KAMPALA, Uganda—Islamic State was collapsing in Iraq and Syria, but from the jungles of Eastern Congo a jihadist appeared on YouTube to declare that the so-called caliphate was regrouping in Central Africa.
“I call on all Muslims in the world to join us in Congo,” said the man, who identified himself as an Arab and sported an oversize machine gun and bandoleer, flanked by a small group of ragtag fighters under a dense forest canopy. “I swear by God this is the abode of Islamic State.”
The video was largely dismissed by analysts as an attempt by the crumbling terror group to gain headlines. But three years after it aired, Islamic State’s little-known Central African Province has expanded so rapidly that the U.S. State Department last month imposed sanctions on the group and its leadership for the first time.
In late March, hundreds of the group’s fighters in Mozambique occupied a key port town after a dayslong siege in which they massacred dozens of people and sent thousands running for their lives through forests and mangrove swamps. The attack forced French oil major Total SE to evacuate all its staff from the $16 billion project along with 2,000 refugees.
Known as Iscap, the swelling band of Congo- and Mozambique-based militants once fighting for autonomy from the central government has this year become one of the terror group’s deadliest franchises, according to SITE intelligence tracker, which monitors extremist groups globally. Led by a veteran Ugandan jihadist, Musa Baluku, the Congolese militia previously known as the Allied Democratic Forces, or ADF, killed over 849 civilians in 2020 alone, the State Department said.
The rise of Iscap shows how Islamic State is morphing into a different kind of enemy by embracing an array of militant groups as if they were local franchises. After its dreams of imposing draconian Islamist law in a self-declared state in Syria were crushed, Islamic State successfully injected itself into localized conflicts in Nigeria, Libya and across the Sahel, the semiarid belt running east-west along the southern edge of the Sahara. Those initial forays, as in Syria and Iraq, were launched in largely Muslim territories.
Now it is starting to target Christian-dominated countries, grafting onto Islamist terrorist groups that have emerged among disenfranchised Muslim minorities. No longer vowing to seize and hold territory, Islamic State instead has embraced guerrilla tactics, co-opting local leadership and dramatically improving training, tactics and propaganda—and giving the impression it can strike at Western interests in unexpected places.
These groups are now allied with Islamic State and the organization uses them for propaganda purposes. ISIS provides funding and training but doesn’t direct their day-to-day operations, unlike what it did in the caliphate in Syria and Iraq, Western security officials say.
Congo, a country with a 95% Christian population and no tradition of jihadist ideology, is arguably the most extreme example. Islamic State’s new local ally, the ADF, sprang out of a 1990s rebellion by Muslims in Uganda who felt persecuted by the regime of President Yoweri Museveni. Under pressure from Kampala, the group took refuge in Eastern Congo, a hotbed of armed groups that have long fought over rich mineral resources in a region with little central government control.
Defectors say Iscap’s fighters include a small number of battle-hardened Arab Muslim volunteers. The jihadist who announced the caliphate on YouTube has since been identified as an ethnic Arab from Tanzania. The group has launched a spree of increasingly brazen and sophisticated attacks, including jailbreaks across Congo’s eastern provinces to free their comrades and recruit new escapees. One attack in October freed some 1,300 prisoners.
The Congolese military said it recovered the bodies of two Arab fighters who were “likely instructors” in December after a battle with Iscap close to the town of Beni. Pictures taken by the African country’s army and seen by The Wall Street Journal show a pale arm protruding from a body buried by the retreating ISIS franchise. Drone footage by the U.N.’s local military force also showed a dead white fighter in the immediate aftermath of the Congolese attack.
The group, which has now swelled from around 200 to 1,500 fighters, according to Ugandan intelligence, has connected with an insurgency in Mozambique, which attacked the port city of Palma last month.
Among those killed in the raid were British and South Africans, both involved in the energy project, who died during a failed escape attempt from a hotel where 180 expatriates and locals had sought refuge, say local contractors. Local police later found the decapitated bodies of 12 men and are working to identify them.
The strikes, which happened during a training mission by U.S. Special Forces in the country, have set alarm bells ringing inside the Biden administration, which is overhauling policy toward Africa and Islamic State. The March sanctions require banks to freeze the assets of ISIS’s Congolese branch and its leader, Mr. Baluku, along with the Mozambique affiliate and its commander, Abu Yasir Hassan, and bans any dealings with them.
Struggling after years of battlefield deaths and defections, the ADF wasn’t an easy target for Islamic State’s austere commanders. The group fought at one stage alongside militias made up of animists and Christians, according to defectors from the ADF and from the Congolese army. Children and women joined men in combat—a practice anathema in ISIS’s heartland. In Syria and Iraq, Islamic State had a “cubs” training program but never deployed them.
In late 2017, shortly after the first Iscap videos emerged, Abdulrahman Ssali, then 25, traveled from Uganda to eastern Congo at the invitation of his estranged father Abdurahuman Waswa, an Islamic scholar. Years earlier, Mr. Waswa had secretly joined an Islamic group that claimed Muslims in Uganda were persecuted following the fall of Idi Amin in 1979.
