Global counterterrorism efforts are accelerating on the continent of Africa, especially on the expanding fronts of the Sahel, the Sahara, and the Horn of Africa. Meanwhile, ISIS has strengthened its presence in the Central African Republic by shrewdly exploiting the region’s security breakdown and social and economic problems. ISIS hopes to turn the region into a sphere of influence exclusive to it among all terrorist organizations. Such are the conclusions of the United States, which announced in March 2021 that it was adding two branches of ISIS in the DRC and Mozambique to its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. The groups’ inclusion on the list came as a result of their killing more than 2,000 civilians in total.
A nontraditional expansion
Despite the announcement by ISIS in 2019 that it had founded "a Central African state," this new "state" is split across three geographically disconnected regions, and its members do not belong to a unified organizational structure. Spreading in Mozambique and the DRC by way of Tanzania, ISIS has to operate in a framework of organizational flexibility. This has helped it to avoid the mistakes made by its parent organization in the Middle East. In Syria and Iraq, ISIS sought to achieve geographic contiguity and organizational unity, which ultimately led to the organization’s defeat and the destruction of its so-called state.
Among Central African countries, ISIS is seen as the most prominent and organized in the DRC. The organization has relied on a group of extremist elements that underwent military training in Afghanistan. They then returned to the DRC and recruited armed groups such as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). The ADF pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2017 after releasing a video clip of military trainings in which ADF members were carrying the banner of ISIS.
ISIS issued a statement claiming responsibility for an April 2019 attack in the Kamango region of North Kivu Province, DRC. The formal announcement began by referring to the organization’s presence in Central Africa. Its media branch emphasized the term "Central African state," meaning that ISIS had declared its new state after waited about two years. During that span, the organization underwent substantial preparation, trained affiliated groups, and distributed funding, enabling it to wage terror attacks on a near-constant basis. Its attacks include several large-scale operations, such as the October 2020 assault on Kangbayi prison in the town of Beni, the capital of North Kivu province in the eastern DRC. Over 1,300 prisoners escaped as a result of the attack.
In Mozambique, ISIS’s presence relies on extremist groups that are active in the country, such as Ahlu Sunna Waljama‘a in the north. To recruit members of this group, ISIS has relied on the appeal of its ideology, which centers around the notion of the "Great Islamic Caliphate and State." Since ISIS announced its presence in Mozambique, it has favored quick raids while avoiding large-scale military confrontations with the country’s armed forces. It favors soft targets such as shops and residences, in addition to stealing provisions and carrying out kidnappings for ransom. So far, ISIS has been unable to gain decisive control of any significant geographical region in the country. However, ISIS fighters have managed to repeatedly target the transportation system in northern Mozambique, especially roads linking inland areas to coastal territory overlooking the Indian Ocean. ISIS operations have resulted in severe economic repercussions for the region.
The U.S. decision to add ISIS-DRC and ISIS-Mozambique to its list of terrorist organizations has a number of implications. This categorization resulted from ISIS’s bloody, appalling attacks which have left thousands dead. The main implications of the U.S. announcement may be summarized as follows:
1- The perils of the new "ISIS crescent": Geographically, Tanzania serves as a direct connection between North Mozambique and the eastern DRC. Therefore, when speaking of an ISIS branch in Central Africa, it is only logical to expect such a branch to extend its activities to northern Tanzania. For decades, Tanzania has avoided becoming a stage for the operations of terrorist organizations in East Africa: the country has not witnessed any major, organized operation since the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam. However, in 2020, ISIS announced that it had carried out terror operations in Tanzania, such as the attack on the village of Kitaya in the Mtwara region of Tanzania, near the Mozambique border. This attack killed three Tanzanian soldiers and approximately ten civilians. Such operations suggest that ISIS intends to form a new crescent of influence on the continent, based in Central Africa but with branches in the East and West. After the collapse of ISIS strongholds in Iraq and Syria, it aims to strengthen its presence in Africa and make the continent the new stronghold for its supposed "caliphate."
2- The overlap of terrorist zones in Africa: Terrorist activity in North Mozambique is regarded as an extension of al-Shabaab activity in Somalia, as al-Shabaab played a prominent role in local actors’ early training exercises. In this manner, al-Shabaab sought to present itself as a regional organization operating in several parts of East Africa, in addition to its attempts to spread to Ethiopia and Tanzania. On the other side, the northeastern DRC is directly linked to the Sahel by way of the Central African Republic. Without any semblance of regulation along international borders, armed groups in the region have no trouble acquiring a regular flow of arms and military equipment. This points to the significant overlap between Central and East African zones of terrorism. It will be difficult to contain the activities of terror groups in the coming period unless regional and international powers work together forcefully using a clear, effective strategy.
3- The exploitation of deteriorating economic and social conditions: ISIS would not have been able to spread so rapidly in Central Africa—going so far as to proclaim its new "state" in the region—were it not for the deterioration of social and economic conditions. Indeed, these conditions represent one of the key factors enabling the spread of ISIS’s ideology. ISIS’s incursion into northern Mozambique and the northeastern DRC was made possible through the group’s exploitation of these regions’ dire social and economic circumstances. Among all the provinces of Mozambique, Cabo Delgado Province—one of ISIS’s strongholds—ranks lowest in the various development, economic and humanitarian indices. A number of sources refer to Cabo Delgado as the "forgotten province."
Conditions are similar in Kivu Province, which is considered a hotbed of terrorism in the northeastern DRC. More than 70% of residents live under the poverty line. As poverty and unemployment rates surge, competing efforts to exploit the land are a principal source of tension for Kivu Province’s residents. In sum, such circumstances make the province a breeding ground for terrorist organizations.
4- The lack of a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy: ISIS’s major spread in Central Africa owes to the lack of a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy on the continent. Instead, counterterrorism efforts have been piecemeal, as seen in Somalia in the East, Algeria and Libya in the North, and Nigeria in the West. The inadequate response to terrorism has enabled ISIS to penetrate deep into the continent, traveling south from the shared borders of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso and expanding within Central Africa. The situation bears a number of dangerous consequences, chief among them that the strongholds of terror groups in the Horn of Africa become linked to those in the Sahel by way of the eastern DRC. From there, the groups can reach Central Africa. This means that various organizations are able exchange forms of support across international borders, which suffer from serious shortcomings in carrying out their security function.
A rising trend
Terrorism in Central Africa can be expected to accelerate over the coming period, as terrorist organizations exploit the chronic structural problems that have plagued African countries for decades. These issues have created a major opportunity for the expansion of several armed groups, especially with the blurring of the distinction between local rebel groups and organizations connected to global terror.