Mozambique: Extremism and Terrorism

On March 24, 2021, ISIS-affiliated Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamaah (ASWJ) insurgents ambushed Palma, northern Mozambique, killing dozens of civilians. The attack occurred hours after the Mozambican government and French company Total—which runs the natural gas project in Palma—agreed to resume operations in the area. Insurgents later ambushed a convoy of vehicles carrying foreign workers trying to evacuate Palma on March 26, killing seven. That same day, Total announced it would once again suspend operations in the Afungi Peninsula given the ongoing threat of insurgent attacks. As of March 29, the government has yet to repel the insurgents from the town, a logistics hub for international gas projects totaling over $6 billion. (Sources: Reuters, France 24, CNN, Reuters)

On March 15, 2021, U.S. Special Forces began to train Mozambican troops to repel ISIS forces. As part of the program, a dozen Army Green Berets will train Mozambican marines for two months to better combat ISIS-affiliates who have killed more than 1,300 civilians and displaced over 670,000 civilians since October 2017. Along with the training program, which will develop basic soldiering skills, the United States is looking to strengthen intelligence assistance to Mozambique. The program comes five days after the U.S. Department of State designated both ISIS-Mozambique—which is better known as ASWJ—as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), and Abu Yasir Hassan, the reported leader of ISIS-Mozambique, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT). In 2020 alone, ASWJ insurgents carried out more than 570 attacks in Mozambique and Tanzania. (Sources: New York Times, U.S. Department of State, Voice of America, Center for Strategic and International Studies)

On October 19, 2020, ASWJ militants carried out an attack in a Tanzanian village near the border of Cabo Delgado, Mozambique. The Mozambique-based militants entered Kitaya, Mtwara province by sea, going up the Rovuma river on the border between Mozambique and Tanzania. The assailants burned down houses, destroyed armored vehicles, and stole military equipment. Three Tanzanian soldiers were killed in the attack. The following month, Mozambique and Tanzania agreed to cooperate in joint operations against the militants. Tanzania also agreed to extradite more than 500 militants to Mozambique. (Sources: AllAfrica, Bloomberg, Reuters, AllAfrica)

On August 12, 2020, ASWJ insurgents ambushed villages in the port of Mocímboa da Praia. The ISIS-affiliated insurgents managed to overtake government troops and seize control of the area. The move is strategic as the port is pivotal in the transit of oil and gas equipment. Mozambique’s government, however, is ill-equipped to counter the growing number of radical insurgents. Additionally, there have been reports that Mozambique’s security forces have fled scenes of insurgent activity as the number of insurgents greatly outnumbers security forces in the area. (Sources: Human Rights Watch, Wall Street Journal, BBC News)

Although the jihadist threat has been growing in Mozambique for over two decades, the country experienced a significant rise in the number of terror attacks following the discovery of gas and other natural resources in the area. In 2010, the United States energy company, Anadarko, discovered large gas reserves in the Rovuma basin deep in the Indian Ocean, and in 2011, the Italian energy company, ENI, also discovered significant gas reserves in the area. These discoveries have attracted international capital and have positioned Mozambique to be one of the next big gas suppliers for the global market. However, the exploitation of natural resources by international companies has exacerbated inequitable conditions for the local community as many Mozambicans have been forcibly displaced and inadequately compensated. Insurgent groups have leveraged local grievances and placed themselves as an alternative to the current government, which has prioritized economic gain. (Sources: Chatham House, Observer Research Foundation)

Terrorist activity in Mozambique has been on the rise since 2017, with more than 1,000 civilians killed since the onset of violence as of August 2020. The local insurgency Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamaah (ASWJ)—also referred to as al-Shabaab—has focused most of its attacks near Cabo Delgado. Although sometimes referred to as al-Shabaab, ASWJ is not associated with al-Shabaab that is based in Somalia. However, jihadist activity has significantly increased since June 2019, as ISIS’s affiliate in Mozambique—the Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP)—has begun to regularly carry out attacks in northern Mozambique and Tanzania. As of November 2020, ongoing violence has contributed to the displacement of almost 670,000 civilians, with 712,000 needing humanitarian assistance. (Sources: ACLED, Chatham House, Voice of America, U.S. Department of State, Al Jazeera)

In May 2018, a photo was shared on a pro-ISIS Telegram channel that showed fighters in front of a black and white ISIS flag. ASWJ fighters issued a statement accompanying the photo claiming that an official pledge of allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would follow. It was not until 2019 when ASWJ was officially incorporated into ISCAP. However, some media sources claim that ASWJ—also known as ISIS-Mozambique—remains a distinct group from ISCAP despite ISIS-associated media portraying the two groups as a unified structure. The Mozambican government originally dismissed the threat of the local insurgency by claiming assailants were merely criminals unaffiliated with any larger network but has shifted their approach throughout 2020. The government has reportedly begun to hire foreign security contractors from countries such as Russia, the United States, and South Africa but violence continues to overtake the southern African country. (Sources: BBC News, Defense Post, Reuters)

