Insurgency in Mozambique: The Islamic State’s New Frontier




A spate of attacks on villages and towns since 2017 by Islamist jihadists belonging to the al-Shabaab have killed more than 1,500 people and displaced over 300,000 in north Mozambique’s mineral gas-rich Cabo Delgado province. Violence has spiked this year in this aid-dependent country. The insurgents have occupied a strategic port in the town of Mocimboa da Praia since August 12. Access to the other port, Palma too is cut off after the insurgents occupied the connecting roads. Mozambique desperately needs assistance not just to train its forces, but also to adopt the right strategies to fight a menace which could spread and impact the neighbouring southern African countries.         

Insurgency in Mozambique follows the familiar narrative of an insurgent group exploiting alienation among the minority population inhabiting a resource rich part of a country to raise a banner of revolt against a discriminating and apathetic government. Nexus with the Islamic State (IS) has allowed the insurgency overcome the limitation of operating in the remote corner of an African nation and has added to its news value and reach. The raging insurgency, if unaddressed, may spill over from northern Mozambique into other parts of the country, and may eventually threaten the neighbouring southern African countries.

The Origin

Mozambique’s three northern provinces — Cabo Delgado, Niassa, and Nampula — have significant natural wealth and enormous agricultural potential. However, they also have the country’s highest levels of poverty. In 2009-10, a huge ruby deposit and a giant gas field was discovered in Cabo Delgado, but only a small elite in the ruling Frelimo party have allegedly usurped the benefits.

The origin of the barely three-year-old Islamist insurgency in Mozambique, with a Muslim population of 18 percent, has roots in this North-South divide in the country. It is further linked to Islamophobia, and discrimination of the poverty stricken and yet resource rich North by the South, which has the monopoly of political power. It has a remarkable similarity with the Nigerian insurgency group Boko Haram which exploits local grievances to carry out terror attacks and at the same time, offers a substitute towpath for unemployed youths, who may have been pushed to the wall by a corrupt, uncaring and heavy-handed state.

The insurgent group is locally known as al-Shabaab (AS), although it has no known links to the Somali jihadi group of the same name, which is affiliated to al-Qaeda. AS also uses the name, Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama (or al-Sunnah).  It is believed to have been financed and trained by a group of new Islamic Wahabbi preachers—both East Africans and Mozambicans trained abroad—who established mosques and argued that local imams were allied to Frelimo and hence, must be replaced. Islam, which existed in Mozambique much before the Portuguese occupation (1505-1975), is predominantly Sufi, abhorred by the radical Wahabbis. These preachers sought to change that. Imposition of Shariah (Islamic law) must become a priority, they insisted. Youths recruited by these groups also travelled to Saudi Arabia and Sudan to receive education and got radicalized. In 2015, the police and traditional Muslim leaders clashed with the new preachers, who went on to train a group of militias, who overtime, became the AS.

The first attack by the AS began on 5 October 2017 on three police stations resulting in killing of two policemen and looting of arms and ammunition. The insurgents occupied the district town and port of Mocimboa da Praia in Cabo Delgado province for two days, before being dislodged by the security forces in an operation which witnessed 16 deaths.[1] Mocimboa da Praia is 60 kilometres south of the major gas development base at Palma and the port serves as a crucial supply line for the gas project. Since then, the war has expanded rapidly killing at least 1,500 people and producing 300,000 IDPs.[2]

Thousands of refugees have fled to neighbouring Tanzania, as well as into other northern Mozambican provinces, mainly Niassa and Nampula. The Covid-19 pandemic has added to the complexities as Cabo Delgado is currently recording Mozambique’s second-highest number of the country’s 8979 coronavirus cases[3]. Population displacements could accelerate the spread of the virus.

The Expansion

The AS group operated in the shadows for two years—2018 and 2019—during which it attacked villages across the province, ambushed army patrols on isolated roads and terrorized the rural communities. Most attacks were directed at reducing the government influence over the people and forcing them to support and join the insurgents. Wherever they failed, killings of civilians ensued. Strangely, however, the AS never articulates its motives, revealed its leadership, or its demands. The central government too underplayed the rising threat calling the insurgents criminals and hoping that in-house military can suppress them without any external assistance.

