Is northern Mozambique faced with an emerging extremist threat?

Photo: Mocímboa da Praia (Wikimedia Commons)

Attacks in northern Mozambique by extremist elements – 20 are known to have happened since the beginning of 2018 – are a major concern.

A series of attacks by Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamo (Shabaab), starting in August 2017, in Mocímboa da Praia in the Cabo Delgado region of Mozambique raised alarm bells that an organised extremist footprint is evolving.

The Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC) has counted a total of 20 attacks by extremist elements since the beginning of 2018 up to the end of April 2018. On 26 March 2018, an attack against a service station in Dondo (approximately 35 km from Beira on the EN6) was the first in the Sofala province – a foreshadowing of possible expansion.

Regardless of the origin of the militants, these attacks are a major concern because Mocímboa da Praia is located only 80 kilometres south of a planned site for two liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals that multinational energy companies ENI and Anadarko plan to build. If further attacks occur in northern Mozambique, the country’s ability to develop the region may be severely undermined.

The Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamo (Shabaab) sect has been present in the area for some time, with some reports indicating a presence going back to 2012. In the last six months, beginning in October 2017, the northern province of Cabo Delgado in Mozambique has seen acts of extremist violence surface in what was once a stable area.

This group had established themselves in Cabo Delgado Province, and recruited local Mozambicans to join them in what they claimed was their fight for their Islamic beliefs, but cannot be divorced from attempts to destabilise the Mozambican government by a disgruntled group of dispersed illegal immigrants and locals.

There has been a seismic shift in the group’s preferred targets. Initial attacks were carried out against states-centric targets (police stations and health clinics) but recent attacks show that civilians are fast becoming the preferred target for the group.

TRAC notes that initial Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamo attacks which targeted government police stations and health clinics have shifted to targeting local communities and non-combatants.

On 5 October 2017, Mozambican police had to intervene and regain stability in the town of Mocímboa da Praia, located in Cabo Delgado. According to Mozambique officials, about 30 armed and hooded men attacked the police premises in Mocímboa da Praia and seized weapons and ammunition. Following the attack, the town was briefly seized by the attackers, on 5 and 6 October 2017. Officials added that the men talked in three languages – Portuguese, Swahili, and Kimwani, the local language.

Since October 2017, the Shabaab cult has splintered into smaller cells, with no overarching leader or structure. Recent attacks have moved from government institutions to the targeting of communities which have come to include civilians and civil servants. During these attacks, beheadings, kidnapping and rape of women became a concerning occurrence. The type of attacks are less complicated and co-ordinated, compared to the initial attacks in October 2018, with an accompanied brutality. Clearly, Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamo is intent on instilling fear and insecurity.

A study by Sheikh Saide Habibe and João Pereira denounced any links with al-Shabaab in Somalia, but adding that “some of the fighters were trained in the Congo, Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia and intends only to create instability in the region to illicit business in which its leaders are involved”.

The study refers to training being provided in the Great Lakes Region, where young people are trained by militias, “hired by the al-Shabaab network in Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia”. According to the authors, “Young people were convinced that they were going to get scholarships, but when they arrived the situation was military training.”

An extremist ideological influence is undeniable. According to residents from the neighbourhood, Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamo (Shabaab) seeks to establish an Islamic state.

Objectives included the replacement of government structures with institutions based on Sharia law, the removal of Christian symbols in the town and denouncing negotiations with the government. The sect also has called on residents to refrain from sending their children to secular institutions such as state schools and hospitals.

In this regard the study by Sheikh Saide Habibe and João Pereira identifies a change in objectives by cell structures:

The ultimate goal is not to occupy Cabo Delgado or to create an Islamic state in the north of the country, the objective is to create business opportunities for the informal elites of that Cabo Delgado region, at least the data says so. According to the regional and international interests of these illicit businesses, these are the immediate objectives”.

The authors however do not discard the influence of extremist propaganda as an influencing factor. The study refers to low level knowledge on the Qur’an coupled with a demand for the implementation of Islam the way they perceive it and even the rejection of local Muslim leaders.

Driving Forces

The way forward for northern Mozambique is one of apprehension. The environment is conducive for an extremist ideology to expand, irrespective of the lack of a well defined doctrine, a trend noteworthy in various international terror organisations. Ironically, the lower the level of religious knowledge, the easier it is for young people to succumb to propaganda and seeking a “self-defined” religious objective.

