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Understanding the New U.S. Terrorism Designations in Africa
Understanding the New U.S. Terrorism Designations in Africa
Op-Ed / Africa

The Congo Re-erupts

Originally published in The Wall Street Journal

Years of peace-building are at stake.

The war that claimed millions of lives and involved six African armies is close to being reignited in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. For the third time in 12 years, a Tutsi-led rebel group is on the offensive and threatening to take Goma, the capital of the North Kivu province, with the support of next-door Rwanda.

Once again, Kinshasa is calling on Angola for help in resisting what it perceives as Rwandan aggression. Once again, the fighting has created a humanitarian crisis, with more than 200,000 new displaced persons adding to the 1.2 million already in camps. And once again, the United Nations peacekeeping force, though 17,000-strong and the biggest of all U.N. missions, seems unprepared to confront the crisis and fulfill its mandate to protect civilians. There have been calls to reinforce it or even to send yet another multinational force into eastern Congo.

But in the current fighting between the Kinshasa government under President Joseph Kabila and Congolese Tutsi insurgents under rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, not everything is evolving according to an old script. Mr. Nkunda's claims that Congo's government is run by perpetrators of the genocide against Tutsis in Rwanda are ludicrous. President Kabila, although a major disappointment to the Congolese and the country's international partners, is far from committing such crimes. He has also come to power by far more democratic elections than those held in neighboring Rwanda, where opposition politicians tend to be put in jail before presidential polls are held.

Mr. Kabila's legitimate election in November 2006 -- heavily supported by Western powers, South Africa and Angola -- closed the national chapter of the Congo peace process. Its wider Central African chapter had made clear progress by spring 2003, with the withdrawal of the last foreign troops from Congolese territory. Yet it was never really fully settled. There was no successful disarmament of the Rwandan Hutu rebels who live in Congo and whose leaders had been involved in the Rwanda genocide, and North Kivu has remained the crucible of a deadly conflict. Some of the former Tutsi rebels refused to integrate with the regular Congolese army, claiming the Congolese Tutsi minority needed protection from the government, and started a new insurgency soon after the beginning of the transition in August 2003.

Two main factors explain Kinshasa's continued military collaboration with the Rwandan Hutu rebels, despite the untold suffering they are inflicting on Congolese civilians in the territories they control. First, there is a strong thirst for revenge against the government of Rwanda and its former proxies. This thirst exists in the Congolese high command and Mr. Kabila's inner circle after the humiliations suffered following the two regional wars initiated by Rwanda, as well as among his Kivutian and North Katangan political base, who suffered from four years of brutal Rwandan occupation.

Second, there is simply no national Congolese army to speak of which can contain Mr. Nkunda's Tutsi insurgency or force it to disarm and demobilize. The attempted 2006 army integration process for Mr. Nkunda's troops collapsed within a couple of months, sabotaged both by the lack of support and rampant corruption within the high command of the Congolese army and by Mr. Nkunda's intransigence. Unless Mr. Kabila reins in his extremists and accepts direct international supervision of the Congolese army in the province, there will be no decisive progress on the dismantlement and disarmament of the Rwandan Hutu rebels and no successful integration with Mr. Nkunda's men -- the only way for the sustainable restoration of state authority.

The U.N.-negotiated Nairobi declaration of November 2007 and the January 2008 Goma peace agreement provided a fairly comprehensive political framework for the disarmament of all militias. But the implementation of these accords fell through.

Dealing with the Tutsi insurgents will require a radical shift of international attitude toward Mr. Nkunda and Rwanda. Mr. Nkunda is confident in his military superiority, which has been sustained thanks to his access to Rwandan and Ugandan territories, where he gets medical and military supplies. Mr. Nkunda also actively recruits young men within Tutsi refugee camps and among the demobilized contingents of the Rwandan army. Last but not least, Mr. Nkunda knows he can still easily and efficiently manipulate Western guilt over the early 1990s genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda by flagging the fears of similar Tutsi victimization in eastern Congo, even though his troops have been among the worst human-right abusers in the province since 2004 -- every bit as bad as the national army. Rwanda is motivated not only by a desire to protect ethnic Tutsis but by a desire to control mineral interests in Congo. Unless it comes under heavy pressure by Western powers and South Africa to strictly prohibit the free movements and operations of Mr. Nkunda's insurgents and their backers on its territory, as per its commitment under the Nairobi declaration, Mr. Nkunda will have no incentive to disarm.

It would not be wise for U.N. Security Council members to expect the U.N. mission to solve all these problems. Ending this latest chapter of the Congo war will require sustained and significant pressure by the U.S., China, France, the U.K., South Africa and Belgium, the former colonial power. Specifically, they must demand that Kigali and Kinshasa implement the Nairobi declaration; insist that Mr. Nkunda retreat to his previous deployment points; and require Mr. Kabila to remove all army commanders collaborating with the Hutu extremists.

The international community has already invested billions of dollars to build and maintain peace in the Congo. To not invest hugely in diplomatic terms right now would risk it all.


Former Program Director, Africa
Former Vice President of Multilateral Affairs
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