A ceasefire in December 2016 suspended the guerrilla war of RENAMO in Mozambique, but violence has returned to the country in another form: a new surge of attacks by an Islamist terror group.
In October 2017, around 30 men attacked police stations and barracks in Mocimboa da Praia, a northern town in the province of Cabo Delgado, near the border with Tanzania. Although Muslims are a religious minority in Mozambique, they are the majority in Cabo Delgado, accounting for 57% of the province’s population.
After two days of fighting, the police managed to repel the terrorists and they took shelter in the surrounding forests. Allegedly, during the incursion the insurgents promised not to hurt any civilians, to some extent in line with the tactics seen in cases in the Philippines or Mali.
In the following days, some skirmishes took place in the fishing village of Maluku and near Columbe, 16 km south of an installation of the Anadarko oil company. In December 2017, the Director of Reconnaissance of the Police Rapid Intervention Unit was assassinated.
In the aftermath, police spokesman Inacio Dino classified the attacks as acts of terrorism and announced a counter-insurgency operation in the forests of Mutumbate. The government overreacted with mass arrests of 200 people and the destruction of some mosques and other sites in helicopter raids and naval bombardments of the village of Mutumbate, believed to be a stronghold of the group. The government forces reportedly killed around 50 people, including women and children. In addition, several extremist mosques were shut down in Pemba, Mocimboa and in the neighborhoods of Cariaco, Alto Gigone and Chiuba.
The response was increased terrorist activity in 2018, including attacks on civilians. Around 400 homes have been burned to the ground and more than 1,000 people have been displaced, according to Human Rights Watch. The terrorists also beheaded several people with machetes, including ten in the village of Monjane.
During the spring, brutal attacks and beheadings followed one after another in the villages of Chitolo, Manilha, Diaca Velha, Monjane, Rueia, Namaluco, Changa, and Nathuko. In the village of Naunde, residents said the attackers burned a local mosque, including copies of the Qur’an, and beheaded a local leader inside the mosque.
The association of veterans from the liberation front (FRELIMO) stated they are ready to face the terrorists in Cabo Delgado – these events could lead to a major escalation.
Who are these mysterious terrorists and what are the reasons for their insurgency? The media used several names when referring to them: Al-Sunna wa Jama’ah, Swahili Sunna, Al Shabab or Ansar al-Sunna. The birth of this organization is similar to Boko Haram in Nigeria: a religious sect that turned into a terror and guerrilla network. According to some sources, the core group of Al-Sunna wa Jama’ah dates back to 2014, when a group of young Salafists in the town of Mocimboa da Praia were radicalized under the influence of foreign preachers from Tanzania, Somalia and Sudan. They called for strict respect of Islamic rules and the implementation of sharia law in the province of Cabo Delgado.
For its part, the Islamic Council of Montepuez suggests the terrorists are followers of the doctrine of sheikh Aboud Rogo Mohammed, a radical Kenyan preacher whose videos in Swahili are quite popular in East Africa.
The local Islamic Council had warned the authorities about this extremist group and in May 2017 the police started arresting suspects in Quissanga and Macomia districts. One year on, they claimed to have arrested 470 and prosecuted 370, among whom 314 were from Mozambique. The foreign contingent was made up of 52 Tanzanians, three Ugandans, and one Somali.
Some pictures emerged from social networks showing terrorists carrying Kalashnikov rifles and wearing keffiyehs. Some of them appear not to be from Mozambique and may be Tanzanian or Somali. They also displayed the Islamic black flag that has become a symbol of terrorism worldwide. In a video, they speak Portuguese and Swahili, showing that they are primarily addressing the national audience. One of the pictures is shown at the top of this article. Another is shown below.
Estimates of group membership numbers vary from around 350 to as many as 1,500, operating in small cells along the northern coast of Mozambique.
It appears that the group has also drawn recruits from other regions in Mozambique. On January 13, the police detained 24 men traveling on a bus from the town of Nacala in the Nampula province, suspecting them of trying to join the terrorists.
The group seems to have foreign links as well as foreign fighters. The police have said some militants received military training in Tanzania and in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Other analysts see connections with Al Shabaab in Somalia and jihadist networks in East Africa.
According to some imams from Mocimboa and Montepuez provinces, the leaders of the group are a Gambian named Musa and a Mozambican, Nuro Adremane, but the governor of Cabo Delgado has also mentioned another Mozambican, Jafar Alawi. Adremane allegedly trained in Somalia with Al Shabaab.
It is unclear whether the group seeks a sort of formal international affiliation, such as with the al-Qaeda network or as a new branch of Islamic State (IS). In May, the African Union reportedly did confirm the presence of IS agents in Mozambique.
While developments in the region are still being studied, there are several elements which help to understand the scenario and possible reasons for radicalization.
First of all, it is important to bear in mind that Cabo Delgado is the center of huge economic interests. The province has large offshore and inland oil and gas fields, operated by the American company Anadarko and the Italian company Eni. Cabo Delgado has also received significant investments in infrastructure to support oil and gas production. But Mozambicans complain about unemployment because the workers building roads and bridges are mainly from Zimbabwe.
The energy sector investors seem to be at risk. On June 8, the personnel of Anadarko refused to go to work because they feared an attack and the company asked its foreign staff not to leave their compounds. For its part, the US embassy asked its nationals to leave the province immediately.
The gem mining industry is another important business in Cabo Delgado. Mozambique hosts the world’s largest pink sapphire and ruby deposits. The British company Gemfields owns a concession in Montepuez, which is believed to contain 40% of the global supply of rubies.
Gemfields is accused of expropriation of land without compensation, violence, robberies and abuses against miners carried out by its private security officers, all with the complicity of the Mozambican police. The company has denied these allegations. Whatever the truth may be, according to some analysts these stories are among the reasons why many young recruits from Montepuez joined the terrorist group over the past few years.
In sum, social and economic grievances seem to be central in the process of radicalization in Cabo Delgado. Unemployment, exploitation by foreign companies, abuses and marginalization are all push factors that have led many youngsters to support an extremist ideology.
Geography adds to the troubles. As the province borders with Tanzania, it is a crossroads for illicit trafficking, including heroin from Pakistan.
Ethnic rivalries play a role as well. Most of the insurgents are from the Kimwani ethnic group, which feels marginalized by the Makonde, the group of Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi and the political elite. Nyusi has warned Mozambicans from Cabo Delgado not to be deceived by the false promises of the terrorists.
It is unknown whether the group will focus its next attacks on security forces alone or if it will target civilians as well. Over 250 NGOs operate in the country, including Action Aid and Oxfam, and some of them work in the north. Even they may become targets if they are perceived as allies of the government.
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