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An Accounting for the Uncounted
An Accounting for the Uncounted
Understanding the New U.S. Terrorism Designations in Africa
Understanding the New U.S. Terrorism Designations in Africa

An Accounting for the Uncounted

Originally published in The Atlantic

The human cost of the war on ISIS has become too easy for Americans to ignore.

Every now and again, an article is published about something you know you should know, but don't want to know.

“The Uncounted,”Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal’s groundbreaking piece about the civilians killed in the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State—and the considerable gap between their tally of such deaths and the numbers reported by the Pentagon—is one of them. We cannot speak to the precise data, but their New York Times Magazine piece, and the verified tragedy of the Razzo family at its center, are emblematic of a bigger story that unfortunately rings true.

Basim Razzo was a member of one of the oldest families in Mosul, and the article recounts the night he woke up to find his roof collapsed and home destroyed—the result of an American bomb. Though Razzo himself survived, the attack took from him his wife and daughter, and the story chronicles his investigation into why it occurred. He finds, to his horror, that his house was deliberately targeted; American drones had monitored it for three days before striking, apparently acting on outdated reports that it was an ISIS command center.  The drone footage failed to confirm those reports. It also failed to refute them. That, apparently, was sufficient for the U.S. military to proceed.

The Times story is one of faulty intelligence driving wrong-headed assumptions that decimate innocent lives and embitter survivors. It is a story about how a legal and bureaucratic fog can make it almost impossible for tragic mistakes to come to light, too often leaving instead a false sense of comfort that such mistakes never happened at all. And it is a story about a policy that warrants honest discussion, and change. We both worked with that policy up close. In the Obama White House, one of us was responsible for human rights, the other for coordinating the counter-ISIS campaign. In this respect, we were part of an administration that fell short.

At the outset, two points. First, painful lessons of the article aside, the U.S. military is staffed up and down its ranks with officers who care about and seek to protect innocent life. Likewise, President Obama and his senior National Security Council team were convinced of the moral and strategic importance of preserving civilian life in conflict, understood transparency as important to democratic accountability, and were committed to operating within the rule of law.

This adds up to a quasi-automatic recipe for greater civilian casualties.

Second, the Times article carries the unmistakable implication that things will get worse. The Trump administration has celebrated a no-holds-barred approach to the fight against ISIS, given greater deference to ground commanders, loosened restrictions imposed by its predecessor, and expanded the fight to an ever-growing number of Middle Eastern and African theaters. This adds up to a quasi-automatic recipe for greater civilian casualties. Independent monitoring organizations have tracked the numbers, and invariably they point to a serious uptick in civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria since January 2017. The explanation lies partly in the transition in Iraq and Syria toward the final, more urban phase of the conflict in the heavily populated cities of Mosul and Raqqa. But partly only. It also lies in policy guidance, as well as in matters such as tone, attitude, and priorities set at the very top—including by the commander in chief. These have a way of trickling down and affecting performance on the battlefield.

And yet. Those dead civilians that The New York Times found not to have been counted were not counted by the Obama administration. They were not counted by people who were intent on limiting civilian casualties and ensuring transparency. That those safeguards proved inadequate even in the hands of an administration that considered them a priority raises particularly vexing questions.

Some answers are relatively straightforward because they have to do with them rather than with us: ISIS hid among civilians, used them as human shields, and did what it needed to do either to deter coalition airstrikes or ensure they would come at high cost. Like al-Qaeda, ISIS presents the well-known but difficult dilemma of how to deal with non-uniformed combatants. Exposing innocents to harm is at the core of their tactics, and exaggerating those harms to generate public outrage is at the front of their playbook.

How much tolerance is there for civilian casualties within legal limits?