Now in hiding in Uganda, his son says he thought the trip was a family reunion. Instead, his father lured him to fight under Islamic State’s banner. Arab instructors, some of them from Syria, gave him a simpler order: “Expanding ISIS’s Central African province,” he recalls. They gave the son military and ideological training and he fought alongside them for months, engaging the Congolese army and raiding banana plantations for food and child conscripts.
Mr. Waswa, whose fluent Arabic saw him rise to a leadership position in the group, ordered the execution of a 14-year-old runaway fighter for desertion, Mr. Ssali said. He warned his son he would face the same if he attempted to escape. “That beheading of the girl traumatized me,” Mr. Ssali said.
Mr. Ssali is one of the few defectors, now under government protection in a Kampala safe house, who has witnessed the rise of Islamic State’s central Africa province and is giving testimony.
Western security officials say the jihadists spent no more than $1 million on the new franchise, just 1% of the $100 million war chest the United Nations estimates the group accumulated. The organization spent more on new operations in countries with stronger history of Islamist insurgencies, including Afghanistan, Libya and the Philippines, U.N. experts said.
Back in 2015, the ADF was almost extinct amid attacks by Congo’s United Nations-backed army and internal strife. Following the arrest of founder Jamil Mukulu, his replacement, Mr. Baluku, faced opposition from other senior members, according to communications obtained by the Bridgeway Foundation, a nonprofit group that investigates insurgencies in East Africa. A U.N. report estimated its remaining fighters at just 65.
But Mr. Baluku, then a 37-year-old baby-faced commander, had a brain wave to bolster support: ally with the faraway Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. “It is us that sat and decided to be under Islamic State leadership since it propagates establishing an Islamic State world over,” he told a lieutenant in communications in late 2019 obtained by Bridgeway. He also bragged that his group had “white”—meaning Middle Eastern Arab—backers.
Defectors say the group’s fortunes started to reverse around the time Waleed Ahmed Zein, an ethnic Arab from Kenya, began sending donations to Mr. Baluku. The Kenyan was receiving funds from his father, who had traveled to Syria, where he had become a member of Islamic State, according to a brief by the Ugandan security services and a statement from the Kenyan police.
In 2018 and 2019 in the Congolese camp, Mr. Ssali, the young recruit, says he saw bundles of dollars stashed in the mud house of Mr. Baluku. The fighters received new supplies including solar panels, charging batteries, torches, night vision goggles, all with Arabic inscriptions, he said.
New weaponry helped the militants mount more deadly attacks on Christian villages and military patrols. The group claimed 118 attacks in the 12 months to October 2020, according to Islamic State’s al-Naba magazine. In October, the ADF also freed 900 inmates from an East Congolese prison—many of them its members who immediately rejoined the war. ISIS claimed the operation as part of a global effort it calls “breaking the fortress” to free prisoners in places such as Syria and Afghanistan.
Defectors say that some of the cash brought by the Kenyan financier was used to purchase ammonium nitrate and timers—key components for improvised explosive devices. Yemeni and Syrian jihadists traveled to Congo to train the fighters in military tactics and bomb-making, these defectors say. A July 2020 report by the United Nations’ ISIS panel says the ADF had started to use IEDs.
The two Central African branches are also becoming increasingly integrated, with Congolese now issuing claims of attacks on behalf of their Mozambican allies, according to a report on the ISIS franchise from the George Washington University Program on Extremism.
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Extremist ideology flowed into the camps alongside money and weapons. Congolese army units who killed ADF militants found Arabic texts from Islamic State’s Research and Studies Office, a department based in the Iraqi city of Mosul that issued doctrinal edicts buttressing its worldview.
Mr. Ssali recalled a regimen as rigid as it was brutal. Children as young as 10 carried machine guns and were taught Arabic and Islamic State ideology. Stealing an item worth more than $2 was punishable with a hand amputation. Anyone spreading a rumor had their mouth sewn shut with wire. Turning a flashlight on when drones were flying overhead was punishable by death.
The military tactics emphasized extreme violence. During a raid on a banana plantation, Mr. Ssali says fellow fighters beheaded a couple, spilling blood on their clothes. Then they took away their children, chickens and goats.
In Mozambique in November, the local militants turned a football pitch in a village into an “execution ground,” decapitating 50 people, according to Mozambican state media.
After witnessing executions, Mr. Ssali said he grew determined to flee. During a lull in fighting, he hid in a deep thicket before walking for seven days, eating roots and drinking stagnant water, then surrendering to the Congolese army. One year later it handed him to Ugandan military intelligence.
He is haunted by his time in the group and for leaving his sister behind in the camp. “My father tricked me, it was never my intention to join these radical Islamists,” he said, his eyes moistening. “Now I may never see my sister again.”
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