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Destroying ISIS: 10 dos and don’ts
Destroying ISIS: 10 dos and don’ts
Understanding the New U.S. Terrorism Designations in Africa
Understanding the New U.S. Terrorism Designations in Africa

Destroying ISIS: 10 dos and don’ts

Originally published in World Economic Forum

Over the past year, violent extremist movements have made striking gains. ISIS has consolidated its control over a large swathe of Iraq and Syria, attracting tens of thousands of foreigners, establishing footholds elsewhere, and perpetrating terrorist attacks across the Middle East and beyond. Al Qaeda affiliates from Yemen to Syria to Somalia appear resilient, in some cases stronger than ever. ISIS’s attacks in the West – apparently centrally coordinated in the case of Paris, perpetrated by lone wolves elsewhere – have upped pressure on Western powers to respond more forcefully. Certainly, more can be done to fight ISIS. But any action must be informed by an accurate diagnosis of the problem and must avoid the mistakes of the past.

With that in mind, here are 10 dos and don’ts to consider in the fight against ISIS. They all draw on Crisis Group’s years of experience covering violent extremist movements and the conflicts they feed off, as well as lessons of the past decade and a half’s counterterrorism operations.

1. Don’t overstate the threat

ISIS has demonstrated its potency and may grow stronger yet, but in the past, extremists have tended to profit from their enemies’ overreaction. Their terrorism is often designed to provoke indiscriminate retaliatory violence, which benefits them further. ISIS itself is at least in part a product of the US post-9/11 “war on terror”. Leaders in the US and Europe need to better control the narrative, avoid feeding fear, make sure they do not alienate whole communities, and use force sensibly.

2. Don’t expect bombs to defeat ISIS

Bombs can disrupt training camps, weaken command structures and kill leaders. But no insurgent movement with roots in communities has ever been defeated by bombs alone. Bombers will run out of targets and ISIS will still control some parts of Iraq and Syria. Bombs alone may even prove counterproductive: civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure can push communities into the arms of extremists. In the end, the battle needs to take place on the ground.

3. Don’t expect ‘allies’ to wage that ground war

ISIS may be a common enemy, but few of its enemies in the region think it is the number one priority. The Saudis care more about weakening Iran. Turkey’s main priorities in Syria are ousting Assad and containing Kurdish separatism. The Syrian Kurds care about Kurdistan. Iran – along with the Assad regime and, for the time being, Russia – cares more about maintaining Assad in power than defeating ISIS. Not only have regional politics and escalating competition between states been a major boon for ISIS, they also complicate efforts to defeat it.

4. Don’t overlook the political and socioeconomic roots of ISIS by focusing exclusively on their religious propaganda

True, of the many components that comprise ISIS, some are religious and pursue theologically inspired goals. And true, decades of Gulf-sponsored religious messaging, via schools or satellite television, helped shape a climate receptive to this message. But in the Middle East, where ISIS and other jihadist groups have won the support or acquiescence of communities under their control, that is not so much because of their ideology and more because of the things they provide, particularly for people living in conflict zones or failed states. ISIS has won support thanks largely to the violence Sunni Muslims suffered at the hands of regimes in Baghdad and Damascus, and by appealing to the disenfranchised and alienated within the Sunni community. And in Europe, the new generation of radicalized youth are lured to ISIS online, rather than through mosques, often with little reference to religion and more to violence or fraternity. To paraphrase the French scholar Olivier Roy: we are witnessing the Islamization of radicalism rather than the radicalization of Islam.

5. Do not pursue policies to defeat ISIS that aggravate the conditions that enabled its rise

The increasing influence of ISIS, like that of other extremist groups, is in large part a product of violence and decades of repressive rule. Partnering with repressive governments – particularly those that class all their enemies as violent extremists – in efforts to stamp out the threat risks pushing ever greater numbers of their enemies into the extremist camp. And focusing exclusively on extremism can lead governments to overlook other sources of fragility that can create the crises and state collapse that extremists profit from.

6. Understand the multi-dimensional nature of the problem

ISIS and other extremist groups are symptoms of the dramatic upheaval in the Middle East. The Sunni/Shia divide and a deep sense of Sunni victimization are, of course, prime factors in its rise. Less known, but perhaps no less important, are parallel changes within Sunni communities themselves, particularly in Iraq, where ISIS has been able to play on a series of social fault lines – urban, rural, tribal, generational, and so forth – to give others, not only extremists, a significant stake in their continued rule.

7. Be cautious with the use of force

Military force often needs to be part of fighting extremism, but it is always a blunt instrument, particularly when the main goal – as it must be – is winning over communities. Only forces that can establish positive local relations should participate in an assault – with ISIS, this probably rules out Shia fighting in Sunni-majority areas and Kurdish forces in Arab lands, and it mandates caution even with local Sunni forces that may have scores to settle. If the suffering of a local community cannot be minimized, it is probably preferable to avoid attempting to retake territory and instead contain ISIS within its current boundaries. Taking the territory and losing the people again – as in the aftermath of both the US invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring – is worse than leaving ISIS in control.

8. Work openly to end the polarization destroying the Middle East and do not unwittingly become part of it

The escalating competition between Gulf monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Iran – now reflected in an Iran/Russia axis pitted against a Saudi-led coalition – is as grave a threat to stability as ISIS, driving the region’s sectarian currents and opening space for extremism. Western leaders should acknowledge this publicly and redouble efforts to dampen tensions. Unless they do that, no strategy to defeat ISIS will be effective.

9. Reinvigorate efforts to end existing wars and prevent others erupting – particularly by responding sensibly to terrorism

Without reasonably inclusive peace deals in Syria, Yemen and Libya, tackling groups linked to ISIS or Al Qaeda will be impossible – they have flourished as more powerful armed actors fight each other. Given that any crisis in the Muslim world is likely to assume an extremist dimension, even in countries with little history of Salafi-jihadism, preventing conflicts is critical to protecting the states still standing. This requires bolstering those in danger, as in the Sahel, where criminal trafficking of all sorts easily morphs into political violence. Since jihadi groups like ISIS take root only after a long period of unaddressed local grievances, botched security responses and festering low-intensity conflicts, a focus on prevention and early action is key. Once a local conflict has radicalized, it acquires a transnational dimension that renders a political solution much more difficult to reach. Thus even as the Middle East burns, Europe should not forget the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa.

10. In developed countries, prioritize domestic security over military engagement in the Middle East

Military engagement can potentially weaken the appeal and influence of jihadist movements by demonstrating that they are not invincible. But their eventual eradication will be the result of political processes that may take decades. In the meantime, preventing a destructive fragmentation of multicultural Western societies should be the priority. This requires a clear rejection of the politics of fear, but such rejection will be possible only if terrorism is contained, which requires sufficient resources to protect the home front.

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