/ 4 May 2020

Making sense of Mozambique’s brutal insurgency

Parts of Mozambique are under attack from an Islamist militia that wants to uphold sharia law.
The violence in Cabo Delgado province by al-Shabaab (the youth) can be linked to jihadist influence, the continued marginalisation of Muslim people, and the lure of income from trafficking natural resources.


The district of Muidumbe, in the province of Cabo Delgado, close to the border with Tanzania, is the heartland of the Mozambican liberation struggle. It is there that for 10 years, peasant guerrillas fought Portuguese colonialism, sowing the seeds for socialism in Mozambique. 

On April 6 this year, the insurgent group known as Ahlu Sunna Wa Jama (ASWJ) and locally as al-Shabaab (“the youths”) waged an attack of unprecedented intensity in this region, a stronghold of the ruling party, Frelimo.

The attack began in the lowland village of Miangalewa, a rice production area and a bottleneck for traffic directed to the north, inhabited both by Christian Makonde and Muslim Mwani. After destroying a Portuguese engineering company, elements from the group addressed the residents by megaphone, prompting them to remain in their houses.

The following day the insurgents climbed towards the Makonde highlands. They stopped in the village of Nshinga, a few kilometres away from the site where the Frelimo Central Base operated in the last days of the anti-colonial war, and where an open-air museum showcases the huts in which liberation leaders Samora Machel and Eduardo Mondlane slept and strategised. After haranguing the local population, they moved on to the district headquarters, stormed and torched the government buildings, ransacked the bank, and divided into separate bands to attack neighbouring villages.

Just as these military operations were under way, two videos on the internet showed insurgents addressing the residents of the coastal city of Mocimboa da Praia, which the group had occupied for one day only two weeks before. One man, known as Bwana Omar, the Lion of the Jungle, or Cheia (Flood), spoke in the local Kimwani language, bare-faced and brazen. 

“This is the second time we come,” he said, referring to the attacks of October 5 2017 that had made the group known to the world. “The first time we came and left; today we rule.” Then he went on to explain the group’s objective: establishing Islam and Sharia law, “whether you want it or not”. He decried the evils of the Mozambican government, individualistic and corrupted. “Look in the prisons, the poor people wail; have you ever seen a chief arrested?” 

Bwana Omar concluded with a threat: “We know when the pigs [a reference to the Mozambican army] come here, and that you go to their meetings and listen to them. If you keep on going, the third time we won’t give you another chance. There won’t be any pity. Nobody is going to stop us, not in Maputo or elsewhere.”

Since the ASWJ burst on the scene in October 2017, with an attack against the police station of Mocimboa da Praia that nobody expected, local and international analysts have been puzzling about the group’s origins and intentions. Research-based analysis is still scant. The most extensive report, by scholars affiliated with the Institute of Social and Economic Studies, paints a picture that encompasses internal and external factors

According to this and other studies, a group of radicalised young men from the coastal region of Cabo Delgado came together in opposition both to local Sufi Islam and to the south-based Salafi National Islamic Council. The radicalisation of these young men was the result of exposure to international jihadist networks — especially from Somalia, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo — as well local grievances. Local Muslim people have been marginalised since the colonial period, when the Portuguese pitted the Mwani against the Makonde in a classic bid to divide and rule; and throughout the socialist era, when Frelimo showered the Makonde with war pensions and disparaged religion at large.

The al-Shabaabs began by challenging local imams and defacing mosques, then established military training camps in the bushes of the Quirimbas National Park. Meanwhile, valuable natural resources were discovered in Cabo Delgado – among the world’s richest ruby and natural gas fields – which attracted the interests of international capital. These discoveries provided the group with an unexpected opportunity. Possibly in alliance with local corrupt officials and businessmen, it smuggled timber, coal, rubies, ivory poached in the nearby Niassa Reserve, and heroin, of which Cabo Delgado is a well-established corridor

Such trafficking generated revenues used to allure more young people into its ranks, with the promise of jobs or of a life of banditry. Informal miners (garimpeiros), brutally excluded from the riches of the ruby fields co-owned by a Frelimo general in reserve, and subjected to violence reminiscent of socialist reeducation camps, also joined the insurgents, attracted by the possibility of easy gains through looting. And the presence of Western oil multinationals attracted the attention and funding of global jihadist networks. 

Other scholars, notably Mozambican historian Yussuf Adam, argue that the Islamist factor is less relevant or altogether a smokescreen, and that the insurgency should be understood as a rebellion of discontent and marginalised Muslim youths against a corrupted and violent government. The government itself avoided direct pronouncements, labelling the insurgents “faceless evildoers” and wavering between contradictory explanations.

