Suicide Bombing in Congo Indicates Growing Influence of Islamic State Affiliate
On June 29, Islamic State in Central Africa Province (ISCAP) claimed its first ever suicide bombing at a bar in Beni, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) (France24, June 30). This represented a new tactic in an increasingly violent insurgency that is attracting more attention from officials and scholars within and outside the central African region. The suicide bombing also occurred just before a separate bomb exploded at a petrol station and only one day after another bomb went off at a Catholic church. Both attacks also took place in Beni. While curfews have been imposed in the region because of COVID-19, the DRC government imposed a new curfew in Beni in anticipation of future attacks. Only police and soldiers were allowed on the streets (aljazeera.com, June 28).
This suicide bombing came amid growing debate among scholars about the extent to which Islamic State (IS) is influencing ISCAP. According to one perspective, the “fixation” on IS distracts from the complex local factors influencing the insurgency in Congo. Such scholars tend to avoid using the “ISCAP” name and prefer to refer to the Allied Defense Forces (ADF). The ADF existed for years around Beni, but its fighters no longer use that name and instead use “ISCAP” in their media releases through IS’ centralized media system. This perspective tends to not assess these media releases or considers them propaganda and argues that using the name “ISCAP” will internationalize the conflict in an unproductive way (worldpoliticsreview.com, July 6).
Another perspective, however, argues that an excessive focus on the policy implications of using the name “ISCAP” overlooks demonstrated connections between the fighters in the DRC and IS leadership. This connection comes not only through media coordination, but also financial assistance, training, and other forms of coordination (Twitter.com/VincentFoucher, July 7; extremism.gwu.edu, March 2021). Whichever perspective eventually proves more accurate as ISCAP continues to evolve, the suicide bombing remains notable. In other cases, such as with Boko Haram in Nigeria, militant groups have turned to suicide bombing only after receiving external training, such as from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Boko Haram’s first suicide bombing in June 2011 was forewarned by a militant who claimed he trained with al-Shabaab in Somalia, which is possible given the group’s correspondences that indicate travel between the organizations (Agence France-Presse, June 16, 2011). In addition, Boko Haram’s second suicide bombing was followed by U.S. AFRICOM claims that the group was coordinating with AQIM and al-Shabaab (telegraph.co.uk, March 1, 2012). Likewise, AQIM itself began conducting an increasing number of suicide bombings in 2007 only once it became affiliated with al-Qaeda and benefitted from the expertise from members who had fought in Iraq (carnegieendowment.org, October 2009). Given these trends, ISCAP (or the former ADF) may have adopted suicide bombings by learning from IS itself.
Meanwhile, in Mozambique, ISCAP’s other branch became relatively quiet after its stunning capture of Mocimboa da Praia in 2020. However, the group’s claim of attacks in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province on July 14 shows the group remains active (Twitter.com/Africisorg, July 14). In general, the Mozambican branch remains stronger than the DRC branch, but the latter’s tactical evolution and growing sophistication suggests it is beginning to match the level of the former.
Ghana Surfaces on al-Qaeda’s Radar
Ghana has rarely been either a site of jihadist attacks or supplier of jihadist fighters. However, the Group for Supporting Muslims and Islam (Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin—JNIM), which is al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the Sahel, for the first time featured a Ghanaian man front and center in a video in June. In the video, the Ghanaian, whose alias was Abu Dujana, described the part he would play in an impending suicide bombing on Operation Barkhane forces in Gossi, Mali. The video was shocking enough to Ghana that the country responded by issuing a “terrorism alert” (whatsupnewsghana.com, June 29).
Notable among Abu Dujana’s words were his references to Tamale near the Ghanaian border. Abu Dujana claimed to be from Tamale, which has come under suspicion of infiltration by “bandits” (indexghana.news, 15). Such bandits, as mentioned in Ghanaian intelligence documents, planned to enter Ghana from Burkina Faso and are likely, in fact, JNIM fighters or allies. Abu Dujana’s references to an emir based in the city of Fada N’Gourma, Burkina Faso, moreover, indicates that he was part of the JNIM contingent operating between the Burkina Faso-Ghana border area (Twitter.com/Menastream, June 27).
Only several weeks after Abu Dujana’s video, JNIM released another video called “If they fight you, fight them” showing combat footage throughout the Sahel (Twitter.com/Calibreobscura, July 10). The video’s references to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) show how JNIM historically evolved from AQIM and is still largely intertwined with that organization. However, AQIM is still focused on Algeria and much less active operationally than JNIM. Whereas the video featuring Abu Dujana was not technically a formal JNIM release, it had all of the official JNIM logos. This indicates that JNIM has only recently been expanding into the Burkina Faso-Ghana border area and may not have the logistics in place to relay videos from there, including the one of Abu Dujana, to JNIM’s centralized media team.
JNIM did not release any formal combat videos in all of 2020, which indicates this video was a compendium of numerous successful operations. JNIM likely desired to display its increasing professionalization. The video also comes at a time when JNIM is benefiting from strong tailwinds, including from French president Emmanuel Macron’s wavering over whether to remove French troops from the Sahel (France24.com, June 10). Although such a move seems unlikely, France has been unable to quash the Sahelian jihadist insurgency since Operation Barkhane and its predecessor operation commenced in 2012.
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan nevertheless set a precedent that France could follow to leave the Sahel (aljazeera.com, July 2). At the same time, Afghanistan is much further from the U.S. homeland than the Sahel is to French territory and key economic interests, such as mining facilities in northern Niger. France cannot extricate itself from the Sahel, from a national security perspective, as easily as the U.S. can from Afghanistan. This is especially true as the Taliban has vowed to not use its territory to attack Western countries and, in any event, it may lack the capability to coordinate any such attack with al-Qaeda.
The Taliban’s rapid conquest of territory in Afghanistan as the United States began withdrawing might also serve as a warning sign for Macron: if France withdraws from the Sahel, Mali and its immediate neighbors, Niger and Burkina Faso, would come under threat of jihadist takeover. Eventually, Ghana itself would no longer be at the periphery, but potentially at the heart of JNIM operational areas.