icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Whatsapp Youtube
Behind the Problem of Conflict Minerals in DR Congo: Governance
Behind the Problem of Conflict Minerals in DR Congo: Governance
Understanding the New U.S. Terrorism Designations in Africa
Understanding the New U.S. Terrorism Designations in Africa
Commentary / Africa

Behind the Problem of Conflict Minerals in DR Congo: Governance

As legislation requiring large U.S. companies to disclose the origins of the minerals they use is meant to come into force this year, Crisis Group sent a mission to North Kivu to assess the different strategies used to fight conflict minerals and their impact in the field.

For many years, it has proved impossible to find a solution to the problem of the illegal exploitation of minerals in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) by actors in the conflict. The Kassem Report[fn]Final Report of the Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Security Council, 2002. This report ruled out an embargo or moratorium on raw materials exports from the DRC, but insisted on the need to impose sanctions (assets freeze and travel ban) to stop the illegal exploitation and trading of natural resources. In addition to these measures, the report also insisted on accompanying institutional measures, particularly reform of the army and international regulation of trade in minerals.
 Hide Footnote
and others that followed showed that the belligerents partly finance their activities from the sale of gold, wolframite, coltan and cassiterite – minerals very much prized by the electronics industry and valued at around US$60 million per year. Adoption of the Dodd-Frank Act by the U,S, Congress in 2010 resulted in an upsurge of international initiatives to make trade in conflict minerals in the Great Lakes zone transparent and prevent it from financing the warmongers behind the troubles in eastern DRC.

These new regulatory initiatives have provoked lively reactions locally, embarrassed governments in the region and divided experts. But to what extent do they have the potential to change things? The strategies formulated to combat the illegal exploitation and trade of minerals in the DRC include two major approaches. First, they aim to re-establish legitimate control over the mines. Second, more long-term, they aim to regulate trade to prevent conflict minerals from reaching the international market. These two major approaches complement each other but their limitations show that they must be accompanied by a profound reform in governance.

The failure of attempts to police the trade in minerals

The first attempt to police the trade in minerals came from the United Nations and targeted traders and companies in commercial relationships with the armed groups. Since the beginning of the 2000s, the UN Security Council has passed a series of resolutions about the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the DRC. Referring to Resolution 1493 (2003)[fn]Article 20, Security Council Resolution 1493, 2003.Hide Footnote , Resolution 1596 (2005) imposed sanctions (assets freeze and travel ban) against individuals violating the embargo on the sale of arms to rebel groups in the eastern DRC.[fn] Security Council Resolution 1596, 2005.Hide Footnote  UN Security Council Resolution 1533 in 2004 provided for the creation of a group of experts to support the work of the sanctions committee. Having documented the illicit relations between armed groups, local traders and foreign companies in many reports[fn]See the Final Report of the UN Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo Pursuant to Resolution 1857 (2008), Security Council, 2009, listing Thaisarco, Afrimex and other companies buying minerals from armed groups; and the Final Report of the UN Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo Pursuant to Paragraph 6 of Resolution 1896 (2009), Security Council, 2010, which highlighted the FARDC’s involvement in the minerals tradeHide Footnote , the Security Council passed Resolution 1856 in 2008 calling on all states to take the steps necessary to end the illegal trade of minerals in the DRC[fn] Article 21 of Resolution 1856, “Urges all States, especially those in the region, to take appropriate steps to end the illicit trade in natural resources, including if necessary through judicial means, and, where necessary, to report to the Security Council, encourages in particular the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to work with specialist organisations, international financial institutions and MONUC, as well as the countries of the region, to establish a plan for an effective and transparent control over the exploitation of natural resources including through conducting a mapping exercise of the main sites of illegal exploitation.Hide Footnote . However, this system of international identification and sanctions against traders and companies dealing with armed groups has not proved very effective. First, the sanctions committee has a very restrictive policy and has only sanctioned 31 individuals and companies in five years[fn]See List of Individuals and Entities Subject to the Measures Imposed by Paragraphs 13 and 15 of Security Council Resolution 1596 (2005). Security Council, updated on 1 December 2010.Hide Footnote ; second, the lack of political will by states has meant that the sanctions imposed often remain a dead letter. Finally, the companies indicated by the group of experts quickly change their commercial identity.

