- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 28, 2021

The Islamic State’s foothold across Africa is expanding amid a recent spate of gruesome attacks and there are growing fears in Washington that the terror group, as well as other extremist outfits like it will use the continent as a staging ground for future jihadist strikes against the West.

After years of ISIS inroads made across North Africa and in such nations as Mali and Nigeria, counterterrorism specialists are now closely watching the group’s southward movement into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a resource-rich country that’s also at the center of evolving strategic competition between the U.S. and China.

While the Pentagon’s Africa Command closely tracks terror groups operating in the Congo, the bulk of U.S. and wider Western counterterrorism operations in Africa over the past decade have been focused to the north — most notably in Somalia, the headquarters of the al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabab, and on the wider Sahel.

The vast region, which stretches along the underbelly of the Sahara and encompasses parts of about 10 countries, has been an epicenter of extremism and home to numerous jihadi organizations since 9/11. But it’s clear some of the groups are now reaching deeper into Africa.

A Christmas Day suicide bombing outside a restaurant in Beni, Congo, killed at least five people and wounded more than a dozen others. Local officials reportedly blamed the assault on the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a group that has long been active in Congo, but is now increasingly seen to have ties to an ISIS branch known as Islamic State in Central Africa.

The suicide bombing was the latest in a string of deadly terrorist attacks blamed on the ADF in Congo. The State Department in March designated the group as a foreign terrorist organization and labeled its leader, Seka Musa Baluku, as a “specially designated global terrorist.”

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The move prohibits U.S. citizens from doing business with Baluku or others associated with the ADF. It may also signal elevated concern that the Islamic State has increased its focus on Central Africa and remains a serious threat to global stability, despite assertions by American officials that the group was “territorially defeated” by a U.S.-led military campaign across Iraq and Syria during the latter half of the last decade.

“The Islamic State’s expansion into Congo was by no means inevitable, but it was predictable,” says Katherine Zimmerman, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who closely tracks Islamic terrorism in the region. She added that the Islamic State’s steady move across Africa mirrors that of al Qaeda and its affiliates, including al-Shabab, with both networks posing direct threats to the West, particularly Europe.

“The rapid expansion of both transnational terrorist groups in Africa in recent years should give the U.S. and its allies pause because of how it is transforming the global threat,” she told The Washington Times in an interview. “North African networks threatened Europe in the 1990s and 2000s and could do so again even as the U.S. and its allies focus increasingly on the geostrategic competition with China and Russia.”

That high-stakes competition between the U.S. and China also is at play in Congo. China in recent years has made a concerted effort to essentially monopolize cobalt mines across Congo, with Chinese firms now controlling at least 15 of the 19 major cobalt mines in the country, according to a recent New York Times report.

Cobalt is used to manufacture jet engines, batteries, and other products vital to Beijing’s effort to expand its influence, grow its military, and ultimately supplant the U.S. as the world’s leading superpower.

Analysts say Beijing’s growing presence in Congo is one example of how China views Africa as fertile ground for its global expansion. China’s first major overseas military installation is in Djibouti, along Africa’s northeastern coast.

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The U.S., meanwhile, also has troops stationed in Djibouti. The Pentagon for several years has kept the specifics of its African troop deployments hidden, but there are believed to be about 6,000 American forces on the continent, with some stationed in Niger, Kenya, and elsewhere.

The U.S. also conducts air operations against al-Shabab in Somalia, a country wracked by dysfunction and political turmoil.

‘Wildfire of terrorism’

The threat of terrorism is also growing in other parts of Africa.

At least 41 people were killed last week in a deadly assault in northern Burkina Faso, according to news wire reports in the region.

It was merely the latest in a litany of terrorist assaults across the Sahel, with major attacks in Niger, Mali and elsewhere claiming thousands of lives in recent years.

U.S. military officials have said that despite multinational counterterrorism efforts — including a long-running French anti-terror campaign in the Sahel — extremism has continued to spread.

“I am concerned about the security situation across a band of Africa,” Gen. Stephen Townsend, the head of U.S. Africa Command, told reporters over the summer as he detailed counterterrorism efforts on the continent.

“All of that does not seem to be sufficient enough to stop what I call … [the] wildfire of terrorism that’s sweeping that region,” he said.

The prospect of an expanding ADF-ISIS connection is especially concerning. While Nigeria’s Boko Haram group has made global headlines with its direct pledges of allegiance to the Islamic State, the ADF’s ties to the broader ISIS organization have been more murky.

It’s unclear whether the ADF takes its orders directly from Islamic State leaders or if it acts more autonomously. What is clear is that the group has adopted some of the brutal tactics first brought to prominence by ISIS during its reign of terror in Iraq and Syria last decade.

Over the summer, for example, ADF released several videos of beheadings. Since then it has launched numerous car-bomb attacks and at least two suicide bombings, including the Christmas attack in Beni.

The group has killed hundreds across the Congo and has displaced at least 14,000 of the country’s citizens, according to data compiled by the Counter Extremism Project.

Researchers say that while there are still questions about the exact day-to-day relationship between the ADF and the Islamic State more broadly, it’s clear the group has adopted ISIS’ brutality, its propaganda and its recruitment efforts.

“The debate should no longer concern whether the ADF has a formal relationship with the Islamic State but rather focus on the nature of that relationship,” researchers with George Washington University’s Program on Extremism wrote in an analysis of the ADF earlier this year.

“It is evident that the Islamic State is leveraging these activities to demonstrate that it remains a relevant and active movement with a broad transnational reach, despite its loss of territorial control across Syria and Iraq,” they wrote. “With formal Islamic State affiliates and pro-Islamic State groups dotted across Africa, the potential for transnational collaboration and the migration of increased numbers of regional foreign fighters may threaten regional stability.”

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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