Yet those explanations go only so far. War by its very nature presents wrenching choices, but those choices—some at the policy level, others at the operational one—need to be made, and all can have momentous implications for civilians. In making the critical decision to use military force, a government crosses a threshold into a zone where imprecision and uncertainty, both bearing on innocent people’s lives, will infect every level of decision making. How much tolerance is there for civilian casualties within legal limits? How does one identify a target? What standard of reliability should be applied to making such a determination? Once that decision is reached, what procedures are in place to verify it was correct, and to make amends and provide compensation if it was not?

What the Times story tells us is how in Iraq (but surely in other theaters as well) those imprecisions and uncertainties too often cost innocent people their lives, and then led their deaths to be unacknowledged. Broad criteria for who or what could be targeted were superimposed upon imperfect systems for identifying those targets, which were exacerbated by the opacity of after-action verification and reparation procedures. All of this was compounded by a natural tendency to give U.S. military operators the benefit of the doubt. So should a question arise about what actually happened, the Pentagon was unlikely to classify casualties as civilians absent a high level of certainty. Basim Razzo’s family was doubly victimized by this process, which both led them to be wrongly targeted and then made their devastating losses too easy to ignore.

Rather, the counter-ISIS campaign aims to degrade and defeat the organization as a whole, deeming its very existence a danger to America’s security.

The issue was aggravated by the type of struggle the United States has chosen to conduct in Iraq and Syria and in which, one can reasonably predict, it will again be engaged in the foreseeable future. This is not the kind of counterterrorism effort that focuses on targeting individuals deemed to present a direct and imminent threat to the United States, which is where Obama tried to guide U.S. actions in theaters away from hot battlefields, such as Somalia or Yemen. Rather, the counter-ISIS campaign aims to degrade and defeat the organization as a whole, deeming its very existence a danger to America’s security. There were civilian casualties and reports of undercounting in the former cases as well, of course. But the magnitude inevitably increased as the scope and goal of the battle expanded, and the strategic imperative of keeping civilian casualties to an absolute minimum receded.

Nor was this a typical counterinsurgency, for it didn’t entail the sizeable U.S. ground presence that was a hallmark of operations in Afghanistan or, earlier on, Iraq itself. Those operations produced better knowledge of the terrain, allowed direct engagement with communities, and enabled efforts—sometimes successful, sometimes not—to avoid alienating the local population. In Afghanistan in particular, senior commanders saw civilian protection and reparations as integral to the core mission and directed their troops to act accordingly. In contrast, in the counter-ISIS campaign, the U.S. part of the fighting chiefly relied on airpower, and much of the territory where strikes occurred was under ISIS control. It was neither fish nor fowl, but a hybrid: a counterinsurgency objective pursued by means of counterterrorism tactics.

Then, there is the issue of undercounting—documented not solely in the counter-ISIS campaign but in other theaters of operations as well. The Obama administration was not blind to the problem. It pressed for fuller and more regular casualty reporting, shared previously non-public statistics about its operations, probed press and NGO accounts, worked with field organizations to see if there might be creative mechanisms for paying amends in areas where the U.S. was absent, and helped craft a presidential order that memorialized what the government considered best practices when it came to review and amends procedures. One of us has written about the importance of these and related measures elsewhere, but both of us believe that these steps did not do enough.

The media and civil society play a critical role [...] but the U.S. government should be able to perform this sort of check on itself.

What might an overall better approach to civilian casualties look like? For starters, it could set in place standards that ensure we err more often on the side of caution in identifying targets and establish more realistic thresholds for acknowledging error. It could make available more information about who and what the U.S. considers targetable so that those standards can be fully discussed and debated. It could appoint and empower individuals within the Defense Department, on both the civilian and military sides, whose sole responsibility would be to reduce civilian casualties, make the assessment process more transparent, and facilitate prompt and adequate reparations whenever possible. And it could open up the post-strike assessment to outside eyes. This last idea is likely to be received as heresy inside the U.S. government. But it’s at least worth pondering whether someone from outside the chain of command—possibly from outside the executive branch altogether—should be able to check the Pentagon’s work, bringing the kind of perspective that only comes with distance. The media and civil society play a critical role—the Times story is a clear example—but the U.S. government should be able to perform this sort of check on itself.

