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Maputo on the defensive: Mozambique’s insurgency heats up


Maputo on the defensive: Mozambique’s insurgency heats up


Islamists in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado region have increased their operational frequency, with over 100 ‘violent events’ recorded in 2020 alone. Benefitting from ineffective counter-terrorism strategies and the distraction of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamo (ASWJ) is a considerable security threat to the administration in the capital, Maputo.


–  The tempo at which Islamist insurgents have carried out attacks against government and civilian targets has ratcheted up this year, indicating that the militants are growing in confidence.
– Ill-equipped security forces, a lack of social and economic opportunity, a dearth of regional cooperation, and the COVID-19 pandemic are protracting the group’s presence.


As Mozambique experiences its fourth month of COVID-19 lockdown, the insurgent group Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamo continues to wreak havoc in the country’s northern regions. Known locally as al-Shabaab — although the group has no known ties with the Somalia-based al-Qaeda affiliate of the same name — the militants have carried out at least 45 attacks since January 1. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Database (ACLED) has noted a 300% increase in insurgent attacks as compared to this time last year, with over 200 reported fatalities. This escalation in the gas-rich northern regions has rendered some areas impenetrable to government forces. who are often inadequately prepared and uninterested in open conflict.


Photo: The Kremlin

Formed in 2015, ASWJ’s primary geographic base is the socioeconomically disadvantaged region of Cabo Delgado. Youth from Mozambique’s Mwani denomination, who are predominantly Muslim with strong ties to coastal resources and culture, largely comprise the group’s rank-and-file. Experts suggest that the Islamist insurgency is inspired by the lack of economic opportunities and religious marginalisation in the province. Mozambique’s struggling economy has offered little to disenfranchised citizens like the Mwani, and many locals claim they have been denied economic opportunities. While the discovery of major gas reserves in the Rovuma basin brought hopes of prosperity flowing to the Cabo Delgado region, instead, locals have seen little of the capital brought about by foreign investment, and many living on Mozambique’s coastline complain of displacement and a loss of livelihoods.

Although local grievances are largely thought to drive the conflict, it should be noted that Tanzanians, Congolese, Ugandans, Gambians and Burundians have been amongst those who have been arrested by security forces. Underscoring this regional dynamic, ASWJ militants operate in districts bordering Tanzania, and there are evident connections linking the insurgents in Cabo Delgado to southern Tanzania, with the Swahili language also connecting them up the East African coastline.

The surge in guerrilla activity in the country’s northern region is considerable, but it stems from the consistent growth of ASWJ’s organisational capacity over the past five years. An armed attack on Mocímboa da Praia on 23 March was a culmination of years of attacks on isolated police posts and increasingly large raids.

ASWJ have pledged bayat, or allegiance, to Islamic State (IS) Central African Province, but many analysts stress that the link between the two appears tenuous and the degree of collaboration remains unclear. Africa Confidential reports that the public allegiance is transactional: IS is actively looking to rebut suggestions of its demise following the loss of its territory in Iraq and Syria, while insurgents in Cabo Delgado acknowledge the reputational benefits to be gained from association with one of the largest transnational terror groups. Although IS has claimed responsibility or commented on at least 31 attacks since last June, the amount of credit that IS can be awarded for ASWJ’s increased attacks remains speculative.

ASWJ has no clearly delineated hierarchy or leadership figures. Although the insurgents appear somewhat unorganised and have stated little publicly, recent actions suggest the group wants to be respected but feared in local communities. Despite killing prominent local figures of authority, the group has recently given villages advance notice of attacks. Additionally, the group has embarked on an education drive, encouraging communities to comply with ASWJ’s interpretation of Quranic law and rewarding “loyal” citizens, while threatening punishment for collaboration with Maputo. Analysts point to the March attacks in Mocímboa da Praia and Quissanga, whereby insurgents broke into shops to distribute food and other goods, refrained from the indiscriminate killing of townspeople, and came to lead the village in song before departing, as illustrative of this. The guerrillas promised security forces their lives in return for surrendering their arms and some reports claim that a defected Mozambican army officer led the insurgent force. Sources purport that residents have welcomed guerrilla forces, however, it is unclear as to whether this was due to genuine support or fears for their own personal safety.

Local confidence in the government’s ability to counter the insurgents is minimal and militant infiltration of security forces is extensive. The government initially played down the insurgency as ‘banditry’, but as attacks became more brazen, a heavy-handed government response followed. Security forces have been credibly accused of torture, illegal detentions, and extrajudicial killings, and restrictions on media access and the detention of journalists have ensued. After presidential discussions at the 2019 Russia–Africa Summit in Sochi, Kremlin-affiliated private military company Wagner Group was invited to Cabo Delgado to assist in counter-terrorism operations.

After suffering an estimated loss of ten contractors in an insurgent ambush involving collusion between guerrillas and local security forces, Wagner Group has allegedly pulled back from the front line and is now providing drone surveillance only. In early April, Maputo also employed South African Dyck Advisory Group for assistance in combating the insurgents.


Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kyle Steckler/US Navy

Removal of the guerrilla forces operating in Cabo Delgado province in the short- to middle-term future appears unlikely. Operational gaps and counterproductive tactics within security forces as well as an absence of meaningful government initiatives targeting root factors behind recruitment inhibit effective solutions.

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External observers of the insurgency emphasise that the heavy-handed approach favoured by Maputo amplifies religious and ethnic tensions and contributes to anti-government narrativesemployed by the group. Some have even gone as far as to warn of ASWJ evolving in a similar vein to Boko Haram, which capitalised on local grievances following a harsh government crackdown to expand its organisational size. Maputo has also failed to make progress in the key areas of military expertise, funding, and accountability, or develop economic initiatives for those living in Cabo Delgado. This lack of focus on targeting root causes will help sustain the insurgent presence and do little to pull disenfranchised citizens away from insurgent recruiters.

Maputo has entered into regional security agreements with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, and Uganda, but these pacts place little emphasis on intelligence sharing. Militants capitalise on intelligence gaps to profit from the illicit trade of materials and are able to utilise safe havens close to or across the Tanzanian border. It appears likely that militants will continue to use these gaps until Maputo strengthens its regional agreements. Representatives from Mozambique have raised the insurgency at the South African Development Community (SADC) Organ on Politics, Defence, and Security. However, member states have been looking increasingly inward with the outbreak of COVID-19, hindering cooperative regional approaches to combating ASWJ. The African Union did draw attention to the group earlier this year, but disputes from member states regarding annual contributions have stalled hopes for peacekeeping missions.

COVID-19 presents a dangerous opportunity for ASWJ’s insurgency to grow as Maputo’s attention is drawn away from the northern province and towards the health crisis. The pandemic may prompt foreign energy companies to depart the embattled region, meaning that Maputo may have even less incentive to secure Cabo Delgado, which would leave residents more vulnerable to the insurgents.

Although the likelihood of the insurgent threat dissipating soon is unlikely, experts suggest that the group currently has no intention to spread into southern Mozambique or internationally. Analysts note that the operational areas of ASWJ and lack of international outreach indicate it is looking to communicate with and serve its local audience. Mozambican Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula nevertheless argued to the contrary, warning SADC member states earlier this year of the potential for ASWJ to evolve into a transnational security threat.

Given these compounding factors, terrorist attacks in Cabo Delgado appear set to persist into the future.

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