Hudson Institute

Clerics in the Congo: Understanding the Ideology of the Islamic State in Central Africa

FARDC (Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo) soldiers escort civilian vehicles transporting goods from Beni toward Komanda on March 19, 2022. (Photo by Sebastien Kitsa Musayi/AFP via Getty Images)

Only Muslims are the real living human beings, all non-Muslims are corpses…whoever is not a Muslim is equivalent to a dead body.” 

Musa Baluku, emir of the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province1


Despite officially changing its name and identity, the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province (ISCAP) is still widely known across much of Central and East Africa by its previous moniker, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). This relatively innocuous name masks its true character; the ADF has never espoused democratic aspirations, but even accepting this, many doubts as to its true ideology persist, both in the region where it operates and in the scholarship surrounding the group.2 These misunderstandings were only exacerbated by the notoriously private group’s relative isolation from local communities and the seeming opportunism of its affiliation with the Islamic State, causing many to question its ideological commitment.

Now, six years after it first pledged allegiance, dozens of interviews with former ADF members3 shed some light on how the group articulates its beliefs and objectives to those within the group itself. These interviews demonstrate the ADF leadership’s clear, consistent, and enthusiastic self-identification as the Islamic State’s local branch for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and much of eastern Africa. Perhaps more importantly, these testimonies demonstrate how the group’s ideological framework shapes its behavior, as its preachers attempt to instill their beliefs onto those who carry out its campaign of violence in eastern Congo.

Despite this clear and consistent identification as part of the Islamic State, ISCAP is relatively anomalous among jihadist groups in that it primarily operates in an area where only a small percentage of the population is Muslim. As a result, ISCAP has adapted its approaches to recruitment, indoctrination, and wider community outreach—critical components of sustaining an armed movement with the stated objective of governing territory and people according to its interpretation of Shari’a—to its area of operations. While these adaptations have not affected its core ideology, which remains consistent with other jihadist groups and especially with its adoptive parent organization, the Islamic State, it has affected how the group recruits, what it emphasizes to those recruits, and how the group interacts with surrounding populations.

This paper thus aims to shed light on the differences and similarities between ISCAP and other jihadist groups, answering the question of how exactly these dynamics matter in the former ADF’s ideological commitment to the Islamic State. Beginning with a brief history of the ADF and its ideological transformation into ISCAP, this paper then describes how ISCAP operates in a non-Muslim majority area, what it preaches, and why it is important to understand these dynamics. In doing so, the authors aim to shed more light on ISCAP’s internal dynamics and on one of the world’s least understood Salafi-jihadi insurgencies. 

ISCAP: An Abbreviated History

The Islamic State’s Central Africa Province originated from intraclerical disputes in Uganda in the 1990s, during which Salafi and Tablighi Jamaat activists responded to a government crackdown by attempting to mount a jihadist rebellion under the moniker of the Uganda Muslim Freedom Fighters (UMFF).4 Quickly retreating into eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R.C., or simply Congo) in 1995 after an abortive attempt to mount an insurgency in western Uganda, the UMFF merged with the Rwenzururu5 separatist National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU) to form the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) with the initial sponsorship of Congo’s strongman, Mobutu Sese Seko, and the Islamist government of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan.6 During the late 1990s, the ADF carried out a brutal cross-border insurgency from D.R.C. into Uganda, resulting in over 1,000 deaths and the displacement of 150,000 people.7 Units of ADF fighters, sometimes numbering in the low hundreds, infiltrated through the Rwenzori Mountains, which straddle the border between the two countries, primarily attacking civilian targets but also clashing with the Uganda Peoples’ Defence Forces (UPDF).8 Sporadic bombings also took place in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, killing dozens.9 These bombings ultimately earned the ADF a designation as a terrorist group by the U.S. government in 2001.10

Despite its original name—a concession to its alliance with a non-Muslim Ugandan secessionist movement—former members who were in the ADF during this period have consistently stated that the leadership’s declared agenda was the overthrow of the Ugandan government and the subsequent imposition of Islamic law. The ADF’s leadership disavowed this moniker in later years, though it remains the name-of-choice for local media in both Congo and Uganda.11 This paper thus uses both the ADF and ISCAP names at different points particularly before and after it joined the Islamic State, respectively, but ultimately refers to the same armed Islamic State-loyal insurgency. 

By 2007, substantial military pressure during and after the First and Second Congo Wars (1996–1997, 1998–2003)and the loss of its state sponsorships had largely eroded the ADF’s ability to continue its cross-border campaign into Uganda, after which the group focused on survival and entrenchment in the forests of eastern Congo’s Beni territory.12 Simultaneously, internal group dynamics and Ugandan policy changes led most remaining NALU members to quit the group by late 2007, leaving behind its larger Islamist component.13 Establishing ties with local communities, the group was able to ingrain itself into the local fabric of eastern Congo’s Beni Territory, largely surviving the Congolese military’s (known by its French acronym, FARDC) intermittent offensives.14 In 2014, however, escalating clashes and growing international pressure resulted in a much larger, sustained FARDC offensive that destroyed the ADF’s headquarters and killed hundreds of combatants and the women and children who lived alongside them in the group’s forest stronghold. Just ahead of the assault, the ADF’s founding leader Jamil Mukulu fled to Tanzania, where he was subsequently arrested.15

While the ADF retaliated against local communities with a campaign of brutal massacres in response to the FARDC offensive, Mukulu’s arrest in 2015 severely impeded the group’s ability to sustain itself. Military operations disrupted the ADF’s ability to participate in revenue-generating activities alongside local partners, and Mukulu’s arrest significantly slowed the flow of money he had raised through donations and business ventures during his frequent travels throughout and beyond East Africa.16 Multiple former members describe the period as one of deprivation and low morale.17 As the ADF’s coffers began to dry up, Mukulu’s more radical former deputy and successor Musa Baluku increasingly sought to align the ADF with the wider global jihadist movement, looking for new patrons.18

These factors ultimately led the ADF to build ties with the Islamic State, pledging allegiance to its then-leader and self-proclaimed Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, which was accepted by al-Baghdadi himself in October 2017.19 The relationship offered the ADF substantial financial assistance and access to new recruitment streams from across East Africa, breathing new life into the group. In April 2019, the Islamic State publicly recognized the ADF as its “Central Africa Province,” just weeks after the Islamic State lost its last stretch of territory in eastern Syria.20 The group has since been able to drastically expand its areas of operations, recruit ideologically motivated fighters from across East Africa in higher numbers, and better undertake a regional bombing strategy in the name of the Islamic State.21 Despite successive leadership losses suffered by the Islamic State, its Central Africa Province remains enthusiastic about its adopted identity, re-pledging allegiance to each new Islamic State “Caliph.”22

(Source: Bridgeway Foundation)

Changes in Identity: ADF to ISCAP

To understand ISCAP’s current ideology, it is important to first understand the ideological background of the ADF. As the ADF transitioned into ISCAP, its internal identity and overall ideology also evolved. While always having a stated militant Islamist agenda, the ADF’s preaching and ideology prior to joining the Islamic State had several notable differences with the current modus operandi. For instance, even during the reign of Jamil Mukulu, the group frequently preached about the virtues of jihad.23 However, this jihad was largely confined to targeting Uganda and eventually expanded to the Congolese military when it began cracking down on the group in 2014.24 The concept of who constituted a kafir, or an infidel or non-believer, was also different during the days of Mukulu. This was first restricted to non-Muslim Ugandans before being widened to all non-believing persons in both Uganda and D.R.C. Following FARDC’s crackdown on the ADF in 2014, even Ugandan Muslims outside of the ADF’s camps became the enemy.25 This is important to note as the deliberate targeting of those referred to as kuffar came as a response to military action against it rather than any sustained independent ideological shift. This stands in contrast to the ideological evolution of the group following Mukulu’s 2015 arrest; the ascendance of his deputy, Musa Baluku, as the group’s emir; and the subsequent allegiance to the Islamic State. 

