Is Islamic State taking charge of Mozambique’s jihadist insurgency?

Whether it is or not, SADC and South Africa should take the threat more seriously.

The Christmas season offered no respite from terror for the already suffering people of Mozambique’s northernmost Cabo Delgado province. The litany of atrocities that had been reported steadily for over two years continued.

Minibuses and trucks ambushed; civilians burnt alive in vehicles or beheaded, one in front of his wife and children; 16 members of Mozambique’s army killed in one attack on their base. Gruesome photographs of bodies beheaded and otherwise mutilated with machetes circulated on social media.

Depending on what and who you choose to believe, there have now been around 350 such incidents since the suspected insurgency by a local jihadist group now generally referred to as Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jammah (ASWJ) erupted with simultaneous attacks on police and military bases in October 2017. It soon morphed into a terror campaign brutally directed mainly at unarmed civilians.

The death toll of this insurgency, including security personnel, insurgents and civilians (by far the greatest number), stands at over 600. Many more have been injured or internally displaced, some intelligence sources say.

The Christmas season offered no respite from terror for the people of Cabo Delgado

Yet the government in Maputo continues to present these atrocities as mere criminality. Its fellow members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) seem to be going along with that complacent view, at least officially.

No Mozambique insurgency has yet made it onto the agenda of SADC’s Organ on Politics, Defence and Security which is mandated to address such regional threats. This despite evidence of spillovers into neighbouring Tanzania and links with other jihadists up the east coast.

A large part of the problem in correctly characterising this phenomenon is that so little is known about the perpetrators. That in turn is because ASWJ makes no public claims to any attacks or deaths, and because the Mozambican government almost completely restricts access to the conflict zone for researchers and journalists.  

This has also raised suspicion about what Maputo may be trying to hide. The Cabo Delgado coastline is a major conduit for smuggling drugs and other contraband – a trade also believed to help finance the ASWJ insurgency, but which may also involve government officials.

But if ASWJ has taken no public ‘credit’ for the attacks, the Islamic State (IS) ostensibly has. It has so far claimed responsibility for 27 of the attacks, according to some security analysts. This raises questions about how IS and ASWJ are related. Is ASWJ the local affiliate of IS? Is IS simply claiming credit to boost its public stature, especially since the loss of face caused by the fall of its caliphate in Syria and Iraq?

Or is the local outfit happy to be regarded as an IS franchise to boost its prestige by borrowing a global dimension? Analysts seem unsure, though most suggest ASWJ is indeed a home-grown organisation but with links to global IS. This may in part be through Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP) which has claimed responsibility for some attacks.

The government in Maputo continues to present these atrocities as mere criminality

At a symposium last month in Pretoria by ACCORD and the European Union Institute for Security Studies, one terrorism expert suggested that ISCAP could well be no more than a small cell of the Alliance of Democratic Forces (ADF).

ADF originates in Uganda but has been terrorising eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo citizens for years. Like ASWJ, it has taken on some jihadist character. The analyst thought this ADF cell might have hitched its wagon to IS because it was losing influence within the wider ADF organisation.

However another security analyst at the symposium suggested that ISCAP and the IS influence in northern Mozambique generally should be taken more seriously than that, as it was growing. He suggested to ISS Today that the arrival of Wagner, the private Russian military company in Cabo Delgado in 2019, had increased IS presence in the province, as ISCAP had redeployed ADF fighters to Cabo Delgado to counter the Russian forces.

Many analysts remain sceptical about the IS connection. However ISS Today’s source claims to have been told by senior Mozambican military and police officials that several IS members were recently arrested in Cabo Delgado. He said a recent military press release about an attack in which police vehicles had been captured stated that ISCAP, in particular, had been responsible.

If ASWJ has taken no public ‘credit’ for the attacks, the Islamic State ostensibly has

There is little doubt that ASWJ originally was and probably still is essentially a domestic phenomenon. Rooted in the soil of Cabo Delgado, conditions common to such insurgencies seem to have given it birth and continue to give it life.

These include grinding poverty and a sense of marginalisation and inequality, both between the citizens of the province and the elite down south in Maputo and elsewhere in the country, and among certain ethnic groups and Muslim factions in Cabo Delgado. The recent discovery of vast gas reserves in the Rovuma Basin may be aggravating a sense of relative deprivation among the mostly young ASWJ foot soldiers who probably feel this windfall will pass them by as everything else has.

Nevertheless the putative affiliation to IS could be enhancing ASWJ’s menace, including the potential for the transfer of deadlier technologies and skills as well as a ready supply of reinforcements. Whatever the links with international IS, there seems little doubt that the regional ramifications should be taken more seriously.

It was noted at the Pretoria seminar that the insurgency already straddles the border with Tanzania where similar attacks have occurred recently. When suspected perpetrators appeared in Mozambique’s courts in 2018 they included nationals of nearby states. Senior Kenyan prosecutors and analysts have said there are jihadist links all the way from Somalia, through Kenya and Tanzania, to Mozambique.

One analyst at the seminar advised South African government officials present to take more notice of the threat, even if SADC clearly wasn’t. It was a short route from Cabo Delgado to South Africa, he warned. 

If SADC continues to ignore or at least minimise the problem, Pretoria should launch or intensify intelligence and security cooperation with Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia to get a surer grip on this cancer on South Africa’s doorstep before it metastasises.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

In South Africa, Daily Maverick has exclusive rights to re-publish ISS Today articles. For media based outside South Africa and queries about our re-publishing policy, email us.

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