U.S. Steps Up Counterterrorism in Mozambique and the DRC

U.S. counterterrorism officials are stepping up their activities in Africa, addressing the expansion of violent extremism on the continent.

Two previously unlisted insurgent groups identified as foreign terrorist organizations operating in Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have been slapped with sanctions along with their leaders.

John T. Godfrey, the acting coordinator for counterterrorism and acting special envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS at a recent teleconference meeting with African journalists, discussed a new State Department designation of the two groups as “Isis-Congo” and “Isis-Mozambique”.

“In addition to naming and shaming, these designations also seek to deny ISIS in the DRC and ISIS in Mozambique as well as their leaders, Seka Musa Baluku and Abu Yasir Hassan, the resources they need to fund their terrorist activities and carry out terrorist attacks.

The designations prevent travel by members to the United States, freeze any U.S.-related assets, ban Americans from doing business with them and make it a crime to provide support or resources to the movements.

Leaders of the groups are Seka Musa Baluku, reputed head of Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in Congo founded by Uganda rebels, and Abu Yasir Hassan, head of Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama (ASWJ) in Mozambique.

Godfrey declined to discuss the classified information used to definitively tie these African groups to the larger Islamic State, which planted its roots in Iraq and Syria. But the evidence is incontrovertible, he insisted. And in Congo, he said the United States is “quite confident” of a link to ISIS headquarters.

Michael Gonzales, deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of African Affairs, also spoke at the teleconference. He noted that the U.S. already supports the Congolese army against violent extremists by bolstering civil-military operations and capabilities, military engineering, strategic communications and English-language laboratories with the goal of empowering civilian leadership to promote structural reform and professionalization of the military.

“I think these are prime examples of how the United States is really running with the vision of the Biden administration and then the statements of Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken about emphasizing our partnerships with African partners and building local capacity,” Gonzales said.

“There certainly is a keen focus on the terrorist threat in Africa on the part of the Biden-Harris administration, but some of the lines of effort that we’re currently working on there are ones we’ve been formulating for a bit of time now,” he said.

But the new designations have worrying implications, according to the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “While a seemingly straightforward and measured policy response to ASWJ’s brutality and its international terrorist links, it risks impeding humanitarian efforts and hobbling potential disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration activities.

In addition, wrote the authors of a report titled “The Problem with Foreign Terrorist Organization Designations” it is unlikely to significantly advance U.S. counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts.”

Anita Powell, writing for the Voice of America, also questioned the open-ended strategy. “How long it might take to go from “naming and shaming” to actually defeating these groups,” she wondered. “That, officials did not say.”

Below is a full rush transcript of the press conference by Special Briefing via Telephone with John T. Godfrey, Acting Coordinator for Counterterrorism and Acting Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, and Michael C. Gonzales, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of African Affairs.

Mr. Godfrey:  Great.  Secretary of State Blinken designated ISIS-Democratic Republic of the Congo and ISIS-Mozambique as Foreign Terrorist Organizations and Specially Designated Global Terrorists, or SDGTs for short.  He also designated Seka Musa Baluku, the leader of ISIS-DRC, and Abu Yasir Hassan, the leader of ISIS-Mozambique, as SDGTs.

Before we dig into the substance and consequences of those designations, I’d first like to take a moment to discuss the larger context at play here, which is the expanded presence of ISIS in Africa.

2019 to 2020 saw an important evolution of the threat posed by ISIS, also known as Daesh.  While the fall of Baghouz in Syria in 2019 marked the end of the physical caliphate – which was a significant milestone and inflection point – it clearly did not signal the fall of ISIS itself.  Shortly after the fall of the caliphate, then-ISIS emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi pointed to the ISIS-inspired attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday in 2019, which killed more than 250 innocent victims, as an example of how ISIS branches and networks outside Iraq and Syria should conduct attacks going forward to be, and I’m quoting here, a “thorn in the chest of the crusaders.”

Baghdadi’s death during a U.S. military operation later that year, and his replacement by Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal Rahman Al-Mawla, came in the midst of an internal reorganization of the terrorist group that was designed to delegate decisions and resources to its branches and affiliates around the world.  While al-Mawla may not have Baghdadi’s profile or charisma, he has successfully carried out Baghdadi’s dangerous vision.  

