The arrival of ISIS in Southern Africa


The ‘arrival’ of ISIS in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and in the north of Mozambique should be causing some concern at Defence Headquarters and in government. It should do so because it may herald a step change in the threats facing South Africa’s Southern African Development Community (SADC) partners and any forces that South Africa might deploy to assist them.

It is highly unlikely that an airplane load of ISIS members flew into either country, but it is quite possible that individual ISIS members have returned to central and southern Africa from Iraq or Syria, bringing with them experience, skills, techniques and tactics, as seems to have happened to an extent in Somalia. Similarly, guerrillas south of the equator will also learn from those in the Sahel. We must expect the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in the northeast of the DRC and the guerrillas in northern Mozambique to adopt some of those techniques and tactics.

That new range of threats will over time very probably include:
• Large roadside IEDs, as in Iraq, Syria and Somalia;
• Suicide car bombs driven into convoys, as in Iraq, Syria and Somalia;
• Suicide car bombs as part of integrated attacks on bases, as in Iraq and Somalia;
• Armoured suicide car bombs used in attacks on bases, as in Iraq;
• ‘Swarming attacks’ by guerrillas using motorcycles, as in Mali, Niger and e the Sahel;
• Heavily armed ‘technicals’ as used throughout the Sahel (twin 14.5 mm heavy machinegun, twin 23 mm cannon, 106 mm recoilless rifle, etc);
• Guerrillas using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for reconnaissance and command and control, as in Syria;
• Guerrillas using small, commercial UAVs to carry out air attacks, as in Iraq and Yemen;
• Guerrillas using shoulder-launched ground-to-air missiles against helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft flying low-level missions or on approach to or departure from an airfield or airport) as in Iraq and Somalia; and
• ‘Swarming attacks’ by small boats against ships close inshore or near islands and attacks on offshore platforms or ships at anchor, as in the Gulf of Guinea by MEND and the Niger Delta Avengers. Consider here too the tactics of the marine element of the former Eritrean People’s Liberation Army during the war for independence and the tactics developed by the naval element of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
• The use of women and children, especially girls, as suicide bombers or involuntary remotely detonated bomb carriers, as in the Sahel.

There is no reason at all to believe that South African patrols, bases or ships will be immune from attack using those skills, tactics and techniques. Those need to be added to those passed on to the ADF by Al Shabaab members that are believed to be with the ADF. And the ADF will also have learned from the activities of the guerrillas operating in the Sahel, such as the use of motorcycles to carry out swarming attacks on villages.

That will present some interesting challenges:

1. The South African Army does not have any MRAP type vehicles that could protect the crew against a large roadside IED or a car bomb detonated next to it. An Olifant would survive; a Rooikat would probably protect its crew, but a Ratel would be vulnerable; a Casspir would cave in like a tissue box; and a Mamba would probably be disassembled and tossed to the side of the road.

2. Do our deployed troops have any weapons in their bases able to stop an improvised armoured suicide car bomb such as used by ISIS in Iraq and Syria specifically to attack bases as part of a coordinated attack? An ordinary 7.62 mm light machine gun will not suffice, nor will an RPG-7, which would in many situations allow the car bomb to get too close. A 12.7 mm heavy machinegun might do the job, but better would be 20 mm weapons or larger.

3. Does the South African National Defence Force have any means to counter UAVs?

4. How well could one of our frigates – or for that matter a frigate of any other navy – defend itself against a swarming attack by a dozen or more fast craft armed with 14.5 mm machineguns, 23 mm cannon, 106 mm recoilless rifles (all used by the Eritreans in the 1980s) or multiple rocket launchers as fitted to Iranian fast craft?

5. How does one best engage a group of 30 or more motorcycles staging a swarming attack on a village or base, particularly if supported by fire from ‘technicals’ armed with 14.5 mm or 23 mm weapons or even 106 mm recoilless rifles or 107 mm multiple rocket launchers?

6. Does the South African National Defence Force have a doctrine or protocol on how to deal with the threat of women and children being used as suicide bombers, particularly when it is against their will, with the bomb detonated remotely once they approach a group of soldiers or other target?

Some will argue that all of this is irrelevant because the threats do not exist or even apply to South Africa. Perhaps so, for now.

But northern Mozambique is not that far from our borders and is much closer to Cahora Bassa and its power lines and to the gas fields and future pipelines to South Africa. It also has a coastline that is well suited to piracy or maritime terrorism, which will affect the security of our oil imports. So we may find that simple and immediate self-interest means that we cannot ignore what is happens in northern Mozambique, quite apart from the more general reality that a stable and prosperous Mozambique is in our wider interests, and an unstable, conflict-ridden poor Mozambique is not.

Secondly, South African troops with the MONUSCO Force Intervention Brigade in the DRC have clashed – successfully – on several occasions with the Islamist ADF. That makes South Africa an enemy not just of the ADF, but now also of ISIS. That could result in attacks on South African bases similar to those carried out in Somalia and in West Africa, and our contingent in the DRC is less well-armed than, for instance, the Kenyan unit that was overrun in Somalia. The video of that attack released by al Shabaab is scary, primarily because it suggests a good level of training and tactical competence, particularly in the use of ‘technicals’ in an attack.

The bottom line of all this is that the South African National Defence Force needs urgently to put on its collective thinking cap and, even more importantly, begin to talk seriously with other forces that have experience of dealing with such threats. And government needs to think hard about what it expects of the Defence Force and then to fund it accordingly. We were lucky in Bangui – the outcome of deploying too small and too lightly armed a force could have been far worse, and it is due only to the quality of the troops and their officers that we were ‘lucky’. We will not always be lucky and the next set of attackers could be rather more capable than were Seleka.