By Trevor Bachus, EOD Officer at US Army
This paper is meant to sound the alarm on improvised explosive device (IED) proliferation in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo). This phenomenon can be traced exclusively back to one group: the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an Islamist group who recently declared allegiance to the global Islamic State (Daesh). While other works trace out the reasoning behind the rise in ADF attacks, particularly those on civilians, this paper focuses exclusively on the growing IED threat this group poses to Congo. This paper is meant to be a brief overview of the situation, and is not all-encompassing. I open with a discussion on the usage of IED’s in eastern Congo, specifically North Kivu (a province of roughly 23,000 square miles where the vast majority of ADF IEDs have been placed). This paper then discusses the design of these devices, and patterns in their improvement. It briefly touches on the international logistics and networks that are enabling the ADF to create and implement these devices before concluding with a discussion of future trends.
A SHARP INCREASE IN RATES OF IEDs
This section discusses the astronomically increasing rate of IED usage in ADF attacks. IEDs saw their first use in Congo in late 2013, during the FARDC-led Sukola I operation (Bachus 2021). These devices were, without exception, rudimentary directional focused frag producing (DFFP) IEDs with short command wires that led to hand-functioned firing devices (see Figure 1, next section). International observers largely had to estimate the effectiveness of these devices due to a lack of credible reporting. A UN investigation into combat logs found that 25, or 7%, of FARDC soldiers injured in the opening months of Sukola I had wounds consistent with the shrapnel produced by these simple designs (S/2014/428, 25). All in all, the UN was able to confirm 14 events in which IEDs were used by the ADF in combat, although the number is almost certainly much higher.
However, those rates would skyrocket over the next decade. For example, during a five-month period from November 2020 to March 2021 alone, the ADF would use at least 64 IEDs in a total of 34 incidents (S/2021/560, 20). Table 1 illustrates the rapidly rising rates of IED usage. The effectiveness of these devices increased rapidly as well – with over 74 casualties, both civilian and military, in that same period (S/2021/560, 20, Annex 12).
This table shows a substantial growth of IED’s in just a year, 64 incidents in 2021 compared to 44 for 2012-20 combined. However, it should also be noted that these devices are still a limited portion of the ADF repertoire. For example, even in the surge of explosive incidents in 2021, using Kivu Security Tracker data (2022) we know that IEDs were used in only 14% of violent incidents involving the ADF (64 out of 443). Moreover, the tactics involving their usage are, with a few exceptions, generally designed for either attack on or harassment of government operations. This can be seen from the fact that the majority of IED casualties and deaths come from devices laid along footpaths and access paths into ADF camps (S/2021/560, 20). They have also been used to initiate attacks, mostly with the DFFP design mentioned above. This pattern also plays out in the data shown in Table 1. During the years during and immediately after Sukola I, the ADF struggled to reclaim lost territory and spent much of their time avoiding conflict with government forces (Bachus 2021). This is reflected in the data, where from 2014 to 2018 the usage of IEDs remains limited.
Figure 1 shows a clothespin with electric leads connected, a common method of creating a tripwire or pull-wire switch to function an IED. It also shows a wooden pressure plate with a protruding stick that, when pushed down will put tension on a pressure plate. This design allows the metal and magnetic signatures of the wires in the pressure plate to be buried deeper thus avoiding detection from handheld metal detectors. Some of these victim operated switches have also been found in the field: with grenades that have tripwires attached to their safety spoon and 60mm or 82mm mortar shells that have clothespin switches similar to those mentioned above (S/2021/560, Annex 15). Moreover, many of the explosive incidents reported in the last few years indicate a rise in victim operated switches. Ten incidents at the beginning of 2021 involved farmers functioning explosive devices found in their fields. These are almost certainly victim operated IEDs, since the majority of the devices have functioned when the civilian farmers stepped on them. Finally, some ADF IEDs have been designed as intentional boobytraps – with at least one confirmed case of a government soldier moving an abandoned corpse and functioning an IED hidden underneath the body (S/2021/560, Annex13).
ADF have targeted civilians with IEDs on several notable exceptions, however. First, in 2016 a time actuated device placed in a market in central Goma killed a UN peacekeeper and an 8-year-old girl. Moreover, three incidents in Beni have shocked international observers of late. On February 5, 2022 an IED went off in the busy Manyangose market of Beni and wounded four citizens. This came on the tail end of a Christmas day suicide bombing at a crowded bar called INBOX in Beni that killed 6. The ADF had experimented with suicide vests1 to target civilians before in June, when two bombs outside a Catholic church failed to cause any mortal injuries and only killed the bomber. This is all to say that while the group has used IEDs sparingly and generally for military not terrorist action, the threat is growing rapidly. Part of this reason, of course, is that the ADF has expanded their ability to create victim operated IEDs and/or boobytraps, something which is discussed in the next section.