And nowhere has this trend been as alarming as in Africa.  If we are committed to the enduring global defeat of ISIS, or Daesh – and we are – then we have to confront it in Africa.  We are doing so through national actions such as these designations that Secretary Blinken announced yesterday, and through multilateral efforts, of which the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS is a key line of effort.

The 83-member D-ISIS Coalition is one of the most effective multilateral efforts in history and is an excellent example of how the United States can help lead a multilateral counterterrorism platform that leverages the tools and capabilities of countries around the globe against a common enemy.

And the D-ISIS Coalition  is now playing a role in countering ISIS activity and networks globally, including in Africa.  The coalition held its first meeting focused on West Africa and the Sahel in late 2020 to discuss potential lines of capacity-building efforts that could be undertaken there, and we anticipate expanding that focus to include other regions in Africa a bit later this year.

Returning to the terrorist designations announced yesterday, these designations put the international community on notice about these groups and individuals.  In addition to naming and shaming, these designations also seek to deny ISIS in the DRC and ISIS in Mozambique, as well as their leaders Seka Musa Baluku and Abu Yasir Hassan, the resources they need to fund their terrorist activities and carry out terrorist attacks.  Among other consequences of those designations, any property or interests in property of those designated and subject to U.S. jurisdiction are blocked, and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in any transactions with them.  It is a crime to knowingly provide material support or resources to ISIS in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or to ISIS in Mozambique or to attempt or conspire to do so.  Designations are one of the most important tools we have to disrupt the financial and other support networks that terrorist groups need to export violence and carry out attacks.

Today ISIS-DRC and ISIS-Mozambique should be on notice that the United States and our partners will take the steps needed to address security challenges in Africa to advance peace and security.

Question :  How would you assess the state of the cooperation between the U.S. and Africa regarding the fight against terror and money laundering tied to terrorism? 

Mr. Godfrey:  I think that I would say that overall, I would assess the state of cooperation to be very strong, in part because I think our partners in Africa are clearly seized with the fact that the terrorist threat – both ISIS-affiliated groups but also al-Qaida-affiliated groups – has, frankly, continued to grow the past several years, and frankly, the pace of that growth has increased.  So we cooperate with partners across the continent, across a range of counterterrorism activities, including those referenced in the question. 

Question:  Why is the focus on IS-Mozambique and not on the Tanzanian infrastructure that appears central to the command, to the logistics, and to its evolution?  And in addition to your response, can you share any updates on JCET for Mozambique and any linkages that may exist regarding this designation?  

Mr. Godfrey:  Let me take this – the last part of your question first and then I’ll address the other two pieces.  I think the linkage between this activity, the designations that were announced yesterday, and the other lines of effort you mentioned reflects the fact that we are taking a comprehensive approach to the terrorist threat in Mozambique, and that includes countering terrorism finance but also helping build counterterrorism capability on the part of the Mozambican Government.  I will defer to the Department of Defense to address your question about JCET.  That’s really not for me to say.  

I will say that your question – the part of your question that focuses on why the focus on ISIS-Mozambique and not on the Tanzanian infrastructure, I would say we are focused on Mozambique, first, because that is where the most dramatic manifestations of the ISIS threat in that region are, and so that’s reflected in the fact that you’ve had something like 2,000 civilian casualties and up to 670,000 internally displaced people in the Cabo Delgado region.  I would not dispute at all that there is a cross-border linkage to Tanzania, and indeed, I think we saw that reflected in a way in the cross-border attacks from northern Mozambique back into Tanzania in October of 2020.  So, certainly, we’re not ignoring the fact that this is a threat that spans across borders, and that phenomenon, I would note, is very prevalent in other areas of the continent where we’re dealing with both ISIS and al-Qaida terrorist threats.  

Question:  I just wanted to ask you, what do you plan to do, apart from the actions that you announced in your statement today, to counter the insurgency in Mozambique?  I guess it might have been the equivalent person coming to the continent, to Mozambique and announcing some law enforcement cooperation and also border patrol cooperation.  Could you perhaps give a broader picture of what actions you have in mind?  

