As East African terrorism moves West, the DRC is in the spotlight

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A recent raid on a terrorist cell in Sudan’s capital Khartoum with suspected links to ISIS (also referred to as Daesh) is throwing once again a limelight on East Africa’s persistent problem with terrorism and the high price in blood that needs to be paid in the fight against it. The raid saw five police officers killed and was directed against a new suspected terror cell made up exclusively of non-Sudanese citizens – a stark reminder that gradually more internationally-sourced Islamist groups are spreading their tentacles not only across East Africa but increasingly beyond the immediate region to Central Africa as well.

While it’s not a new development that the battle grounds of Somalia and Sudan act as magnets for foreign fighters hoping to join the terrorist groups of al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda and ISIS, the fact that the ideological battlefront has progressively been moved westwards is a relatively recent phenomenon. The result are growing terror operations in Kenya, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), especially in its North Kivu region, with recent events in Afghanistan only accelerating this trend.

Indeed, DRC has a wealth of experience fighting terrorist insurgents in the shape of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a terrorist group operating in the country’s Eastern territories. The group has recently stepped up its violence since publicly aligning itself with ISIS, which caused the United States to officially classify the group as an Islamist terrorist organization dubbed “ISIS-DRC” (alternatively Islamic State in Central African Province, ISCAP) in March this year.

To the DRC’s credit, the government under President Felix Tshisekedi has been responding proactively to the increasing threat. In May, two months after Washington’s re-classification of ADF, Tshisekendi and his Kenyan counterpart Uhuru Kenyatta signed several agreements on security and defense to fight off ISIS-DRC. These pacts are meant to improve bilateral cooperation in counter-terrorism, arms smuggling, immigration and cyber-security among other security-related aspects.

Curbing the expansion of the ISIS-DRC group is a top priority, which has provided Kinshasa with a leading position in the region in the fight against international terrorism. DRC authorities have been playing crucial roles in intelligence gathering, security operations in the Great Lakes region and high-level meetings involving the UN as well as delegates from Monusco and the African Union (AU).

However, even if this is indicative of a growing operative role in East and Central Africa’s security structure for the DRC, President Tshisekedi has been at pains to emphasize the global effort required to halt the advance of terrorist groups, not only in the DRC but Africa at large. Tshisekedi made this clear at the UN General Assembly in September, warning that “While the fight against Daesh has won undeniable victories in the Middle East, in Africa, on the other hand, AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and other groups affiliated with Daesh are gaining ground every day.”

The socio-economic toll of these struggles is considerable, with Tshisekedi stating that “Jihadists operating under the cover of the Alied Democratic Forces and Tauheed wal Muwahedeen, are killing my compatriots and massively looting the mining and agricultural products of my country.” This is an important point highly relevant to virtually all African countries, and which requires the international community to lend support to those who are fighting terrorism on their own soil.

The US already sent Special Operations Forces to the DRC in order to “conduct an assessment of a future Congolese counter-terrorism team” in a move that presages more coordinated large-scale counter-terrorism operations in the country. While it’s unclear to what extent this will lead to further US-organized anti-insurgent campaigns across the border in Kenya and East Africa, it would provide a forceful supportive counterpart to the civilian EU projects already active on the ground.

Through its Peace and Stability instrument, Brussels is providing bottom-up support to local communities in East Africa through projects in preventing and countering violent extremism. Primarily based on capacity-building, it is through education, community engagement and de-radicalization schemes that people are discouraged from being sucked into the vicious circles of ideological extremism.

When these operations – both military and civilian – will yield tangible results remains to be seen, but what is abundantly clear is the fact that closer cross-border cooperation is pivotal to actively push back against terrorist groups. As East African and Central African terrorist networks are merging and feeding one another with manpower and weapons, it’s encouraging that the region’s military intelligence chiefs are convening more frequently to discuss such issues. More stability and security in East Africa, no less with help from the DRC and the international community, this is certainly good news.

Image: US Air Force/Flickr