Following Baluku’s rise, several important events occurred that demonstrated significant ideological changes within the group. This coincided with two individuals, Meddie Nkalubo (a Ugandan) and Ahmed Mahmood Hassan (a Tanzanian) joining the group in March 2016 and 2017, respectively. 26 Nkalubo, better known as “Punisher” in the camps, and Hassan, more commonly known as “Abuwakas,” reportedly assisted the group in adopting a more global jihadist identity and ultimately facilitating its practical and ideological integration into the Islamic State.27

This was first seen with the group publicly proclaiming itself as Madinat Tauheed wau Muwahideen (MTM),28 Arabic for “the City of Monotheism and Monotheists,” in 2016, likely in an attempt to appeal to a wider jihadist audience.29 This rebrand coincided with the ADF’s first propaganda productions meant for wider public consumption, which often stylistically emulated the propaganda videos of global jihadist organizations such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State.30 For instance, they featured combat videos set to anasheed (a cappella Islamic hymns) popularly used by both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, martyrdom videos, and videos of fighters calling on others to make hijrah (migrate) to join the group in the Congolese bush.31 Though the precise timeline of how the ADF established ties to Islamic State networks is somewhat unclear, the most likely scenario is that Nkalubo made contact with Hassan through social media channels in late 2016 or early 2017, after which Hassan journeyed to Congo.32

The specific role of Hassan, or Abuwakas, in causing major shifts within the ADF has been reported by former members of the group interviewed by the authors. According to several defectors, Abuwakas arrived in the ADF’s camps in early 2017 to gauge the group’s ideological compatibility with the Islamic State and/or convince ADF to join its ranks.33 According to one defector, Abuwakas arrived with a laptop, pistol, and books, first entering the camp of an ADF commander known as Amigo in the Mwalika valley before journeying to Madina camp to meet Baluku.34 Defectors reported that Hassan facilitated communications between Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi35 and Baluku and after several months allegedly determined—likely in consultation with others in the Islamic State’s top leadership—that the ADF was indeed “on the path of jihad” but first needed to implement several changes.36 This account is corroborated by the United Nations’ D.R.C. Group of Experts, who reported that Hassan connected Baluku with South African national Patrick Modise, who traveled to Syria in 2014 and worked in the Islamic State’s immigration and logistics committee until his arrest later in 2017.37 Despite some contentious internal deliberations, Baluku pushed ahead, and Modise informed Baluku that al-Baghdadi had formally accepted his pledge of allegiance around October 2017.38 Financial assistance and a team of technical advisors almost immediately followed, though the Islamic State envoys were arrested in Goma in eastern DRC and spent several years in prison before being released.39

It is important to note that not everyone within the ADF agreed with Baluku’s decision to join the Islamic State, including Jamil Mukulu. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the pledge, a few mid-level commanders and a couple of dozen fighters, disagreeing with the Islamic State’s manhaj (doctrine),40 broke away from the main group to form the innocuous-sounding Pan-Ugandan Liberation Initiative (PULI).41 The short-lived pro-Mukulu splinter faction—ISCAP forcefully reabsorbed the dissidents in early 202342—was led by Mukulu’s son Hassan Nyanzi.43 Espousing ideological support for al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s branch in Somalia, and the Afghan Taliban as “true mujahideen,” Nyanzi and other preachers within PULI often referred to ISCAP and the Islamic State writ large as khawarij.44 This derogatory term, which refers to an early extremist sect within Islam, is routinely used by al-Qaeda (and by non-Salafi Muslims) to describe the Islamic State.45 Even opposing the ADF’s affiliation with the Islamic State, PULI’s use of this and other pro-al-Qaeda rhetoric implies that it too was tapped into the wider global jihadi discourse, albeit with few known tangible connections apart from these ideological affinities. 

With the exit of these few dissidents, the ADF’s leadership has been consistent and enthusiastic in espousing ISCAP’s identity as part of the Islamic State, according to nearly all of the dozens of defectors interviewed by the authors. Across all of the group’s camps, commanders and preachers have described themselves as part of the Islamic State,46 stated that the group no longer calls itself ADF or NALU,47 that the Islamic State’s so-called caliphs are above Baluku in the organization’s hierarchy,48 and that their war is part of a global campaign waged by the Islamic State against the enemies of Islam.49 For instance, Baluku himself stated in a video released in 2020 that “we are in [the] Islamic State serving as one of its wilayat (provinces) that is under the leadership of one Caliph that leads the whole world of Muslims.”50

As part of this transformation, Baluku has since rebuked his former leader Jamil Mukulu. In an October 2020 sermon, Baluku denounced Mukulu as an infidel and described Mukulu’s more limited objective of only seeking to establish an Islamic state in Uganda as an act of disbelief, citing the Prophet Muhammad’s denunciation of tribalism.51 Abu Ubaidah Bukenya, one of ISCAP’s top ideologues, took a slightly more conciliatory tone in a March 2021 video, saying, “[W]e are calling upon [Mukulu] to hastily pledge his oath of allegiance to the Caliph because it is him that started this big group, he is respected as our mentor and friend!... [Mukulu] has to cooperate so that he is not left behind alone.”52

Multiple sermons illustrate how ISCAP’s leadership not only justified the group’s integration into the Islamic State as an organization, but also how they framed their fight in Congo as part of a global movement. In one December 2019 sermon, only months after the death of al-Baghdadi, one preacher described how the former Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani had previously sent messages to all jihadist groups calling on them to pledge allegiance to the Caliph, bringing an “end to all the factions of Tabligh, Salaf, [and Ugandan Muslim] Supreme Council” from which the ADF had emerged more than twenty years prior.53

This enthusiasm for ISCAP’s ideological identity as part of the Islamic State has had marked impacts on how the group articulated its objectives to its combatants, both willing volunteers and—more frequently—those pressed into fighting. Mukulu’s rhetoric had focused on Uganda, with the desire to topple the government of President Yoweri Museveni, establish Islamic governance in its place, and then use Uganda as a base from which to propagate Islam further abroad.54 By contrast, ISCAP’s leadership frames local enemies in global terms. Baluku and his subordinates have preached that ISCAP seeks to wage jihad not only against Uganda, but that their fight in Congo and Uganda was part of a broader struggle against the entire world until every person was Muslim and governed by an Islamic State implementing shari’a.55

One September 2020 video lecture, published as part of the “Mujahideen Moments” series on ISCAP’s internal propaganda channels, makes this shift clear. In it, an individual identified as Abu Shawqan al-Ughandi refers to the late-19th century presence of Swahili Arabs in Congo to argue that Congo was originally Muslim territory while also calling on Muslims around the region to join the Islamic State in its fight for global supremacy:

“Whenever they [missionaries/Crusaders] would hear that Islam expanded to some place, they would counter with their people…1870!...Arabs were in Congo and [there was] a very big battle and those guys called Bangla, they did a lot of work in fighting the infidels that had merged with Belgian and French Infidels to destroy Islam in Congo...Prophet Muhammad said that ‘Islam must lead but never be led,’ so, Muslims all over the world, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Congo, my brothers and sisters, Islam must lead in the world.”56

These themes were repeated a couple years later in an audio sermon by one of ISCAP’s top commanders Muhammad Lumwisa: 

“We are forbidden to fight to merely topple a government for earthly objectives! Never! This religion accepts people to fight in jihad only for the survival of Islam! There is no fight permitted in Islam except jihad. Therefore, as Muslims, we are not allowed to start up a war to kill people with the aim of taking power as a government head, king, etc.! Never! We are only permitted to stage a war—jihad—to establish Islam.”57

Notable is the consistency of this rhetoric across ISCAP’s archipelago of camps deep in the forests of Beni territory in North Kivu province and Irumu territory in neighboring Ituri province. While the ADF had been relatively centralized in a few camps toward the end of Mukulu’s reign, successive military offensives have led the group to disperse its combatants and dependents throughout at least half a dozen large camps and many other smaller detachments in eastern DRC. Despite this dispersion and increasingly large distances between them as ISCAP’s area of operations has increased, defectors from across these camps report consistency in the sermons and messaging they are subjected to—all of it emphasizing the group’s relationship with the Islamic State and the maximalist objectives of global Islamic conquest.

For example, defectors who spent time in a camp led by prominent field commander “Mzee Mayor,” also called Nasser or Sebagala,58 near Tchabi in southern Irumu territory described how preachers and commanders called themselves mujahideen59 of the Islamic State.60 These defectors were told that only bakafiri (Swahili for kuffar) call the group ADF61 and that the group was part of the caliphate.62 Notably, these defectors mentioned by name that the group’s overall leaders were, successively, Islamic State’s so-called caliphs: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,63 Abu Ibrahim64 and Abu al-Hassan.65 Organizationally, these defectors reported that the caliphs were above Baluku, who was the group’s commander on the ground.66 Defectors who also spent time in a nearby satellite camp commanded by Muhammad Lumwisa (also known as Mzee Wa Kazi) corroborated this, saying they were told when Baluku received orders from his superiors, first al-Baghdadi and later Abu al-Hassan.67 Lumwisa would also reportedly gather everyone in the camp to screen new Islamic State videos.68

This is almost identical to messaging delivered to defectors from Seka (Swahili for “sheikh”) Umaru’s camp in the Mwalika valley, nearly 100 kilometers to the south in Beni territory. According to one defector, Umaru arrived in the camps shortly after Mukulu’s departure in 2014 and quickly rose through the ranks to become second in command of the entire group, though another defector said he had joined the group a decade earlier.69 Umaru is reportedly particularly enthusiastic about the Islamic State,70 saying that it is obligatory to live under the caliphate and that Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, followed in turn by Abu Ibrahim al-Quraishi, Abu al-Hassan and Abu al-Hussein, were Baluku’s superiors.71

One defector remembered Umaru describing how the leader of the Muslims must come from the Quraish tribe and that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Abu Ibrahim al-Quraishi, Abu al-Hassan, and Abu al-Hussein were all of the Quraish.72 The importance of the Quraish tribe to ISCAP’s leadership has also been repeatedly documented through its internal propaganda (which the Islamic State largely appropriates from mainstream Islamic beliefs in an effort to legitimize its state-building project).73 For instance, several prominent figures in the group, including Mohammad Lumwisa, said in a video released in 2020: 

