Foreign Policy Essay
The Islamic State in Mozambique
Editor’s Note: The Islamic State has suffered significant losses in recent years, but Mozambique—far from the heartland of its former self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria—is a rare bright spot for the group. Tore Hamming, of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College, details the group’s successes in Mozambique and the problems the government there has had fighting the group.
Although the militant Islamist insurgency in Mozambique has been brewing since late 2017, it was only when Islamic State-affiliated militants captured the northeastern port city of Mocimboa da Praia in Cabo Delgado province in mid-August 2020 that it gained the world’s attention. After the group’s successive losses in the Levant, it came as a shock to analysts and policymakers that the Islamic State was once again capable of controlling territory—jeopardizing the outlook for stability in Mozambique.
This was not the first time Islamist militants succeeded in taking control of territory in Mozambique, however. Four months before, in March 2020, they briefly took Mocimboa da Praia, where the insurgency originated and which has seen more than 30 attacks from the group since 2017. They also held the city of Quissanga, approximately 120 km further south, for about 48 hours, raising their flag before retreating to evade a large-scale confrontation with the Mozambican army and its foreign backers. Since then, Mozambique’s northeastern region has witnessed horrific brutality in the form of kidnappings, massacres and beheadings (including the killing of more than 50 young men in early April). More than 2,000 people have been killed and 500,000 internally displaced. According to the World Food Program, hundreds of thousands of civilians in the northern region will soon also suffer from severe food shortages.
The History of the Insurgency
The militant group’s official name is Ahlu Sunnah wa-l-Jama’ah (ASWJ), but it is known locally as al-Shabab—though no relation to the Somalia-based al-Qaeda-affiliate—and is now referred to internationally as the Islamic State in Mozambique. There remains uncertainly about the exact origin of the group, but historian Eric Morier-Genoud argues that it originated as an Islamist sect in 2007. Over the following years, the sect and its followers clashed with local communities and mainstream Islamic organizations due to its peculiar traditions, which included opposing formal educational institutions, praying in the mosque wearing shoes (considered a prophetic tradition by some) and praying only three times per day.
During its early years, the sect generally isolated itself from the surrounding society, but starting in late 2015 it turned more outward looking. It built its own mosques and religious schools, and started engaging in dawa (proselytizing) activities and offering education to the local population, including to women. Through these initiatives the group slowly became more popular among local youth, but it also resulted in further clashes with local Muslim communities that sought to limit its interference with the area’s Islamic traditions.
In early October 2017, community leaders in Mocimboa da Praia issued a complaint to the local authorities in the district, who then arrested approximately 30 members of the group. A few days later, on Oct. 5, the remaining group members at large retaliated with a rescue mission targeting Mocimboa prison and three police stations—this was the launch of the armed insurgency against the state. These events were followed by a strong state crackdown involving mass arrests that led to further radicalization among some of the area’s youth.
The insurgency has evolved since that catalyzing incident. In the remainder of 2017, ASWJ increased its reliance on violence mainly through guerilla attacks targeting smaller villages at night and killing local Sufi sheikhs. In 2018, it expanded its activities to daytime attacks on isolated villages. And in 2019, the scope of violent attacks saw a sharp rise in numbers and a geographic expansion, with Macomia, Mocimboa da Praia and Palma being the most affected districts. At this point, the group felt confident enough to launch attacks along the better secured and more populous coast and against important road structures.
Rebranding as an Islamic State Affiliate
The first sign that the insurgency was changing character appeared in the form of a photograph in which six militants are standing and sitting in front of a flag; the image began circulating on the encrypted platform Telegram in May 2018 with a message that ASWJ had pledged allegiance to Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in effect becoming what observers have called the Islamic State in Mozambique (ISM). This initially raised suspicion regarding whether ASWJ had in fact joined the Islamic State or if the group was fragmenting and only a faction had pledged loyalty to Baghdadi. The latter was to some extent confirmed by the Islamic State, which claimed that “a contingent of the mujahideen” in Mozambique had joined its Central Africa Province (ISCAP) together with militants in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The true extent of the insurgency’s fragmentation remains unknown and is a complicating factor when assessing ISM’s cohesion and strength.
Indicative of the new organizational relationship, on June 4, 2019, the Islamic State issued its first official communique claiming an attack in Mozambique, which was soon followed by photos of spoils from the attack. In another indication of the linkage, on July 24, ISCAP issued a video pledging allegiance to al-Baghdadi. Yet the Islamic State’s most prominent mention of the insurgency in Mozambique came in an editorial in its al-Naba news bulletin on June 3, 2020, that taunted the West and other African states for their failure to defeat the insurgency and claimed that their interest in Mozambique is financial.
This ambiguity leaves open the question of how close the linkage is between the militants in Mozambique, who continue to refer to themselves as al-Shabab, and the Islamic State. International actors have generally been hesitant to publicly acknowledge ISM’s connection to the Islamic State, opting to view the insurgency as entirely local and with little to no ideological overlap or other linkages between the fighters in Mozambique and the Islamic State. This argument, however, appears increasingly naïve. In December 2020, U.S. officials also confirmed the connection.
As part of ISCAP, the affiliate in Mozambique is involved in the Islamic State’s formal structure and tightly connected with the Islamic State affiliates in the DRC and Somalia. While the information available is insufficient to establish a hierarchy, if one exists, between the affiliates in Mozambique and the DRC, the group in the DRC has allegedly helped fund ISM. ISCAP is formally under the Somalia-based Al-Karrar Office (maktab al-karrar) in the Islamic State’s structure to administer distant provinces outside of Syria and Iraq, which makes Somalia the regional reference point for the militants in Mozambique. Additionally, the publication of news and media from Mozambique by the Islamic State’s central media unit (despite being irregular) is indicative of some level of connection between ISM and the Islamic State’s Central Media Department (diwan al-i'lam al-markazi). The growing sophistication of ISM’s military operations is a further indication of the benefits it has gained from its inclusion in ISCAP. ISM attacks have grown increasingly complex and introduced new weapons and tactics. This shows that the Mozambican affiliate is part of an interconnected regional militant network in East, Central and Southeast Africa linked to the Islamic State.
