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Understanding the New U.S. Terrorism Designations in Africa
Understanding the New U.S. Terrorism Designations in Africa

Why Belgium?

Originally published in The New York Review of Books

The devastating suicide bombings in Brussels on Tuesday morning have raised new questions about jihadist networks based in Belgium, which were also believed to be behind the attacks in Paris in November. The attacks at the main Belgian airport and in the Brussels subway came just a few days after Salah Abdeslam, the prime suspect in the earlier Paris attacks, was arrested in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels; and Belgian authorities have suggested that there may be other connections to the Paris attacks as well.

Why has Belgium become such a focus of European jihad? And why has it been so difficult for Belgian authorities to contain the problem? Joost Hiltermann spoke to Didier Leroy, a leading terrorism researcher at the Royal Military Academy of Belgium and an adjunct at the Free University of Brussels.

Joost Hiltermann: What do this week’s attacks reveal about the aims of ISIS in Europe?

Didier Leroy: The Brussels attacks have been, without much surprise, claimed and celebrated by ISIS supporters. Ideologically, the symbolic dimension of the targets—the Brussels international airport, less than 5 kilometers away from NATO headquarters, and the Maelbeek subway station, near the main institutions of the European Union—reflects ISIS’s dual view of the world: the struggle of a Muslim oppressed world against a Western oppressing world. At the level of the modus operandi, we find several common features shared by the French and Belgian commandos: relatively small cells of determined individuals hitting as many “soft” (civilian) targets as possible.

In Brussels we now see military back on the streets as we did in November, which raises the question, how are the resources that are available being used?

The strategy as a whole has a preventive and a repressive side. The focus right now is on what we are witnessing in everyday life, what we can directly see, which is the reactive aspect. Deploying the army in the streets of the capital is a way to deter potential threats, and reassure the population. Technically, the army is deployed in fixed stations to guard a key monument, building, or populated area—Grand Place for example—which frees up the police to be more mobile and to be doing more police work, like identity checks and investigative tasks. A soldier could not search someone’s house with a warrant for example.

How is it that a guy like Salah Abdeslam, a leading figure in the Paris attacks, could live undetected in the Belgian capital for months? How is it that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged Paris ringleader, could move back and forth between Belgium and Syria undetected?  

Firstly, we are talking about Belgian citizens hiding in familiar areas in Belgian territory. They relied on certain networks of loyalties, sometimes through family connections. Several of them also had fake IDs and used these for money transfers, apartment rentals, etc. They further avoided using cell phones, which allowed them to remain under the radar for some time. As soon as the investigation forced them out of one of their hideouts, they started making mistakes and were detected. This being said, another aspect is the lack of (mostly human) resources. The Belgian intelligence services are doing their best to monitor roughly one thousand “potentially dangerous” individuals. You cannot follow all of them 24/7, it’s technically not feasible.

Much has been made of the fact that Belgium has a higher number of jihadists relative to its population than any other European country.

According to recent statements by Interior Minister Jan Jambon, the number of Belgian “foreign fighters” reached around 470 individuals as of January 2016. Flanders and Brussels would each account for roughly 45 percent of the departures, the rest coming from the southern region of Wallonia. (This tends to invalidate the assumption that social-economic grievances and poverty may be driving radicalization, since the economy in the north of the country is significantly stronger.) As my colleague Rik Coolsaet has documented in a new report, among these 470 individuals who have attempted to go to Syria, roughly 60 didn’t manage to reach Syrian territory in the first place; some 80 have presumably been killed; and about 190 are still believed to be operating in Syria or Iraq. While some 130 of them have gone and have now returned to Belgium.

And most of these recruits have joined ISIS? Are they still going?

Approximately 70 percent of those whose affiliation could be established with a reasonable degree of certainty has been fighting under the ISIS banner. Overall, the monthly average of departures seems to have gradually dropped from its peak of some fifteen per month (in 2012-2013) to an average of five per month during the year 2015.

In view of this week’s attacks, are the 130 jihadists who have returned to Belgium increasingly viewed as a threat? Are they ticking time bombs?