In a second phase, the United Nations Mission in DRC (MONUSCO) became involved in the struggle against mineral smuggling and attempted a few policing operations in support of Congolese authorities, in accordance with article 3 of Security Council Resolution 1856 (2008). In addition to these policing operations, various military operations were undertaken by the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) with MONUSCO’s support to dislodge the rebels and re-establish the Congolese authorities’ control over the mining regions. However, despite the Umoja Wetu (2009), Kimia II (2009) and Amani Leo (2010) operations, the rebels have maintained control over small production sites. The FARDC have undoubtedly taken control of the large mines in the territories of Walikale (North Kivu) and Kalehe (South Kivu), but often only to extract the profit for themselves.[fn]For more details on FARDC’s involvement in the illegal exploitation of minerals, see Faced with a Gun, What Can You Do? Global Witness, July 2009, and The hill belongs to them : the need for international action on Congo’s conflict mineral trade, Global Witness, December 2010.Hide Footnote

The most recent attempt to police this type of activity came on 10 September 2010, when Joseph Kabila, President of the DRC, banned the production and trade of minerals in the Kivus and Maniema. Accompanied by an order to demilitarise the mining zones[fn] RDC : minerais de sang, plus d’exploitation minière illégale plus de guerre, Kongotimes, 21 September 2010.Hide Footnote , this ban ought to have signalled a return to government control of the east. Unfortunately, this presidential measure did not end mineral smuggling nor military involvement in this activity[fn]A series of cases implicating senior military officers in the trade of minerals came to light. A BBC investigation at the end of 2010 revealed that General-Major Amisi Kumba, number 2 in the FARDC chain of command had done a deal with a mining company granting it the right to exploit the Omate mine in exchange for 25% of the gold mined there. Another affair implicated Bosco Ntaganda (on the list of individuals subject to UN Security Council sanctions and sought by the International Criminal Court) and a jet transporting four foreigners and US$ 6.5 million to buy gold. It was intercepted at Goma on 3 February 2011 when it was loading a cargo of 435.6 kg of gold ingots, under the supervision of Ntaganda’s men. RDC : Bosco Ntaganda, pour une poignée de dollars, udpsmedia, 23 February 2011.Hide Footnote and the ban was therefore lifted on 10 March 2011 in tacit acceptance of its failure.

These different coercive initiatives did not halt or reduce illicit relations between armed groups and those involved in the trade of minerals. On the contrary, they promoted the over-militarisation of the mining zones and shifted the focus of the problem rather than resolving it. The UN’s desultory attempts to police this international trade have foundered on the lack of cooperation by the countries providing a base for the main economic operators and the absence of a legal corpus that is binding on the importing companies. Meanwhile, attempts to re-establish government control in eastern DRC have not succeeded because of corruption and the clientilistic system of governing. Ignoring this context leads to the promotion of coercive solutions without the existence of any means of coercion.

Given the inability to retake the terrain from the armed groups and impose international discipline on the economic operators, that is, to pre-emptively resolve the problem, attempts have been made to implement regulatory measures.

The challenges of normative regulation

Having failed to re-establish legal production of minerals in eastern Congo, some international actors focused on preventing the flow of “conflict minerals” onto the raw materials market. This involved identifying the mines under the control of armed groups, introducing a traceability and certification mechanism to cover transfer from the mines to the trading counters and encouraging importers to only buy certified minerals. A map of mining sites in eastern Congo has already been available for a few years thanks to the work carried out by the International Peace Information Service. This map serves as a basis for traceability and certification initiatives.[fn]The interactive map of mineral sites produced by the IPIS, here. Instructions on how to use the map here.Hide Footnote

Traceability and certification initiatives

The International Tin Research Institute (ITRI), the German Federal Geoscience and Natural Resources Bureau (BGR) and the United Nations (which has established trading centres in the Kivus) have all launched supply chain traceability and certification initiatives. Implementation depends on the Congolese authorities in this sector.[fn]Provincial mines departments, the mines registry, the Public Assistance and Supervision of Small Scale Mining Service (SAESSCAM) and the Evaluation, Expertise and Certification Centre (CEEC).Hide Footnote

The ITRI initiative, launched in 2009 after some of its members were accused of indirectly buying minerals from areas controlled by the rebels[fn]See the Final Report of the UN Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo Pursuant to Paragraph 6 of Resolution 1896 (2009), which raises questions about the companies: Traxys (Belgium) and Thaisarco (Thailand). Following this report, Thaisarco published a press release announcing it was suspending its purchases of cassiterite in the DRC.Hide Footnote , aims to improve the traceability of the entire supply chain of minerals extracted from the DRC.[fn]DRC Tin Supply Chain Initiative.Hide Footnote The objective of the first phase was to check the legality of exporters in the Kivus. The second phase, which began in June 2010, aims to test a certification scheme at two pilot sites in Bisie, North Kivu and Nyabibwe, South Kivu. This scheme involves weighing, packaging and labelling cargoes of minerals before they leave the mine and recording their passage at various points in order to trace the supply chain. Independent audits should also take place to ensure that the documentation issued at trading counters corresponds to the information recorded in a database.