Intensification and Internationalization
Over the course of 2020, ISM’s insurgency intensified steadily. Data from ACLED shows that its attacks increased in terms of frequency and number of casualties in April 2020. After a slump in July, attacks have remained at a high level ever since. In terms of military success, the seizure of Mocimboa da Praia remains the group’s most important feat. According to the Islamic State’s own narrative of the seizure, the group “burned the port facilities, army barracks and Christian homes in the city and the surrounding villages, and seized weapons and ammunition, and sums of money after the army fled.” The account in the Islamic State publication al-Naba stated that the attack against the city resulted in more than 130 Mozambican army soldiers killed or wounded. Part of what makes the city, and the province of Cabo Delgado, so attractive to the militants is its oil and natural gas resources, estimated to be worth more than $60 million.
The past year has seen several horrific large-scale attacks. On Aug. 6, 2020, ISM fighters killed 50 people in attacks on two barracks in Mocimboa de Praia. On Sept. 5, an attack in Awasse, showcased in the most recent photo set released by ISCAP, resulted in approximately 70 casualties, including Tanzanian soldiers. And in perhaps the most gruesome attack to date, ISM fighters beheaded as many as 50 people at the local soccer field in the village of Muatide in early November.
The insurgency is often correctly described as inherently local in nature, with ISM reacting to local grievances with little concern for the global nature of the Islamic State’s project. While this appears mainly true, there is also a risk of overemphasizing the local character of the group and its actions.
The group has been heavily influenced by the militant milieu in Tanzania. ISM has on several occasions launched attacks near the Tanzanian border, and occasionally even crossed it. Though previously suspected, ISW’s cross-border activity was not confirmed until October 2020, when ISCAP claimed an attack on Tanzanian forces in Kitaya village in Tanzania’s Mtwara region on Oct. 14, and two weeks later reported burning several villages in the area. The group has also managed to attract fighters from the region, including at least 52 Tanzanians and perhaps as many as 100 individuals, as well as funding, from South Africa.
Having captured Mocimboa da Praia in August, ISM has now showed itself capable of controlling a large and important piece of territory for a prolonged period of time in a clear show of strength. Since then, the group has turned its eyes on the city of Muidumbe, southwest of Mocimboa, where it faces tougher resistance.
Photos from the Islamic State's al-Naba newspaper of ISM's capture of Mocimboa da Praia. Photo credit: Tore Hamming, taken from Islamic State media
Battling the Insurgency
The past six months have testified to the challenge ahead for Mozambique to suppress the insurgency. In the long term, several factors contribute as drivers of conflict: extreme social inequality, ethnic tensions, a large youth population (about 45 percent of the country is between 15 and 35 years old) combined with high youth unemployment (approximately 80 percent), and the discovery of natural resources.
The most pertinent problem, though, especially in the short term, is that the Mozambican army simply is not up to the task of battling the militants on its own. Lacking proper training, army soldiers were recently accused by Amnesty International of committing atrocities against civilians. In some areas, like the districts of Muidumbe, Macomia and Palma, the government has relied increasingly on local militias to compensate for its own forces’ shortcomings. It has also teamed up with foreign security contractors, mainly in the form of the Russian Wagner Group and the Dyck Advisory Group, a South Africa-based private security firm. Starting in late 2019, at least 150 mercenaries linked to the Wagner Group were deployed to northern Mozambique, but they produced little in the way of results and eventually withdrew after suffering significant casualties.
Foreign countries might provide more support. Neighboring South Africa and international actors like the United States and the United Kingdom are in talks about some level of military support, but they do not have concrete interventions currently planned. In the West, there is likely to be little political interest in engaging militarily as long as ISM is seen only as a local or even regional threat, without ambitions to attack Western interests. While ISM’s inclusion in the Islamic State’s network theoretically could draw Western countries’ attention, it remains unlikely because of the insurgency’s history and character. Instead, Portugal and the United States recently alluded to increased cooperation in terms of training of Mozambican forces.
Regional partners will provide a more realistic line of support. Though a report in early December suggesting that Malawi would be sending troops to Mozambique turned out to be false, other countries are stepping in. After the October and November 2020 intrusions in Tanzania, that nation intensified its cooperation with Mozambique and established a joint operation along the two countries’ shared border. On Jan. 11, Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi traveled to Tanzania to discuss further cooperation in fighting militant Islamist networks in the region. Though the Southern African Development Community (SADC) at one time appeared the most obvious partner for Mozambique, the Mozambican government has so far showed little interest in the political process that SADC initiated to confront the insurgency, and the prospect of the SADC providing military support to Mozambique seems rather dim. Aiming to secure the country’s economic interests, however, Nyusi reached a deal in January with the French oil company Total to introduce new security measures to protect the natural gas project in Cabo Delgado that is planned to start operations in 2024. The project has been hindered so far by the violence, resulting in Total evacuating 500 of its 3,000 employees in the region.
While security forces are occasionally capable of retaking parts of the territory controlled by ISM, as illustrated by the recent counteroffensive in the district of Muidumbe, the government is unlikely to recapture the entire province of Cabo Delgado from the militants as long as it does not receive substantial assistance from foreign actors. Until then, Mozambique remains a success story for the Islamic State that demonstrates its ability to attract the loyalty of local militias, provide them with an effective platform, and, in return, profit from their accomplishments.