Understanding Violent Extremist trends in Uganda: Why does it matter?


  • An enhanced understanding of regional links and spreading narratives and ideology is needed to identify targeted entry points to counter the influence of violent extremist (VE) actors.
  • Uganda is a key player in regional dynamics, with a complex history of extremist militias, exerting regional pressure and influence.
  • Suggested links between the ADF, a militia with Ugandan roots based in DRC, and other groups with extremist ideologies, increases the importance of understanding VE from a regional lens, as well as a focus on financial flows and illegal movement of people and goods.

We are increasingly uncovering hints of regional linkages and wider trends between VE actors across East Africa. Fighters from Uganda have been spotted in northern Mozambique, where extremist activity has spiked in recent years, and reports of youth from north-eastern Kenya traveling through Uganda and onward to other VE hotspots in the Middle East and North Africa have emerged. Unpacking the dynamics and shifting patterns across the region is crucial in identifying targeted and effective entry points to disrupt illicit movements of people, goods, and money. While much attention to date has focused on Somalia, Kenya, and Tanzania, and increasing attention is paid to Mozambique, actors must also look at the role Uganda plays in these regional dynamics, as evidence starts to suggest that non-state armed groups are taking advantage of Uganda’s porous borders to support the smuggling of humans, weapons and other items in support of VE objectives.

In trying to understand the context of VE in Uganda, there is need to connect current trends with the history of the country. Extremist militias with Christian beliefs emerged in the northern part of the country in the 1980s. The most ruthless of these groups was the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which was founded in 1985 and left more than 2.5 million people displaced and 100,000 civilians killed, and negatively impacted regional development. The LRA, as well as the Holy Spirit Movement, founded in 1986, harboured violent and uncompromising interpretations of Christianity that aimed at overthrowing the government and replacing it with one founded on a strict Christian doctrine.

The Allied Democratic Force (ADF) formed a decade later by merging three other rebel groups, two of which followed a strict Wahabi theology, seeking to establish a caliphate in Uganda, and one of which capitalised on historic grievances of the Bakonjo community in western Uganda, who wished to establish a break-away kingdom and agitated for better service delivery and more resources from the government. In addition to recruitment from eastern and western Uganda (areas with sizeable Muslim populations and the Bakonjo community’s historic homeland), the ADF also now recruits from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where it has a strong base. Poverty and a lack of livelihoods, insecurity and government mistreatment of Muslim communities (common recruitment narratives seen in other parts of East Africa), and the attraction to ADF ideology are amongst the primary recruitment drivers.¹ Children are also actively targeted – in 2018, more than 100 children who had been kidnapped and radicalised were rescued from Usafi Mosque in Kampala following a police raid.

The ADF alliance carried out a number of attacks in the late 1990s, including bomb attacks in Kampala in 1998, and on Kichwamba Technical Institute in 1997 that left over 67 students dead and 100 abducted.² The ADF has also been accused of assassinating more than 12 moderate Muslim leaders in central and eastern Uganda between 2012 and 2016, and a government prosecutor, Joan Magezi. The ADF operates mainly in eastern DRC, where it has established a working relationship with local communities through intermarriages, trading and support of local militias, and also carries out attacks. Amongst the documented 1,229 people killed in North and South Kivu in 2017, the ADF was responsible for 105, according to Congo Research Group.³ While reported attacks have lessened in Uganda in recent years, we should not turn a blind eye to recruitment drivers and dynamics in Uganda, as reports of increasing recruitment from remote areas of the country continue.

The ADF is a hybrid and complex terror group that is constantly evolving. Though it was initially founded on extremist Islamic ideology, it has morphed into a regional terror group with a strong base in DRC, pushing for political and social change in Uganda and DRC. The ADF seems to be currently seeking collaboration with Al-Shabaab and other global VE groups, with increasing suspicion of linkages with Al-Qaeda and ISIS (that have not yet been properly validated). Further hinting at regional ties between these different VE groups is so-far unconfirmed links between the insurgency in Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique and the ADF. Clearer evidence has emerged on human trafficking chains smuggling children through madrassas with links to extremist ideologies in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania.

Regional networks between extremist groups across East Africa are certainly emerging, though what these relationships have in common and what they mean for the region remains less clear. It is becoming increasingly evident though that programmes and actors seeking to counter the influence and impact of VE organisations must focus on tracking and understanding trends, the growth and spread of narratives and ideology across borders, and developing regional strategies and approaches to effectively erode the influence and appeal of these groups.

¹ BRICS. (2019). “Violent Extremism in Eastern Uganda.” Kampala. Uganda

² International Crisis Group, (December 19, 2012). “Eastern Congo: The ADF-NALU’s Lost Rebellion,” Policy Brief No. 3.

³ Congo Research Group, (November 2018). “Inside the ADF Rebellion: A Glimpse into the Life and Operations of a Secretive Jihadi Armed Group,” Special Report.