Under a combination of state desuetude and incapacity among the security forces, the AS grew. Gun-toting militants of the AS now move in vehicles wearing uniforms used by the country’s soldiers, creating confusion among the civilians at one level, and indicating the establishment of a proto state, on the other. Vehicles add mobility to their operations. The image of a swanky and fearless insurgent in uniform with a gun attracts the poor and jobless youth to the group. The youth bulge in the country makes a huge pool of potential recruits available to the AS.

The AS explained its actions, for the first time, in a video released in April 2020[4], in which an unidentified leader accused the ‘unfair’ government ‘humiliating the poor and giving to the profit to the bosses’. The leader proclaimed that an “Islamic government, not a government of unbelievers” would restore the pride of the poor and give them justice. Not surprisingly, the AS has combined its violence with an effort to avoid targeting civilians and win their hearts and minds by redistributing stolen food, medicine and fuel.

The Nexus

The first batch of AS fighters reportedly received training in Mozambique from former Mozambican police and soldiers.[5] The group’s rise coincided with the debacle suffered by the IS in Iraq and Syria, and its search for new frontiers and new franchises in several theatres including Africa. By 2018, the IS had found a foothold in East Africa. In early 2019, the AS swore allegiance to the IS, declaring itself as a franchise of the global jihadist outfit. Soon thereafter, in June 2019, IS claimed, for the first time, responsibility for an attack by “soldiers of the caliphate” on the “crusaders” of the Mozambican armed forces.[6]

Since then, the IS-affiliated Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP), known to have about 2000 active African and foreign fighters, appear to be coordinating the activities of the AS. Video clips of AS attacks have been featured in releases by Amaq news agency, the IS media arm. The symbiotic relationship offers advantages to both sides.  Information about the actual strength of AS, source of its weapons and finance is still sketchy, so are the details of the presumptive collaboration with IS fighters from other parts of the world. The insurgents predominantly speak Swahili, which connects them up the East African coast, and into eastern Congo and elsewhere.

Available information suggests that the new AS recruits, both from Mozambique and Tanzania, are being trained in the expanded geography of East Africa, in both military warfare as well as religious studies. The AS also carries raids in villages in search for potential recruits and indulges in massacres when refused. In April 2020, they raided Xitaxi in Muidumbe district and killed 52 young men[7] who refused to be recruited to its ranks. That remains the bloodiest attack carried out by the AS so far. Not just that the attacks have grown in sophistication, but the pattern invariably bears the signs of IS’ violent campaigns, complete with massacres and beheadings. Recurrent attacks by the AS have targeted government facilities, police stations, security force barracks, towns and villages and on odd occasions, churches. The AS has adopted the practice of hoisting the black and white flags of the IS.

The Response

(In this undated photo, Government troops patrol the street in
an unspecified location in Cabo Delgado province

Mozambique’s government initially sought to downplay the rebellion, dismissing the militants as criminals, and blocking journalists from accessing the region. Faced with a ‘complex, multi-layered and asymmetrical conflict’[8], that approach has taken an overtly militaristic turn and initiated a policy of deploying foreign security contractors – from Russia, the US and South Africa – to help the army crush the rebellion. For instance, the South African Dyck Advisory Group has deployed helicopters to carry out aerial attacks on the insurgents. But that has not produced much results. Erik Prince, the founder of the American Blackwater private security company supplied two helicopters and support crew for the Mozambican military in mid-2019. The same year, at least 150 Russian mercenaries belonging to the Wagner Group were deployed, but were forced to withdraw after suffering casualties. Unverified reports have also pointed at official moves to issue arms to private citizens in Palma, in a bid to expanding the strategy of arming local militias.

Mozambican troops who have been deployed in the region have been overwhelmed by shortage of weapons and equipment. More importantly, they lack military training and familiarization with the northern region. This year, at least two major AS attacks in Mocimboa (August 2020) and Quissanga (March 2020) have killed troops, resulted in destruction of the police command headquarters, and forced many security forces to flee for their lives. Largely demoralized and short of arms and weapons, the security forces lack appetite for fighting.