Mr. Godfrey:  Thank you.  Yeah, indeed, that was my former boss, Coordinator Nathan Sales, who traveled to Mozambique and South Africa late last year.  And indeed, in addition to the designations announced by Secretary Blinken yesterday, we do have other lines of effort either underway or that we hope to soon be underway in Mozambique.  Those include some efforts to bolster the ability of the Mozambican Government to counter terrorism finance, and as I think most of the folks on this call today know, there’s a nexus between terrorism finance and narcotics trafficking in Mozambique that’s particularly problematic.  So we’re also looking at some counternarcotics lines of effort.  Those don’t fall within the remit of the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau; they fall under a different bureau in our organization, but there’s definitely a line of effort there.  We are looking at some border security measures, to go back to the earlier question from Pearl.  Some of that is because of the fact that we well understand that there’s a cross-border aspect of the ISIS threat in Cabo Delgado.  And then, finally, we’re also looking at some potential other lines of effort to help build the capacity of the Mozambican Government to interdict terrorist attacks and do crisis response in an effective way.

Question:  What is the evidence of links between ISIS and the insurgents in Mozambique beyond the reported pledges of allegiance made more than 18 months ago?  And a related question is:  What is the evidence that Abu Yasir Hassan is the leader of the group, and what precisely do you mean by leader?

Mr. Godfrey:  So, John, let me take an initial stab at that and then I’ll ask Deputy Assistant Secretary Mike Gonzales to weigh in as well.  One of the sort of truisms of doing counterterrorism work that unfortunately a lot of the information that we rely on to inform our assessments isn’t the kind of thing that we can discuss publicly, but I would say that the evidence of ties between the ISIS branch or network in Mozambique and the so-called ISIS-Core in Iraq and Syria is quite incontrovertible.  It’s something that we’re comfortable in assessing is real, and that is part of why the threat is particularly concerning for us.

Mike, let me turn to you and see if you had anything further you wanted to add.

Mr. Gonzales:  I would just add that beyond this specific designation and the more security-oriented response to the existing threat, U.S. support to Mozambique in responding to this is really representative of a holistic approach.  We recognize that there’s a critical law enforcement capability component related to this as well as impacts on development gains, economic potential of the region, regional stability.  And so our approach not only seeks to address the security side but also addressing the socioeconomic drivers of the threat, countering ISIS messaging, and providing greater economic opportunity and resilience of the community so that the attraction to violent extremism is lessened.

Question :  Some people attribute recurrent killings in Beni to terrorists.  Does the U.S. support the DRC armed forces’ fight against terrorism?

Mr. Godfrey:  So we absolutely support the DRC’s president and his administration’s commitment to countering armed and terrorist groups like ISIS-DRC, and we also are very supportive of efforts to bring peace to the regions of the DRC that have been afflicted with terrorist attacks and other violence.  That’s part of why we’ve been strong supporters of MONUSCO and their efforts to protect civilians and strengthen state institutions.

Mr. Gonzales:  I would echo John’s point of the United States’ strong support for President Tshisekedi and his administration in fighting the terrorist threat and bringing peace to eastern DRC.  We do support the FARDC in terms of their efforts against violent extremists with particularly four lines of effort – bolstering civil-military operations and capabilities; military engineering; strategic communications; and English-language laboratories – with the goal of empowering civilian leadership to promote structural reform and professionalization of the military.  And I think these are prime examples of how the United States is really running with the vision of the Biden administration and the statements of Secretary Blinken about emphasizing our partnerships with African partners and building local capacity, because it’s through that local capacity that there will be sustainable gains that are able to be realized through the future. 

Question :  The State Department has designated the ADF under the moniker ‘ISIS-DRC’ as a foreign terrorist organization, but whatever the relationship between some central members of the group and external ISIS groups, the ADF is a hybrid, locally embedded organization.  How will you decide where exactly ISIS-DRC begins and ends?