Since 2017, Mozambique has seen a steady rise in terrorist attacks which have primarily been limited to the northern region of the country, particularly Cabo Delgado. The province’s population is majority Muslim but historically of the Sufi strain. According to scholars at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a new wave of radical Islam began to take hold in Cabo Delgado in 2014 and 2015 when radical preachers from nearby Tanzania, as well as radical imams from Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, and the Congo, began proselytizing in northern Mozambique. Their ultra-conservative message resonated with Mozambique’s disenfranchised youth, which laid the groundwork for Mozambique’s current insurgency. As a new sect of radical Islam, that was locally referred to as Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamaah (ASWJ), began to form in the area, prospective members became more interested in the group’s teachings as small financial loans were promised if individuals pledged loyalty to the sect. IISS scholars suggest that militant training has been a part of ASWJ’s modus operandi since its founding, but there are no reports suggesting if militant training has been leveraged as a way to eventually allocate Mozambican fighters into larger insurgencies across the world. (Sources: Lawfare Blog, International Institute for Strategic Studies)

Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamaah or ISIS-Mozambique

The primary insurgent group in Mozambique is called Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamaah (ASWJ) or Ansar al-Sunna and is locally referenced as al-Shabaab. However, the group does not have any known affiliations with al-Shabaab in Somalia. Despite reportedly being founded in 2008, very little is known about ASWJ’s leadership or the group in general. Some scholars claim the group evolved into the current movement from exacerbated public grievances—such as continued poverty and inadequate protection by Mozambican security forces in response to the growing insurgency—as well as the spread of Salafist ideology from as early as 2015. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, ASWJ’s primary sponsors were followers of Sheikh Rogo—a radical imam who was sanctioned by the United States and United Nations in 2012 for providing support to al-Shabaab in Somalia. Following Rogo’s death, several of his followers moved to northern Mozambique. However, some reports claim that ASWJ is allegedly dually led by a Gambian named Musa and a Mozambican named Nuro Adremane. Adremane had reportedly trained in Somalia along with other recruits. Musa, however, is known as a key recruiter throughout the Montepeuz District who has tapped into the aggrieved public that has been negatively affected by the increased presence of international oil companies and who feel inadequately protected by the national police. On March 10, 2021, the U.S. Department of State designated ASWJ—which U.S. government sources refer to as ISIS-Mozambique—as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). On the same day, ASWJ’s leader, who is reportedly Abu Yasir Hassan, was designated as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT). (Sources: Africa Center, Babel Street, Council on Foreign Relations, U.S. Department of State)

ASWJ espouses a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. The spread of Salafi ideology has stemmed from many ASWJ members who have previously received scholarships to study abroad at Wahhabi madrassas throughout the Persian Gulf region and who then exported the teachings back to Mozambique. Those students who returned from studying abroad then developed separate mosques throughout northern Mozambique to propagate a more conservative practice of Islam. The Islamism practiced by ASWJ dramatically differs from the Sufi-inspired Islam that has traditionally been associated with the region. According to the Jamestown Foundation, ASWJ founded two mosques in Mocímboa da Praia which were shut down by police in May 2017 due to the onset of the jihadist threat. (Sources: Africa Center, Small Wars Journal)

ASWJ allegedly pledged allegiance to ISIS in May 2018 and was incorporated into Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP) in 2019. The first instance of ASWJ demonstrating loyalty to ISIS occurred in May 2018 when a pro-ISIS Telegram channel shared a photo of Mozambican fighters in front of a black and white ISIS flag. Although the group claimed they would release an official bayah, or pledge of allegiance, to ISIS shortly after the May 2018 photo was posted, no official pledge was ever circulated. However, the group’s activities have been shared on pro-ISIS Telegram channels and have been lauded by ISIS central. The insurgency includes local Mozambicans as well as militants from Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. However, some media sources claim that ASWJ—also known as ISIS-Mozambique—remains a distinct group from ISCAP despite ISIS-associated media portraying the two groups as a unified structure. ISCAP first claimed an attack in the Cabo Delgado province in June 2019, issuing a statement that stated the group was involved in a gunfight with and had ultimately seized weapons and ammunition from Mozambican military forces. Throughout 2020, the group—which has yet to clearly define its exact agenda in Mozambique—has begun to continually carry out attacks in the region. The militants carry out assaults that include seizing government buildings, blocking roads, and positioning the black and white ISIS flags throughout provinces such as Cabo Delgado. In terms of the attacks, insurgents regularly burn down entire villages and behead villagers who defy militant movement. Beheadings are a common tactic—with ASWJ carrying out over 50 in the first half of November 2020—and according to the U.K.-based humanitarian aid organization Save the Children, insurgents have even beheaded children as young as 11. (Sources: Jamestown Foundation, Defense Post, Save the Children, Reuters)

