Nairobi, Dar es Salaam — Al-Shabaab militants in Somalia and Ugandan rebels of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) have had a collaborative relationship for at least a year, according to a United Nations report.
The report, released by the UN Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo in November 2012, said there were "several examples that support the assertions of the government of Uganda that ADF collaborates with al-Shabaab in Somalia".
"According to former combatants, ADF trained groups of young people in its camps for several months before sending them to Somalia to fight," the report said. "The first of these groups departed the camps in November 2011."
ADF is a coalition of Islamist sects and opposition forces opposed to the Ugandan government. Originally based in Western Uganda, ADF now operates in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and is considered a terrorist organisation.
ADF and its local affiliates were responsible for several terrorist attacks in the late 1990s, but have been less active in recent years. Therefore, the confirmation that it has joined with other regional terrorist groups, such as al-Shabaab, has authorities on alert.
The UN report confirmed that in November 2011, al-Shabaab agents posted bail for the son of ADF supreme leader Jamil Mukulu after his arrest in Nairobi, and supported him and his family. "Kenyan intelligence agents told the Group that they possessed records of telephone conversations between Mukulu and al-Shabaab agents residing in Eastleigh," the report said.
Retired Kenyan air force Captain Simiyu Werunga, director of the African Centre for Security and Strategic Studies in Nairobi, said al-Shabaab attempts to seek alliances with other militant groups out of desperation.
Al-Shabaab seeks relationships with other groups to show sympathisers that it is "still strong and growing, which is not the case", he said.
This is not the only time al-Shabaab has tried to attach itself to other African militant groups. In 2011, the militant group associated itself with Nigeria's Boko Haram, and is even alleged to have trained some Nigerian fighters in Somalia.
That partnership was short-lived due to poor organisation and logistical issues such as the distance between al-Shabaab's base in East Africa and Boko Haram's in West Africa, Werunga said.
However, the distance between ADF and al-Shabaab is more manageable and could provide the fighters an opportunity to communicate and plot with less hassle, said Gideon Maina, an attorney and international law professor at the University of Nairobi.
He said both groups have a familiarity with Nairobi and could easily make it a hub for their joint efforts. "This should be a concern to the entire east African region because [these groups] could mutate by bringing in new sympathisers from the region," Maina told Sabahi.
"It is upon regional [governments] and their security systems to work hard to detect and dismantle them before they access more arms and develop working webs across the region," Maina said, urging leaders to work together to develop a common anti-terrorism force and to intensify border patrols to deter weapons smuggling.
Mustafa Yusuf Ali, secretary general of the African Council of Religious Leaders, said al-Shabaab fighters are dispersing throughout the region to escape capture from security forces.
"Anarchist groups like al-Shabaab try to maximise and take full advantage of asymmetry in their tactics, manoeuvres and movements to remain relevant," he told Sabahi.
Nonetheless, Ali said the biggest concern related to terrorism in the region is not the "new" relationship between al-Shabaab and ADF, but rather the inability of security agencies across the Horn of Africa to systematically tackle terrorism.
Authorities cannot fully stop these groups from connecting, he said, but they can work to reduce their effectiveness in the short term by sharing intelligence and in the long term by winning the hearts and minds of the public most at risk to radicalisation.
"Remember, such wars are not about winning territories or [defeating] the enemy, but about [winning] populations," Ali said.
Tanzanian authorities on alert
ADF also operates financial support cells from ports in Tanzania and Kenya, the UN report said.
"According to ex-combatants, couriers transport financial resources generated by those cells to ADF by crossing through the Kasindi border post from Uganda to the Democratic Republic of the Congo," the report said. "ADF also generates local revenue through several business arrangements in Beni territory."
Former combatants, local leaders and Ugandan authorities told the Group that ADF profits from illegal timber production and several gold mines.
According to the UN report, Kenyan authorities told the Group that they believe ADF supreme leader Mukulu is currentlt based in Tanzania.
Tanzanian officials said they are monitoring the situation and are on high alert for any suspicious activity.
Tanga Regional Police Commander Constantine Masawe said police have been looking into intelligence that suggests ADF operates financial support cells at the port in Tanga, as well in Bujumbura, Kigali and Nairobi in Kenya.
He said previous intelligence indicated that ADF was sending funds into Tanga rather than funnelling money from the port as the UN report said.
"We understand Tanga is a vulnerable area in relation to terrorism due to its geographical location. We border Mombasa which is a corridor [for terrorists]," Masawe told Sabahi, adding that the government was following up on all new leads.