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Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah: Understanding Mozambique’s growing insurgency

Niall Paltiel, Shama Shah; AFRICOM

April 12, 2021


Map of Mozambique with provinces labeled [1]

Ahlu Sunnah wa Jamaah (ASWJ) is currently a rapidly evolving terrorist threat based in Cabo Delgado province, Mozambique. Since 2017, the group has employed increasingly sophisticated tactics, such as robbing banks and police stations to arm and fund themselves, and operations against Mozambican security forces with a high degree of effectiveness. This advancement in tactics is significant as the current inability of Mozambican security forces to counter ASWJ effectively has allowed the group to cause massive economic damage and civilian deaths over a relatively short period. Mozambican security forces’ inability to counter ASWJ will also likely see a continued degradation of the situation within Cabo Delgado, with further deaths and economic deterioration. More recently, the group has increased its maritime operations, and if stricter maritime regulations are not put in place soon, ASWJ could control waters along the Mozambican coast. This could lead to an increase in piracy in the Indian Ocean, putting the seamen’s lives at risk. Illicit trade of drugs would also increase if ASWJ controls the coastline, and an influx of drugs in Mozambique and neighboring countries can have detrimental effects on the economy and the health of the citizens. If nothing is done to counter ASWJ effectively, there is a strong possibility of them developing into a major African terrorist organization and a regional problem on the scale of Boko Haram or Al-Shabaab. This could then result in East Africa regions such as northern Mozambique turning into major terrorism hubs akin to the Lake Chad or Borno state regions, with very high civilian death tolls.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) is evaluating the rapidly increasing threat by ASWJ in Northern Mozambique. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, ASWJ attacks have doubled since 2019, and indications show a strong probability of a continued increase in attacks.[2] This threat is urgent not only in Northern Mozambique but also in neighboring countries, as there is a high chance the group could morph into an international terrorist organization. ASWJ’s rapid success can be attributed to them emulating and learning from Somalia’s terror group al Shabaab (ASWJ are also named al Shabaab by locals, however, have no direct connection to the Somali group). Also, ASWJ has capitalized on the discord between the Mozambican police and the army, who do not work cohesively together.

While there are discrepancies about the group’s origin, the most popular explanation is that they started as a religious organization in 2007, which wanted Mozambique to have a Muslim government and implement Sharia Law.[3] ASWJ was a sub-organization within the Islamic Council of Mozambique and aimed to spread their ideology at Mosques that they either took over or built themselves. Recruitment occurred through family connections and radical mosques where anti-state ideology and a stricter interpretation of Islam were preached. In the beginning, this technique was unable to recruit many Muslims into the group, possibly because most of the population did not accept their interpretation of Islam. Local Muslim organizations repeatedly asked the police to intervene and stop the group; however, the government ignored them and took no action for many years. The initial lack of response from the government gave ASWJ the freedom to develop from a religious organization to an Islamist guerrilla insurgency. The government and armed forces have likely played a role in the rapid growth and success of ASWJ.


ASWJ originally had a majority of male Muslim youth due to a high level of poverty in the region. As males are responsible for providing to their families, they were enticed to join the group for financial gain. Apart from this, Muslim youth joined ASWJ as they were frustrated at the injustices they received from the police. According to military intelligence, most of the group members are Mozambican nationals; however, there have been Tanzanian and Somali nationals in more recent times, though their role is unknown.[4] The group could be diversifying in terms of nationality because many ASWJ members have gone to Somalia to train with the al Shabaab, which inevitably improves the group's connections and helps them recruit new foreign members into their ranks. This highlights that ASWJ is strategically expanding its reach into neighboring countries. The recruitment of foreign fighters could have two implications. One is that ASWJ would have more foot soldiers in their ranks to carry out more attacks in the country. The second implication is that foreign fighters will go back to their homeland and conduct attacks there. Both scenarios bode poorly for the security of Mozambique and neighboring countries.


