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Understanding the New U.S. Terrorism Designations in Africa
Understanding the New U.S. Terrorism Designations in Africa
Report 16 / Africa

How Kabila Lost His Way

A continental war has begun in Africa.  It reaches almost without interruption from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.  Whereas some of the conflicts along this path started decades ago, a new phase involving more than a dozen states has now begun.

Executive Summary

A continental war has begun in Africa.  It reaches almost without interruption from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.  Whereas some of the conflicts along this path started decades ago, a new phase involving more than a dozen states has now begun.  The central arena of this conflict is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where a combination of international intervention and civil war threatens whatever stability the African continent still possesses.  This is an entirely African conflict, not linked to the policies of Western colonial powers or the Cold War.

As with all wars, it is easier to pinpoint when and where military confrontations occurred than it is to explain the original reasons for the conflict.  Was it the decision in 1990 of Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni to permit Rwandan Tutsi refugees to start a military campaign against the then-Hutu dominated Government of Rwanda?  Was it the decision of that government to exterminate as many Tutsi as it could which led to the greatest genocide in African history?  Was it the defeat of that government and the exodus to Congo (then Zaire) of about one million Hutu along with their leaders and intact units of its army?  Was it the fact that these ‘refugees’ were regrouped in UNHCR camps not far from the Rwandan border from which they launched guerrilla attacks against the new Tutsi dominated Rwandan regime?  Was it the fact that despite repeated warnings from Rwanda, the United Nations - or rather, the Western powers, which dominated its decisions in this matter - did nothing to disarm the Hutu or to stop attacks against Rwanda?  Was it the fact that the Government of Congo (then Zaire), burdened by years of corrupt dictatorship under the dying President Mobutu Sese Seko, was allied to the Hutu but also near collapse? 

These interlocking events certainly contributed to the current crisis in Central Africa.  More fundamentally, one of the most important underlying problems is that many groups - often defined ethnically, sometimes constituting majorities, sometimes minorities - feel alienated from governments which rule the states in which they live.  If such states are ruled in a non-pluralistic fashion or are perceived to be doing so, the alienated groups often take up arms.  These conflicts become more complicated, and more deadly, when such groups find support from other states or international forces.  In the past, such support was usually linked to the Cold War; today the syndrome still exists but it has become africanised.

The current phase of conflict in Congo started in 1996 when Congolese Tutsi, Rwandan and Ugandan military forces (later joined by Angola) started a lightning campaign against the Mobutu regime: they emptied the Hutu camps, pursued the Hutu who did not return to Rwanda, and defeated Mobutu.  In order to accomplish this, they supplemented their effort with the creation of a Congolese alliance - the Alliances of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL)-, which gave the entire campaign a revolutionary or civil war character.  The man who led this alliance, Laurent Kabila, became the self-proclaimed President of the re-named Democratic Republic of the Congo.  He and his regime were given wide recognition as virtually the whole world expressed relief at the end of the Mobutu regime and the closing of the Hutu camps.

Two years later, a new war has broken out.  Kabila stands accused by many Congolese of having become a dictator who, in the eyes of some, is worse than Mobutu.  For their part, the Rwandans and the Ugandans perceive their goals - secure borders with the DRC - to be unfulfilled and even betrayed.

Internally, the forces, which have taken up arms against Kabila, are disaffected soldiers, politicians with a variety of different backgrounds, and the Congolese Tutsi.  Externally, the threat to the regime is from the armed forces of Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi.

To counter this challenge, Kabila has mustered three circles of international support.  The first circle is comprised of Angola, Namibia, Chad, Sudan and Zimbabwe, all of which have military forces fighting in the DRC.  The second circle is made up of the Francophone states of Central Africa, whose support is mainly diplomatic rather than military.  The third circle includes what might be called ‘radical’ states: Sudan, Libya and possibly Cuba.  The motivations of these states are varied but one rule seems to apply: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Internally, Kabila has played on anti-Tutsi sentiment, which is strong in the DRC.  At present, he can also count on the Katanga Gendarmes elements in the new Congo Army (Forces Armées Congolaises); some former FAZ (Forces Armées Zairoises) the former Mobutu forces; the Hutu ex-FAR/Interahamwe (Forces Armées Rwandaises), who have apparently been recruited not only in the DRC but also from Congo-Brazzaville and the Central African Republic; and finally, the young recruits, who have joined the army in the last year.  While none of these forces are considered to be neither militarily well trained nor well organised, they are numerically significant and strongly motivated by an anti-foreign, nationalist fervour.

In a word, Africa is faced with an international conflict of major proportions and a civil war in the DRC, which has already caused endless misery and death and has shattered the hopes of its 45 million citizens.

This crisis is even more dangerous because an increasing number of Africans see it in racial terms, with the ‘Bantus’ pitted against the ‘Nilotics’ or ‘Hamites’.  In the Great Lakes region, this is represented by the Hutu (i.e.  Bantu) versus Tutsi (ie.  Nilotic or Hamitic) conflict.  These perceived identities can be called racial (rather than ethnic) because the distinctions made are biological; for example, the Tutsi are identified as tall, narrow-nosed, etc.  Even people with the same physical characteristics who are not Tutsi are easily targeted.

In rapid succession, a number of attempts have been made to end this conflict by mediation.  These include those undertaken or proposed by the Organisation of African Unity, the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, former Prime Minister Etienne Tshisekedi, President Muammar Khaddafi of Libya, President Jacques Chirac of France, former UN head Boutros Boutros Ghali as head of the Francophonie, and President Frederick Chiluba of Zambia.  Up to now, these initiatives have all failed for one main reason: until recently, both sides of the conflict appear to have felt that they can win militarily.  Over the last few months, a de facto military stalemate may alter the situation.  But, until the very recent past, Kabila’s partisans have insisted that the conflict is nothing other than an invasion and that, therefore, a withdrawal of the foreign forces opposed to his government should take place prior to negotiations.

The forces opposed to Kabila, notably the Goma-based Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RDC), define the conflict in different terms.  For them, it is essentially an internal uprising inspired by Kabila’s betrayal of the goals of the movement, which overthrew Mobutu in 1997 and because he has since become a dictator.  They also claim to recognise the right of Uganda and Rwanda to take necessary steps to attain secure borders.  This is linked to the view that Kabila has made an alliance with the ex-FAR and Interahamwe.  However from the start the DRC has called for all-party negotiations, including not only Kabila and his supporting forces but also those Congolese political groups which have been institutionally excluded by Kabila, such as the UDPS (Union pour la démocratie et le progrès social) and civil society organisations.

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
Project Director, Great Lakes
Senior Consultant, Southern Africa
Researcher, Horn of Africa