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An Alarming New Escalation in the Syria War
An Alarming New Escalation in the Syria War
Understanding the New U.S. Terrorism Designations in Africa
Understanding the New U.S. Terrorism Designations in Africa
This picture shows Turkey’s account of flightpaths of aircraft, including that of the downed Russian warplane, along the Turkish-Syrian border on 24 November 2015. REUTERS/Turkish Interior Ministry

An Alarming New Escalation in the Syria War

Turkish officials say their fighter jets shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border on Tuesday 24 November after warning it ten times in the space of five minutes that it was violating Turkish airspace. Moscow said that a SU-24 was downed but could prove the aircraft never left Syrian airspace, with President Vladimir Putin himself saying it was 1km inside Syria. Drawing on the expertise of its analysts covering Syria, Turkey and Russia, International Crisis Group has compiled this background Q&A on possible dangers ahead.

What will be the impact of this new layer of conflict in the Syrian war?

This is a new sign of how internationalised the Syrian war has become, and how dangerous it can still get. In a way, it’s a slap in the face that could bring Syria’s external stakeholders to their senses, but risks sending the war hurtling down another precipice. Precisely because it feared such an uncalculated escalation, Crisis Group has long argued that all regional and international parties to the conflict must come together on a compromise solution to calm the Syrian war, not add fuel to its flames.

The Vienna talks have been a small step in the right direction. But the process to which Vienna gives birth must not turn into a gimmick designed to gain time and dress up the political vacuum. There must be a real, substantive brake on the reckless, relentless deterioration and escalation that has characterised the Syrian war. Anything less will do more harm than good, and the situation has become just too dangerous to give us the luxury of pretending.

Why did Turkey shoot down the plane, knowing what consequences such action could have?

Ever since Syrian air defences shot down a Turkish warplane that Damascus said entered its Mediterranean maritime airspace in 2012, Turkey announced “new rules of engagement” under which it would strongly react to any transgression of its borders. On 5 October, Prime Minister Davutoglu stated that “Turkey’s rules of engagement apply to aircraft from Syria, from Russia or any other country. The Turkish military has been given clear instructions. Even if it’s a bird flying over the border, the appropriate response will be made”.

More recently, it has shown rising concern about the fate of Syrian Turkmens just over the border, an ethnic group that speaks Turkish and whose Turkey-backed local militia had recently come under military pressure from Russian-backed regime forces. Ankara called for a discussion of the issue in the UN Security Council and the foreign ministry summoned in the Russian ambassador. If any of the pilots or their bodies are now in pro-Turkish militia hands, it is very important that Ankara use this to re-engage with Russia and not tip the two countries into deeper dispute.

Turkey is appealing to its fellow members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and other international institutions – what should these organisations do?

Much depends on whether Turkey’s action is shown to be self-defence or as another step toward more direct engagement in the Syrian war. In the first case, Turkey can count on its NATO allies lining up behind it. In the second, Turkey will be more on its own. But certainly all sides should use this new tension as a warning that they need stronger engagement to avoid the risks of further escalation.

In the background, to be sure, are strains between Turkey and its European partners over the past year as huge numbers of Syrian refugees started leaving Turkey toward Greece, the Balkans and the EU. But in the end, the refugee issue opened up new channels of cooperation between the EU and Turkey.

Turkey and its traditional Western partners should now move even further toward closer cooperation. Ankara must act with a much greater sense of regional responsibility and EU states with a greater sense of burden sharing, notably in helping Turkey host 2.2 million Syrian refugees. Tuesday’s incident shows how dangerous it is for the two sides to act unilaterally.

How will all this affect Turkish-Russian relations?

Turkey-Russian relations are in a fragile balance. Although the two sides have fought two dozen wars in the past, and were deeply opposed across a long border during the Cold War, interdependence has grown over the past two decades. Turkey is now two-thirds reliant on Russian supplies of natural gas, and Russian tourists are a huge boon for Turkey’s coastal resorts.

Russia is keenly aware of the costs of relations with Turkey deteriorating drastically. When a Russian warplane violated Turkish airspace soon after it engaged in Syria, Moscow went out of its way to smooth things out. But ultimately, the two countries have diametrically opposed policies in Syria, with Turkey highly focused on the ouster of Bashar al-Assad and Russia determined to protect the Syrian regime as its longstanding foothold in the Middle East.

Not surprisingly, the relationship is now deteriorating. President Putin said the Turkish shootdown was a stab in the back by “terrorist supporters” and has warned of “serious” consequences for Turkish-Russian ties. The Russian foreign ministry has warned Russians not to visit Turkey due to the terrorist threat and Foreign Minister Lavrov has cancelled a planned trip as well.

How does this affect the broader relationship between Russia and the West?

Much depends on how events on the ground develop between Russia and Turkey, which is at the end of the day a key NATO member.

There is still a great need for constructive cooperation between the West and the Russian Federation in the fight against the Islamic State. The shootdown will be a distraction from that potential, but all sides should bear in mind their shared interest in defeating transnational violent jihadi groups.

While there may be some potential for cooperation with Moscow against IS, however, Russia’s military approach in Syria would need to shift fundamentally for such cooperation to contribute constructively toward weakening violent jihadis. So long as the overwhelming majority of Russian strikes and Russian-backed offensives target anti-IS opposition forces, the net impact of increased military cooperation with Moscow would be negative. That’s because it would strengthen the jihadi narrative, at the same time as weakening mainstream opposition forces that will ultimately be needed as partners against IS (and other transnational jihadis).

In short, the form of West-Russia cooperation with most potential to weaken IS is diplomatic cooperation toward achieving a (geo)political resolution in Syria.

What will the impact in Russia be of this first and very public setback for Moscow’s new policy of direct engagement in Syria?

Russia’s entry as a direct party to the Syrian war was always going to have consequences, but disengagement will also be hard.

It’s true that Russian media has used its Syrian engagement as a means to distract its population from the quagmire it’s gotten into in eastern Ukraine, to play down internal economic problems and to support Putin’s popularity. But there is also an authentic security challenge to Moscow in the rise of the Islamic State.

The Islamic State bombed a Russian airliner as it flew from Egypt in October, killing 224 people, mostly Russians. Russian officials allege the group has been behind foiled bombing plots in Moscow. IS has attracted violent jihadis from the North Caucasus and other Russian territories to Syria, and has openly promised in a video to “drown Russia in blood”.

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