National capital Maputo is 1700 kilometres south of the troubled territory and is insulated from the threat. This imminent sense of security has allowed the government to experiment with CT operations and often these have resulted in allegations of human rights violations, which have emerged in the form of video clippings corroborating torture, extra-judicial execution of alleged AS fighters and sympathizers by men in military fatigue. For instance, in early September 2020, the Amnesty International reported that it had seen videos showing soldiers in government uniforms committing atrocities against alleged fighters in Cabo Delgado.[9] The country’s defence ministry dismissed the report, saying militants regularly impersonated soldiers.

The state has also started social programmes targeting vulnerable youths in Cabo Delgado in a bid to address widespread discontent over a lack of jobs and other economic opportunities in the predominantly Muslim area. The impact of this initiative isn’t known. Mozambique’s foreign ministry has also asked the European Union for support in training its armed forces, and also for medical equipment and humanitarian assistance. On 21 September, the World Food Programme predicted[10] that the food insecurity in north Mozambique has reached crisis levels and would continue into 2021. The agency which requires $4.7 million a month will have to reduce food rations to the displaced population in three months (by December 2020), if it does not secure the necessary funds.

Future Trends

The international community’s attention on the insurgency is linked to its possible negative impact on commercial ventures by International gas companies who are poised to invest billions in the off-shore gas fields discovered along the coast of Cabo Delgado. In the third week of September, U.S. Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Tibor Nagy called up Zimbabwean Foreign Minister Sibusiso Moyo asking the country to take steps to deal with the Islamist insurgency in the neighbourhood.[11] The latter responded by asking the US to lift sanctions on some of its officials.

The conflict, unless handled carefully, can very soon spill over into the neighbouring Tanzania and even South Africa. If the AS manages to carve out a liberated territory for itself in northern Mozambique, it will be able to attract Jihadists from many other countries, in a similar way that IS-affiliated insurgents in Marawi (in Philippines) had been able to in 2017.

The conflict needs a comprehensive multi-pronged counter-insurgency approach. Governance is a key plank on which the COIN operations will have to be based. A regional security force apparatus could be the answer to the AS’s growing ability to orchestrate violence. Aid-dependent Mozambique needs financial as well as logistical assistance from the international community including its African neighbours. In spite of the violence it has unleashed, insurgency is still in its early phase. A timely intervention will be able arrest the slide into the abyss.

End Notes  

[1] ‘Why Islamist attack demands a careful response from Mozambique’, The Conversation, 20 October 2017, Accessed on 2 October 2020.

[2] Andrew Meldrum, “Extremist violence causes food shortages in north Mozambique”, AP News, 24 September 2020, Accessed on 2 October 2020.

[3] Data till 3 October 2020.

[4] “Mozambique’s jihadists and the ‘curse’ of gas and rubies”, BBC, 17 September 2020, Accessed on 3 October 2020.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Mozambique: Jihadi militants making inroads”, Deutsche Welle, 16 August 2020, Accessed on 3 October 2020.

[7] Jason Burke, “Islamist group kills 52 in ‘cruel and diabolical’ Mozambique massacre”, Guardian, 22 April 2020, Accessed on 3 October 2020.

[8] Alex Vines OBE, “Why The Insurgency in Northern Mozambique Has Got Worse”, Chatham House, 1 April 2020, Accessed on 3 October 2020.

[9] Zeenat Hansrod, “Mozambique: Naked Woman Shot 36 Times By Mozambique Army After ‘Casting Spell”, All Africa, 16 September 2020, Accessed on 2 October 2020.

[10] “Violence leaves more than 300,000 ‘completely reliant’ on assistance in northern Mozambique”, UN News, 22 September 2020, Accessed on 4 October 2020.

[11] Brian Latham, “Zimbabwe Asked by U.S. to Help Fight Militants in Mozambique”, Bloomberg Quint, 29 September 2020, Accessed on 3 October 2020.

(Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray is the Director of Mantraya. This analysis has been published under the ‘Fragility, Conflict and Peace Building’ and ‘Mapping Terror & Insurgent Networks’ projects. All Mantraya publications are peer-reviewed.)