“[I]t is the same story for Saudi Arabia, they cannot claim to be having a Caliph! How? They are hereditary… each of these Caliphs [is] from the tribe of the Quraish. For example, our previous Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was a Quraish by tribe. This is the same with Abu Ibrahimi al-Hashimi al-Quraishi! He is also from the Quraish!...The only princes before Allah are the Quraish.”74

Another camp in the Mwalika valley may best illustrate the ideological synergy between long-standing ADF commanders and the group’s more recently adopted identity as part of the Islamic State. Originally led by infamous field commander Elias Segujja, more commonly known as “Mulalo” or “Fezza,” the camp has been led by the aforementioned Tanzanian commander, Abuwakas, since Mulalo’s likely death in February 2023. Mulalo was reportedly highly enthusiastic about joining the Islamic State and implementing a stricter approach to camp life and more hostile posture toward local civilians.75 He frequently referred to the khilafah (caliphate) when speaking to fighters76 and said that al-Baghdadi and later Abu al-Hassan were the overall leaders who issued orders to Baluku.77

Mulalo’s early enthusiasm for the Islamic State—which, according to one defector caused some internal controversy when he violently imposed Abuwakas’s more doctrinaire teachings even prior to the formal pledge of allegiance or bay’ah78—may explain why Abuwakas became Mulalo’s deputy and ultimately succeeded him as leader of the camp. Abuwakas’s teachings, according to these defectors, centered on the obligation to wage jihad and the necessity of killing those who refused to convert until the entire world was Muslim.79 This likely provided some ideological underpinnings to the brutal massacres Mulalo’s men began perpetrating against local communities following the ADF’s pledge of allegiance to al-Baghdadi, in contrast to his previous operations as an ADF field commander for over a decade that were neither as deadly nor as frequent as post-bay’ah.

Challenges of Operating in a Primarily Christian Area

Despite this embrace of its Islamic State identity, ISCAP is unlike most jihadist groups in one key respect, which has significant implications for its operations. Most jihadist groups around the world operate in a predominantly Muslim environment and culture. This affords these groups opportunities to engage with local communities to attract new recruits, build popular support, and further entrench themselves within the local milieu with either acts of da’wah (proselytizing) or governance projects. Further still, most jihadist groups operate within the same local contexts from which they emerged. For example, Somalia’s al-Shabaab—al-Qaeda’s East African wing—emerged from and continues to operate within the decades-long conflict in Somalia and the country’s intricate clan-based system, while al-Qaeda’s West African affiliate, Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, has deeply embedded itself within the separatist and ethnic disputes of the Sahel.80 Similarly, Islamic State branches like its West Africa Province in the Lake Chad Basin evolved out of a local Salafi preaching movement that eventually turned to violent insurgency, while its Mozambique Province emerged from decades of social, ethnic, and religious tensions within and between northern Mozambique’s Muslim population and the government in Maputo.81

The same cannot be said for ISCAP in eastern Congo. Born of Ugandan Islamists who escaped into Congo, the ADF and now ISCAP operates in a part of the country where the vast majority of the population is Christian, forcing ISCAP to conduct itself in several distinct ways compared to other jihadist groups. This affects not only how and where it can operate, but also the specific types of operations it undertakes, how it recruits, the type of recruits it receives, and how it indoctrinates its new members. This unique local context has resulted in strategic and operational decisions that distinguish ISCAP from almost every other jihadist group in the world, perhaps most notably in its seeming disinterest in establishing the kind of Islamic governance over civilian communities that is a core principle of jihadist ideology.82 Instead, it has largely focused these efforts internally, treating its vast network of physical camps within the Congolese jungle as its so-called Islamic state.

A Province without a State 

A core objective of the Salafi-jihadi movement is to displace the authority of recognized national governments and replace them with a hardline interpretation of Islamic governance. While al-Qaeda and the Islamic State violently split over al-Baghdadi’s decision to declare himself the leader of a reborn caliphate, as well as the brutal strategies that IS adopted to entrench and expand its territory, this desire to establish Islamic governance over civilian communities remains a fundamental objective for both jihadist movements. For the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria, establishing stable, effective governance was a fundamental objective, and its administration included departments managing internal security, the judiciary, agriculture, real estate, and taxation.83 Similarly, ISWAP in northeast Nigeria worked to establish courts, prisons, and tax codes to govern the more than 800,000 people living in areas it controlled for a time and has actively sought to portray its administration as a preferable alternative to the Nigerian government.84

For ISCAP, establishing this kind of administrative control is substantially more difficult than for other jihadist groups. For both historical and circumstantial reasons, the ADF – and consequently, ISCAP – has lacked the kind of social base over which governance might be established. Since Mukulu fled to eastern Congo in 1995, the group has operated in an area where Muslims constitute a tiny minority of no more than 5% of the population.85 Further, a key ideological underpinning of establishing the ADF’s camps deep in the forests of Beni territory was to build a “pure” Muslim society away from both secular governments and non-Muslims.86 Between this ideological foundation and Mukulu’s focus on Uganda, the ADF’ relationships with local communities in eastern Congo were largely limited to the business partnerships87 and marriages between commanders and local elites88 that would be beneficial to maintaining the ADF’s forest camps. Rather than living within local communities and building the kind of constituency that most jihadist groups seek to govern, the ADF under Mukulu instead maintained cordial or cooperative relationships with local communities but did not seek to replace the state.

As military pressure against the ADF increased in 2012 and 2013, Mukulu’s posture toward nearby communities became much more hostile, and this trend continued after Baluku assumed leadership. Upon joining the Islamic State in 2017, however, this long-standing isolation from nearby communities posed challenges for a group attempting to integrate itself into a global movement that places significant emphasis on establishing statehood and governance. Slogans like “baqiyah wa tatamadad,” or “remaining and expanding,” emphasized the obligation of the movement to expand territorial control, while “tamkin,” or “consolidation,” became a core concept of establishing durable governance.89

Another challenge is the saturated conflict environment of eastern Congo. ISCAP’s area of operations lies amid numerous other armed groups—none of which are jihadist—in addition to substantial deployments by Congolese security forces, the Ugandan army, and United Nations peacekeepers. This means that ISCAP’s ability to seize control of populated areas would almost certainly be contested by state or non-state actors, the latter of which often have the kind of embeddedness within local communities that ISCAP lacks. In some cases, ISCAP has managed to expel non-state rivals, such as during its early 2022 offensive in western Irumu against National Movement for the Sustainable Liberation of Congo (Mouvement National pour la Libération Durable du Kongo or MNLDK, more commonly called Mai Mai Kyandenga after its former leader).90 In other cases, it has opted to raid villages in areas controlled by its rivals, as seen during clashes with the Union of Patriots for the Liberation of Congo (Union des patriotes pour la libération du Congo, UPLC) in southern Beni and the Patriotic Resistance Front of Ituri (Force de résistance patriotique d’Ituri, FRPI) in southeastern Irumu.91 Rather than engaging in protracted attempts to capture territory from capable opponents who could inflict significant costs on ISCAP’s own fighters, however, ISCAP’s social and military context incentivizes violent, predatory assaults on civilians.

It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that ISCAP’s leadership have rarely discussed the prospects of establishing state-like structures to govern nearby civilian populations. Only notionally mentioned by Mukulu during sermons about taking control of Uganda, ISCAP’s ideologues have consistently but only vaguely referred to their goal of establishing an Islamic state in Congo. Its leadership has never articulated or attempted any serious administration of civilians in their areas of operations, and there is only one known sermon addressing issues such as administration, taxation, and governance, given by Abu Ubaidah Bukenya, one of ISCAP’s top ideologues, in March 2021.92 Practical efforts at building local ties have been limited to allowing farmers access to one part of the Mwalika valley in exchange for a portion of their harvest,93 while one short-lived attempt to enter civilian communities and portray themselves as protectors or benefactors largely failed (covered in more detail below).94

ISCAP is hardly in a position to be dreaming of the administrative apparatus or social responsibilities of other Islamic State provinces given its relationship with local civilian communities. As such, Abu Ubaidah’s description in the March 2021 speech of collecting zakat, or taxes, and the necessity of an independent department to carry out such duties is somewhat perplexing, as is his description of the caliph overseeing the establishment of factories and industry and his duty to empower the economy and create jobs. More directly relevant, however, is Abu Ubaidah’s description of the Islamic State’s financial apparatus, which he describes as transferring funds from a central treasury to qualified financial officers, who in turn communicate with provincial governors like Baluku. This, unlike the pretense of governance, does reflect the financial relationship between ISCAP and the Islamic State’s regional offices, which have funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to ISCAP since 2017.95 The irrelevance of the other passages in Abu Ubaidah’s lecture to ISCAP’s specific circumstances likely explains the lack of similar messaging from other clerics in the group and can more likely be interpreted as an attempt to inspire combatants with the Islamic State’s more ambitious objectives.

