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What lies behind the “Islamic State” threat
What lies behind the “Islamic State” threat
Understanding the New U.S. Terrorism Designations in Africa
Understanding the New U.S. Terrorism Designations in Africa

What lies behind the “Islamic State” threat

Originally published in Le Point

This interview with Crisis Group’s Project Director for Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria and Senior Middle East and North Africa Adviser, Peter Harling, is translated and republished here with permission from Le Point.

Going beyond the clichés, Peter Harling shares some disturbing truths on the origins and the rise of the Islamic State. The horrific murder of hostage Hervé Gourdel in the name of the Islamic State organisation has focused France’s attention on the jihadi group and reinforced President François Hollande’s determination to strike the group’s positions in Iraq.

But what really is this ultra-radical group? Who contributed to its ascension? Why does it continue to attract disciples around the world? And how can it be stopped? International Crisis Group’s project director for Iraq, Lebanon and Syria and senior Middle East and North Africa adviser, Peter Harling, who lived and worked in Iraq for seven years, reveals to Le Point some disturbing truths on the war against the Islamic State.

Le Point: Is François Hollande’s determination to strike IS in Iraq a good strategy?

Peter Harling: The question is not one of François Hollande’s determination, but of the nature of the enemy and the relevance of the means used to combat it. To announce that we will avenge in Iraq or elsewhere a murder that took place in Algeria falls into the category of political agitation and public relations. It doesn’t reflect strategic thinking.

However, this group has called for the killing of the “bad and dirty French”.

In the West, Daesh (Peter Harling uses this acronym, also employed by the French government, to designate the IS organisation) evokes the image of terrorists genetically programed to be evil. This allows us to close our eyes to politics, as if there was some particular type of person that had to be destroyed in order to solve the problem. Thus the predominance of military solutions. However, Daesh attracts people who cannot be defined with a strict typology, and the West’s response with airstrikes only increased Daesh’s ability to mobilise.

What do you mean by that?

Some disoriented Europeans, tempted by ultra-violence, find in the organisation’s crimes and the way they are staged a sort of ideal of radicalism and virility. In Syria or Iraq, by contrast, Daesh can be perceived simply as an ally of necessity, essential for responding to the aggressions of a sectarian government perceived as an Iranian- backed occupation force. Daesh also expresses diverse and profound frustrations regarding the existing order, at a point when there is no existing alternative: secular elites are impotent, “mainstream” Islamic trends have failed and fragile government structures have been ripped apart by predatory behaviors serving individual or nepotistic interests.

How do Sunni populations perceive this organisation: as a terrorist group or a liberator from the Shiite yoke?

Both! The Sunni Arab world is in an existential crisis. So far, the region has, so to speak, failed to exit from an era of decline that began under the domination of the Ottoman Empire and continued through colonialism, multiple Western intrusions and the trauma of the creation of Israel. The great independence movements, which started as powerful sources of inspiration, quickly degenerated into autocratic kleptomaniac clans. Their Islamist alternatives, offering attractive visions of the future, were utopian and failed miserably when put into practice.

The Arab uprisings – a flashing, beautiful moment – were meant to offer redemption and a new beginning to the region but for now have turned into a nightmare. Imagine the mixed feelings of confusion, failure, bitterness, injustice and humiliation that followed. Add the unthinkable violence applied by the Syrian regime, without any serious reaction from the West; the depth and breadth of the humanitarian crisis that ensued; the upsetting rise of reactionary trends in Egypt, in the Gulf and elsewhere. Finally, add to all of this the constant provocations coming from the Shiite world, which is enough in the ascendant to be experiencing a form of hubris. In sum, very few people like Daesh, but there is nothing else.

How did the organisation manage to take possession of large parts of territory?

Daesh is filling a void. It imposed itself in the north east of Syria essentially because the Syrian regime had withdrawn from this largely barren region. It was able to take control of Mosul, in Iraq, simply because the authorities were present only through local elites sold-out to Baghdad and a sectarian, cynical and incompetent security apparatus. Daesh recently penetrated into the north of Lebanon, in a particularly neglected fringe of the country.

However, Daesh does not use its limited resources to try to expand its territory in zones where its occupation is doomed to fail, that is, zones where there can be an active resistance. That is why it has always been absurd to think that the organisation would march to Baghdad, which is well defended by Shiite militias, or take over Erbil, a fiefdom of Kurdish factions. In the same way, Daesh does not seriously attack the Syrian regime. On the contrary, it focuses on imposing its hegemony in those zones it is capable of dominating, decimating any potential Sunni Arab competitor.

Who is to blame for the rise of IS?

Everyone participated in it: the Iranians, by supporting the Syrian and Iraqi regimes, whose explicit aim was to radicalise Sunnis in order to discredit and to combat any opposition in the name of a so-called “war against terrorism”, and then by bankrolling a Shiite jihad which could only reinforce its Sunni counterpart. The West, by encouraging a Syrian revolt to which we offered solidarity and support, but which we mostly left on its own to face extreme forms and levels of violence. Turkey, which until recently had its borders wide open to anyone claiming to be going to fight Bashar al-Assad. The Gulf monarchies, which financed the Syrian opposition in an indecisive, confused and reckless way, which indirectly benefited the jihadis.

Did the massacre of the Christian and Yazidi minorities in Iraq motivate the American decision to intervene?

Daesh kills people at every turn. Its fighters also proceeded to mass executions among Sunni tribes, and the world did not protest. They beheaded Alawite fighters. And we should mention the many horrors committed by other actors who do not pay for their crimes: the Syrian regime caused the death by malnutrition of many civilians, including children, in neighbourhoods surrounded and besieged to achieve that very end. I don’t really see how air campaigns against Daesh, independent of policies to deal with the other terrible sufferings endured by people across the region, are going to help secure the future of, specifically, Christians or Yazidis.

How then can we put an end to the Islamic State?

The first thing to do would be to break with the time frame imposed by the media. As it is, we strike abruptly and in a rush against a threat that we have watched grow – and have otherwise ignored – for over two years. What precipitated the intervention was media attention to some striking themes: the martyrdom of Eastern Christians; extreme barbarism as exemplified by the beheading of Westerners; and the “war against terrorism”. This is what triggered a military counter-attack. It therefore falls, in my opinion, under the rubric of “ritualisation” of the conflict: just as Daesh is making a spectacle of itself, aided by a formidable and perverse talent for publicity, so we are putting on a performance of our own, presenting our actions as part of an eschatological struggle against evil.

Yet Daesh is an enemy at once limited in size, deeply in synch with the regional psyche and interconnected with the many profound issues at stake in conflicts in the region. Time, skillfulness, considerable means and real strategic reflexion are all going to be needed in order to fight this organisation. Why rush and multiply mistakes that will simply aggravate the situation? To take only one example: at the very moment that we allegedly fly to the rescue of Christians in Iraq, using some very expensive weaponry, the UN announces it will reduce the food aid provided to Syrian refugees. How do we expect this tormented population, already robbed of all they own, to interpret such a decision?

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