The BGR has designed a more complete system than the ITRI. Its Certified Trading Chain includes ethical transparency, environmental and social criteria in its certification system as well as a geochemical method of tracing minerals.[fn]Mineral certification at the BGR, BGR.Hide Footnote On the basis of a census and certification of mining sites, the scheme also uses a cargo packaging and labelling system at the point of production. However, this initiative also provides for the identification of the geochemical footprints of minerals, in order to determine their geographical origin. This system adds to the administrative certification of the origin of minerals a scientific method for the traceability and social and environmental certification of minerals.

In addition to these two initiatives, four trading centres have been set up in North and South Kivu[fn]Radio Okapi, 16 December 2010, Roger Meece: La MONUSCO construit 4 centres de négoce au Nord et Sud-Kivu.Hide Footnote , in accordance with the recommendations of Security Council Resolution 1906 of 2009. These centres are designed to centralise production and thereby facilitate control and certification by the Congolese authorities. MONUSCO is training police officers to ensure security at these centres.

The duty of due diligence and control by the market

The principle of due diligence set out by the OECD was not legally binding for a long time – until the American Dodd-Frank Act passed on 21 July 2010. In the wake of discussions on corporate social responsibility and guidelines on engagement in zones of conflict, the OECD finalised a methodology for due diligence for business use[fn]OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, OECD, 2008.
 Hide Footnote
, which encourages companies to establish measures to control and trace the supply chain of minerals they obtain, make public these measures and submit them to an external audit. However, the non-binding element of these due diligence measures limits their effectiveness, as it did with the guidelines. In 2010, OECD Watch[fn] OECD Due Diligence Guidelines for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas, OCDE (2010).Hide Footnote concluded that the latter are not strong enough to clean up the trade in minerals because of a lack of political will and the fact that they are not legally binding.

Congress has taken the principle of due diligence from the realms of woolly “soft law” and integrated it into American law through the Dodd-Frank Act. Section 1502 of this Act requires the American Securities and Exchange Commission to formulate rules that oblige companies to disclose the origin of their minerals. These rules provide for a three-stage control procedure over companies quoted on Wall Street.[fn]The American Securities and Exchange Commission formulated these propositions on 15 December 2010 and they were due to come into force on 15 April 2011 but their implementation was delayed following the complaints of the Great Lakes countries and lobbying by the industry. The electronics industry, a major consumer of these minerals, is the most affected.Hide Footnote In the first stage, companies must determine whether they use wolframite, coltan, cassiterite and gold. If so, they must conduct an investigation and mobilise “reasonable” means to locate the origin of their minerals. If companies publish in their annual reports the steps that have allowed them to conclude their minerals were not extracted in the DRC or neighbouring countries, their products will be labelled “DRC conflict free”. Companies unable to give any indication of the origin of their minerals or those that have found that they originate from the DRC or neighbouring countries must determine the exact origin of the minerals in order to ensure they have not been supplied from rebel-controlled mines. A detailed report is required at this stage, including an assessment by an external auditor. Their products will not receive the “DRC conflict free” label unless they demonstrate that their minerals were supplied from mines under the control of government forces rather than other armed groups. By requiring companies to check and publicise this information, American law gives consumers the power to punish those companies that have acted unethically.

Not only does the Dodd-Frank Act represent a qualitative leap forward by making observance of the principle of due diligence compulsory, it also encourages the EU, another major importer of Congolese minerals, to follow suit. The EU is currently preparing regulations similar to the Dodd-Frank Act.[fn]Article 14 of the European Parliament Resolution of 7 October 2010 on Failures in Protection of Human Rights and Justice in the Democratic Republic of Congo; article 8 of European Parliament Resolution of 15 December 2010 on the Future of the EU-Africa Strategic Partnership Following the 3rd EU-Africa Summit.Hide Footnote Meanwhile, on 1 March, the Congolese mining authorities began to introduce the traceability procedures developed with German technical assistance and to formalise the informal sector in the east of the country.