This is not to say that the ADF’s area of operations has not grown since officially joining the Islamic State. In fact, between 2017 and 2021, ISCAP’s territory grew 164%, spurred on by money and support from the Islamic State.96 And despite being pushed out of some areas by Operation Shujaa, the joint Congolese-Ugandan military operations that began in late-November 2021, ISCAP relocated some of its camps into areas previously untouched by its operations. As of 2023, its overall area of operations remains 135% larger than it was prior to joining the Islamic State in 2017.97 While this expansion is one example of the Islamic State’s impact on the ADF, it has not shifted the underlying structural dilemma faced by a group with no plausible social base over which to establish governance. Though the group’s manpower of 1000-1500 fighters remains significantly larger today than the 300-400 combatants fielded in 2017 prior to joining the Islamic State (discussed in greater detail below), it remains a rural guerilla insurgency launching raids and ambushes against primarily civilian targets from semi-mobile camps deep in the Congolese forest.98

A State without a People

The challenges of operating in a majority-Christian environment also directly affect ISCAP’s recruitment methods. At the most basic level, a substantial majority of both combatants and dependents are tricked or kidnapped and forcibly recruited under threat of execution, with a disproportionate number of these unwilling recruits being children. This is not dissimilar to other jihadist insurgencies. Though other jihadist groups use similar tactics – in fact, forced recruitment is common among al-Qaeda’s branches in both Somalia and the Sahel, as it is for the so-called “Boko Haram” insurgency in northeast Nigeria and Islamic State in Mozambique.99 But while accurate figures for these other jihadist insurgencies—including other Islamic State affiliates—are difficult to ascertain, the proportion of ISCAP’s recruits who are coerced into joining is likely higher, and the means of forcible recruitment are likely more consistently violent.

For instance, a 2016 study of 47 former “Boko Haram”100 members found that around half had been coerced, with some being outright kidnapped, while others felt obligated to join due to family ties or after receiving loans from the group.101 Following Abubakar Shekau’s August 2016 ouster by Islamic State’s central leadership, however, ISWAP has adopted a more lenient posture toward civilian communities and broadly abstained from forced recruitment of boys.102 Similarly, Islamic State’s central leadership reportedly ordered its Mozambique affiliate to take a more conciliatory approach toward civilians in October 2022, though manpower shortages have led the group to increase forced recruitment in recent months.103 As such, ISCAP is likely unique in this respect in that it must rely on abductions, trickery, and coercion as its primary means of replenishing and expanding its ranks, and that these practices have remained consistent even after joining the Islamic State.104

Broadly speaking, recruits from the predominantly Christian Congolese population adjacent to ISCAP’s area of operations are almost entirely abducted during raids or tricked into entering the bush with false promises of employment.105 Outside of the group’s area of operations, recruits often come from Muslim backgrounds, but with substantial differences in why they join. While foreign fighters from Kenya, Tanzania and elsewhere in the region are often highly ideological, those from Uganda, elsewhere in eastern Congo, and Burundi are frequently tricked into joining. Some are promised employment, while others are promised scholarships to pursue Islamic education. 

Beginning with Ugandan recruits—reportedly still the largest group among ISCAP’s long-term members106—the authors assess that three broad categories exist.107 In order from most to least represented, these are: those who were tricked into joining, those who are within the group because of familial or social ties, and those who are true believers of Salafi-jihadism. 

A majority of former Ugandan members claim to have been tricked or deceived into the group with false promises of employment, education, or both.108 In multiple cases, this deception was carried out by family members or friends who were already in the group, convincing recruits to join them with a promise of a job or a scholarship for an Islamic education.109 The smallest number is thus those Ugandans who are recruited due to ideological commitment. Regardless of the tactic, however, most of ISCAP’s recruitment within Uganda targets Muslim communities in western, central, and eastern Uganda, illustrating the continued importance of long-standing personal and familial networks stretching back to the Mukulu era.

Congolese recruits—ISCAP’s second largest contingent of long-term members—can also fall prey to these deceptive tactics. Congolese Muslims are falsely promised jobs or an education by recruiters placed in local mosques and communities, sometimes in areas near ISCAP’s operations, particularly Butembo,110 but also farther away, such as Rutshuru,111 Goma,112 and even South Kivu.113 Recruiters exploit Muslim communities that have limited direct knowledge of ISCAP in order to convince recruits to travel to Beni under false pretenses, in some cases believing they are traveling to Uganda, Tanzania, or elsewhere. These recruits, as well as the small number that are ideologically motivated, are far outnumbered by those who have been forcibly conscripted. Most Congolese recruits are from ISCAP’s area of operations and are Christian who were abducted from their homes and communities during ISCAP raids before being presented with the choice to convert to Islam and join ISCAP or be executed.

The last group that makes up ISCAP’s long-term members are the regional foreign fighters, who come predominantly from Tanzania, Burundi, Kenya, and Rwanda.114 The presence of regional foreign fighters in the ADF predates its alliance with the Islamic State, and some of these recruitment networks, particularly within Burundi and Tanzania, have existed for years.115 However, recent ISCAP defectors affirm that the number of regional recruits has risen significantly since the ADF pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2017,116 and their reported presence in virtually every ISCAP camp in Beni territory and Ituri indicates the durability and potential proliferation of these networks. Though some have been recruited through trickery or deception,117 defectors consistently describe regional recruits as being amongst the most ideologically motivated, joining ISCAP because it is the most accessible Islamic State franchise.118 Indicative of ISCAP’s unique social context, it is predominately these foreign fighters – often with extremely limited connections to either ISCAP’s historical recruitment base or to local communities in eastern Congo – who most closely resemble the ideologically motivated recruitment trends of foreign fighters seen in other jihadist groups.

In addition to abductions and deception, ISCAP has also made at least one attempt at direct recruitment from communities in its area of operations. While direct community outreach is common amongst other jihadist groups, who place heavy emphasis on da'wah, or proselytization, ISCAP’s attempt to build inroads with a non-Muslim ethnic community required significant adaptation. Beginning in 2020, ISCAP pursued a complicated months-long plot to exploit and intensify intercommunal tensions between the Nyali ethnic minority and the growing population of Congolese Hutu migrants coming from Rutshuru and Masisi—locally referred to as Banyabwisha—in the Boga and Tchabi areas of southeastern Irumu.119 First partnering with a Nyali militia to attack Banyabwisha civilians, ISCAP envoys then portrayed themselves to the Banyabwisha as an ally against the Nyali, convincing one Banyabwisha militia commander to join them and recruit more than 100 Banyabwisha combatants.120

Notably, Islamic State media released a photo of a Rwandan commander named Abubakri speaking to residents of an ethnic Banyabwisha village, which the caption described as “invit[ing] Christians…to the Islamic religion.”121 That the Islamic State saw fit to publish the photo with a caption explicitly acknowledging outreach to a non-Muslim community may indicate the degree to which the Islamic State’s emphasis on da’wah shaped ISCAP’s decision to pursue the attempt at local outreach and recruitment despite the local challenges. One former Banyabwisha ISCAP combatant also recounted that the group actively attempted outreach in Banyabwisha communities using Banyabwisha members of the group.122 Conversely, another video that circulated on Congolese social media showed ISCAP combatants carrying an Islamic State flag parading, singing, and dancing in a Banyabwisha village,123 illustrating how such outreach may take a more local character despite the Islamic State’s broader prohibitions on such displays.

While this alliance initially resulted in a vicious series of massacres by ISCAP and their new local Banyabwisha allies against the Nyali, the partnership ultimately failed. ISCAP’s attempts to forcibly convert, integrate, and assert control over its Banyabwisha recruits led their local commander and many of the Banyabwisha combatants to defect, after which they joined the Congolese army in a series of operations against ISCAP itself. Tragically, this short-lived alliance led popular sentiment in much of Irumu to equate the Banyabwisha community at large with ISCAP, resulting in sustained marginalization and mob killings of Banyabwisha civilians.124 Though these pogroms led some Banyabwisha to seek refuge with ISCAP and even release appeals for more Banyabwisha to join the group,125 ISCAP has been unable to leverage these episodes of intercommunal violence to establish a durable recruitment pipeline from local communities. Instead, recruitment amongst the Banyabwisha community has been limited to the kinds of deceptive tactics described above within Muslim Banyabwisha in Rutshuru, far outside ISCAP’s area of operations.

This episode illustrates the challenges faced by a jihadist group operating in an area without a plausible social base from which to recruit. Eastern Congo is rife with grievances over poverty, corruption, insecurity, and intercommunal tensions, which in other contexts jihadist groups often exploit to position themselves as defenders of marginalized communities. ISCAP, however, has proven unable to capitalize on these problems: local civilians see the group as contributing to rather than solving their grievances, thus preventing ISCAP from recruiting among civilian communities it might have sought to govern.

Worryingly, however, there have been some hints that ISCAP has attempted to establish ties to a rebel group operating in a Muslim-majority area of Congo’s Maniema province, far outside its area of operations.126 This group, the Mai-Mai Malaika, has largely focused on extracting concessions from a mining operation and clashing with rivals and splinter factions, but it is led by a Muslim commander, most of its fighters come from local Muslim communities, and it has on occasion implemented harsh, violent restrictions on dress in areas that it governs under religious pretexts.127 Though it is unclear to what extent Mai-Mai Malaika has been receptive to any ISCAP overtures, the group’s reported attempts to establish inroads with a group that does operate within the kind of Muslim-majority social context of most jihadist insurgencies is a cause for some concern.