Recent reports suggest that the group beheaded 12 people, believed to be foreigners, which indicates that ASWJ is ready for international attention and consequences.[5] The most likely explanation for killing foreigners is the group’s aim to share a message that they do not like the international presence in Cabo Delgado’s rich gas reserves while displacing locals and compensating them poorly. The killing of foreigners is a bold move that will catch the attention of international interests. The group will likely consider the French company Total shutting down their plant and withdrawing their staff from Mozambique as a success and might be encouraged to carry out similar attacks on other foreign companies in the region. This will lead to cooperation among the international community, not just countries belonging to the Southern African Development Community (SADC), to fight the group and assure a safe environment for their staff. The cooperation measures could be working with the Mozambican army (in terms of training or providing weapons) to fight the insurgency or sending in troops of their own.


Approximation of areas under ASWJ control in Cabo Delgado as of April 2021[6]


ASWJ has managed to finance its continuously expanding operations through a combination of illegal timber and drug trafficking, as well as Rubie mining and cooperating with Chinese and Vietnamese smugglers and pirates along the Indian Ocean.[7] The group’s willingness to trade with nonmuslims suggests that ASWJ has no other means of acquiring funding and is engaging with foreigners temporarily until they establish themselves more within Mozambique. Alternatively, ASWJ might be more interested in acquiring finances than fulfilling their ideologically stated aims. This could further lend merit to the idea that the group is also an outlet for economically disenfranchised groups and that ASWJ will have to make ideological concessions to economically sustain its supporters and maintain their loyalty. Given that ASWJ was initially formed from a blend between radicalized locals and economically disenfranchised locals, this could suggest that ASWJ may have to play a balancing game between the two groups to keep both satisfied and loyal. Were economic conditions within Cabo Delgado to improve and many economically disenfranchised members return to civil society, fractures within ASWJ may be exposed and significantly reduce the groups’ ability to connect with large segments of Cabo Delgado’s poor communities. This would hamper both ASWJ’s recruitment ability (thus workforce) and control over territory as they would find few sympathizers in any additional territory they were to take.


ASWJ is popular amongst ethnic groups in Cabo Delgado who feel ignored or marginalized by the Mozambican government, particularly small groups such as the Kimwani as well as many of Cabo Delgado’s poor communities.[8] Even though the group does not garner popular support within the province, this suggests that ASWJ attracts sympathy from a broad range of groups. This could be a danger as ASWJ may be able to bolster their numbers at a high-speed rate, making counterterrorism (CT) measures more complicated. There are limits to ASWJ’s recruitment efforts. Should the push factors (such as economic stagnation in Cabo Delgado) that drive people into ASWJ be resolved, ASWJ would no longer be able to attract the sympathy of Cabo Delgado’s poor communities, who compose a larger segment of the province’s population than the radicalized members within ASWJ.


As already mentioned, the connections with other militant and terrorist groups that ASWJ possesses allow it to attract alternate recruits. Through appealing to a wider radicalized audience, ASWJ can likely attract foreign fighters that are already trained from other groups such as Al-Shabaab in Somalia. This will not only give ASWJ a larger standing force but also allow it to incorporate the tactics and strategies developed in other terrorist groups, thus allowing it to evolve its strategies much faster. Considering that they seek recruits outside of Mozambique, Mozambique’s CT efforts may debilitate in the future since the country cannot resolve the internal push and pull terrorism factors in other African states. Aside from further weakening Mozambique’s CT efforts, ASWJ’s ability to recruit overseas demonstrates their communication ability as they are attracting foreign fighters. The primary languages of the group are Portuguese (Mozambican members), Kimwani (local members) and Swahili, (foreign volunteers from various terrorist/militia groups in East African states such as Kenya and Tanzania).[9]


Aside from suggesting a possible exchange of members amongst the different terrorist/militia groups in East Africa, this may also indicate that ASWJ is becoming more integrated amongst terrorist and radical militant movements throughout East Africa. This suggests that, as long as ASWJ continues to connect more with terrorist/militia groups in East Africa and continues to receive volunteers and support from abroad, Mozambique’s ability to contain the group will continue to grow weaker. This, in turn, leads to extremism continuously spreading in East Africa. Thus, the current threat is the inability of Mozambique to single-handedly prevent ASWJ’s ability to expand as its security forces are currently too ill-prepared to deal with ASWJ.


