Mr X in the Congo: How one man fooled the UN, with disastrous consequences

When a man turned up claiming to be an ADF defector, MONUSCO thought it had achieved a major intelligence coup and acted accordingly. But Mr X was not who he said he was.

Credit: UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti.

Credit: UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti.

As the sun set on 11 August, 2014, a middle-aged man knocked on the big blue gate of a UN base in Butembo, a town in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).  The man told the guard he was a senior commander from an enigmatic Islamist rebel group known as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), which had been battling the Congolese army, and wanted to surrender.

In the days and weeks that followed, the man – who became known as “Mr X” – enraptured military officers and civilian staff working for the intelligence units of the UN Stabilisation Mission in Congo (MONUSCO).  He told fantastic tales about his trips to Somalia to meet with al-Qaeda leaders and of a white German woman who was making bombs for the ADF. But his most salacious tales related to the rebels’ ties to the Taliban and Boko Haram, as well as the ADF’s responsibility for the assassination of a Congolese national hero, Colonel Mamadou Ndala.

MONUSCO’s analysts thought they had achieved a major intelligence coup. In fact, their embrace of Mr X turned out to be a spectacular intelligence failure, the full implications of which are not yet known.

Lacking intelligence

The ADF is based in eastern Congo’s Beni territory, and has been led in recent years by Jamil Mukulu. Formed in 1995 by Ugandan exiles with assistance from Mobutu Sese Seko’s government, the ADF’s initial objective was to take over Uganda, but by the mid-2000s, Mukulu appeared to have abandoned this quixotic goal to focus on sustaining the group’s localised political and economic power.

In the forests of Beni territory near the Ugandan border, the ADF maintained a series of camps containing schools, health clinics, mosques, a women’s salon, and even a marriage counselling committee. Under Mukulu’s version of Sharia law, girls as young as 12 were forced to marry older men and people forcibly recruited into ADF were given the choice to convert to Islam or be killed.

Little was known about the ADF’s structure and activities, however, because its rulers shunned publicity and social media, and few people successfully escaped from its camps to share information.

As elaborated in “Congo’s ‘Mr. X’: The Man Who Fooled the UN”, Mr X’s sudden arrival at the UN base in 2014 appeared to be a godsend for a MONUSCO intelligence apparatus that was essentially clueless about the ADF.  MONUSCO had been focused on other rebel groups in eastern Congo – notably the M23 and FDLR – and had effectively ignored the ADF.

Compounding this lack of attention was the fact that MONUSCO’s intelligence units – the military “G2” and the civilian Joint Mission Analysis Centre (JMAC) – were mainly staffed by people untrained and inexperienced in gathering and analysing intelligence.  Mr X appeared at a time when MONUSCO was desperate for information about the ADF, and despite his constantly shifting stories, he soon became the prism through which MONUSCO viewed the rebel group and violence in the Beni area.

Intelligence is no easy game, and failures based on a single human source occasionally happen – as with the role of “Curveball” in the President George W. Bush administration’s effort to build support for the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. But within the UN system – which lacks a unified intelligence apparatus – the collection, analysis and dissemination of information is particularly challenging.

For instance, Columbia University professor Severine Autesserre has called attention to the ways in which the “lack of local knowledge and deficient data collection techniques” among UN analysts in peacekeeping missions leads to poor strategic and operational decision-making.

Mr X unmasked

The misplaced belief in Mr X has had two clear effects.  First, starting in late 2014, MONUSCO’s intelligence analysts repeatedly misidentified the perpetrators of escalating violence in the Beni area. MONUSCO not only erroneously singled out the ADF for a series of mass killings during 2014 and 2015, but also wrongly blamed the rebel group for a deadly attack on Tanzanian UN peacekeepers in May 2015, which was in fact carried out by Congolese army soldiers.

MONUSCO’s inability to understand violence in the Beni area informed ineffective operational decision-making, and in turn contributed to the failure to protect civilian populations.

Second, MONUSCO was complicit in a highly politicised – and widely covered – show trial of those accused of assassinating Colonel Mamadou Ndala. Although there were already serious concerns about Mr X’s credibility immediately after his surrender as well as evidence that Congolese soldiers had in fact carried out the fatal attack, MONUSCO released Mr X to the Congolese army in November 2014 so he could be the star witness at the murder trial and blame the ADF for killing Ndala.  Mr X appeared at the trial as an anonymous witness, whose face was concealed by a scarf and sunglasses.

In a new report from the UN Group of Experts on DRC, Mr X has been unmasked: his name is Adrian Muhumuza, and he was (and is) a Congolese army officer working for the National Security Council. Even more remarkable, the Group of Experts determined that Muhumuza had been collaborating with other Congolese army officers to recruit for the ADF and other armed groups, and reported that Congolese officers were complicit in the Beni massacres.

These new revelations – which emerged shortly after my article went to press – should send shock waves from New York to Congo and back.  MONUSCO’s intelligence units not only failed to figure out that Muhumuza was lying to them, but also missed out on what could have been an actual intelligence coup by failing to determine his true identity and discern the role of the Congolese government in the Beni violence.

The intelligence failure also highlights that MONUSCO has been complicit in lies to the Congolese people – lies about who is responsible for massacres and about who killed national hero Colonel Ndala.

The bias, groupthink, and poor leadership that made this intelligence failure happen should be independently investigated, and their implications fully explored and understood.  The people of eastern Congo, and in particular of Beni territory, deserve no less.

Daniel Fahey is a writer based in California and former Coordinator of the UN Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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