Rebels without a Cause

Operating with a pool of combatants that are predominantly tricked, abducted, and otherwise remain in the group out of fear poses a unique challenge for ISCAP. Normally, the ideological frameworks underpinning jihadist groups facilitate group cohesion among ideologically motivated combatants, though most groups continue mandatory ideological instruction even amongst willing recruits as true ideological commitment often varies amid the privations and dangers of conflict.128 The difference with ISCAP, however, is that the vast majority of its rank-and-file are not coming from the same religious or cultural background and are not willing participants in the group’s recruitment so most have little to zero ideological commitment. As such, these recruits are forced to fall in line through intense and repeated indoctrination by threat of execution, and their loyalty is suspect, requiring additional monitoring until they have proven themselves.

During the Mukulu era, recruitment and indoctrination efforts went through several evolutions as the group’s fortunes changed. During the cross-border insurgency of the late-1990s, Mukulu’s ADF frequently abducted and forcibly recruited combatants, often children, most notably during raids on boarding schools in western Uganda. These abductees, much as with ISCAP today, underwent some form of ideological training, but Islamism took on greater importance as offensives by the UPDF in 1999 and 2000 forced the ADF onto the defensive.

Three defectors who spent time in the group during its early days in the late-1990s gave similar accounts of how abducted combatants were integrated into the ADF at a time when it included a significant minority of non-Muslim fighters. All described how abductees were threatened with execution if they attempted to escape—a practice which has continued to the present—while Muslim members of the group hid the fact that they were Muslim from both NALU and interlocutors in the Mobutu government.129 Still, all three defectors said that during this time, Muslim commanders quietly encouraged non-Muslim abductees to convert, with attempts at Islamist indoctrination overseen by the “National Political Commissar” and subordinate “Political Commissars” present in all camps.130 This secular title for personnel tasked with religious instruction likely reflects the group’s attempt to disguise its Islamist identity and its Ugandan origins, mirroring the political commissar roles present within Museveni’s National Revolutionary Army (NRA), which evolved into the UPDF after taking power in 1986.131

As the cross-border insurgency faded and Mukulu began to Islamize the ADF more uniformly around 2001, religious indoctrination became more important. One defector recalled how Mukulu centralized many ADF personnel in one camp and mandated that Muslim recruits receive one year of Islamic education.132 Ideologues in the camps began to openly describe the group as waging a jihad around 2003, after which Baluku became heavily involved in preaching and the study of Islamic jurisprudence became mandatory.133 Another defector recalled how the ADF was primarily Muslim by 2004.134 Despite these changes, some NALU members remained, creating a final faction of Christian members within the ADF. This was likely due to both the threat of death if members tried to escape, as well as the difficulty of returning to normal life after more than 10 years in the bush. Mukulu eased the former concern in 2007, issuing a general amnesty to anyone who wanted to leave the group. In reality, this served to purge many of the remaining NALU members from the group.135 According to one former long-time member, all remaining non-Muslims were forcefully expelled two years later.136

In some ways, the expulsion of non-Muslim combatants resulted in a period of incubation, during which the group’s emphasis on ideological coherence through mandatory Islamic education intensified even as its armed violence fell. Although often abroad raising money, Mukulu used this period to record sermons that Baluku and other commanders across the ADF’s network of camps used to continue indoctrination.137

This transition was later reiterated by Musa Baluku during a video released by the group in October 2020:

“We could not openly call ourselves Muslims or profess Islam before the Rwenzururu [NALU] leaders or even the Congolese Government. To achieve our objective in those circumstances, we had to conceal our Islamic faith…We asked for support on the grounds that we would prepare militarily to go back to Uganda… The Zaire Government had already offered support and permission to the Rwenzururu movement that was fighting Uganda… This is why we were advised to unite with an already existing faction of Rwenzururu with whom we were sharing common objectives and a mission that was to overthrow the Ugandan Government… This is when we agreed to call ourselves ADF. However, this was a camouflage because our objective was concealed, but it was solely fighting to establish an Islamic state where we would adopt shari’a, the Qur’an, and the teachings of the Prophet… [the] ADF was merely an alliance out of necessity for a certain time, and when we finally got empowered, when we no longer had non-Muslims with us, we are no longer ADF as a group… we are Muslims fighting for the Cause of Allah [Jihad]. What we have here is a wilayah [province] within the broader Islamic State.”138

ISCAP’s emphasis on ideology only intensified after Baluku took control of the group in 2014, and it has needed to inculcate that ideology upon thousands of new recruits. Given the group’s diverse streams of recruitment, the precise form this indoctrination process takes has some variation. For willing recruits, who are most commonly recruited through Islamic State-affiliated networks operating elsewhere in East Africa, radicalization has already occurred in local mosques or through social media.139 Indoctrination is therefore less important as ISCAP’s leadership appears to have confidence in their dedication. This pre-existing ideological commitment may help explain why many of the prominent non-Ugandan field commanders and sheikhs who joined the group after Mukulu's departure—particularly Tanzanians—quickly reached prominent positions. 

As discussed above, however, the majority of ISCAP’s new members are unwilling participants. Unlike its forced recruitments of the late-1990s, ISCAP’s exclusive ideological focus on transnational jihad as part of the Islamic State requires these recruits go through a more intense and consistent indoctrination program. As a result, defectors interviewed for this paper consistently reported that non-Muslim abductees are required to convert, pledge allegiance to the caliphate, and attend daily lectures and sermons.140 In one instance, two recruits kidnapped from villages near Boga were taken to Machine Camp in southern Irumu territory and immediately given the choice between converting to Islam and joining the ADF or being killed, as happened to around ten others abducted by ISCAP during the same raid who refused.141

Following the initial forced conversions, strict controls are often placed on these recruits’ movement within the camps for a certain period, after which commanders gauge their reliability and enthusiasm and may offer some freedoms.142 Religious instruction begins almost immediately, and restrictions are typically the strictest for abductees, many of whom are initially required to work as porters rather than fighters.143 The duration of this assignment appears to have significant variation, with some immediately beginning weapons training alongside religious education while others reported serving as porters for a month or two.144 Others are made to attend strict religious lessons before receiving any sort of “job.”145 The reasons behind this variation are unclear but may be at the discretion of commanders and sheikhs with different operational pressures, ideological flexibility, or suspicions about individual recruits’ dedication. Forcibly converted defectors have also reported Arabic language courses as part of general religious instruction, and lessons on religious practice, such as how to pray, continued even as they moved between camps.146 For those unwilling recruits who are already Muslim, instruction centers on a far more radical interpretation of Islam, with a particular emphasis on violent jihad.147

In almost all cases, particularly for male combatants, Islamic State propaganda videos are frequently played on laptops within the camps.148 Most reported watching videos of Islamic State provinces elsewhere in Africa, often specifically mentioning Nigeria and Somalia, as well as Syria and Iraq. Two recruits recalled being encouraged to fight “as the Arabs did” while being shown videos of combat from the Middle East.149 Several described these viewings as primarily being geared toward boosting morale rather than learning about religious and ideological concepts, with two defectors almost dismissively referring to it as “entertainment.”150

Religious Justification: What Does ISCAP Actually Preach?

Despite religion and ideology playing a pivotal role for every jihadist group, relatively little has been published on what ISCAP actually teaches its members in its jungle camps. While ISCAP’s particular challenges have required some ideological adaptations, much of its preaching remains aligned with wider Islamic State narratives, norms, or practices, showing how ISCAP’s preachers in the Congolese bush have adapted globalized jihadist rhetoric to address localized circumstances. 

Widening Civilian Targets

Perhaps the most impactful aspect of what ISCAP’s preachers tell combatants relates to the group’s military operations. Though ideological conviction drives only a minority of recruitment, once inside the camps, ISCAP’s hardline religious interpretations are used by its preachers to inculcate not only the permissibility but also the necessity of targeting civilians. Notably, the introduction of even more radical ideas during and after the ADF joined Islamic State appears to have been a significant determinant in the group’s strategy of indiscriminate violence, with devastating impacts on local communities.

