A rebel group that once terrorized parts of Uganda is regrouping in eastern Congo and could launch attacks on Ugandan territory, officials warned.
The Allied Democratic Forces, which has emerged as the biggest threat to Uganda's security in the years since the Lord's Resistance Army was ousted from Uganda, has opened three military camps in eastern Congo and is actively recruiting in central Uganda, the officials said this week.
"The ADF is for real," said Col. Felix Kulayigye, spokesman for the Ugandan army. "If they have begun military drills, what is the motive? They are not there for tourism."
The rebel group was formed in the early 1990s by Ugandan Muslims who said they had been sidelined by the policies of President Yoweri Museveni, who has led Uganda since 1986. The group wants Uganda to be ruled according to Sharia law.
The Allied Democratic Forces staged deadly attacks in Ugandan villages as well as in the capital in the late 1990s, including a horrific 1998 incident in which 80 students were massacred in a frontier town.
"ADF has over the years used the Congo as a base to attack Uganda," said Fred Opolot, a government spokesman. "Therefore it is in our interest to enter the Congo to pursue negative forces ... . This will need close cooperation with the Congolese government, and we are trying to find ways of negotiating with them."
Ugandan officials have been warning about the ADF's resurgence for several months, but they now believe the rebel group exploited turmoil in eastern Congo before and after the November presidential elections to ramp up its activities. They do not know how many rebels are in the bush.
Kulayigye said the group now has camps in Mwalika and Bubuchwanga, villages where the rebels are able to conduct military drills and to recruit without the interference of the Congolese national army.
The Congolese government has no control of vast territories in the eastern part of the country, where rebel militias including Joseph Kony's brutal LRA have been able to roam free for years.
But with the LRA weakened and it fighters scattered across Central Africa, the Ugandan army has been paying serious attention to the ADF because they believe the group is actively recruiting among Muslim families in Uganda. The force is led by a convert to Islam named Jamil Mukulu.
"There are reports of people just disappearing from their homes," Kulayigye said.
Analysts say the rebel group is more likely to stage a terrorist strike than wage a conventional war.
"They may be able to carry out a hit-and-run thing," said Philip Kasaija, a professor of international law at Makerere University, in Kampala, who has researched military conflicts in the region.
"The ADF has always had the ability to strike," said Angelo Izama, a risk analyst with Fanaka Kwawote, a think tank on regional security based in Kampala. "As seen from their grenade attacks or the World Cup hit, and knowing the porousness of the security net, this is possible. I am less inclined to believe a conventional attack is possible."
In July 2010, during the World Cup final, the Somali militant group al-Shabab exploded bombs that killed more than 70 people in Kampala. The attacks were actually carried out by al-Shabab's Ugandan base, and one of the convicts in that attack is a former ADF combatant who had won government amnesty.
Uganda has long considered the Congo a weak link in the regional fight against rebel groups opposed to the government. This week officials renewed their criticism of Kinshasa in the wake of a wildly successful online campaign to make the elusive Kony famous. Congolese officials are not doing enough to stop the LRA, they say.
"The Congolese should do their part," Kulayigye said. "We are not dying to go to the Congo."