INCREASINGLY SOPHISTICATED DESIGNS AND PLACEMENTS
This section discusses the design of ADF IEDs. This is important for two reasons. First, dissecting the design of the explosive effects in an IED is the easiest way to understand the intentions of the bombmaker. Second, tracking the sophistication of these devices shows modest improvements in the ADF’s ability to create these devices. Figure 1 opposite shows several key photos that are referenced throughout this section.
For switches, or triggers, the ADF has migrated from command wire towards victim operated designs. The original DFFP with command wire can be seen above. The trend towards victim operated switches, however, can be seen in photos of captured bomb making material from camps and in data patterns of explosive incidents collected from the field.
Although a modest improvement in sophistication from command wire, a growing reliance on victim operated switches is problematic for several reasons. First, victim operated devices are indiscriminate. Therefore, even if the ADF intends to target uniformed personnel, these IEDs will target the first person to unintentionally function them. As discussed earlier, this has resulted in an increase of civilian injuries and casualties particularly in agricultural areas where the ADF is using IEDs for area denial of government forces. Second, the design increases the flexibility of ADF commanders. Not only does command wire require a guerilla wait with the device to fire it, thereby limiting personnel, but the short length (generally 10-30m) puts ADF guerillas in close proximity to government forces when they fire them. Therefore, they have to almost exclusively only be used to initiate ambushes, whereas a victim operated device allows the group to target government forces without putting any of their soldiers in harm’s way.
Figure 2 above shows the explosive makeup of these devices, which also suggests a modest increase in sophistication. The DFFP’s were generally commercial explosive gel stuffed into aluminum pots and cooking pans with metal shrapnel and bullets to create shrapnel (S/2016/466, annex 60). Since the net explosive weight of commercial explosives is lower than military grade, this generally lowered the deadly explosive effects of these devices. Up until recently, these devices were by far the most common – their aluminum cooking pot design was so common that government soldiers called them wataku, or ‘meal,’ in Swahili. However, recent ADF devices have used military grade explosives. Frequently these have been captured government munitions with improvised switches to fire them, such as the 60mm and 82mm mortars mentioned above. Some captured material suggests that the ADF has also taken to creating its own homemade bulk explosive, generally using a slurry of supplements mixed with ammonium nitrate (S/2015/19, annex 15). All in all, one UNMAS report concluded, the use of these devises suggests that “despite some errors, the individual(s) responsible for construction have a good basic technical knowledge of how improvised explosive devices work” and “an improvement in improvised explosive devices construction techniques has taken place” (UNMAS 2020). Much of this improvement in design has come from a recently established connection to international logistics and networks.
MODEST SUPPORT FROM ABROAD
Advancements in ADF bomb-construction can be loosely traced to connections with broader Islamist movements, although details are hard to specify. The group officially claimed allegiance to Daesh in 2019, and the first attack perpetrated by the group and claimed by Daesh was in the same year (S/2021/560, 30). An 81mm mortar with an improvised victim operated switch was recovered in an ADF camp in 2019 with the words “made in Dwalah,” or the state in Arabic (S/2020/1283, Annex 2). However, claims made by Daesh have been dubious. In some instances, the dates or details of attacks are misconstrued, yet in others Daesh propaganda videos have first hand accounts of the attacks. In sum it is difficult if not impossible to trace specifics of ADF bomb-making networks to Daesh or other Islamist groups. As the UNMAS report reads, ADF IEDs do not “blatantly demonstrate support from individuals or groups from terrorist groups affiliated with al Qaeda or the Islamic State” (UNMAS 2020).
Despite this, some modest support has come from abroad. Congolese, Ugandan, and UN intelligence officials confirmed that Arabic-speaking men started giving classes on bomb-making in ADF camps in 2013, just months before the first IED was seen in the country (S/2014/42, 72). The primary beneficiary of this training was Jamil Muzzanganda, who was identified as the sole bomb-maker during the group’s earliest forays into IEDs (S/2015/19, Annex 4). Muzzanganda’s network has grown between passing along knowledge and foreign influxes. As the group continued to splinter into smaller operational sections by the turn of the decade, Muzzanganda had trained at least two personnel in other camps as well (S/2021/560, Annex 4; S/ 2019/469, Annex 6; S/2016/466, Annex 61). Although foreign fighters are rare in the ADF, they have trickled into the group after it claimed allegiance to Daesh. Several of these have brought bomb-making experience, such as Meddie Nkalubo from Uganda or Seka Kahuma and Ahmad Mahmoud Hassan from Tanzania (S/2021/560, Annex 16). Each of these men function as ‘armorer’ for a specific camp, while doubling with Muzzanganda as bomb-makers. Again, this can all be traced back to Muzzanganda’s first forays with Arabic- speaking men in 2013.