Before 2019, ASWJ's attacks primarily targeted state institutions, such as police stations and government buildings, because the Mozambican government was initially perceived as the reason for the economic hardships in Cabo Delgado. Violence caused by ASWJ only significantly escalated following 2017, and foreigners were only targeted after 2019 following the group’s admittance into the Islamic State Central African Province (ISCAP).[10] The widening and increased sophistication of the group's attacks coincided with its admittance into the ISCAP, which suggests that ISIS may be providing some form of advisory or support role to the group, permitting them to expand the scope of their tactical operations. It is likely that if cooperation continues between both groups, ISIS would increase its presence in Mozambique, potentially as a chief financier, supporter, or overseer of ASWJ. This would move the group from a purely Mozambican problem into the context of global Jihadism, potentially attracting increased Western attention but also allowing the group access to mainstream Jihadist infrastructure and economic sources.


Recently, the group's attacks and tactics have become increasingly advanced, as evidenced by their ability to rapidly strike across Cabo Delgado province and into major hubs such as Palma. This is important as ASWJ’s tactical evolution has taken place at a much faster rate than any other terrorist group within Africa. Groups such as Boko Haram needed six years to reach their current level of tactical and operational capacity, but ASWJ has matched that level in three years.[11] This is a significant threat given the lack of counterterrorism efforts on the part of Mozambique and suggests that left unchecked, there is a very high chance of ASWJ moving from a domestic Mozambican issue to a larger regional issue, potentially even becoming a threat similar in size and capacity to groups such as Boko Haram or Al-Shabaab.


This increase in attacks also shows that ASWJ is becoming increasingly active and aggressive. On top of this, the success they enjoy against the underprepared and equipped Mozambican forces further pushes ASWJ into increasingly large and violent operations. Given the confidence ASWJ currently enjoys, it is highly likely that this group's aggressive maneuvers will continue for some time until they are decisively checked in the field. If little is done to prevent ASWJ from expanding its operations, north Mozambique (and East Africa as a whole) may find itself wracked in a situation similar to that of ISIS in the Middle East or the Taliban in Afghanistan.


A weak opposition on the part of the Mozambican government has also spurred ASWJ to keep pressing the Mozambican government. Through being emboldened by both domestic success and the successes of other groups such as Al-Shabaab in Somalia, ASWJ is capitalizing on the momentum it has managed to acquire to further press the Mozambican government out of Cabo Delgado province. This shows that ASWJ has high morale levels and will continue to expand while its opposition is weak and disheartened, akin to the early rapid expansion of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Should an effective CT response not appear, aside from increased deaths amongst locals, the long-term presence of ASWJ could also herald an entrenchment of terrorist groups along East Africa's coastline. With Al-Shabaab in the north and ASWJ in the south, a potential pincer movement may occur. This would see Al Qaeda backed Al-Shabaab push southwards from Somalia whilst ISIS-affiliated ASWJ pushes north from Mozambique. This would signify the loss of almost all of Africa’s eastern coastline to terrorist groups. On top of this, the sustained long-term existence of ASWJ in Mozambique could lead to ASWJ cementing itself as a leading terrorist organization in Africa. With that status, it could attract more financing and volunteers, hence perpetuating and possibly aggravating Mozambique and its citizens' overall situation.


