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Why ISIS Is Gaining Ground – and So Hard to Beat
Why ISIS Is Gaining Ground – and So Hard to Beat
Understanding the New U.S. Terrorism Designations in Africa
Understanding the New U.S. Terrorism Designations in Africa

Why ISIS Is Gaining Ground – and So Hard to Beat

Originally published in Syria Deeply

This interview with Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Syria, Noah Bonsey, is adapted and republished here with permission from Syria Deeply and Lara Setrakian, Syria Deeply’s Co-Founder and Executive Editor.

As of Thursday, the Islamic State (ISIS) had seized 40% of the strategic Syrian border town of Kobani, raising questions about the success of U.S.-led airstrikes meant to stem the group’s advance. The U.N. warned that ISIS could massacre the remaining 500 people trapped in Kobani, while analysts said an ISIS victory there would destabilize both the border region and the Middle East at large.

ISIS now controls roughly one-third of Syrian territory. Its continued spread has sparked a debate over new measures to counter the group, among them the possible creation of a buffer zone in northern Syria – which could require a no-fly zone to protect it.

As part of the strategy behind coalition airstrikes, unveiled last month, the U.S. had said it would rely on moderate rebel groups in Syria – what’s been known as the Free Syrian Army – to fight ISIS on the ground. But in the past couple of days, the White House admitted that those moderate groups are not prepared to take on ISIS and win; they have been outgunned and overwhelmed by the superior weapons, training and resources that ISIS has at hand.

“The U.S. shares some of the blame for the current state of the rebel forces,” said Noah Bonsey, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.

“Part of the issue here is that the U.S. is coming late into the game … prior to this current stage the U.S. had not invested significant resources in improving capacities.”

Bonsey gave us an in-depth explanation of why ISIS has had so much success in Syria and the challenges ahead for degrading its influence.

Syria Deeply: In their current state, how do these rebel forces fare against ISIS? What will they need to be effective?

Noah Bonsey: If we talk about fighting capacity on the ground, the rebels lack capacity and organization compared to the regime and ISIS.

They have been effective in the past. Rebels in Idlib and Aleppo threw ISIS out of Idlib province, Aleppo city and Aleppo’s western and northern countryside in January, so they have a proven track record against ISIS.

But this took place when ISIS was weaker. ISIS has gained a lot of money and manpower since then. Currently, in general, the rebels the U.S. is willing to work with are poorly organized and equipped.

The other problem is that rebels are confronting two enemies simultaneously. On the crucial front of Aleppo, for example, they are battling a regime escalation within the city, while just to the north they are engaged in fights with ISIS. In the past few months, ISIS has escalated its offensive on Aleppo’s northern countryside. The battle has now cooled a bit as ISIS focuses on Kobane, but it still requires a lot of rebel resources to hold ISIS at bay to the north of Aleppo. Meanwhile, the regime continues to push inside Aleppo, seeking to besiege rebel forces in the eastern part of the city.

The rebels lack the organization and resources to fight those two battles effectively and at the same time. Thus, we’ve seen continuous regime gains inside the city, and limited ISIS gains north of the city. So long as the rebels are forced to fight both the regime and ISIS, they do not have the capacity to maintain ground, much less gain any ground.

The rebels can’t divert resources from the fight against the regime to go fight ISIS. By doing so they would enable the regime to make additional gains, which in the case of Aleppo would be particularly devastating for rebel militants and the Syrian opposition in general.

One thing we’ve seen since the beginning of coalition strikes on Syria, while ISIS targets in eastern Syria as well as some Jabhat al-Nusra targets were hit, is that the regime has continued its indiscriminate attacks, including barrel bombing, on anti-ISIS rebels—in Aleppo as elsewhere.

The regime views the coalition strikes as another step in the direction of Western cooperation with Damascus. It has welcomed them publicly.

Thus the regime doesn’t feel under any pressure to improve its behavior or make political concessions. It has pretty much continued to engage in the behavior and tactics that created the jihadi problem in the first place, even as the coalition has gotten involved militarily in Syria. This has created a high level of anger within rebel ranks, who see the coalition engaging ISIS in a way that isn’t helpful to them, given the location of the strikes. Meanwhile they see that the strikes have given a boost of morale to the regime that continues to pursue the same strategy and tactics it did prior to the strikes.

How are the U.S. strikes impacting Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS?

Jabhat al-Nusra has credibility with Syrian activists; it has taken on a lower profile on the ground since the strikes. The strikes targeting al-Nusra strengthened their narrative and allowed them to portray the coalition campaign as a broader war on the Syrian revolution and Islam itself, as they put it. It’s difficult to tell what the impact on their capacity will be moving forward.

In terms of ISIS, the strikes initially focused primarily on their bases, weapons depots, oil facilities – things of strategic value to the organization. Tactical strikes [in support of anti-ISIS forces] were limited prior to the escalation in Kobane. The question moving forward is, will strikes hitting ISIS weaponry, personnel and resources outweigh the boost they provide to the organization’s propaganda, and even its morale?

ISIS can now claim it is fighting a war against anti-ISIS rebels, the regime, the [Kurdish] PKK, and a broader Western coalition. In terms of propaganda, they welcome the opportunity to take on the U.S.

The strikes targeting Jabhat al-Nusra, and the civilian casualties that resulted, also helped the ISIS narrative claiming that the West and its allies are waging a war against Sunni Arabs and Islam, rather than ISIS itself.

The overall costs and benefits of strikes targeting ISIS remain to be seen, but the potential for strikes alone to weaken ISIS is limited. Ultimately, you need credible ground forces that can defeat ISIS forces on the ground, that can take territory and control it. This certainly can’t be accomplished by airstrikes, and you can’t expect Kurdish, Shia or Alawite forces to take and hold territory in the Sunni-Arab areas that serve as the core of ISIS’s territorial control in Iraq and Syria. The peshmerga is not going to go into Sunni areas in Iraq and control that territory going forward, nor is the Iraqi army and its allies going to be able to do that. The same is true of regime forces in Syria. The missing component in the U.S. strategy in general has been in strengthening local credible Sunni forces on both sides of the border. We haven’t seen much progress at all in that regard.

There are now more poignant calls for a buffer zone in northern Syria. How feasible and realistic is the implementation of a buffer zone? Would it require a no-fly zone?

It would. A buffer zone would certainly require preventing the regime from carrying out airstrikes. Thus far, the Obama administration has been very reluctant to seriously consider a no-fly zone. Turkey and the rebels are pushing very hard for a no-fly zone, but I’ve seen no indication that the Obama administration will shift its position on this, given that it would require extending strikes to include taking out the air capacity of the regime, and all the accompanying costs and risks inherent to such an escalation. Barring a change of strategy in Washington, it’s difficult to see a no-fly zone being implemented. The Turks certainly can’t do it themselves.

If it were to happen, what could it achieve? What would be the upside?

It would be much easier to empower local rebel powers if regime air attacks ceased in northern Syria. The regime’s air advantage is the most important obstacle to rebels being able to gain and hold ground in the north against the regime, and to be able to better organize themselves on the ground to provide services to local people.

A no-fly zone in the north could potentially enable a much higher degree of organization within rebel ranks, assisted more directly by the opposition’s state backers.

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