Analysis: Islamic State strikes in western Uganda

Over the last week, the Islamic State, through its Central Africa Province (known locally as the Allied Democratic Forces, or ADF) has conducted and officially claimed two ambushes against civilians in western Uganda.

These two attacks respectively represent the third and fourth Islamic State attacks in Uganda since December 2022 and indicate that the group is attempting to reestablish a sustained presence in western Uganda for the first time since 2007.

Yesterday evening, Islamic State gunmen targeted a tourist safari vehicle as it traveled through Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park in the country’s western Kasese District. The attack left three people dead, including a newlywed couple from the United Kingdom and South Africa and their local Ugandan guide. Videos shared on social media shortly after the ambush depicted the grisly scene. 

Almost a day later, the Islamic State issued its formal statement of responsibility. “Soldiers of the Caliphate attacked a vehicle that contained 3 Christian tourists, one of which was a Briton,” the statement begins.

The claim continues with “they [the mujahideen] targeted them with automatic weapons resulting in their deaths and the mujahideen burned their vehicle.” The Islamic State’s statement largely matches with what was shown from local videos on social media. 

The Queen Elizabeth ambush came a few days after Islamic State gunmen – likely the same unit – attacked a civilian lorry on Oct. 13, which was carrying vegetables to a local market near Bwera also in Uganda’s western Kasese District.

The Oct. 13 ambush, which occurred less than 3km from the Congolese border, killed at least one person and at first appeared likely to be a quick cross-border raid, with the assailants retreating back into Congo. 

Yesterday’s attack, which occurred nearly 24km southeast of the Oct. 13 ambush, instead indicates that this unit has managed to penetrate at least 26km into Uganda since last week, as seen in the map below. 

Geolocations of photos and videos circulating on Ugandan social media of the aftermath of ISCAP cross-border raids and ambushes in Kasese District, western Uganda. Open in new tab for full resolution. (By: Ryan O’Farrell)

Much like with the formal claim for the Queen Elizabeth attack, the Islamic State issued an official communique for the Bwera ambush a day later. “Soldiers of the Caliphate succeeded to lay an ambush against the infidel Christians near the village of Kinyamaseke in the Kasese area,” the Islamic State said.

The claim continued by saying the gunmen targeted “them with automatic weapons, resulting in the death of two and the wounding of another and the burning of a truck.” The Islamic State’s depiction of events again largely matches with what was reported in local media. 

Prior to these two ambushes, the Islamic State previously carried out two cross-border raids from eastern Congo into western Uganda. The first, in December 2022, targeted the district of Ntoroko, some 110km to the north of Kasese, and was quickly crushed by the Ugandan army. At least 48 Islamic State combatants – nearly the entire raiding party – were killed or captured. 

In June 2023, however, Islamic State combatants staged another cross-border raid to the south in the border town of Mpondwe, murdering 37 children and seven adults during a night-time assault on a secondary school before withdrawing back into Congo with several hostages.

October’s two ambushes suggest an important departure from these previous incursions. While the Oct. 13 attack took place relatively close to the border (3km), Tuesday’s ambush took place 20km to the southeast, far deeper into Uganda.

This indicates that a highly mobile group of combatants opted to stay inside Uganda to carry out more ambushes rather than returning to Congo as during the June massacre in Mpondwe. 

And while the October 13 ambush targeted a truck carrying produce, Tuesday’s attack targeted a tourist vehicle and killed two foreign tourists. This is likely intended to both raise the media profile and infamy of the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province, as well as harm Uganda’s critical tourist industry – in addition to the aforementioned goal of establishing a low-level insurgency in western Uganda in the name of the Islamic State. 

First sustained presence inside Uganda since 2007

Should this small mobile unit continue its operations, it would constitute the group’s first sustained guerrilla presence inside Uganda since 2007. The Islamic State’s Central Africa Province (ISCAP), originated as the Allied Democratic Forces following an Islamist clerical dispute in Uganda in the early 1990s.

The group quickly retreated to eastern Congo in 1995, where it has been based ever since. Despite its former name, the group has always pursued a stated militant Islamist agenda. 

During the late 1990s, the ADF carried out a brutal cross-border insurgency from Congo into Uganda, resulting in over 1000 deaths and displacing 150,000 people. Units of ADF fighters, sometimes numbering in the low hundreds, infiltrated through the Rwenzori Mountains, primarily attacking civilian targets but also clashing with the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF). 

Supplied at first by the Mobutu regime in Congo and the Omar al-Bashir regime in Sudan, and later by Congo’s Kabila government, the ADF served as a proxy force to destabilize Uganda during the First and Second Congo Wars of the 1990s and early 2000s, during which Uganda heavily intervened inside Congo.

The end of the wars and substantial military pressure on both sides of the border largely eroded the group’s ability to launch attacks inside Uganda by 2007, after which the group focused on survival and entrenchment inside eastern Congo. Beginning in 2014 after a major offensive by the Congolese military, the ADF began a campaign of brutal massacres of Congolese civilians in communities near their camps. 

This pressure ultimately led the ADF to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State in October 2017, a relationship which offered the ADF substantial financial assistance and new recruitment streams from across East Africa and breathed new life into the group. 

Since then, it has rebranded into ISCAP, increased its areas of operations and lethality in Congo, and pursued regional terrorist attacks – all on behalf of the Islamic State. 

Nevertheless, the group’s Ugandan origins led it to maintain a sophisticated support network inside Uganda to funnel new recruits across the border and procure supplies. In several waves, these networks were weaponized to carry out armed attacks inside Uganda, primarily urban assassinations and bombings.

These waves of attacks, which took place in 2010-2012, 2015-2017, and most recently beginning in 2021, are distinct from the rural road ambushes seen in these two recent attacks. 

To note, small blind cells assembling and placing IEDs, conducting suicide bombings, or targeted killings in urban centers are operationally distinct from mobile units operating in rural areas conducting repeated ambushes along roads. 

Whereas previous waves of urban terrorist attacks and targeted assassinations utilized the group’s support networks, these recent rural ambushes suggest a unit of Islamic State fighters infiltrated from Congo and moved deep into Ugandan territory to carry out rural ambushes.

Operationally, this is far closer to the traditional insurgent tactics that the group employs regularly inside Congo, and worryingly, the cross-border insurgency waged by the group twenty years ago.

The wave of urban terrorist attacks beginning in 2021 led the UPDF to launch Operation Shujaa inside Congo with the Congolese military, inflicting significant casualties on ISCAP and forcing multiple camps to relocate. 

Ugandan security services have managed to dismantle multiple urban cells tasked with carrying out bombings inside Uganda, particularly on churches, over the last two months, indicating the Islamic State’s desire to strike back at Uganda for the battlefield losses. 

At the same time, the unit currently operating inside western Uganda is also likely meant to embarrass the UPDF by managing to infiltrate Uganda despite considerable losses and heavy UPDF presence in Congo, as well as pull Ugandan troops away from operations against ISCAP positions in Congo. 

Given past tactical trends, the incursion will likely continue to target civilians, and may ultimately seek to reestablish a sustained guerrilla presence in Uganda’s west – all in the name of the Islamic State. 

Both authors are senior analysts at the Bridgeway Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to ending and preventing mass atrocities.

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