While experts debated and conjectured, the war escalated. The army responded to the initial attacks with a scorched earth approach. In the first months of 2018 it shelled villages near Palma, arrested hundreds of people in extrajudicial operations, brutalised the local populations and persecuted journalists. Insurgent attacks intensified throughout 2018 and 2019. Public and private vehicles were attacked, villages torched, travellers and peasants beheaded.

But the real escalation came in late-2019 and early 2020, when the group was able to confront in the open the Mozambican army in several locations in the province. In a single attack against the village of Mbau, evacuated and turned into a military garrison, more than 20 soldiers died. The Russian Wagner mercenary group, contracted to face the insurgents, seems to have thrown in the towel after suffering casualties in unconfirmed circumstances.

Concurrently, the Islamic State began to claim the attacks on its online outlets. A video was posted of the pledge of allegiance (bayat) that the ASWJ would have sworn in July 2019 to a new sub-section of the jihadist organisation, known as the Islamic State Central African Province (ISCAP), itself an offshoot of the Allied Democratic Forces, originally from Uganda and currently established in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC’s) province of northern Kivu. Little is known about ISCAP, except that it keeps on wreaking havoc in the DRC. In February, a letter from the United Nations Security Council acknowledged the subsumption of the ASWJ within the ISCAP, mentioning that the military operations in Mozambique are commanded from the DRC’s Eastern Congo, and that the Islamic State uses in its propaganda media from Mozambique, DRC, and Somalia. 

A video of the attack to the Muidumbe district headquarters, shot from three different angles, was posted on the Islamic State’s website a mere 11 hours after the deed. The Islamic State’s El Naba newsletter also reported it.

In Muidumbe the jihadists carried on looting and terrorising. War veterans and militias of the village of Muambula, where the centenary mission of Nangololo stands, organised a response, but soon had to fall back, because of the superiority of the adversaries, armed with bazookas and man-portable anti-tank and air-defence systems. Possibly as a retaliation, on April 8 the jihadists massacred more than 50 people in the lowland village of Xitaxi.

Rumours began to spread that the insurgents were headed to Mueda, homeland of President Filipe Nyusi, a mere 25km away; or that they would descend on Pemba, the provincial capital, by Easter. Concurrently, other groups raided the coastal district of Quissanga and the island of Quirimba. As a response, the government contracted yet another mercenary company, the Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), the owner of which, Lionel Dyck, first worked in the Rhodesian army and then for Robert Mugabe, to stifle political dissidence. In the 1980s Dyck supported Frelimo in the civil war and managed to twice take the Renamo Central Base, for which he was personally offered a Frelimo-crested army knife from Samora Machel.

The Dyck Advisory Group deployed five helicopters on the terrain, one of which was shot down. According to several reports, a boat of fishermen off the tourist island of Ibo was sunk by mistake, causing at least 14 deaths. After six days the onslaught subsided and the jihadists, in the words of one social media commentator, went to recharge their batteries in their bush bases. 

The future of Cabo Delgado, and Mozambique, is held in thrall by this new threat. As a consequence of the attacks and of Covid-19, Exxon has postponed the extraction of gas. Initially, the government denied the extent of the problem, probably to conceal the unpreparedness and low morale of its troops, the defections of soldiers, the real extent of the casualties suffered, the human rights violations against civil populations, and the selling of arms and intelligence to the insurgents by corrupted officials. As the connection with the ISCAP was increasingly highlighted, even though there is no research-based evidence, the government publicly acknowledged the Islamic State’s hand and, two weeks after the fact, the massacre at Xitaxi. 

The DAG mercenaries — and now the Zimbabwe Defence Forces — are on the terrain and reportedly have stormed several insurgent bases. In the last week of April, an attack was repelled in Metuge, at the doorstep of the provincial capital. In the meantime, under the cover of Covid-19 curfew regulations, journalists are increasingly targeted. One was flogged by the police in the streets of the provincial capital, and another was kidnapped in Palma.

The north of the province is isolated, banks have closed their branches, civil servants are fleeing their posts, and thousands of refugees flood by foot and boat into the city of Pemba. Worried that the jihadists may be slipping into the provincial capital among the refugees, the police are carrying out intensive searches in the Muslim neighbourhood of Paquetequete, which pushed the residents to riot.

Building on Mozambique’s history of social banditry, on the malcontent of disaffected youths, on opportunities for trafficking and looting, on the presence of exploitative international capital, and on international jihadist infiltration, Cabo Delgado, once heartland of the Mozambican national liberation struggle, is turning into an epicentre of conflict and instability in the region.

Paolo Israel is an associate professor in history at the University of the Western Cape.