Joseph Kony's Jungle Hideout

5 MINS READMar 21, 2013 | 10:47 GMT

The Central African jungles have long provided concealment to numerous rebel groups, but few have embraced the concept of a hideout as literally as Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army. The Lord's Resistance Army began as a rebel group in Uganda and is now a scattered force active in the northeastern corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo near South Sudan, as well as on the Congo's northern border with the Central African Republic. Several offensives by surrounding countries, with backing from the United Nations and the U.S. military, have failed to track down the leader of the rebel force, which survives on looting and pillaging unprotected villages deep in the Central African jungles.

The Lord's Resistance Army was originally a Ugandan rebel group supported by Sudan that fought in the Ugandan civil war of the 1980s. It was active mostly within Uganda, with Sudan using it to fight the Uganda-supported, anti-Khartoum Sudan People's Liberation Army, which is now the armed wing of the recently independent South Sudanese government. As the Lord's Resistance Army faced tougher resistance from Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, it established bases outside of the country in South Sudan and was eventually pushed entirely out of Uganda.

Map of Lord's Resistance Army Activity in 2013

Map of Lord's Resistance Army Activity in 2013

Since then the Lord's Resistance Army has been active in the very remote corners of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. Ugandan, South Sudanese and Congolese forces have all attempted to find the rebels and destroy them, but while the military forces have weakened the rebels over the years, a core group of the Lord's Resistance Army remains active.

Though weakened, their threat remains. The rebels pose a humanitarian threat — not a strategic threat to the government or economy — attacking villages, looting for food or medicine and abducting children to join the ranks of the rebel army. Sustaining themselves, mainly securing access to food, has now become their core objective. During harvesting seasons, rebels often settle near population centers where they can gather food from the fields.

Over the last few years, the rebels have focused their activity in two areas: the northeastern corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (in and around Garamba National Park) and on both sides of the Central African Republic's border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These areas are huge and Kony's rebels only number between 300 and 400 fighters, according to very rough estimates, making them extremely difficult to locate in the vast Central African jungles.

Due to the distance and interdicting terrain between population cores in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as the governments' lack of resources, there is little government involvement in the areas where the rebels are active. These countries have also failed to mount a serious military threat to the Lord's Resistance Army and as a result, the main effort in fighting the rebels comes from the Ugandan armed forces backed by U.N. forces and, since 2011, a deployment of 100 U.S. Army Special Forces advisers. The U.S. troops' value is limited, however, due to the small size and disparate nature of the rebel forces, the severely restricted terrain and the fact that the rebels do not use communications technology that can be intercepted.

The equatorial rain forests are very thick and restrict mobility on the ground as well as observation from the air. The vegetation also limits the effectiveness of weapons such as heavy machine guns, snipers or direct fire artillery. Long-range mobility in these regions is accomplished mostly by air, using fixed-wing aircraft if airfields are present or helicopters if they are not. Convoys by road are slow and inefficient in efforts to track and isolate small rebel elements that move through the thick foliage on foot. Mobility is further restricted by a network of small rivers that cut through the jungle in every direction and cause flooding during the rainy season, which makes the status of roads unpredictable.

The geography also limits the ability to communicate in these areas. There are no mobile phone networks, so the primary method of communication in the region is FM radio, using stations set up by the U.N. force in Congo, but even this network has only limited coverage. Military forces operating against the Lord's Resistance Army use radios and satellite phones to communicate, but the local population, which usually spots the rebel forces or is targeted by their attacks, is unable to relay information since they have no access to a communication network. And although some elements of the Lord's Resistance Army likely have access to satellite phones or shortwave radios, the small, scattered groups of rebels are known to communicate by leaving trail markers made of branches and leaves along their routes. Without the ability to intercept this kind of communication, it is nearly impossible to gather the signals intelligence necessary for triangulating the rebels' locations and carry out targeted strikes.

These constraints in movement, observation and communication make it extremely difficult to gather accurate and timely intelligence to assist in the fight against the Lord's Resistance Army. Due to the inability to find and close in on the rebel forces, the African and international troops have emphasized psychological operations against the rebels. These rebels are not a homogeneous group and about half of them are believed to be kidnapped children who are forced to join the Lord's Resistance Army. U.N. forces have dropped leaflets across the jungle and spread recorded messages through their FM radio stations, calling for the Lord's Resistance Army fighters to flee their units at night. Those who surrender can deliver human intelligence that is critical in tracking rebel movement and pinpointing their locations.

Joseph Kony's location is still unknown, though rumors claim he is in both the northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and in the Central African Republic. This case shows how vast extended areas of interdicting terrain complicated by political borders and a lack of infrastructure can provide rebels shelter for over a decade. Even with international help, tracking down the Lord's Resistance Army rebels is extremely complicated by these persistent geographic constraints.

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