Independent financial investigators and regional authorities confirm that they have identified the transfer of hundreds of thousands of dollars from at least one cell in Kenya to ADF-affiliated individuals in the DRC and Uganda, as well as to unknown persons in Tanzania and Mozambique. Kenyan officials say they are investigating whether the money is connected to ISIS. If the global jihadist group is behind the transfers, it could indicate an attempt to reinforce not just the ADF and al-Shabab, but also the associated networks proliferating IEDs throughout the region.

In the meantime, another ISIS faction seems to be playing a role in the development of both the ADF and Mozambique’s al-Shabab. Al-Shabaab North East (ASNE), a small ISIS faction based in the mountains and coastal areas of north-eastern Puntland facing the Gulf of Aden, has for years built up a reputation as an important trafficker of arms and explosive materials into Somalia via associated clans. One of its commanders, Mohamed Ahmed “Qahiye”, is known by UN investigators and Somali intelligence sources to have travelled to Mozambique in 2020 via Ethiopia to provide training to fighters there. A document seen by Crisis Group dated April 2020 and recovered by security forces from militants in Mozambique also shows their leader reporting battle progress to ASNE. The ADF ex-combatant interviewed by Crisis Group stated that Nkalubo was also in touch with the Puntland faction.

Security officials in Mogadishu and Puntland’s capital Garowe express particular concern about ASNE. It has come under sustained military pressure from both Puntland security forces and Al-Shabaab units in the area, hemming in its movement. Still, it continues to resist and, those officials fear, may use its strategic location facing Yemen to bring in more weapons and fighters, and try to expand and project more influence in Somalia and further afield.

What should regional authorities and their partners do?

The latest attacks in Kampala reinforce the need for governments across the region to tackle what appears to be a multidimensional threat straddling national boundaries. While Ugandan authorities are preoccupied with the latest security operations in the wake of the horrific attacks, they must in the longer term ensure that their responses do not translate into indiscriminate roundups. Security forces must also try and prioritise arrests over shoot-to-kill operations. A heavy-handed approach may simply play into the hands of the ADF, helping it recruit at a time when national political tensions are also simmering after contested elections earlier this year.

Authorities in the DRC and Mozambique need to reduce opportunities for ISIS to finance the groups operating there. In the DRC, Crisis Group has already advocated that the government and UN peacekeeping mission work more closely with communities in ADF-afflicted areas, resolving disputes among them and drawing upon their local knowledge to develop military operations that target the ADF core more precisely. The group’s fighters would be more likely to demobilise if they come under more effective military pressure while also losing any local support they may have garnered. In Mozambique, Crisis Group has pushed the government to complement military operations by deploying the millions of dollars of aid money it has received. The spending is urgent and should be paired with confidence-building dialogue with locals who could help persuade Mozambican militants to defect.

Regional authorities from the Horn of Africa, East Africa and southern Africa also need to come together to cooperate more intensively to interdict and dismantle transnational support networks connected to the ADF, Mozambique’s al-Shabab and international jihadists operating across boundaries. Rwandan and Ugandan security services do not cooperate at present, due to tensions between them, as previously documented by Crisis Group. A number of Kenyan and Tanzanian officials have also told Crisis Group that intelligence cooperation between their countries is not as free and open as it should be. Meanwhile, Maputo’s security and judicial authorities have yet to receive details of suspected ISIS-related financial transfers that have been flagged in another country in the region and which also partly relate to Mozambique. Insufficient cooperation among countries in the region is likely a boon for militants that increasingly operate across those countries’ borders.

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