The limitations of controls and regulations: a problem of governance

The control and regulate approaches are complementary, but face serious feasibility, reliability and security problems related to the more general problem of governance in eastern DRC. These approaches have therefore already had unexpected consequences. Their lack of impact has led to a de facto embargo since the beginning of April.[fn]Trading companies have indicated to trading counters that they will not buy any more minerals without certification. That will mean considerable losses for the Rwandan trade balance (whose exports of coltan, cassiterite and wolframite represented around 28% of exports in 2009) and especially for North Kivu, whose exports already fell last year (by 16% for coltan and by 37% for cassiterite 2009-2010). Crisis Group interview, mines administration and trading counter representatives, Goma, April 2011. See also Killing the Economy in the Name of Peace? The New US Conflict Minerals Legislation for the DRC, Pole Institute, 14 August 2010.Hide Footnote


The initiatives conceived by international actors depend on the producer countries for their implementation. Producers and the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) certainly receive technical assistance from foreign partners, first and foremost from Germany.[fn]Through its cooperation agency and the BGR, Germany provides technical assistance on this issue to the ICGLR and the DRC and Rwandan governments.Hide Footnote  Apart from the fact that it lacks coordination and risks leading to the existence of several certification systems in the Great Lakes, this technical assistance is not enough to compensate for the notorious lack of administrative capacity. With regard to certification, the Great Lake countries themselves believe the task is too much for them and have all asked Washington for a period of grace.[fn]Letter dated 18 February 2011 from the director of the Rwandan Mines and Geology Authority to the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition and letter dated 25 February 2011 from the president of the FEC Mines Committee of North Kivu to the president of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Radio Okapi, 1 April, Loi Obama sur les minerais du sang : la société civile du Nord-Kivu demande un moratoire.Hide Footnote  Even the best organised state in the region, Rwanda, has requested more time, like the DRC, which is still wondering how it is going to administer an informal and violent mining zone as big as the United Kingdom. Even if all the Great Lakes countries were to introduce national regulations on certification and traceability, they do not have the administrative capacity required to ensure compliance (there have been no increases in either the budget or staffing of the provincial mining departments in North and South Kivu). The lack of capacity to maintain customs administration means that the problem of smuggling remains. This is especially acute in the case of gold (90 per cent of gold is smuggled, compared with 35 per cent of cassiterite[fn]Nairobi conference organised by the OECD and CIRGL, 29-30 September 2010; Promoting legal mineral trade in Africa’s Great Lakes region, Resource Consulting Services, May 2010.Hide Footnote ). Constrained to implement a policy that they do not have the resources to implement, the countries of the Great Lakes region are at an impasse.


In addition to the capacity of national administrations, the traceability and certification initiatives depend on the integrity of these administrations and the politicians who are giving the orders. However, corruption is rife in the natural resources sector. The problem of corruption overshadows the attempts to police and regulate the sector. The so-called Goma jet affair, which ended in the release of foreigners arrested in exchange for US$3 million and no proceedings against General Bosco Ntaganda, speaks volumes about the extent of corruption in the mining sector.[fn]The foreigners were finally released on 25 March after paying a fine of US$ 3 million. RD Congo : libération de quatre étrangers soupçonnés de trafic d’or, Afrique en ligne, 26 March 2011. Another recent affair concerns the traffic of 2.5 tonnes of gold, which vanished in North Kivu in January 2011, was intercepted in Kenya in February and vanished again after an employee of the Kenya Revenue Authority given responsibility for the investigation was killed. In a surprise visit to Nairobi on 3 March 2011, Kabila announced the creation of a joint commission of investigation to clarify this affair. See the article Kenya : enquête sur le commerce illégal d’or en provenance de la RD Congo, Afrique en ligne, 9 March 2011. Also see The Criminalisation of an Economic Sector in Eastern DRC, Pole Institute, November 2010.Hide Footnote  This corruption is going to cast serious and lasting doubts on the reliability of any strictly national certification system.[fn]For corruption in the DRC, see  Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°73, Congo: a stalled democratic agenda, 8 April 2010.Hide Footnote While the trade in gold between Uganda and the DRC and coltan/cassiterite between Rwanda and the DRC has been documented in reports published by the UN and NGOs, Uganda has said it no longer imports gold from the DRC and Rwanda says that most of the cassiterite it exports is of Rwandan origin.[fn]The hill belongs to them: the need for international action on Congo’s conflict mineral trade, Global Witness, 14 December 2010.Hide Footnote Finally, because of the possibility of fraudulent certificates, even buyers acting in good faith are always at risk of buying “certified” blood minerals.