No one can answer this question with specific data. It’s not measurable. We know that about a third of those who have returned have been arrested and jailed. I’m inclined to say that most of the remaining individuals don’t pose a threat. The problem is, even if most of them pose no threat at all and only regret this dark episode of their life, a small minority could still cause a lot of damage as we witnessed on March 22. So we must remain vigilant, in spite of the difficulty of trying to monitor all these people. Having at one’s disposal an Excel spreadsheet with roughly one thousand names is one thing, but the next one is to know how to manage this database.

What do we know about the thousand people on the watch list?

Apart from the 470 known foreign fighters, there are individuals in various stages of radicalization: some of them have shown obvious symptoms of being radicalized, some have only expressed a wish to go to Syria or Iraq. Among those who have left Belgian territory, some are only assumed to be fighting for IS, Jabhat al-Nusra or other Jihadi groups. Others are known to have reached Syria or Iraq for that specific purpose. Also, some others have left Syria or Iraq but have not been identified as back in Belgium yet.

We cannot say that Belgian jihadists fit a general profile. There are men and women, individuals and groups (sometimes couples or whole families), older and very young people. Abdelhamid Abaaoud’s younger brother Younes was thirteen when he went to Syria—and I think was then considered the youngest case in 2013. That being said, the age range of foreign fighters from Belgium is typically twenty to twenty-four. The education level is often below that of the average population. Foreign fighters with college degrees exist, but they constitute a small minority, as far as Belgium is concerned. Most were known to police and intelligence before their departure. Belgians with Moroccan family background are significantly overrepresented on the list (more than 80 percent), while converts to Islam would represent less than 10 percent. 

Both Abdeslam and Abaaoud were of Belgian-Moroccan background. Why are second and third generation Moroccan immigrants in Belgium so vulnerable to radicalization?

Integration has worked very well in the vast majority of cases, but a number of individuals among the younger generation are clearly facing an identity crisis. Though born in Belgium, they feel discriminated against because of their Arabic family names, North-African looks, or Islamic religious beliefs. But when they go to Morocco to visit relatives there, most probably do not feel Moroccan either, because they are not perceived as such for a number of reasons. This dilemma probably explains, at least partially, a need to belong to something else beyond family, community, or society—something bigger, with better opportunities or promises for the future. This is where the “re-Islamicization” process can come in. While these youth have usually been Islamicized through family education and in official mosques, some of them can be “born again” via the Internet, in improvised da‘wa (proselytism) circles, or in jail. Internal rifts can then appear at the core of certain families where the older generations practicing the traditional “Maleki” Sunni rite (typical of the Maghreb region) are confronted by a growing “Hanbali” influence–in particular the Wahhabi tradition from the Gulf region, known for its puritanical, or Salafi, approach to Islam–promoted by the younger generation. The Salafi brand has visibly gained some momentum in certain neighborhoods of predominantly Moroccan districts like Molenbeek: you can notice it by the type of veil worn by some women, the type of untrimmed beard without moustache preferred by men, and so on.

Belgium has one of the largest Moroccan minorities in Europe, as many as 500,000 of its 11.2 million people. A lot of these families originally came as workers in the Sixties and Seventies, right?

Yes, we celebrated fifty years of Moroccan immigration last year. So that’s where a major part of the stream comes from. I think the one element that has affected the Moroccan community is that they suffered from the economic circumstances, notably with the oil crisis in the early 1970s, which is something that the Italians or Spaniards from Belgium didn’t really suffer from because they were here earlier so they already had their business going on, or they had already started to ascend in the social scale. So fewer opportunities, more ghettoization in a certain way.

This doesn’t seem to be happening as much to other Muslim communities in Belgium. What about the Turkish minority, which also counts several hundred thousand people?

There’s a clear difference between the Moroccan and Turkish communities. We have very few if any Turks on the list of at-risk individuals. So it’s not about Islam, because the Turks are Sunni Muslims also. And I don’t remember my colleagues at the federal police mentioning one Turkish name. In Schaerbeek, for example, the population is predominantly Moroccan and Turkish, and it’s very clear: you have no momentum in the Turkish population to join IS. And this is probably associated with a certain type of identity construction in the Turkish community. They tend to be specifically attached to their language, more than anything else, which limits the exposure to Wahhabi proselytism. I think that money from Gulf countries has done a lot of damage in Moroccan mosques in Belgium on that level. Some mosques have been more and more under the sway of Saudi imams or of Moroccan-Belgian citizens who have been trained in and funded by Saudi Arabia and who are spreading Wahhabi doctrine. Most Turkish mosques, to my knowledge, are financed and managed by the Diyanet institution, largely associated with the Hanafi school of jurisprudence. And then, there is also the secularist heritage of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk of course, which probably still plays a part at some level too.