All this matters and would help. But as long as the United States pursues counterterrorism through military means, civilian casualties inevitably will ensue. And so the discussion about how to reduce their number, while welcome, ought to involve a larger debate about the type of warfare America is waging and the technological advances that have allowed—even encouraged—it to be waged. Those advances have enabled more targeted airstrikes, often conducted by unmanned aircraft that are more precise and present fewer risks to U.S. personnel. Yet those same factors also lower the costs of warfare in the eyes of the U.S. public, and thus the threshold for military intervention in areas where we would be unwilling to deploy large numbers of ground troops. Consider this question: Had the fight against al-Qaeda or ISIS required the deployment of substantial U.S. ground troops, is it realistic to assume we would have been involved in so many theaters, for so many years, with so little prospect of bringing the conflict to a decisive end?  

It’s a treacherous trifecta: the promise of greater precision and certainty of fewer U.S. casualties; which leads to more frequent use of military force in more diverse theatres without a substantial U.S. ground presence; which entails diminished ability both to gather information about who is being targeted before a strike and assess what happened afterward. With the human costs of wars substantially shifted to the other side, it has become easier to initiate, perpetuate, and forget them.

And the debate about the number of civilian casualties also ought to involve the deeper question of why, some 17 years after 9/11, the United States remains as intensely engaged in a seemingly endless military campaign against ever-mutating affiliates of al-Qaeda and ISIS, with all its unintended, yet unavoidable, consequences. During George W. Bush’s presidency, many of us on the other side of the partisan divide decried his early reference to a “war on terror,” because terrorism defines a tactic, not an enemy; because military force is only a very partial way of addressing its root causes; and, yes, because the so-called collateral damage inflicted on civilians by the military campaign risked reproducing the very conditions on which terrorist groups thrive.

As critics, it turns out, we got it only half right. We stopped calling it a global war on terror. But in many respects we continued conducting the campaign as if it were one. We adjusted our methods but retained much of the substance, waging an ever-expanding war against an enemy whose affiliates kept proliferating. The paradox is that arguably no senior official in recent years has been as clear-eyed or as sober about the myths and realities of terrorism, its real and imaginary costs, and the dangers of overreacting to it, than was President Obama. That he too ultimately felt compelled to focus as he did on the military aspects of counterterrorism speaks to the threat posed by organizations that are at least partially engaged in plotting overseas operations, as well as to the difficult tradeoffs between taking greater care at the risk of moving more slowly, or being more aggressive at the risk of incurring higher human cost.   

It speaks volumes, too, about the state of American politics. Had Obama persisted in making an eminently rational case about the perils of hyping the terrorist threat, and had a terrorist attack on U.S. soil succeeded, he risked forfeiting the American people’s trust. Against a political backdrop that was partisan, polarized, demagogical, and prone to scapegoating outsiders, such an attack almost certainly would have prompted calls for retaliation of the most reckless and aggressive sort. And so he leaned on the side of preempting that risk. He took decisions that expedited the destruction of ISIS’s so-called caliphate. But, in so doing, he took another step toward becoming the commander in chief of an ill-defined battle against terrorists.

Some will be counted. Others, not. All will have paid a terrible price.

In an article one of us co-authored several months ago with Jon Finer, Secretary of State John Kerry’s former chief of staff, we recognized that force at times would be needed to confront terrorist groups while lamenting our excessive focus on, and over-militarization of, the effort; described the often hidden costs of a national obsession to which the Obama administration itself had partly succumbed; feared how far President Trump might go; and hoped for a necessary, albeit improbable, honest conversation about the real magnitude of the terrorist threat and how to deal with it.

That all remains true—and, given the direction taken by the Trump administration, even more so today than at that time. It’s also true that until this changes, an increasing number of innocent lives will suffer the consequence. Some will be counted. Others, not. All will have paid a terrible price.


Former President & CEO
Interim Chief of Policy
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