Due diligence poses a more subtle problem of reliability – the quality and independence of audits. The credibility of due diligence rests completely on an independent third party’s exhaustive verification of statements made by companies. The form these audits should take has yet to be defined but it is indispensable that they are able to present full guarantees of independence and that they cover the entire supply chain from the mines to the electronics companies.


Far from having been reduced, the militarisation of production sites has increased during the last two years because of the military operations conducted against armed groups and the integration of militias into the army.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°165, Congo: no stability in Kivu despite rapprochement with Rwanda, 16 November 2010.Hide Footnote The consequence of this militarisation is violence against civilians and the emergence of mafia behaviour by mine operators. Considering the corruption and problems of unpaid wages that affect the security services[fn]Crisis Group interview, members of MONUSCO, Goma, April 2011.Hide Footnote , to entrust them with the trading centres is not very reassuring. The question that needs to be asked now is to what extent the militarisation of mining sites, which will intensify with the new wave of integration of armed groups, is compatible with the process of administrative, social and environmental certification.[fn]For example, the Bisie mine is one of ITRI’s pilot sites and since 2009 it is under the control of former militia men integrated into the army. The Forces Républicaines Fédéralistes and several Mai-Mai groups have recently been integrated into the security forces. Crisis Group interview, members of MONUSCO, Goma, April 2011.Hide Footnote Transferring control of the mining zones from the armed groups to the FARDC does not mean there will be a drastic fall in the violence and exploitation perpetrated against the population, because the army is the main source of violence[fn]Third Joint Report of Seven United Nations Experts on the Situation in the Democratic Republic of CongoHuman Rights Council, 9 March 2011.Hide Footnote . It is still unpaid and the integration of the armed groups looks more like a game of pass the parcel. As military control of the mining zones and some trade routes is the basis for the militarisation of the local economy, the integration of armed groups and demilitarisation of the mines agendas are eminently contradictory.

These feasibility, reliability and security problems show the extent of the challenge facing state governance in the Great Lakes area in general and eastern DRC in particular. The existence of an undisciplined and unpaid army, the militarisation of the eastern DRC economy, the size of the informal economy, the extent of corruption among the networks of the elite means that major reform of the army in particular and the administration in general is required. The solutions currently proposed to deal with the problem of conflict minerals can only avoid these delicate issues for a while, issues already set out in the Kassem report in 2002. At a time when the world is involved in a race to obtain raw material, the problem of conflict minerals needs political and not technical solutions. No technical solution will stop the trade in minerals from promoting conflict. Only governance based on the rule of law will make the proposed technical solutions feasible. In the event of failure, there is a risk that one of the economic engines of the Great Lakes region will quite simply grind to a halt.

An Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) soldier takes part in a foot patrol following an alleged ADF attack in the village of Manzalaho near Beni, 18 February 2020. AFP/ Alexis Huguet
Q&A / Africa

Understanding the New U.S. Terrorism Designations in Africa

The U.S. has designated two armed groups in the DRC and in Mozambique as terrorist organisations, claiming they are affiliated with the Islamic State, and creating potential legal peril for peacemakers who may deal with them. Crisis Group analyses the implications.

Which armed groups did the U.S. designate under its terrorism authorities and what is their backstory?

Last week the U.S Department of State designated two armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Mozambique, as well as their leaders. U.S. officials allege that these two groups – the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in the DRC, and Ahlu Sunna Wal Jammah (ASWJ) in Mozambique – have become Islamic State (ISIS) franchises. It refers to them as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – Democratic Republic of the Congo (ISIS-DRC) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – Mozambique (ISIS-Mozambique). ASWJ is also known locally as Al-Shabaab, although it is distinct from its Somali namesake.

The U.S. designations come amid expressions of increasing alarm in Washington that despite the end of ISIS’s physical caliphate in the Levant, the group could be gaining influence elsewhere, especially in Africa. Already, local groups in Nigeria and the Sahel fight under ISIS’s banner. Since 2019, ISIS has stated that its “Central Africa Province” includes parts of the DRC and Mozambique, where it says it has developed alliances with local armed groups, including the ADF and ASWJ.