Based on extensive research done, CTG recommends that SADC countries cooperate in fighting the insurgency and ensuring the threat is contained and neutralized in Mozambique. This can be done by sharing transparent and timely information between the countries, creating a specialized joint task force focused solely on eliminating ASWJ members, intercountry training and resource sharing, and a combined fund that contributes to fighting against ASWJ.


CTG also recommends more transparency and cooperation between Mozambique’s police and military, who currently do not have a strong coherence between themselves. Establishing policies requiring both units to work together can help address this issue, likewise dealing with any defectors accordingly. Stricter control over the police force, military, and private military contractors (PMCs) is needed to ensure that they are not discriminating against any religion/sect in the community, as there have been reports of human rights abuses by the three sectors. Apart from the SADC specialized task force, CTG recommends creating a Mozambican independent counterterrorism unit since it is imperative to have a local force that understands the group's language, history, and cultural nuances to fight them better.


Although the insurgency has been ongoing for many years, Mozambique’s counterterrorism strategy must become more refined and tailored. Mozambique’s current approach is not effective and consists of an “iron fist” approach that results in collateral damage and inconclusive operations, similar to Somalia’s CT efforts against Al-Shabaab. Finally, based on ASWJ’s capabilities and Lionel Dyck’s (DAG owner) assessment of the situation, a coordinated airborne campaign coupled with a solid ground occupation is strongly recommended by CTG. Akin to ISIS, ASWJ does not have good anti-air capabilities and will see its operations checked by precise air-based strikes.


The Counterterrorism Group is actively monitoring the situation in Mozambique by tracking and recording ASWJ attacks in real-time. CTG’s AFRICOM team and members on WATCH duty are keeping a track of all attacks and developments in the area in real-time and are constantly in discussions with regards to possible solutions. There is little indication to suggest that ASWJ will be slowing down its mission, and if counterterrorism measures are not urgently put in place by the Mozambican government and other SADC countries, ASWJ is likely to increase its attacks in the region, and proliferate attacks in neighboring countries. The CTG is committed to fighting terrorism through our mission to Deter, Detect, and Defeat Terrorism. ______________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] Provinces of Mozambique numbered, by Snoyes, licensed under Creative Commons

[2] Dashboard, Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, April 2021, https://acleddata.com/dashboard/#/dashboard

[3] Mozambique / Attacks: Armed group was born 10 years before the first attack – researcher, Club of Mozambique, June 2020, https://clubofmozambique.com/news/mozambique-attacks-armed-group-was-born-10-years-before-the-first-attack-researcher-163672/

[4] Mozambique's extremist violence poses threat for neighbors, Deutsche Welle, March 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/mozambiques-extremist-violence-poses-threat-for-neighbors/a-57043563

[5] Twelve people, possibly foreigners, beheaded in Mozambique attack: police, Reuters, April 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mozambique-insurgency-idUSKBN2BV2EW

[6] Test map of the Cabo Delgado insurgency by BlookyNapsta licensed under Creative Commons

[7] Understanding the Insurgency in Mozambique, Georgetown University Center for Security Studies, November 2019, https://georgetownsecuritystudiesreview.org/2020/11/09/understanding-the-insurgency-in-mozambique/

[8] Who are Al-Shabab militants terrorising northern Mozambique?, Eyewitness News, October 2020, https://ewn.co.za/2020/10/11/who-are-al-shabab-militants-terrorising-northern-mozambique

[9] Mozambique: Islamists funded by illegal trade in timber and rubies – AIM report, Club of Mozambique, May 2018, https://clubofmozambique.com/news/mozambique-islamists-funded-by-illegal-trade-in-timber-and-rubies-aim-report/

[10] "Islamic State" in Mozambique? Control Map & Timeline of the Insurgency, Political Geography Now, August 2020, https://www.polgeonow.com/2020/08/northern-mozambique-isis-crisis-control-map-2020.html?m=1

[11] Africa and west must unite to halt Mozambique insurgency, experts say, The Guardian, April 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/apr/04/countries-must-unite-halt-mozambique-insurgency-experts-say

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