State Department designates Islamic State in DRC, Mozambique

Allied Democratic Forces leader Musa Baluku (center) as seen in an official Islamic State media release from last year.

The US State Department has added the Islamic State’s wings in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Mozambique to its list of designated terrorist organizations. Both groups collectively constitute the Islamic State’s Central African Province (ISCAP).

Additionally, the leaders of IS Congo and IS Mozambique, Musa Baluku and Abu Yasir Hassan, respectively, were also listed as specially designated global terrorists.

In its designation, State noted that “the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) announced the launch of the Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP) in April 2019 to promote the presence of ISIS associated elements within Central, East, and Southern Africa.”

It further contends that “although ISIS-associated media portray ISCAP as a unified structure, ISIS-DRC and ISIS-Mozambique are distinct groups with distinct origins.” It is unclear, however, what the exact nature of the relationship is between the Islamic State branches in the DRC and Mozambique.

The Islamic State in DRC

Beginning with the Congo, State confirms that the group formerly known as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) is the Islamic State’s official representative. State adds that the group “is responsible for many attacks across North Kivu and Ituri Provinces in eastern DRC” and that it killed “over 849 civilians in 2020 alone.”

The ADF and six of its leaders, including Musa Baluku, were previously sanctioned by the US Treasury Department in 2019. That designation, however, made no mention of the group’s ties to the Islamic State.

Originally dedicated to overthrowing the Ugandan government, the ADF fled to eastern Congo in the mid 1990’s and began aligning itself with other groups operating in the area and forging relationships with local communities.

Over time, and notably after a shift in leadership around 2014-2015, the ADF further radicalized, dramatically escalating attacks on Congolese civilians. It soon became clear that this radicalization accompanied efforts by the group to align itself with the Islamic State.

In 2016, the ADF began releasing a series of videos in an apparent attempt to publicly declare its radical ideology. Many of the videos demonstrate clear jihadist messaging, including mantras of establishing a caliphate, calls for violence against “infidels,” and a declaration of their intention to impose a strict interpretation of Shari’a in both the DRC and Uganda.

The following year, the ADF received financing from Waleed Ahmed Zein, an East Africa-based terrorist who was later sanctioned by the US Treasury for his role within the Islamic State. Treasury noted that his network was able to move money to Islamic State fighters in “Syria, Libya, and Central Africa.”

Zein’s partner, Halima Adan Ali, was also sanctioned by the US Treasury for providing support to the Islamic State. In its press release, Treasury reiterated that Ali and Zein moved money for the Islamic State to fighters in Central Africa. 

These links appear to have progressed such that, in April of 2019, the Islamic State claimed its first attack in the DRC under the “Central Africa Province” moniker. In its locally produced media, the group has also referred to itself as the Islamic State.

The group’s leader, Musa Baluku, has also contended that the ADF name is no longer used. Baluku said in a speech late last year that “there is no ADF anymore…ADF ceased to exist a long time ago.”

He further made his loyalty to the current Islamic State emir and self-proclaimed Caliph known by adding that “currently, we are a province, the Central African Province which is one province among the numerous provinces that make up the Islamic State that is under the Caliph and leader of all Muslims…Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi.”

Since its first attack under the ISCAP moniker, the group has claimed at least 110 operations in the Congo according to data kept by this author. The majority of these can be tied to verified ADF attacks based on reporting by the Kivu Security Tracker (a project that maps violence in eastern Congo) and by local media.

A recent report authored by a joint team from the Bridgeway Foundation and GWU’s Program on Extremism details the relationship between the ADF and the Islamic State more extensively.

Islamic State in Mozambique

With regard to the Islamic State’s outfit in Mozambique, State reports that “ISIS-Mozambique, also known as Ansar al-Sunna…reportedly pledged allegiance to ISIS as early as April 2018, and was acknowledged by ISIS-Core as an affiliate in August 2019.”

State also notes that IS Mozambique is responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians in the northern Cabo Delgado Province and that the “group was responsible for orchestrating a series of large scale and sophisticated attacks resulting in the capture of the strategic port of Mocimboa da Praia.”

Much like with Musa Baluku and the ADF, State identifies Ansar al-Sunnah’s leader as Abu Yasir Hassan and adds that he has also been sanctioned as a global terrorist.

Ansar al-Sunna officially began its insurgency in late 2017, but originated from a local radical sect in Cabo Delgado in 2007 according to scholar Eric Morier-Genoud.

Since 2017, the group has greatly expanded and increased the rate of its attacks across the province. In early 2018, Islamic State supporters online circulated a photo alleging that Ansar al-Sunnah pledged allegiance to then-Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

This information was not confirmed until June 2019 when the Islamic State claimed its first official operation inside Mozambique. It remains unclear, however, if all of Ansar al-Sunnah or just certain segments of it, represents the Islamic State’s local outfit.

Since its communique, the Islamic State has claimed at least 38 operations inside Mozambique according to data kept by this author. Like in Congo, many of these claims can be tied to attacks reported in local media.

In remains unclear as to what explains the relatively small number of claims compared to the overall size of the insurgency in Cabo Delgado.

That said, the Islamic State in Mozambique has been responsible for some of the most significant attacks in the country. This includes several mass casualty raids, including the beheading of at least 50 people in two villages in Nov. 2020.

As described in State’s designation, IS Mozambique fighters captured the port city of Mocimboa da Praia from local security forces and subsequently occupied the city in Aug. 2020. The group is still believed to control the locale, representing the most significant Islamic State occupation currently ongoing.

Additionally, the group has threatened to expand out of Mozambique as it was also responsible for an attack inside southern Tanzania last October.

As noted by the most recent report from the UN’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, ISCAP in both the DRC and Mozambique is proving to be one of the group’s most successful ‘provinces.’

The UN report describes ISCAP as “evolving into a dependable [Islamic State] affiliate, a development discernible in the adoption of sophisticated tactics and recent operational successes.”

Caleb Weiss is an editor of FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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