The ADF and ASWJ are groups whose violence has historically been first and foremost driven by local dynamics and grievances. They recruit mainly local fighters.

Although it emerged in the 1990s as an Islamist movement fighting the Ugandan state, the ADF has since the 2000s mostly been active in the northern part of the DRC’s North Kivu province, where it has recruited Congolese fighters, including by force, and entrenched itself by manipulating disputes among local chiefs and communities in areas under its control. Having developed tactical alliances with both senior army officers and armed groups fighting security forces, it both fuels and feeds off an internecine and murky conflict on the ground.

In Mozambique, ASWJ formed when frustrated youth, including local petty traders and poor fishermen, began building their own mosques and prayer houses in Cabo Delgado province and challenging established religious leaders they saw as too close to state authorities. As the police clamped down, they eventually took up arms, launching their first attack in 2017. Some former ruby miners, expelled from mining concessions earlier that year, also joined the fight, according to Crisis Group’s research.

There is some evidence of prior contacts between the two designated groups. Local observers and officials in the DRC and Mozambique say that there are some known cases of Mozambicans, including some of the leaders of ASWJ, travelling to the DRC for training, but these movements are believed to have ended years ago. The U.S. Department of State says the two groups are “distinct”.

Women wait in line during a World Food Program distribution at a school in Matuge district in northern Mozambique, 24 February 2021. AFP/Alfredo Zuniga

How dangerous are the ADF and ASWJ?

Both the ADF and ASWJ have grown more dangerous over the years, becoming increasingly bold in their attacks against security forces while inflicting terrible violence against civilians.

The ADF, long dormant in the DRC, first began resurfacing again in 2014, mainly committing atrocities against civilians in gruesome machete attacks. From 2017, the group then began turning its attention increasingly against government security forces and UN peacekeepers. Its operations became more sophisticated and used greater firepower. According to a December 2020 report by UN investigators in the DRC, the ADF has over time also become better at building improvised explosive devices, although it has nothing like the ISIS core’s expertise.

Recent Congolese military operations between late 2019 and October 2020 have killed hundreds of fighters belonging to the ADF, which Crisis Group’s research indicates is now split into competing factions. Some elements have moved east to the foothills of the Rwenzori mountains bordering Uganda, and some north into neighbouring Ituri province, where they have been involved in reported killings.

In Mozambique, ASWJ has become significantly more dangerous and sophisticated since it first started up in 2017. In the early stages of the insurgency, attackers grouped in small packs of a few fighters to attack remote police outposts or villages, often brandishing blunt weapons. But by early 2020, the insurgents had taken significant stockpiles of weapons from government security forces and were able to mount attacks on district capitals, including the port of Mocimboa da Praia. Government forces fled the city in August and have yet to retake it. Violence against civilians also escalated over the past year, as the insurgency swept south towards the provincial capital Pemba, with numerous credible reports of atrocities committed by ASWJ fighters.

In recent months, security forces working with foreign military contractors from South Africa have caused the group some setbacks, destroying some of their camps and storage facilities in the bush. Nevertheless, insurgents continue to regroup and mount guerrilla attacks on security forces, while also plundering villages for food.

Are countries in the region concerned about these groups?

Yes, although for the time being the DRC’s and Mozambique’s neighbours in the Great Lakes region and Southern Africa are less concerned about the groups’ possible territorial ambitions than the threat they might pose to public spaces in their capitals and other locations. Some worry that they will face the kind of attacks that Kenya has seen in recent years in Nairobi, or that Uganda saw in Kampala in 2010. Somalia’s Al-Shabaab jihadist group has claimed responsibility for the Nairobi and Kampala attacks, although some Ugandan security sources believe the latter was carried out with assistance from ADF operatives. South Africa also shows signs of being worried about militant groups, including those from the Great Lakes region and Mozambique, using its territory as a base or safe haven, and about possible links between home-grown militants in South Africa and those in the DRC and Mozambique.

What is the Islamic State’s relationship with the two groups?

Crisis Group has shown in the past how ISIS was able to strengthen and shape the tactics of the Boko Haram faction that became the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) by deploying a limited amount of resources, training and instruction, although any influence ISIS possessed did not transform the movement’s overwhelmingly local aspirations. There is little to suggest that ISIS has gained anything like that level of sway over either the ADF or ASWJ, much less the ability to exert command and control over them.   