Largely, a lot of the ‘international’ support in bomb- making the group has acquired has come from advantageous use of black-market trades and porous borders. They used connections to loosely regulated mining companies in Tanzania to acquire commercial explosives, such as the Explogel V6 mentioned in one of the DFFP’s above (S/2016/466, Annex 61). Officially sold to Mbogo Mining LTD, the gel made its way into the hands of a Stella Yezere who sold the material to the ADF in Congo, likely for as little as somewhere between $80 and $240 for 25KG of the liquid-based explosive. In 2019, several motorcyclists carrying IEDs from Uganda to North Kivu surrendered themselves to government forces (S/2020/482, 39). They were asking for protection from a Baluku Abdurrahman, a Ugandan with ties to ADF who had established a substantial logistics network supporting the group. These shipments frequently bring arms and ammunitions that could only be acquired outside of Congo, although it is difficult if not impossible to state exactly where these items were purchased, they include multiple rocket launchers and 107mm rockets (S/2020/482, Annex 12). Many of these shipments have even included the main charges of specific ADF IEDs, such as the Chinese-manufactured 81mm mortars mentioned earlier.
To summarize, much has been made of the ADF’s claim of allegiance to Daesh but little has been proved. There have been no documentation or records uncovered that prove that Daesh has provided specific support in the construction of IEDs. Instead, while the group has received some unnamed and unspecified support from Islamists abroad, it appears more likely that the group has taken advantage of weak governance systems in the area. This has allowed their bomb-makers to build networks of support that bleed over into neighboring states.
A TREND THAT IS LIKELY TO CONTINUE
This paper has briefly discussed the proliferation of IEDs in eastern Congo. It is not meant to be an all- encompassing survey of the devices found in North Kivu, but rather to illuminate the scope of the problem to international experts. Particularly, this paper has shown that a rising rate of IED usage has coincided with modest enhancements in the design of these devices and increased international logistics and connections to bomb makers.
Sadly, this trend is likely to continue. Successful attacks and incidents will only encourage the ADF to continue to use IEDs. Frequent raids on government positions and caches will continue to supply the group with military grade explosives. As covert ties between the ADF and Daesh continue to grow the group will likely gain more access to international bomb making expertise. In sum, this is a growing threat that the international community needs to take seriously, particularly those focused on removing explosive hazards and remnants of war. UN Group of Experts reports have frequently recommend improving support to the government of Congo particularly in terms of risk education in contaminated areas as well as official explosive ordnance disposal capacity. As the IED threat continues to grow, Congo’s capacity to deal with explosive threats has to expand greatly or the situation will get quickly spiral out of control. ■
- Bachus, Trevor. 2021. When State Institutions Undermine Statebuilding, Armed Patronage, Hybrid Governance & the Privatization of Violence in DR Congo. Suluhu Working Paper 4, at www.suluhu.org/papers
- Kivu Security Tracker. 2022. Data. https://kivusecurity.org/ United Nations Mine Action Service. 2020. Assessment report on the improvised explosive device threat in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
- United Nations Mine Action Service. 2020. Assessment report on the improvised explosive device threat in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
- United Nations Security Council. 2021. Final report of the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (S/2021/560).
- 2020a. Midterm report of the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (S/2020/1283).
- 2020b. Final report of the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo (S/2020/482).
- 2019. Final report of the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (S/2019/469).
- 2016. Final report of the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (S/2016/466).
- 2015. Final report of the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (S/2015/19).
- 2014. Midterm report of the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (S/2014/428).
1 The ADF also notoriously used three suicide vests in a November bombing in Kampala, Uganda – although this paper focuses specifically on the groups exploits in Congo.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Trevor Bachus is an independent researcher based out of Saint Louis, MO, USA. He is interested in finding root causes of and inevitably solutions to endemic violence and protracted conflicts, particularly in the Great Lakes region of Africa. Because of the way IEDs are used in modern conflict, a crucial part of conflict resolution and mitigation is finding ways to defeat IEDs and bomb-making networks as well as alert civilians to the potential hazards posed by IEDs. He is familiar with explosive ordnance disposal systems and methods and has spent several years working with them.
Download PDF: Trevor Bachus – COUNTER-IED REPORT, Spring-Summer 2022