Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo sign defense pact to cooperate against the Islamic State
On April 21, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) signed agreements on security and defense in the face of growing threats from the Islamic State in the Central African Province (ISCAP), which operates in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. The security and defense pacts provide mechanisms for cooperation between the two countries in the areas of counter-terrorism, immigration, arms smuggling, cybersecurity, and customs and border control. Presidents Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya and Felix Tshisekendi of the Democratic Republic of the Congo signed the agreements with other Ministers of Commerce and Shipping (The Star, April 21). However, the focus was on ISCAP, which the United States identified as a foreign terrorist organization in March (Sabcnews.com, March 11, 2021).
ISCAP’s background and Kenyan responses
ISCAP is rooted in the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a militant Islamist group from Uganda that has carried out numerous armed attacks, kidnappings and murders in the North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Islamic State (IS) has also assumed responsibility on behalf of ISCAP for attacks attributed to ADF because of the overlap between ISCAP and ADF, with the latter formally evolving into the former in 2019. ISCAP / ADF’s most notable attacks were in March 2021 when Es raided the village of Bulongo, eastern DRC, killing at least 15 people (Africanews, March 15).
In May 2020, IS called for two separate attacks on ISCAP / ADF in Ituri and Beni, in which more than ten people were killed. Seven bodies were found in the attacks in Beni, near the Uganda border, while four more were found in Ituri. Previously, in April 2019, ISIS assumed responsibility for attacks on Kamago and Bovata villages near the city of Beni (Africanews, May 15, 2020).
Kenya, meanwhile, has supported efforts to end the ongoing armed conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo long before ISCAP was announced as the successor to the ADF in 2019. In 2013, for example, Kenya hosted Congolese parties in the signing of a peace agreement with the March 23 (“M23”) movement, also known as the Congolese Revolutionary Army (The East African, April 22). The rebel group took up arms against the government in 2012, claiming that the Democratic Republic of the Congo government marginalized ethnic Tutsis and breached previous peace agreements, but was not affiliated with ISCAP / ADF. Although M23 allegedly disbanded after the Nairobi Accords, its former combatants have been accused of carrying out attacks in North Kivu in recent years (Africanews, February 12, 2017).
In April, Kenya escalated its presence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by sending additional troops into the country. This included an elite force of 200 soldiers stationed in the east of the country under United Nations Security Council agreements. Previously, only a small number of individual Kenyan military officers and military observers had been deployed to the United Nations Organization’s Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MUNOSCO) under United Nations Security Council Resolution 2556 (2020) (The Star, April 28). The MONUSCO Rapid Reaction Force should enable peacekeepers to patrol remote villages and prevent further violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (Nation, May 1).
Kenya’s home region advantage?
Kenya began participating in peacekeeping missions in 1979, and an estimated 55,000 soldiers have served on missions around the world (The Standard, April 22, 2021). However, the upcoming deployment to the Democratic Republic of the Congo will increase the number of Kenyan armed forces in the country from 200 to 1,600 soldiers and intelligence officers. They will replace a South African contingent that was based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and will operate in the North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri regions. The Kenyan soldiers and intelligence officers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo will continue to serve for a period of four months to four years, depending on whether they are under the Kenya-DRC Security Accord or MONUSCO (Nation May 1).
Many of the ISCAP / ADF fighters come from East African countries, including Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. In addition, because the people of the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo speak Swahili as one of their main dialects and use Swahili as a common language, it is easier for ISCAP to recruit and disseminate in countries and across East Africa (Strategic Intelligence, April 23). At the same time, it also means that the Kenyan armed forces are well placed to gather information via ISCAP / ADC compared to non-Kiswahili speaking peacekeeping forces from countries outside of East Africa.
ISCAP / ADF was also funded by a network in Kenya. In 2018, the Kenyan police arrested Waleed Ahmed Zein and Halima Adan Ali for allegedly moving funds for ISIS (Kenyas.co.ke, July 6, 2018). These two Kenyans maintained an intricate ISIS financial relief network that spanned Europe, the Middle East, and East Africa. Halima, who worked closely with Zein, allegedly received large sums of money from various parts of the world through Hawala, a Somali financial payment medium, and forwarded funds to IS fighters in Syria, Libya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (KBC, July 5, 2018)) .
The recent agreement between Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is particularly important for the latter, which must include the expansion of ISCAP / ADF. With previous experiences in Somalia, Kenyan soldiers and intelligence officers can be expected to bring a new perspective on the fight against the militants. However, given the rugged forest terrain, large numbers of rebel groups, and international interests in mineral exploitation, the Democratic Republic of the Congo could prove more complex and challenging than any previous foreign military engagement in Kenya.