A recent study on the ADF by George Washington University, which some U.S. officials privately endorse, provides evidence that ISIS has given financial assistance to the DRC group, and that there have been communications between the two organisations. Specifically, the report details financial transactions between Waleed Ahmed Zein, an ISIS financial operative who was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Treasury in September 2018, and his alleged ADF contacts. It additionally details cases where ISIS disseminated propaganda about ADF attacks and presents ISIS-published photos of ADF leader Seka Musa Baluku, who according to the study has pledged allegiance to the global ISIS leadership, preaching to his recruits.

The study also states, however, that it has found “no evidence of direct command and control orders” from ISIS to the ADF. The December 2020 UN report states that even if ISIS claimed 46 purported ADF attacks in 2020, compared to 29 in 2019, many of the claims inaccurately described the attacks’ locations and dates, leading the authors to conclude that ISIS had “limited knowledge and control” of these operations. In the meantime, sources close to the ADF say one ADF faction appears to have rejected ISIS and may even be turning against Baluku’s group.

Similarly, while there is evidence that ISIS has had some contact with jihadists in Mozambique, it is unclear how close or meaningful their ties are. In a report issued last year, UN investigators working on Somalia stated that Mohamed Ahmed “Qahiye”, a native of the semi-autonomous region of Puntland in northern Somalia and a member of an ISIS-linked Al-Shabaab splinter group, had travelled to Mozambique in early 2020. Regional security sources say he is a trainer and a bomb-maker. While ASWJ attacks did become more sophisticated in 2020, the group has yet to show evidence of explosive device capacities.

In addition, communication between the groups and some coordination in disseminating propaganda does not suggest especially close links. When ASWJ took control of the port of Mocimboa da Praia in August, ISIS did not broadcast this in its Al-Naba magazine for two weeks. Nor has it claimed any ASWJ attack as its own since October. U.S. officials say this is because the ISIS core’s media wing is under pressure that currently limits its output.

Are there foreign fighters in ASWJ?

Yes. The biggest cohort of foreigners fighting within the ranks of ASWJ, according to government officials, regional security sources and eyewitnesses interviewed by Crisis Group, are from Tanzania. Many of them appear to be acolytes of Aboud Rogo, a former Kenyan cleric who was linked to both al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab in Somalia and who was assassinated in 2012. Abu Yasir Hassan, whom the U.S. has identified as ASWJ’s leader, is also Tanzanian.

What will be the effect of these designations and how might authorities in the DRC and Mozambique manage the fallout?

Among other things, the terrorism listings freeze all of the assets under U.S. jurisdiction that belong to the ADF and ASWJ or their designated leaders, and make it a U.S. criminal offense to knowingly provide material support to any of the designees.  

While the sanctions that flow from these designations in theory do not criminalise all contact with the two groups, they are extremely broad, and their implementation could create problems for both humanitarians and peacemakers. Humanitarian agencies may shrink from providing support to vulnerable populations in Mozambique and the DRC if they believe they might end up resourcing someone who could later be accused of being an ADF or ASWJ member. Government or UN officials who might want to put resources into the hands of insurgents or fighters in order to, for example, transport them to a forum for peace negotiations, could technically also fall foul of the material support restrictions that flow from the designations.

Nor is there much likelihood that the designations will lead to a quick dismantling of these armed groups, which manage much of their money in cash or via forms of money transfer that will require painstaking work to investigate and chase, and may put them beyond the reach of U.S. sanctions.

The U.S. designations meanwhile could unintentionally send a counterproductive signal to political actors in the region. Especially in the DRC and Mozambique, where these measures are not fully understood even by top policymakers, they could be used by hardliners to justify calls for addressing the challenge posed by the ADF and ASWJ through military action alone. Diplomats in the region also now wonder whether the official unveiling of a U.S. military training program for Mozambique right after the sanctions were announced will be the thin end of the wedge for more U.S. military engagement in the gas-rich country. So far, however, the Mozambican government has signalled very clearly it does not want any foreign boots touching the soil of Cabo Delgado. Military operations in the DRC and Mozambique have recently dented both groups, but tackling the threat they pose will require a broader approach, including efforts to appeal to the Congolese and Mozambican citizens who respectively make up the bulk of fighters in both groups.


Deputy Director, Africa Program
Deputy Project Director, Central Africa
Senior Consultant, Southern Africa
Researcher, Horn of Africa