Most long-term members of the group described Mukulu’s teachings on violence against nearby civilian communities as being relatively lenient during much of the group’s history, prohibiting the killing of the elderly, pregnant women, and children and harshly punishing ADF members who stole from civilians.151 This is consistent with the ADF’s practices at the time, which centered on largely peaceful coexistence with Christian communities. Though Mukulu consistently emphasized the impermissibility of living within Christian communities under the authority of secular, Christian-dominated governments, he allowed ADF members to enter Christian communities to purchase or beg for food, going so far as to instruct female members to remove their hijabs in order to not alarm local residents.152

Relations with residents of local communities were not always peaceful, however. While for much of the 2000s and early 2010s Mukulu did not sanction wholesale targeting of civilian communities, he did order targeted kidnappings and killings of those who betrayed the group by helping security forces or reneging on business arrangements. He also recorded sermons in which defectors and informants were explicitly named and condemned.153 One defector described these killings as highly secretive, even within the group, with murders taking place away from the group’s camps and perpetrators being instructed to never tell others about them.154 As late as 2013, Mukulu directed the ADF to display some level of leniency toward non-Muslim civilians alongside his emphasis of Uganda as the group’s primary object,155 saying “Those we capture when they are not fighting against us, we just give them the options of accepting Islam, or pay a submission due tax, but if he or she rejects one of those two options…we kill that person or we take them as captives or abductees to serve as slaves.”156 Those deemed to be working against the ADF, however, faced far harsher treatment: “[W]e arrest them, we only get information from them, and then we kill them, we send them to Hell fire.”157

However, Mukulu’s rhetoric changed as successive Congo military offensives culminated in 2014’s devastating Operation Sukola I. Mukulu referred to both non-Muslims and Muslims who lived in areas ruled by secular or Christian governments—essentially anyone who was not part of the ADF itself—as disbelievers, which Baluku echoed as his deputy.158 Mukulu’s sermons began to more consistently emphasize the importance of fighting all disbelievers, not only to punish informants but also as retaliation for attacks by the Congolese army.159 In a 2014 sermon, for example, he said “Let infidels stay warned…that all they do will not go unanswered by the ADF…whenever infidels kill one ADF soldier, the ADF shall kill ten soldiers or civilians in retaliation… We shall attack you indiscriminately and we shall take no rest…fellow Muslims, this must always be our modus operandi… That is what Islam orders us to do.”160 This messaging only accelerated after the 2014 offensive which led to Mukulu’s departure and Baluku’s leadership. Baluku reportedly argued that government air strikes and shelling of ADF camps did not discriminate between combatants and non-combatants, so the ADF should retaliate in kind by killing civilians indiscriminately.161 These messages coincided with the first wave of massacres in Beni, during which over 500 civilians were killed between October 2014 and December 2016.162

While brutally indiscriminate, the ADF’s violence during the period before and soon after Mukulu’s departure maintained a retaliatory strategy. Though combatants were told that they were fighting disbelievers who could and should be killed, this messaging appears to have been used to justify a strategy of attacking civilians as punishment for military pressure and to distract and divert security forces from operations against the group. With the arrival of Abuwakas and Baluku’s decision to join the Islamic State, however, the group’s preachers adopted a far more radical, aggressive, and ambitious conception of the group’s objectives. Preaching within ISCAP began to emphasize targeting of civilians as a necessary component of global jihad rather than a retaliatory or punitive measure. Paired with substantial financial resources from the Islamic State and rapidly growing manpower since late-2017, the ADF—now ISCAP—has unleashed a wave of violence against civilians that is unprecedented in both intensity and geographic scope.

Multiple defectors, whose accounts are corroborated by recorded sermons and lectures by high-ranking ISCAP leaders, described how preachers consistently advocated for offensive action against the bakafiri, with the objective of building an Islamic state in East Africa as part of the global caliphate.163 Ominously, this messaging combined the necessity of offensive action with the ruthless permissibility of indiscriminately killing non-Muslims. Two defectors reported that Seka Umaru preached that the group’s jihad was the means by which the population would be forced to convert and that those who refused should be killed.164 Two other defectors reported that Abuwakas echoed this message, in addition to preaching about the obligatory nature of such a jihad for all Muslims.165 One long-term member of the group placed responsibility for this shift in objectives and tactics squarely on Abuwakas, saying that before (i.e., under Mukulu and in the first years of Baluku’s leadership), the group would only fight when attacked or provoked; after Abuwakas’s arrival, they were taught that Muslims engaged in jihad must fight every day to establish an Islamic state in East Africa.166

A December 2021 sermon by Baluku, given only days after Operation Shujaa began, illustrates the group’s ruthless logic:

“That one fighting against me is the one with an offense, not me, because I am fighting based on the directive from Allah the exalted! Therefore, those fighting against us are disobedient to Allah. Where are they getting the authority and audacity to fight against us? When any Muslim stands to fight or strive in Allah’s cause, none has the right to resist being fought! The only option you have is believing and uniting with him. The only thing they can do to save their blood from being spilt is accept Islam, but those resisting, their blood will be spilled the most. That is where the problem is, and if he or she refuses to accept Islam, as soon as you hear that Muslims are coming, run away immediately…when the Muslim approaches, they will be told to accept Islam and if they refuse, then they have to be butchered with a knife!”167

This radicalization in rhetoric extended to property, with one defector describing how sheikhs in Kajaju’s camp near Rwenzori were obsessed with preaching about religious justifications of looting Christian property.168 Similarly, another defector described how Abuwakas preached that because Muslims were superior to Christians, they should simply kill Christians and steal their food.169 In a March 2021 sermon, Abu Ubaidah said that the economy of the Muslims must be built on loot gathered from the disbelievers and that “if you kill an enemy to Islamic State, all their belongings become yours.”170 Notably, this contrasts with a 2013 or 2014 sermon by Mukulu in which he specified that “Everything you [jihadists] come across while…fighting, the loot you get after engaging infidels…you must seek first the commander’s permission to take anything recovered as loot.”171 Such messages from ISCAP’s leadership illuminates not only how preachers rationalize ISCAP’s systematic looting operations, which most former combatants describe as the most frequent type of attack on civilians in local communities, but also how such looting is used to motivate combatants. These speeches also largely mimic earlier Islamic State doctrinal work on looting from Christian populations, further showing the growing ideological integration of ISCAP into the global Islamic State network.172 Further still, the implementation of standard definitions of what constitutes ghanima (spoils of war) is a key component of what the Islamic State offers to more localized jihadist insurgencies.173

In addition to this shift in rhetoric and conduct toward a far more aggressive, offensive strategy of targeting civilians, ISCAP’s preachers continue to advocate disproportionate retaliatory massacres in response to specific military operations against them. One defector described how Umaru told the camp that if the UPDF killed a single member of the group, Islamic law obligated the group to kill as many civilians as possible in revenge.174 A former combatant who participated in such an operation corroborated this account, saying that he was part of a special unit sent to areas with limited military presence for several weeks with the sole objective of massacring civilians following an assault on an ADF camp.175 Interestingly, one defector reported some internal dissatisfaction over ISCAP’s uncompromising strategy against civilians, with Abu Ubaidah purportedly recording a sermon in which he questioned the Islamic State’s directive to kill civilians rather than preaching to them. Though this has not been corroborated, the lecture reportedly caused significant controversy within Umaru’s camp.176

Suicide Bombings (“Martyrdom” Operations)

Perhaps the most notable shift in ISCAP’s approach and preaching between the Mukulu and Baluku eras has been the adoption of suicide bombings as a terror tactic: albeit far less deadly in aggregate than continued armed assaults, this new approach marks a significant change in ideology. While Mukulu certainly advocated fighting disbelievers as a religious obligation, particularly toward the end of his leadership, Baluku and his subordinates frequently and consistently describe dying in the cause of jihad as guaranteeing entry into paradise.177 The introduction of so-called “martyrdom culture”178 is seen as early as October 2020, when Muhammad Lumwisa told followers that many members of the group prayed for the martyrdom of themselves and their family members as a means of securing the rewards of paradise.179 Baluku reinforced this teaching, telling followers that defeat is impossible because they would either secure a “visible victory on earth…when you defeat your enemies…taking over leadership of a place or state,” or an “invisible victory…when you die and go to paradise.”180

While the group had used improvised explosive devices under Mukulu’s leadership as early as 2013,181 it was not until June 2021 that ISCAP began using suicide bombings, which it, much like other jihadist groups, refer to as “martyrdom operations.”182 Since June 2021, it has conducted or attempted at least eight suicide bombings in both Congo and Uganda. To note, however, these bombings were preceded by the group’s preachers laying the ideological groundwork to begin such operations. For instance, in March 2021, Abu Ubaidah, introducing himself as Abu Qatadah al-Muhajir, first began preaching about the desirability of suicide bombings. Using Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as an example, Abu Ubaidah framed those who use suicide vests as special figures whom God will reward for killing large numbers of disbelievers and tells his listeners to pray for the chance to use them and achieve “the honorary death that we all yearn for.”183 Literature on the personal and psychological motivations of suicide bombers often focuses on the perceived benefits of rewards in the afterlife,184 but one defector who was recruited for such a mission described his willingness in far starker terms reflective of the desperation of forced recruits: he felt his situation was hopeless, that he had no life to return to, and that he had become suicidal.185 This is likely indicative of how violence perpetrated by ISCAP combatants is as much a product of desperation, fear, and a lack of perceived alternatives as it is a genuine acceptance of clerical arguments.

