East Africa and its peripheral countries, particularly the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), are experiencing an evolution of their security landscapes as jihadist ideologies continue to creep into domestic conflicts. On the surface, many of the domestic conflicts and armed groups in individual East African nations are locally concentrated and driven by local issues, with violent spillover mostly concentrated in small portions of bordering countries—al-Shabaab violence spilling from Somalia into Kenya, or the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) operating in DRC and neighboring Uganda. A closer look, however, shows an increasing level of cross pollination in ideology, tactics, and financing stemming from high levels of mobility across the region as a whole, and not just between neighboring countries.
Across East Africa and its periphery, Somalia, Kenya, and Tanzania have historically been the most affected by jihadist violence, with Kenya and Tanzania experiencing deadly attacks by al-Qaeda in the late 1990s and early 2000s and Somalia being host to al-Shabaab, a longtime al-Qaeda affiliate, and more recently an Islamic State (IS) branch. Mozambique, Uganda, and DRC, meanwhile, have historically struggled less with overt jihadist groups and more with anti-government rebel factions such as the ADF or FRELIMO. Over the past year, jihadist ideologies have taken root at a more alarming rate as IS expanded its presence into DRC and Mozambique through one of its newer branches, Islamic State Central Africa Province (IS-CAP). While the pace and international focus on growing jihadist sentiment in East Africa has increased in the past year, groups that had once primarily been anti-government rebels have increasingly been exposed to the region’s jihadist-leaning groups. These groups have particularly made contact through highly lucrative smuggling and money laundering networks, as well as through loosely connected radical mosques that are exporting militants across the region.
There are few if any East African countries that have not suffered significantly from the smuggling of highly lucrative goods ranging from ivory and timber to gold, rubies, and cobalt. Smuggling routes traverse the inland countries, such as DRC, to those lying along the coast for goods to be transferred onward to the Gulf, Asia, and beyond. It is no secret that smuggling and illegal mining have long funded rebel groups and terrorist organizations in Africa. However, recent developments in countries such as DRC and Mozambique have started to underscore how smuggling and financing networks and the mobility of regional jihadist-minded groups have likely led to a cross pollination of ideologies and tactics, further connecting groups that have historically had little to do with one another.
At a distance, the ADF in DRC has very little to do with al-Shabaab in Somalia. However, al-Shabaab is intimately connected to the ADF through illegal mining and smuggling operations in ADF’s strongholds in North Kivu, DRC, where the group exploits security vacuums to loot mineral resources. There is murky evidence to suggest these two groups have collaborated in terms of substantial training or support, but the relationship is likely to be primarily one of mutual benefit through these smuggling exchanges. Little doubt exists, however, that through this type of socialization there is a mixing and exchange of ideologies that has been taking place over the past decade, particularly given that al-Shabaab militants have been credibly reported in DRC and are seemingly involved upstream in the smuggling process. This type of socialization is not at all unique to ADF and al-Shabaab and is increasingly taking place across the region, with further help from a handful of mosques that produce radicalized fighters that end up dispersed elsewhere across the region.
Major transshipment points for smuggled resources include Kampala, Nairobi, Mombasa, Kinshasha, and Dar es Salam, all of which have also seen numerous mosques become breeding grounds for Islamist groups across the region. For instance, Ugandan militants with ties to the radical Usafi Mosque in Kampala were arrested during security operations against Ansar al-Sunna in Mozambique and radical mosques in Nairobi have long been linked to al-Shabaab, radical networks in Dar es Salaam, and elsewhere in Tanzania. Members of Ansar al-Sunna reportedly received religious training in Tanzania.
Looking at Mozambique, there are additional signs of this cross pollination in the smuggling routes and radical mosques in the region. Ansar al-Sunna now likely comprises the coastal segment of IS-CAP and is the counterpart to its inland segment in DRC (believed to be a faction of the ADF). In early September, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres pointed to “real links” between the ADF and Ansar al-Sunna while noting how insecurity in DRC facilitates insecurity elsewhere in the region. Ansar al-Sunna is believed to have its origins in the smuggling of lucrative goods to the country’s coastline in the northern province of Cabo Delgado. In fact, a recent study by Basel Institute on Governance noted that Mozambique has the highest risk of money laundering and terrorist financing of 125 countries that were assessed. Militants have received Islamic training at radical mosques in Uganda and Tanzania, including mosques in Kibiti—which lies along a route that connects Mombasa, Dar es Salaam, and Cabo Delgado. Radical mosques in Kibiti are occupied by followers of Aboud Rogo Mohammed, the al-Shabaab-linked Kenyan cleric who was killed in Mombasa in 2012. It is also worth noting that Aboud Rogo Mohammed was previously charged for his involvement in al-Qaeda’s 2003 bombings in Mombasa. The majority of Tanzanian’s who have joined al-Shabaab and a notable percentage of those who have joined Ansar al-Sunna are from Kibiti.
While the armed groups across East Africa and its periphery do not share the same agendas—many are aligned in opposing international terrorist groups (such as al-Qaeda and IS)—and are unlikely to forge a larger, more impactful connection, it is clear that smuggling networks and radical mosques across the region have served to collectively strengthen each group. Radical mosques are not just producing local militants but instead are exporting them across the region, leading to a greater spread of jihadist ideology and helping to facilitate the transformation of anti-government rebel groups into more jihadist leaning insurgents. These same connections are likely to also facilitate introductions to new financing networks, tactics, and partners outside of the region. Stemming this spread is going to require a concerted effort by East African nations to shore up borders, crackdown on smuggling and financing networks, and reduce radicalization within each country’s borders.