Several driving forces are present for continued attacks that could culminate in an organised threat:

  • Cabo Delgado province has the highest illiteracy rate in Mozambique with an average of 64.8%. In towns like Palma, the rate is close to 90%. The high rate of unemployment, particularly among the youth, creates an ideal recruitment environment for any militant organisation.
  • The presence of organised crime network (drugs, illegal mining and weapons) allowing collaboration with extremist groups in accessing weapons cannot be excluded. Reports already refer to involvement in poaching activities in the game reserves of the neighbouring Niassa province and subsequent selling of ivory and, in some cases, rhino horn, to fund its campaign. Militants are also raising funds through the selling of illegally mined minerals such as rubies and other precious stones.
  • Complicating this situation is cultural unrest and tensions between the Makonde, Makua and Mwani ethnic groups. The Makua is the largest ethnic group in Mozambique (15%) and historically was the leading group in the Cabo Delgado province. This dominance was reflected by the Makuas employing Makondes as domestic workers and being perceived as of lesser rank. This dynamic evolved into the opposite with the Makua and Mwani groups steadily marginalised by the Makonde, which took control of most of the business opportunities in the province. Consequently, resentment became prominent between the Mwani and Makonde. The Mwani tribe is located along the coastal areas of the Cabo Delgado province and they are predominantly Muslim.
  • Unregulated presence of foreigners imparts a concern of direct foreign influence. By January 2018 alone, the Mozambican authorities claimed to have deported over 4,000 foreign nationals in an initiative against illegal immigration. Of these numbers, there were approximately 871 Malawian deportations, 744 Zimbabweans, and 322 Tanzanians. A large percentage who were caught claimed to have been travelling to South Africa through Mozambique. This may be true as there is a large influx of illegal foreigners attempting to find work and liveable conditions in South Africa. However, due to Mozambique’s rich natural, marketable, resources in its northern provinces, it is evident that the possibility that these groups may be involved in illegal trade routes is highly plausible. Such trades include illegal logging, ruby and graphite mining, drug and people smuggling, and poaching.

All of this culminates in the absence of a better alternative than propagated by extremist ideology with hope transferred to an ideology providing an immediate substitute.

Government’s response

The way forward for northern Mozambique is one of caution. The environment is conducive for an extremist ideology to expand, even though Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamo does not have a well defined doctrine. Ironically, the lower the level of religious knowledge the easier it is for young people to succumb to propaganda and seeking a “self-defined” religious objective.

The Mozambique government is faced with a new threat, and there are already indications that confusion reigns on how to deal with the type of threat. Military operations, closing down of Mosques and large-scale arrests are set to create an ever bigger schism.

Mozambique security forces embarked on a major clampdown to stop illegal mining and subsequent unregulated selling of rubies and other precious / semi-precious stones. This caused much resentment among the populace and it is possible that it could have played a role as a motivator for the initial attacks in Mocímboa da Praia.

In a UNDP report, titled “Journey to extremism”, one of the findings specifically applies to the current Mozambique situation. The report argues that “71 percent of those involved in extremism identified ‘government action’, including ‘killing of a family member or friend’ and ‘arrest of a family member or friend’. This large percentage illustrates that in a majority of cases, paradoxically, state action appears to be the primary factor finally pushing individuals into violent extremism in Africa”.

The Mozambique government will do well in taking cognisance of these findings.

In March and April 2017, the Mocímboa da Praia District Police arrested a group of religious leaders who were accused of inciting civil disobedience. The religious leaders allegedly urged people not to pay taxes, not to seek medical care in public health units, and to exclusively send their children to Qur’anic schools. These actions created anxiety among some in viewing it as Muslims being targeted.

Mozambique government forces are generally poorly trained, ill-disciplined and lack the necessary equipment to deal effectively with the threat. It is, furthermore a totally new phenomenon to the security forces which, in the past, had to battle Renamo forces in the Gorongosa area (Sofala province). During follow-up operations in response to militant attacks the military are further alienating the population through hard-handed actions.

These operations have exacerbated the already-existing feelings of marginalisation among the Muslim communities in northern Mozambique. Muslims in the region have experienced tensions with the government in the past, and thus youth elements are increasingly becoming more vulnerable to a possible conversion into extremism.

The need for directed socio-economic development, community engagements to build trust and creating bridges between different religions are all obvious interventions. At the centre of this strategy is the need for a Government to acknowledge the lack of human dignity in northern Mozambique, and to engage in a process where a greater hope and future takes root – it is only within such a process that religious extremism will be countered.

If not, Mozambique runs the risk of playing host to an organised extremist footprint in motion and once such a footprint gains momentum and impetus, its removal is near impossible. Boko Haram in north-east Nigeria is a grim reminder of this reality. DM


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