This messaging is broadly replicated across ISCAP’s other camps, with two defectors describing how Baluku repeatedly preached about such operations, including through videotaped sermons sent to other camps.186 Umaru and another preacher in his camp reportedly told defectors that members who carry out “martyrdom operations” will immediately be rewarded with heaven, a claim echoed by preachers in Kajaju’s camp in Rwenzori.187 Notably, both Baluku and Abuwakas placed emphasis on female members carrying out such attacks, with Baluku saying that both men and women could carry them out and telling listeners about a woman who had previously been in Madina camp before carrying out an attack.188 This likely refers to the April 2022 suicide bombing at Camp Katindo in Goma, which was carried out by a Tanzanian woman who had previously lived in Madina camp with her husband before volunteering to carry out the attack.189

Justifying Abductions and Deception

As first a Ugandan rebel group in Congo and then as an international jihadist organization in a Christian-majority country, ISCAP has always faced recruitment challenges. As outlined above, both the ADF and ISCAP have consistently utilized abductions and deception to swell its ranks. This has resulted in what is likely a much higher percentage of ISCAP’s combatants being unwilling recruits than in other jihadist groups and has led its clerics to justify these methods as permissible means of enrolling combatants in the group’s jihad.

During the early 2000s, however, as the ADF’s NALU component gradually withered and Mukulu refocused the group’s ideology toward his Islamist objectives, two defectors who were part of the group during that period reported that Mukulu became critical of abductions as a means of recruitment.190 One of these defectors further recalled that in 2004, Mukulu freed the bazana, or slaves, kidnapped from nearby Congolese communities and that by 2007, Mukulu was vocally critical of kidnapping and forcible recruitment because he wanted fighters to believe in the cause.191 This likely placed some strain on the ADF’s ability to sustain manpower levels, and by 2012, led the group to systematically employ deception and trickery to lure Ugandan Muslims into Congo with promises of education or employment, a practice that has continued to the present.

Both Mukulu and his successors have attempted to justify deception and trickery, arguing that because the camps exist outside the governance of disbelievers, luring unwitting recruits into the camps is for their own benefit. In one 2012 or 2013 sermon, Mukulu openly acknowledged that family members are often used to lure their relatives, framing the situation as one in which one family member “saves” another from sin and disbelief:

“After knowing how disobedient and rebellious you were towards Islam and knowing how much you loved the worldly pleasures, he [your father] deceives you that you are coming to work, or by trickery you are deceived that there is a job awaiting [you] to help the parent manage his business and money. You are then brought to the ADF believing you are traveling to South Africa or elsewhere abroad in riches, wealth, and fortune. To your shock, you reach here and find Islam, which is the fortune and opulence you were tricked to come for but that far surpasses what you anticipated!”192

While many of the group’s ideological concepts changed after Mukulu’s departure, the use of deception and trickery to lure recruits to the camps continued and may help explain why Baluku’s decision to join the Islamic State was less of an abrupt shift than might otherwise be believed. A core component of the Islamic State’s rhetoric is the impermissibility of living under secular, non-Muslim governance, which is precisely how Mukulu justified establishing the ADF’s camps in eastern Congo. As such, multiple major figures within ISCAP have retained many of Mukulu’s arguments regarding the permissibility of deceptive recruitment in the years since the group became part of the Islamic State. One defector, for instance, recalled how the commander named Amigo justified tricking a recruit and his family into coming to the bush by saying, “[W]e must take Muslims away from the impure world, and we have to use any means necessary to get people to land of the pure.”193 Another defector, forcibly abducted in eastern Congo, recalled how Baluku went so far as to tell abductees that they should be thankful that they reached the ADF’s camps.194

Echoing Baluku’s sentiment that abductees should be grateful for being brought to the camps, the commander Mzee Mayor reportedly told kidnapped Banyabwisha recruits that God had saved them by bringing them to dawlat al-Islam (land of Islam).195 This was likely a result of Mzee Mayor framing these abductions as daw’ah (proselytizing). An essential element of the Islamic State since it declared its territorial caliphate in 2014, daw’ah is typically practiced peacefully among civilians living in Islamic State-controlled territories as a means of converting listeners to the Islamic State’s interpretation of Islam.196 Without widespread territorial control or a significant Muslim population to preach to, ISCAP’s outreach to Banyabwisha communities is the only time it has publicly claimed to have attempted da’wah in this manner. Instead, according to one long-time former member, some abductees receive a period of indoctrination lessons before being given the choice of conversion or execution, which Mzee Mayor and Abuwakas framed as part of ISCAP’s efforts at daw’ah.197 This important distinction between the normally peaceful daw’ah by most jihadist groups and ISCAP’s framing of violent abductions as daw’ah further highlights the limitations faced by the group in abiding by some of the Islamic State’s directives or models.

Notwithstanding the leadership’s claims, ISCAP’s heavy reliance on deception has resulted in significant discontent among its members. In 2019, an ISCAP cleric known as Combo acknowledged these problems, stating:

“Even amidst us here as a group, we certainly have those that oppose or hate what we do, and this is attributable to the fact that we came here for different reasons and by different methods of conscription or recruitment! There are those among us that came here because you followed your husband to something you did not believe in, others here merely were lured or influenced by a friend. So, every time he or she sees us killing civilians, they detest our actions, they hate seeing us murdering government troops of FARDC.”198

Regionalization of Recruitment

Rhetoric surrounding the obligation to emigrate from lands ruled by disbelievers to lands governed by shari’a also illustrates some level of ideological continuity, although the intended audience for these sermons expanded as the ADF came under Islamic State leadership. In a 2013 or 2014 sermon, Mukulu said that “If you stay, live, or dwell amongst Infidels, then you are an infidel like them…fellow Muslims, let us affirm that we are true Muslims by emigrating and distancing ourselves from infidels, polytheists, and disbelievers.”199 In another sermon from the same period, he said, “[T]here are people that are righteous and pious…they are living here [i.e. within the ADF camps], come to this area [i.e., emigrate] so that you are saved from the burdens you are having!”200

Similarly, three years after joining the Islamic State, Baluku said:

“My appeal to all Muslims is that you must emigrate, come and join us here… Come to us who already have the basic foundation in place. Allah says that ‘O my servants who have believed, indeed My earth is spacious, so worship only Me’...come here where we have enough and vast land, emigrate here such that you may have the religious liberty and freedom to worship Allah as He has ordained.”201

While Mukulu’s and Baluku’s sermons were in the Ugandan language of Luganda, which limited their potential audiences, ISCAP’s more diverse makeup has meant that new ideologues can target a broader recruitment base. One of the group’s first attempts to draw these new recruits came in a widely distributed November 2017 video in which Abuwakas made his first appearance, only weeks after Baluku’s pledge of allegiance to al-Baghdadi had been accepted.202 In the video, Abuwakas says in Arabic: 

“We brothers have migrated from bilad al-kufr (land of disbelief) to dar al-jihad (the land of jihad) and dar al-kital (the land of fighting) and dar al-iman (land of belief) God, come to your brothers here in the land of Islam in Central Africa…there is no good in living in the country of nonbelievers.”203

Other prominent appeals to recruits have gone out in Swahili, a widely spoken language across East and Central Africa. For example, preaching in Swahili, French, and Lingala (a widely spoken Congolese language), the Congolese sheikh Bonge La Chuma said in a video in 2021, “[Allah] says that as for you the believers, as for you who believed and accepted His Messenger by emigrating away from your fathers, mothers, business, houses, etcetera, for the sake of Allah, you emigrated from infidel-led countries to the land under Islamic State where you fight in the cause of Allah.”204 Similarly, one defector recalled how Baluku told the camp that al-Baghdadi would support them with recruits from Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, and even Somalia.205

This shift toward regional recruitment efforts was not without some controversy, however. Though in prison, Mukulu reportedly criticized and rejected Baluku’s regionalization of the group’s recruitment base as it detracted from his Uganda-only jihad. Seemingly trying to refute such criticisms in an October 2020 sermon, Baluku rebuked concerns that regional fighters might take over ISCAP: “Jihad is boundless, and there can never be barriers due to ethnicity or country of origin. It is open to everyone from wherever they come from. Every Muslim is allowed to take part in this Jihad.”206 In a sermon given shortly after the launch of Operation Shujaa in late 2021, the Congolese cleric Bonge La Chuma not only referred to the potential benefits of an expanded regional recruitment pool, but also condemned Muslims who refused to emigrate from a round the region, rhetorically asking, “Those who know Congo, how many Muslims are there? How many Muslims are in Uganda and Rwanda? There are multitudes of those that call themselves Muslims but have refused emigrating from infidel-led countries!”207

Weaponization of Takfir

With its modern roots in the Iraqi sectarian conflict that followed the United States’ invasion in 2003, takfir (excommunication) represents a core component of contemporary jihadist ideology.208 Jihadists rely on takfir to provide religious justification for killing other Muslims, which is particularly important as many jihadist groups fight in Muslim-majority areas in which their principal opponents are Muslim state or non-state actors. Despite the ADF’s different circumstances, the group has preached a form of takfir since at least 2013. Mukulu’s early sermons on the subject tended to exploit it more as a motive for recruitment, describing Muslims who lived outside the camps under secular non-Muslim governments as being disbelievers themselves and encouraging “true Muslims” to flee from among the apostates.209 Some of this messaging, however, also sought to dissuade ADF members from defecting, as returning to areas ruled by the disbelievers would itself be an act of disbelief. In one sermon, for example, Mukulu told followers that, “Here [in ADF camps] there are people who truly worship Allah the Most High, the Most Exalted… [D]o not return to your land of origin, never go back to Uganda! Never go back to Congo. Never escape, never harbor the thoughts of escaping to ‘an evil world,’ into the bad land from where you used to disobey Allah.”210

