Bottom line upfront
- The northern Cabo Delgado region of Mozambique is experiencing a significant increase in terrorist attacks, which in turn is driving growing humanitarian need among a vulnerable population.
- The formation of Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamaah, currently the most active terrorist group in Mozambique, was influenced by a prominent figure in Somalia who was connected to al-Shabaab.
- The Mozambique government has pursued a cumbersome and counterproductive counterinsurgency strategy, with troops lacking cultural and linguistic expertise, alienating large swaths of the local population.
- A more effective counterinsurgency strategy in northern Mozambique would be comprehensive in nature and include humanitarian support and programs specifically designed to counter violent extremism.
Since October 2017, jihadist groups have increasingly exploited a combination of longstanding economic and socio-political grievances in the northern Cabo Delgado region of Mozambique. These groups have recruited and laid the groundwork for what could be a devastating insurgency in sub-Saharan Africa. Throughout the first several months of 2020, there has been a significant increase in the number of attacks in the northern province, with the vast majority attributed to Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamaah (ASWJ), known locally as al-Shabaab (which means, ‘the youth’), although a separate organization from the more prominent group with a similar name based in Somalia. The insurgency in Mozambique is aided by an inconsistent government response which has, at various points, included disproportionate violence, the banning of journalists and researchers from covering the conflict, and a lack of respect to the cultural and linguistic differences which are so distinct in northern Cabo. While information is scarce, recent reports suggest as many as 200,000 people have been displaced by the ongoing violence.
ASWJ is a major driver of the escalating violence and instability in Mozambique. It was initially formed by followers of Sheikh Aboud Rogo Mohammed, a Kenya-based radical imam who has been sanctioned for providing support to the Somali-based al-Shabaab. Sheikh Rogo has repeatedly called for the formation of an Islamic state in East Africa, a call that has gradually gained in popularity in an area whose inhabitants had previously been predominately adherents to Sufi Islam. Throughout the course of the past several years, ASWJ has elevated its profile, carrying out brazen attacks which included burning villages and destroying infrastructure associated with education and trade (maritime ports). Over time, the group has refined what began as fairly rudimentary capabilities and in addition to launching deadly attacks, now focuses on recruiting, disrupting supply lines, and undermining the government’s ability to provide security to the population.
In 2019, the Islamic State announced that ASWJ was part of its Central Africa Province branch (ISCAP), which also includes jihadists from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). IS claimed responsibility for attacks in both Mozambique and DRC in June 2019, although the degree of its level of involvement remains unclear and is still debated. However, in March 2020, terrorists took control of a town in Mocimboa da Praia, which consists of 20,000 people, briefly overrunning the territory and raising the black IS flag. This was particularly significant as previously the group had focused on smaller towns and villages, rather than taking control of them. The attack also targeted an area close to where foreign companies are involved in a $60 billion natural gas project, which includes Total, ExxonMobil and other energy companies. There is a growing fear among corporations that their investments and the safety of their staff are at risk from terrorists and encroaching instability. Local studies have also identified recent foreign investment in northern Mozambique as another driver of violence, as it has forced locals from their homes and failed to properly compensate or train them to provide jobs.
The Mozambique government’s response to the attacks has received widespread criticism. Rather than focus on training the military in cultural and linguistic approaches to understanding the local conflict, the Mozambican government has relied on private security companies, including the Wagner Group from Russia, as well as other private security companies from South Africa. The African Union (AU) has offered to provide assistance, and late last week local media reported that South Africa was considering providing additional military support. But given the experience of a similar insurgency in Nigeria, an effective counterinsurgency strategy will require a combination of efforts to ensure that growing humanitarian needs are met. Moreover, programs designed to counter violent extremism that are based on the local context will need to be implemented to avoid a backlash from civilians. This will presumably require a range of humanitarian, development, and international support, which will be difficult to marshal when most governments are focused on responding to the coronavirus pandemic.