IS-CAP Attack Claims in DRC Increase, but Capabilities Largely Remain the Same
Brian M. Perkins
The number of attacks Islamic State Central Africa Province (IS-CAP) has claimed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has increased significantly since the beginning of 2020. This continues an escalation of violence that has left more than 600 dead since the Congolese military launched large-scale operations in North Kivu province’s Beni region. IS-CAP’s initial proclamation of its presence in DRC was looked upon with skepticism due to the murky details surrounding its local connections. The current escalation of claims raises important questions as to what exactly is fueling the increased tempo of claimed attacks.
Since IS-CAP first announced its presence in the DRC in April 2019, evidence suggested that it had made in-roads into the country through more jihadist-leaning factions of the ADF. The overlapping area of operations and attacks IS-CAP has claimed over the past year has only provided further evidence of this connection. IS-CAP has claimed at least 25 attacks in the past four months alone—nearing its total for all of 2019—including the June 22 attack in the Makisabo area of Beni that claimed the life of an Indonesian peacekeeper from the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) (Twitter.com/p_vanostaeyen, June 23).
The extent to which the increased tempo of IS-CAP claims can be attributed to an increase in external support or improved capabilities, however, is up for debate. Outside of an increase in the number and quality of video releases, some of which have attempted to exploit the COIVD-19 crisis, there is little evidence to suggest significant material or tactical improvements. The majority of attacks have employed the same ambush tactics and antiquated or rudimentary weaponry used by the ADF for decades.
One likely explanation for the rising number of IS-CAP claims is that the faction first responsible for the Islamic State (IS) connection has expanded its ranks by convincing other fighters to engage with the IS narrative, thus expanding the reach of IS-CAP and broadening the number of attacks it can viably claim.
At the same time, multiple crises are unfolding around the country, which are hindering the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (FARDC) ability to combat the violence in Beni region. In addition to the ADF and IS-CAP violence in North Kivu, communal violence in Tanganyika province and incursions into Ituri province by elements of the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces have also drawn resources and attention. On July 9, President Tshisekedi convened an emergency meeting with the FARDC chain of command to warn of a rebellion brewing in the Fizi and Mwenga territories of South Kivu (The Africa Report, June 10). Outside of these traditional security threats, the country has also been preoccupied with stopping the spread of COVID-19.
The IS-CAP expansion in DRC should not be taken lightly, but the increased tempo of claims has coincided with an overall surge in attacks in North Kivu. IS-CAP claims only account for a small percentage of the total attacks. The coming months will likely see a steady rate of IS-CAP claims as the country grapples with multiple unfolding crises. For now, IS-CAP in DRC has not seen the same level of tactical and operational improvements that the branch’s counterpart in Mozambique has seen.
Southeast Asia Remains Destination and Transit Point for Terrorist Groups
Brian M. Perkins
While Islamic State’s (IS) growth in the Sahel and East Africa and its creeping resurgence in Iraq dominate the headlines, the group’s activities and durability in Southeast Asia remain overlooked. The island nations of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines in particular have all experienced a surge in terrorist activity over the past three years and have increasingly faced a threat not only from the return of citizens who fought alongside IS abroad, but also from foreigners seeking to join IS-affiliated groups in the region as an alternative to the organization’s other areas of operation. Given the history of fighters transiting between the three countries, their individual counterterrorism strategies are only as strong as the weakest link between the three.
The U.S. State Department’s recently released Country Report on Terrorism underscored the unique vulnerabilities that Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines face.  Most notably, the challenges of tightening border security and preventing militants from not only taking root within each country but also using them as transit points to neighboring countries and those much further afield. Disparities between these countries’ terrorism legislation, travel/visa restrictions, and stance toward the repatriation of foreign fighters only deepen these vulnerabilities, which will likely increasingly be exploited by current and aspiring IS fighters as traveling to other fronts becomes more difficult.
The three countries have all enacted more stringent counterterrorism measures, but significant differences remain in their approaches to the repatriation of fighters and their families. While the Philippines has been reluctant to repatriate any of its citizens, Malaysia has actively repatriated fighters and their families, often arresting and charging the male fighters and placing women and children in rehabilitation programs. Indonesia initially took a similar, but more lax approach, which was eventually reverted back to denying repatriation after one repatriated couple made their way to the Philippines. Once there they helped conduct a suicide bombing that killed 22 people at a Cathedral in Jolo (Bangkok Post, July 24, 2019).
Similarly, disparities also exist regarding visa requirements. Malaysia does not require visas for travelers from Syria, Iraq, or Turkey—three of the more likely exit points for returning fighters. The Philippines does not require visas for travelers from Turkey, and Indonesia grants visas upon arrival.
The Philippines has been the hardest hit of the three countries, with Abu Sayyaf, The Maute Group, and Ansar al-Khalifa being responsible for a large percentage of attacks within the country. Among these groups have been a growing number of not only Malaysian and Indonesian fighters, but also fighters from Europe and across the Middle East (Benar News, September 4, 2019). The Philippines is likely to remain the region’s premier terrorist front, and deficiencies in Malaysia and Indonesia’s border security and visa programs will continue to see them used as transit points for local and foreign fighters to take well-established sea routes to the Philippines.