This practice of condemning not only Muslims living outside the camps as disbelievers but also those who sought to leave the group continued after Baluku took command and merged the ADF into the Islamic State. In one December 2021 lecture, the Congolese cleric Bonge La Chuma said that the group’s enemies would never cease to fight ISCAP until “[its fighters] revert to disbelief. They want you to denounce Islam and join them in adultery, drunkenness, stealing, usury, and playing music together with them!”211 Baluku took this a step further, saying, “whomsoever reverts to disbelief after being a Muslim, kill him or her…because he’s not worthy [of] living,”212 offering a simplistic explanation for the group’s consistent policy of executing attempted escapees, attested to by numerous defectors who witnessed such killings across the ADF’s camps.213

In an attempt to reinforce their condemnations of those outside the group, clerics during both the Mukulu and Baluku periods have also frequently criticized Islamic scholars who reject their hardline interpretations. Mukulu, for example, lambasted Muslims who—in his interpretation—wrongly interpreted Quranic verses to dissuade emigration to the ADF’s camps, mocking their academic credentials as inferior to the education earned by conducting hijrah (migration).214 In the same December 2021 lecture, he claimed to have offered $100,000 to anyone who could disprove his own interpretations, citing the 18th-century Saudi theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and the Islamic Golden Age jurist Ahmad ibn Hanbal (the eponymous founder of the first of the four Sunni Schools of Jurisprudence) as mirroring his own views.215 Such critiques continued after joining the Islamic State, with Abu Ubaidah (identified again as Abu Qatadah al-Muhajir) arguing that the Tabligh sect, from which Mukulu’s movement originated, falsely interpreted the call to jihad as merely traveling to preach, rather than fighting.216 In both cases, the intent of this takfiri approach is clearly to discredit more mainstream scholars critical of the group’s hardline ideology, telling combatants that only the ADF and later ISCAP truly understand Islam.

Resorting to Sabr for Solace

In addition to the group’s use of takfir to delegitimize and condemn critics, the group’s clerics frequently emphasize sabr in lectures and sermons. Sabr, variously translated as “patience” or “endurance,” is one of the two pillars of iman (faith) and has been emphasized by clerics during both the Mukulu and Baluku periods amid recurring episodes of substantial military pressure. In an undated sermon from either 2013 or 2014 (therefore either before or during the launch of FARDC’s Operation Sukola I), Mukulu utilized the concept in an analogy, comparing the ADF to a mountain that the disbelievers’ assaults would ultimately fail to move. Mukulu promised that, “Allah Himself destroys those plots which us as weak human beings view as too threatening to the existence of this Mountain.”217

Attempting to alleviate potentially shaky morale, clerics have emphasized patience, endurance, and fortitude during ideologically impactful setbacks, such as after the death of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019, as well as during more proximate difficulties like military operations against ISCAP. In December 2019, for example, two months after the death of al-Baghdadi and shortly after the FARDC launched a major military operation, one ISCAP ideologue described victory as the inevitable consequence of patience and resilience.218 Referencing al-Baghdadi, Seka Combo said that “It is impossible that Islam as a religion may cease to exist simply because a certain person has died.” Combo further referred to the way in which many early Muslims lapsed from Islam after the death of the Prophet Mohammed as well as how, more recently, the “disbelievers” rejoiced after the death of al-Qaeda in Iraq founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In both instances, Seka Combo remarked, “Islam [remained] firm and strong.”219

Similarly, Baluku, Bonge La Chuma, and Muhammad Lumwisa all emphasized sabr in respective December 2021 and January 2022 sermons delivered shortly after the launch of the joint Congolese-Ugandan Operation Shujaa.220 Only a day after UPDF airstrikes hit several ISCAP camps, Bonge La Chuma chided the strikes’ effectiveness, saying “They think the next morning due to destruction we shall pack our luggage and move out of the bush begging for pardon… But Allah has told us that ‘so do not become weak, nor be sad, and you will be triumphant if you are indeed believers’.”221 Several days later, likely just prior to vacating Madina camp ahead of its imminent capture by UPDF ground forces, Baluku told followers, “[I]f you decide to become a Muslim, know that you will accumulate enemies on all sides. You should never be scared of any battle because if you are patient and resilient, you will become victors in any battle!” Similarly, Lumwisa framed the hardships faced by the group as merely the latest of a long series, saying “[W]e should pray a lot to Allah…who has been protecting us since we begun striving in his cause and has made us go through all kinds of trials and troubles…for…over twenty years whilst fighting, almost 30 years!”222 Defectors reported similar sermons across the camps, including by Seka Koko, another sheikh in Umaru’s camp, and by Abuwakas before and after the reported death of one of ISCAP’s veteran field commanders Mulalo.223

These messages mirror the ways in which the rest of the Islamic State enterprise utilizes sabr in its propaganda, which began heavily emphasizing the concept as its territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria was destroyed by the international coalition in 2018 and 2019.224 As military pressure has mounted, ISCAP’s clerics have similarly borrowed other concepts from Islamic State propaganda, framing losses and retreats as opportunities. In his January 2022 sermon, Lumwisa referred to ISCAP’s ability to circumvent military pressure by relocating to new areas, saying, “Whenever they attack us, we spread to other places and eventually establish camps in those new places... This time due to their operation against us, if we have twenty established camps, we are going to add on more camps and make them thirty! ... Don’t be discouraged, and let Islam spread and expand whenever we are encountered and attacked!”225

This message is not only a clear reference to “baqiyah wa tatamadad” (“remaining and expanding,” the Islamic State’s motto since the destruction of its caliphate in 2019) but also bears some resemblance to a March 18, 2019 audio statement from the Islamic State’s then-official spokesman Hasan al-Utaybi, known by his kunya Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir. In that release, issued during the final phase of the battle of Baghuz-Fawqani in which the Islamic State lost its last stretch of territory in Syria, al-Utaybi said, “Every time the Crusaders think they have imposed their influence and stolen the abode of Islam, the conquerors appear in another region…to rival the enemy, frustrate him in every part of the world and drain his energy and capabilities.”226 Such rhetoric, framing major defeats as temporary or otherwise surmountable for a mobile guerrilla insurgency, has clear utility for ISCAP’s own local circumstances as well. This messaging is likely intended to socialize fighters—many of whom are deeply traumatized by their forced recruitment as well as the atrocities they have witnessed or been forced to perpetrate—into continuing to fight.


This paper has tracked the ideological transformation of the once Uganda-focused Allied Democratic Forces to its current iteration as the Islamic State’s so-called Central Africa Province, detailing how the rhetoric of its clerics has evolved as the group has become more integrated into the Islamic State’s global jihadist identity and infrastructure. At the same time, the authors have offered an in-depth look at not only what exactly ISCAP and its cadre of ideologues are preaching inside their camps, but who exactly among these ideologues are the most prolific, influential, and dangerous in their spreading and advancing of the group’s ideology.

It is also clear from the various examples detailed in this study that ISCAP’s preachers are quite adept at taking the Islamic State’s preaching and directives intended for a global audience and adapting them to local East African contexts. This so-called “glocal” strategy epitomizes the very nature of today’s jihadist militancy, wherein local or regional affiliates of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State operate largely in their “local” social context with their specific objectives but frame their struggle as part and parcel of the central leadership’s overarching “global” objectives.227 And as is made evident throughout this paper, ISCAP’s various leaders and ideologues are all too enthusiastic about being the Islamic State’s local representative and advancing its broader goals for much of East Africa, despite still fundamentally operating as a Ugandan and increasingly Congolese organization.

Understanding ISCAP’s evolution and the precise nature of what it believes, teaches, and propagates is important in developing policies or strategies to deal with the organization. As analysts, scholars, and relevant regional stakeholders and policymakers continue to generate ideas about the best methods to combat ISCAP, understanding how the group’s leadership sees itself in the world and how it uses that message to motivate combatants is crucial for any comprehensive plan of action. With ISCAP currently on the defensive against a joint Ugandan-Congolese military operation, combating its ideology and rhetoric—particularly within the Muslim communities of both Uganda and Congo—could greatly help in preventing recruitment among those communities.

As made clear in this study, however, ISCAP relies heavily on forced recruitment and abductions to generate fighters. Policies must therefore also be generated to help curtail this non-ideological forced recruitment. Just as important, understanding how the group’s clerics indoctrinate combatants, including the majority of those who do not join willingly, can help efforts to encourage defections and deradicalize those who surrender. While the authors recognize such efforts are no small task, acknowledging the integral importance of ISCAP’s jihadist bona fides is a crucial first step in any strategy to combat its destructive insurgency.