Mr. Godfrey:  The U.S. has looked hard at this and using all of our resources including sensitive information, and we’re quite confident about the facts that ADF is ISISDRC in some important aspects.  

ADF established ties with ISIS and was publicly recognized as an affiliate of ISIS in late 2018.  ISIS has claimed responsibility for ADF-attributed attacks since April of 2019 after an attack on an Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo Base near Kamango.  And although some original ADF members broke away after the group pledged allegiance to ISIS, many original members – not just leadership but members of the rank and file – continue to be members of ADF as led by Baluku after ISIS publicly recognized the group as an affiliate.  

Question:  It’s no secret that there are private contractors, military contractors operating in Cabo Delgado.  And recently a report from Amnesty International did blame these contractors for some of the killings of civilians.  So my question is, how much concern is this?  And will the presence of these private contractors, be they from South Africa and Russia, affect your ability to have any significant, meaningful impact in your counterterrorism efforts? 

Mr. Godfrey:  We are concerned about the presence in Cabo Delgado of private contractors akin to those that you highlighted.  This is a phenomenon that we have seen in other areas of conflict as well.  And as in those other areas in Cabo Delgado, we assess that the presence of those entities has not demonstrably helped the government of Mozambique in countering the terrorist threat from ISIS-Mozambique that they face.  And indeed, that because those entities operate outside the strictures of normal international partnership, they have historically tended to be less responsible with respect to things like observing human rights and the law of armed conflict as they conduct their efforts.  So we’re mindful of that.  It’s frankly a feature of the landscape in Cabo Delgado that complicates rather than helps efforts to address the terror threat there. 

Question:  When you’re looking at the insurgents in Mozambique and ADF in eastern Congo, how concerned is the U.S. Government about the support networks in Tanzania? 

Mr. Godfrey:  The sort of prominence of ISIS in Mozambique definitely links back to southern Tanzania, and there is a cross-border aspect of this including the fact that we’ve now had – as I mentioned before – attacks from Cabo Delgado back into Tanzania.  I would say that the picture in terms of what that facilitation or ongoing support from one side of the border to the other looks like is not as clear as we would perhaps hope it to be.  That’s something that we continue to work on.  But certainly no question about the fact that there’s a cross-border element of this threat that is quite worrying, and that’s part of the reason that one of the issues we’ve been focused on is border security.  

Question :   ISIS has stopped making claims or statements about Cabo Delgado since November.  What is your opinion on what that means?  And is there any apparent reason for that?

Mr. Godfrey:  So one of the things that I would point to here that’s interesting about ISIS is because it’s a global network, when things happen in one part of the network, it has an impact on what the organization is able to do more broadly.  Without going into too much detail about things I can’t talk about unfortunately in an unclassified format, there’s been quite a lot of pressure on ISIS in the core in Iraq and Syria during the last several months.  And my sense is that the – the media wing of ISIS-Core has frankly been under pressure that has limited their ability to put out the kinds of statements that they normally do about the activities of ISIS-Mozambique and other branches and networks. 

Question :  Several years ago, the U.S. sent military experts to help DRC security forces fight against the LRA in the northern part of the country.  What’s the current U.S. contribution to the DRC’s efforts aimed at restoring peace to the country’s eastern provinces ravaged by illegal armed groups?

Mr. Gonzalez:  Sure, happy to do so.  So like I said earlier, in terms of our support on the security side are – we have four major lines of effort with the FARDC: civil-military operations; military engineering; strategic communications; English-language laboratories to build their capacity.  But beyond that, the United States has a rather robust foreign assistance program with the Government of the Democratic Republic of Congo recognizing the imperative of delivering services: health, education, food security, economic opportunity, as well as humanitarian assistance to the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo – all of this contributing to a comprehensive package of support that helps particularly in the past couple of years since the coming into office of President Tshisekedi to support him and his administration in bringing long-term, sustainable peace to eastern DRC.

Question :  I have a question about Nigeria.  The country has faced a decade-long insurgency in the northeast, but increasingly criminal gangs in the northwest have terrorized communities including kidnapping hundreds of school children.  How do you view this growing issue, and what efforts are being done in partnership with Nigeria to combat this?