Apart from religious infrastructure, are there other issues that seem to be making the people on the watch list more susceptible to recruitment?  

I believe that an under-analyzed element in the radicalization process is the psychological one. Many, many people can feel anger when a Western superpower is bombing a developing country, or be curious about jihadi-Salafi propaganda, or feel injustice based on social and economic discrimination. But why do all these potential motivators affect individuals in such different ways? Why is it that some will keep on struggling to deal with these issues in their personal development, while others throw their whole lives away and pick up arms? Because these influences mobilize their emotions differently, I think. The emotional architecture of an individual is often shaped in the early years of childhood and has to do with the quality of the parental relationship. It affects the way he or she will be sensitive to other influences. It’s worth pointing out that more and more terrorist attacks have involved siblings in recent years: the Tsarnaev brothers from the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, the Kouachi brothers from the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015, and now the Abdeslam brothers from the Paris attacks and the el-Bakraoui brothers from the Brussels attacks.

Although it is extremely difficult to investigate this aspect of things, I am convinced that we might gain much understanding about the motivations of terrorist acts by examining the family situation, whether or not there is a history of family tension or violence, of the attackers in question. I am not talking exclusively about physical violence from the fathers, as this leaves visible scars and is often easily identified. It’s the invisible scars, perhaps induced by moral and verbal violence from the mothers, that might shed some new light on certain kinds of extremist behavior.

It does seem that a single explanation for why so many Europeans—and so many Belgians in particular—have gone to fight in Syria has eluded us.

In general I would say that you have as many reasons to go to fight in Syria as you have individuals. The most recent research on political violence, to my knowledge, has identified four main influences that seem to be present most of the time in the case of true hardcore extremists: (1) ideology, (2) socialization, (3) grievances, and (4) rational choice. But so many factors have to be taken into account to understand the trajectory. I mean, in some cases you have people who are very into eschatological literature and who are really drawn to this end-time utopia that ISIS presents them. Some other guys are just low-level criminals looking for something to make out of their life and don’t even present any sign of radicalization, they just kind of “recycle” their violence for a Cause with a capital “C.” They first become violent and then all of a sudden it’s for ISIS.

So the link to the ISIS’s Caliphate project may actually be fairly loose for some of these radicalized youth in Belgium?

Historically there are almost no links between Belgium and Syria or Iraq. I am still rather skeptical about the depth of structural connections between these young jihadi candidates and ISIS, which is a Middle Eastern phenomenon in the first place (and the so-called Caliphate has regional priorities before global ones). I see ISIS as a “heterarchical” organization, characterized by an undisputed leader—the self-proclaimed Caliph Ibrahim—but also by a shared decisional process. The ISIS central command in Rakka could be regarded as a vertical entity, which becomes more “horizontal” when it reaches the external layer of foreign recruits. There certainly is a central, top-down policy calling on fighters to hit enemies of the “Islamic State project” wherever possible, but the when, the how, etcetera, are left to the initiative of individuals or small groups—it’s up to them to decide the best way to proceed. Most of these recruits obviously know their countries of origin well, have grown up with the Internet and the images of 9/11 in their minds, and are determined to “do better” than old-fashioned al-Qaeda. 

Testosterone also has a significant influence here, given the average age of Belgian jihadists. If you remove the beards, the Korans, and the black flags from most ISIS propaganda videos, you are left with something that resembles certain US hip hop videos! Big cars, guns everywhere, gang members posing together. In our globalized world, the violence of ISIS is not that remote from Hollywood movies like Mad Max or Japanese mangas like Hokuto No Ken. ISIS is trying to evoke the Islamic Middle Ages, but the Toyota vehicles and the Nike sneakers tell us something else.


Program Director, Middle East and North Africa
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Didier Leroy
Leading terrorism researcher at the Royal Military Academy of Belgium
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