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The Islamic State in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: what does it mean? – Dr. Barend Prinsloo

June 3, 2019

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The Islamic State in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: what does it mean?

By Barend Prinsloo

Head of the Security Studies programme at North West University in South Africa

Volume 7 (2019), Number 9 (June 2019)

For the second time in 2019, the Islamic State (ISIS) took responsibility for attacks in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The first attack occurred on 18 April 2019 and the second on 30 May 2019. The media attributed these attacks to MONUSCO and the Military of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC), to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) which has extensive roots in Uganda’s Islamist circles. ISIS’ complicity is so far only anecdotal and the ADF has often been accused of working with other extremist groups around the world.  If these attacks were carried out by ISIS in conjunction with the ADF, it would imply that the former Syrian caliphate is again expanding its territory and influence further south on the African continent. This article will look into the evidence and implications of ISIS involvement.

Context

By February 2019, military losses have forced ISIS to relinquish the idea of ruling a geographical “caliphate”, but the group retained the long-term aspiration and continues to proclaim it online. ISIS was reported to still control between 14,000 and 18,000 militants in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic, including up to 3,000 foreign terrorist fighters.[1] As widely reported in the media, ISIS officially declared that it still has a presence in the following countries and regions: Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, “Khorasan” (the Afghanistan-Pakistan region), “the Caucasus”, “East Asia” (mostly active in the Philippines), Somalia, and “West Africa” (mostly active in Nigeria).[2]Not known by many, ISIS has divided Africa into several different provinces or wilayah (some smaller ISIS provinces are not included in this discussion):

  • The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) with an estimated 100 to 400 fighters that combined its efforts with the Al-Qaida affiliated Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam Wa al-Muslimin (JNIM)and is connected to transnational crime.[3][4]
  • In West Africa, ISIS’ grouping is called the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). ISWAP was born from Boko Haram when it pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and ISIS; five days later, Baghdadi recognized the pledge. Thus, at least on paper, Boko Haram ostensibly ceased to exist. In its place, the Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP) was set up[5]. Beginning in May 2019, ISIS began to attribute insurgent activities in the Mali-Burkina Faso-Niger tri-border area to ISWAP.[6]
  • In video released by al-Furqan media on 29 April 2019, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in his first appearance for five years, was seen handling documents about some global affiliates, including one entitled “Wilayah Central Africa”[7] or the Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP).[8] Although ISIS only formally recognised ISCAP in April 2019, the Central African province was previously mentioned by Baghdadi in an August 2018 speech, implying ISCAP had existed for almost a year before ISIS first publicly attributed an attack to the wilayah.[9]

In the aftermath of the 30 May 2019 attack on MONUSCO and FARDC, ISIS claimed responsibility – even though FARDC stated that the ADF lost 26 soldiers (some say 23 soldiers) without any linkage to ISIS.[10] Nonetheless, the link between ISIS and ADF has been a longstanding likelihood:

  • In 2017, the ADF in DRC began to emerge as a new destination for would-be ISIS recruits in Africa. Though ISIS certainly does not regard the ADF as part of its Caliphate, some ADF members expressed support for ISIS, and ISIS could well see the advantage in having a territorial foothold in sub-Saharan Africa.[11]
  • In a video that surfaced online in October 2017, an Arabic-speaking ADF militant appeared to pledge allegiance to ISIS and called on individuals to join them in DRC. The speaker stated “I swear to God that this is Dar al-Islam [House of Islam] of the Islamic State in Central Africa.” The video featured the MTM name and the newer ISIS flag. It did not feature any of the group’s high-ranking Ugandan leadership, nor was it officially recognized by ISIS in any form, so it cannot be viewed as an official pledge of allegiance, or bayat, by the group. It does however show further support for ISIS within the ADF. The video was also popular among ISIS supporters, and was widely shared by pro-ISIS media.[12]
  • The author has reviewed photos published by ISIS of ISCAP fighters as well as unpublished documents and could identify at least three ISIS/ISCAP fighters with a high degree of certainty as well as several of their weapons to be among the deceased fighters. It is thus highly likely that ISIS/ISCAP have formal ties with the ADF at the moment.

Implications

A formal acknowledgement of cooperation between the ADF and ISIS is still nowhere to be found. However, ISIS appears to model its wilayats on the administrative systems of the Ottoman Empire and Abbasid Dynasty.  This would imply that they would continue to seek contiguous boundaries of influence. It would make sense for them to work with other extremist groups and expand some of their smaller provinces in Somalia to Tanzania and Mozambique. South Africa could find themselves the crosshairs in more ways than one: many media reports have singled out the South African contribution to MONUSCO’s effective response on 30 May 2019.  ISIS have also noted this fact.

 

 

[1]https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/N1901937_EN.pdf

[2]https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-47691006

[3]https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/N1901937_EN.pdf

[4]https://thedefensepost.com/2019/05/30/islamic-state-greater-sahara-west-africa/

[5]https://ctc.usma.edu/islamic-state-africa-estimating-fighter-numbers-cells-across-continent/

[6]https://thedefensepost.com/2019/05/30/islamic-state-greater-sahara-west-africa/

[7]https://thedefensepost.com/2019/04/30/islamic-state-new-central-africa-province/

[8]https://thedefensepost.com/2019/05/30/islamic-state-attacks-dr-congo-army-un-mavivi-adf-killed/

[9]https://thedefensepost.com/2019/04/30/islamic-state-new-central-africa-province/

[10]https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/05/dr-congo-forces-kill-26-rebels-ebola-zone-beni-190530145255054.html

[11]https://hiraalinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/The-Islamic-State-in-East-Africa.pdf

[12]https://thedefensepost.com/2018/12/04/tentative-ties-allied-democratic-forces-isis-dr-congo/

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