- Congo’s “Mr. X”: The Man Who Fooled the UN
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BENI, Democratic Republic of Congo—It was, by all accounts, a spectacle. Most murder trials take place in the stuffy confines of a courthouse, but this one was outside on a platform in the center of a sprawling town called Beni, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Heavily armed soldiers surrounded the stage, upon which sat several military judges and the accused. Each day, hundreds of people gathered to watch the proceedings, which were broadcast from loudspeakers. [End Page 91] Periodically the crowd would shout or applaud, adding to the theatrical atmosphere.
The victim in this case—Congolese army Colonel Mamadou Ndala—was a national hero. In November 2013, Ndala had led the beleaguered Congolese army to its greatest victory in years, against a powerful and widely despised rebel group called M23, which was backed by the Rwandan government. In the wake of that triumph, people chanted Ndala’s name when he appeared in public and wore T-shirts emblazoned with his image. A month after the victory, the army command reassigned Ndala to Beni to launch a military operation against an enigmatic, Islamist rebel group called the Allied Democratic Forces, or ADF.
On the morning of Jan. 2, 2014, as Ndala was traveling north from Beni, assailants lying in ambush fired rocket-propelled grenades and shot AK-47s at his jeep, instantly killing him. Government spokesmen first blamed bandits and then faulted corrupt army officers. But many people believed the government in Kinshasa had ordered Ndala’s assassination, because he had become too popular. When the trial began, the government shifted its story once again, claiming ADF rebels had killed Ndala in collaboration with a rogue army officer named Colonel Birotcho Nzanzu. The prosecution’s case was weak, but drama and politics drove this trial, not the pursuit of justice.
On a hot day in November 2014, one month into the murder trial, the prosecution summoned a surprise anonymous witness, whom they called “Mr. X.” Up walked a man, covered head to toe, to take the stand. He wore a flowing white djellaba, had a scarf wrapped around his head, and sported sunglasses. He took a seat and told the court his story.
Mr. X said until recently he had been a senior ADF commander and had inside knowledge of the plot to assassinate Ndala. He said ADF had paid an accomplice in the Congolese army more than $25,000 for the details of Ndala’s itinerary, which enabled ADF to plan the ambush. When asked to identify the abettor, he pointed to Nzanzu. Nzanzu protested and said he did not know the anonymous witness, but three days later, the court convicted the colonel of complicity in Ndala’s murder and sentenced him to death. He is currently in detention in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa.
Few people knew it at the time, but the mysterious Mr. X was under the protection of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the DRC, known as MONUSCO. He had shown up at a MONUSCO base two months before the trial began and grabbed everyone’s attention by claiming that Taliban-trained terrorists were on their way from Afghanistan to the DRC to join ADF in attacks on MONUSCO bases and staff. Mr. X also brought up the assassination of Ndala, telling a convoluted story at odds with known facts, but MONUSCO’s analysts were less concerned about Ndala’s assassination than the incoming terrorists. In exchange for sharing this information, Mr. X wanted the U.N. to relocate him far from Congo.
In the following weeks, Mr. X kept talking to awestruck MONUSCO intelligence analysts. He described himself as a dashing special agent: negotiating arms deals with Europeans, leading commando raids in Uganda, and even driving a motorcycle loaded with land mines from Somalia to Congo. He said ADF was working with half a dozen terrorist groups including al-Qaida, al-Shabab, Hezbollah, and Boko Haram. When asked who was making ADF’s crude bombs, he first said Moroccan and Malian men, but later changed his story and claimed it...