AFRICA – The Cross Pollination of East Africa’s Armed Groups

Jamestown Foundation |Brian M. Perkins | Nov. 18, 2019

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) (See TM, November 6). 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.