Mr. Gonzalez:  Frankly, we’re disgusted by this pattern of mass abductions of school kids.  I can think of nothing more abhorrent.  And our condolences go out to the individuals affected and their families.  But as the questioner poses, this certainly appears by all indications to be a dynamic stemming from criminal gangs motivated by monetary and economic factors.  There’s no indication that terrorists, whether Boko Haram or ISIS-West Africa, are involved in these.  Although I would note that Boko Haram has opportunistically claimed credit for several of these kidnappings in the northwest in the past. 

So the United States is ready to provide appropriate support to the Nigerian government if requested to do so.  Longer term, we seek to help develop the capabilities of the Nigerian security services in order for them to adequately respond to the internal threats that the country faces.  Again, I think the challenges are many in Nigeria.  And we are encouraged by President Buhari’s recent replacement of all of the security-sector chiefs and looking forward to partnering with him and continuing to build the capacity of the Nigerian military in order to be able to better protect and defend their people.

Question:  Can you talk about the results of U.S. counterterrorism efforts on the continent over the last four years?  And would you say the situation in terms of terror threats in each region has gotten better, worse, or stayed the same?  

Mr. Godfrey:  We have been primarily focused over the last four years in West Africa Sahel and then over on the eastern side of the continent in Somalia, with an eye very much to the cross-border threat posed by al-Shabaab against Kenya and other regional neighbors.  I would say that we have actually made some progress in Somalia in blunting the effect of alShabaab to plan and execute attacks against Kenya, or inside Kenya I should say.  There are obviously some notable exceptions to that – the January 2020 attacks against the Manda Bay Air Base were terrible, and certainly that’s a sign that that threat remains persistent.  

On the west side of the continent, in West Africa Sahel space, we’ve partnered very closely with France and other partners and allies in what is a multilateral effort to address the drivers of instability there.  I think foremost among those is the fact that there have been issues with governments’ ability to project security and governance throughout that space, principally in Mali initially.  And obviously we’ve seen how that instability has – has since spilled across borders.  But we have been engaged, as Mike mentioned, with respect to DRC.  

The efforts we’ve made in West Africa Sahel space are certainly not limited to counterterrorism or military efforts, although those are certainly some of what we do.  It’s a more holistic effort than that which encompasses lines of effort under the U.S. Agency for International Development, other bureaus of the Department of State that do capacity building and assistance across a range of civilian lines of effort.  

The one thing I would highlight that the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau has done – and this is particularly so for the last couple of years – is an intensified focus on building the judicial capacity of partner countries.  That is the ability to investigate, arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate terrorists, the so-called judicial chain.  We’re quite heavily invested in a number of countries in trying to develop host governments’ abilities to have meaningful capacity at each link in that chain so that they’re able to effect civilian measures to address the terrorist threats in addition to the military efforts that are underway. 

Question :  Amnesty also accuses the Government of Mozambique or war crimes.  Does that have any impact on U.S. support for the Mozambican Government?

Mr. Godfrey:  It’s a good question, and the short answer is that we take seriously allegations of violations of human rights or violations of the law of armed conflict, particularly when they apply to countries with which we’re partnering on counterterrorism and other efforts.  I think as everybody on this call knows, we have a very rigorous process under the Leahy Law – Leahy vetting of units with which we would seek to partner that requires that the individuals and leaders of those units with which we would partner have a clean record with respect to any human rights or law of armed conflict violations.  

We take that very seriously, and there’s rigorous congressional oversight of that, such that if it’s determined that units that we have trained have individuals who don’t meet that standard, we either pause or suspend those lines of effort.  And that’s something we take very seriously.  It’s part of why it takes some time to stand up capacity-building lines of effort because that process of vetting requires time and effort to ensure that we get it right. 

Mr. Gonzalez:  I just appreciate everyone’s interest in this.  I certainly see these designations as the continuation of U.S. focus on addressing terrorism threats across the continent but recognizing that that is done as part of a holistic U.S. Government approach that addresses drivers, response, as well as the humanitarian effects – part of our ongoing commitment to the African continent and our partners there.