Is Pakistan spreading Islamic extremism in Africa?

Pakistani soldier UN mission Africa

On 12 August, 2020, Islamic militants calling themselves Ansar al-Sunnah seized the coastal town of Mocímboa da Praia in northern Mozambique. It was a bloodbath. The Mozambican Army, which had repelled a similar attack just five months previously, disintegrated. Within days, the militants controlled most of northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province and swore allegiance to the Islamic State. Unable to counter the group effectively, Russia’s Wagner Group fled, their first major defeat. In March 2021, the same terrorists emerged from the bush and attacked the port city of Palma, 40 kilometers south of the Tanzanian border, besieging the Amarula Hotel where more than 100 foreign contractors working for a nearby oil concession lived or sought shelter; eyewitnesses say dozens died.

In January 2022, I visited Cabo Delgado to witness firsthand counterinsurgency operations. In Palma, I attended a ceremony marking the opening of school after the Islamic State-mandated closures and watched as the manager of the Amarula Hotel worked to plaster over bullet holes and remove shrapnel left over from rocket-propelled grenades. As I drove south into Mocímboa, the damage was far more devastating. Charred churches, burnt businesses, and ruined houses marked the town. Rusted hulks of vehicles dotted the roadway. The town had been without water or electricity since the Islamic State blew up generators, ripped up pipes, and tore down wires.  The Islamic State’s actions in Mozambique differed from what I saw of its occupation in Iraq and Syria. In its Middle Eastern incarnation, the Islamic State held its people hostage in the region’s cities and sought to hijack the local economy to sell oil, wheat, and cement. With the exception of churches, the destruction in Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria were largely the result of fighting to liberate the cities, not perpetrated by the radicals themselves. In Mozambique, the terrorist destroyed everything and forced the entire population into the bush. The men and teenage boys they forced to become soldiers or face execution. The women and girls they forced into servitude or forced into marriage. Towns remained abandoned.

The Rwandan Army deployed to Cabo Delgado to lead the counterinsurgency fight and help restore Mozambique’s shattered capabilities. The commander in Mocímboa showed me both captured weaponry such as AK-47s, grenades, mortars, and bazookas; electronics such as walkie-talkies, computers, and satellite phones and the literature captured Islamic State fighters carried. Literature is important because it shows the nature of radicalisation. Traditionally, Muslims and Christians lived together in Cabo Delgado down to the town and village. Local traditions, animist influences, and Sufism permeated Muslim practice. Moderation was paramount. This is why literature matters. Notebooks seized from captured fighters, some of whom I met, reflected arguments, radical interpretations, and Quranic citations to sway a largely illiterate population to extremist interpretations that justified terror and the ambitions of the Islamic State. Many of the tracts captured fighters carried originated in Karachi, Pakistan, according to publication data in the books and pamphlets. Stickers and stamps indicated they arrived through Mombasa, Kenya, the largest port in east Africa, 4,300 kilometres away.

Pakistan did not fund the Mozambique violence—that was the responsibility of Tanzanian businessmen who confused Islamist charities with piety and their Mozambican counterparts who paid Ansar al-Sunna protection money—but incitement matters and Pakistan often provided the platform upon which to brainwash recruits.

Because of the Rwandan intervention, Mozambique is no longer the epicentre of the Islamic State threat in Africa. While Nigeria and its neighbours continue to face Boko Haram violence, Al Shabaab destabilises Somalia and sponsors violence in Kenya and radicalism grows across the Sahel, and increasingly the Islamic State gravitates to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, formerly known as Zaire). Unlike in the Sahel and Horn of Africa, there is little international counterterrorism presence to counter militant presence in Congo.

Years of instability, corruption, limited government control and neighbouring state interference have transformed the DRC. In the aftermath of Rwanda’s 1994 anti-Tutsi Genocide, the génocidaires fled to eastern Congo. The United Nations set up camps for refugees pouring in from Rwanda but, compounding their inaction prior to the genocide itself, they neglected to disarm the Hutu militants. Just as in southern Lebanon and Gaza Strip, the UN refugee camps became incubators for terrorism that not only furthered internal unrest but also upset cross border stability. This in turn contributed to Congo becoming the focal point for two great African wars in the late 1990s and early 2000s that ultimately involved nine countries, numerous militias, and killed more than five million civilians.

It was against this backdrop that the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) which, despite its name, is a radical Islamist group that evolved in part of more extreme Tablighi Jamaat elements, moved into the DRC from Uganda, where today it represents itself as the Central African branch of the Islamic State. Initially in Congo’s North Kivu province, it has now expanded into Ituri. Both provinces are resource rich, with gold, diamonds, other minerals, and oil. Even if the ADF does not mine gold and diamonds directly, extracting protection money under the guise of taxes fills its coffers and enables it to expand.

In 1999, the United Nations established a peacekeeping mission for the DRC that, in 2010, it renamed the United Nations Organisation Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). Like many UN missions, MONUSCO is big and bloated, with an annual budget in excess of $1 billion. During conversations with me this month in Congo’s capital Kinshasa, I asked about the source of support for the ADF, especially given the traditional moderation of Congolese Muslims. Locals reported that a major engine for radicalisation among the local population is MONUSCO and particularly the Pakistani component that numbers approximately 1,700 persons.

In short, Congolese say that while the Pakistani component to MONUSCO might wear blue hats, many take it upon themselves as a personal mission to propagate and catalyze a more extreme interpretation of Islam common in Pakistan but foreign to Congo. Just as Pakistani literature emanating from Karachi’s publishing houses passively supported the Islamic State in Mozambique, Pakistan’s UN component appears much more actively even if unofficially to encourage and enable the Islamic State in Central Africa. This is not to allege a vast Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) conspiracy in the DRC. Rather, it is the natural outgrowth of Islamic extremism among Pakistan’s officer corps. To deploy on a UN mission is for Pakistani soldiers a reward. UN assignments are more lucrative than normal army service, and an assignment Pakistan’s military leadership offers only to the most ideologically loyal. This in turn requires embracing the Islamist radicalism that has marked Pakistan’s officer corps since the Bangladesh defeat and the rule of president-turned-prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

I asked Congolese officials why they simply did not complain to the UN leadership. The answer: UN procedures give little recourse to recall national components. Just as the UN cited its own bureaucratic procedures to do nothing during the Rwanda genocide and then refuse to disarm its perpetrators in the UN’s eastern Congo refugee camps, so too does its inaction today set the stage for far greater bloodshed. The Pakistanis enabling the ADF’s rise do not care; they will simply return to Pakistan with full bank accounts and no need to suffer direct consequences for their actions.

Both Mozambique and Congo must do much more to restore order and reduce their permeability to the Islamic State. Pakistan is not responsible for their decades of poor governance, but individuals in Islamabad are increasingly seeking to take advance of it. Islamic extremism have left Pakistan teetering on the brink of state failure. It is tragic that rather than recognise their ideological cancer, many Pakistanis now seek to export it.

The author Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. Views expressed in the above piece are personal and solely that of the author.

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