ASWJ violence is often publicized by ISIS, as ISIS’s official news sources, such as Amaq News Agency, Nashir News Agency, and the newsletter Al-Naba, have lauded Mozambique’s fledgling insurgents. ASWJ continues to demonstrate its capacity as a legitimate threat to Mozambique’s social and political security as it continues to gain attention from ISIS as well as possibly increase its communication network with ISIS central. It is not yet determined if ASWJ has received direct funding or training from more established ISIS cells. However, given the increasing volume of ASWJ-claimed or ASWJ-suspected attacks in the country, analysts at data analytics company Babel Street believe it is possible the insurgency has a growing network of external supporters. Additionally, although ASWJ primarily targets villages, they have started to take on Mozambique’s security forces a lot more readily and have begun to integrate the use of drones for position scouting into their operations. As recently as May 2020, the group captured an armed vehicle from Mozambican security forces through their use of high-powered weapons such as rifles and mortars. Their increasingly destructive attacks demonstrate the possibility of transnational training among ISIS camps given that ASWJ’s recent attack tactics have been employed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria for years. ASWJ often targets and launches retaliatory attacks against villages with villagers who have previously resisted cooperating with or have tried to fight off insurgent efforts. (Sources: Babel Street, Defense Post)

Since March 2020, ASWJ has sporadically taken control of the port town of Mocímboa da Praia, which hosts multiple foreign energy companies taking on lucrative gas projects in the area. Although security forces were previously able to overtake the insurgents, since January 2020, the quickly growing number of jihadists has overwhelmed Mozambique’s security sector. Mozambique’s government, police, and army are poorly equipped to adequately counter the militants and have been reported to have even fled scenes of insurgent activity. Given the government’s inadequate security response to insurgent attacks, ASWJ has ambushed and taken over other port towns such as Palma, a logistics hub for international gas projects totaling over $6 billion. On March 24, 2021, hours after the Mozambican government and French company Total—which runs the natural gas project in Palma—agreed to resume operations in the area, ASWJ ambushed Palma and took control of the town. Dozens of civilians were killed in the ambush and about 50 others were unaccounted for. Following the attack, Total suspended its operations in the area. As of March 29, the government has yet to repel the insurgents from the town. (Sources: The Soufan Center, Reuters, France 24, CNN)

According to a September 2020 report published by the European Union, ASWJ militants have reportedly formed a base hub of operations in northern Mozambique. According to analysts at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), the militants intend to extend their influence from Cabo Delgado through Southern Africa, which will put South Africa, Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia all at risk to future terrorist attacks. On June 7, 2020, Al-Naba, the official newsletter of ISIS, warned South Africa to not get involved in the fighting in Mozambique, or else it would face reprisals within South Africa’s territory. (Source: Fox News)

On March 10, 2019, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the government of Mozambique carried out a three-day workshop supported by the Canadian government to address the growing threat of violence in northern Mozambique. The workshop included key investigators, defense officials, prosecutors, and judges to discuss current strategies as well as develop new strategies to counter violent extremism as well as bring terrorists to justice. The training workshop was one of three workshops carried out in 2019 that sought to better equip local authorities with the practical methods and practices to combat the ongoing threat. To further demonstrate the country’s commitment to preventing and monitoring extremism, Mozambique established a new Counter-Terrorism Unit within the National Criminal Investigation Service (SERNIC) to help better address and prosecute terror related crimes. (Source: UNODC)

Although Mozambique does not have a national action plan to implement countering violent extremism, as of November 2019, the government initiated discussions on a five-year action plan to deter youth from engaging in terrorism. (Source: U.S. Department of State)

Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security

Mozambique passed counterterrorism legislation in 2018, which provides for the punishment of anyone committing, planning, preparing, or participating in terrorist acts. The legislation also outlines punishment for individuals who have traveled or attempted to travel to join a terrorist organization. As of July 2019, the central government has reported over 130 convictions related to violence. However, these prosecutions were treated as assaults, murder, or arson and were not tried as terrorist acts. (Source: U.S. Department of State)

Although Mozambique’s Muslim population only totals around 19 percent of the total population, the province where ASWJ operates—Cabo Delgado—is majority Muslim. Northern Mozambique is still fine tuning a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy to offset jihadist violence. Local authorities still lack the necessary training, equipment, and capacity to proactively prevent the spread of extremism and radicalization. Mozambican law enforcement entities such as the national police force and the Rapid Intervention Unit operate within a joint task force with the military, but interagency cooperation in terms of intelligence sharing and strategy coordination has yet to be fully realized. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, Lawfare Blog)

Furthermore, border security remains an issue as terrorists can easily cross the border into and out of Tanzania. Tanzania has proven to be a recruitment and transit point for terrorist and criminal organizations. However, Tanzanian and Mozambican police forces have reaffirmed their commitment to working together to prevent extremists from traveling into and out of countries. On January 12, 2021, Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi met with Tanzanian President John Magufuli to discuss strengthening their cross-border counterterrorism operations. The counterparts agreed to resume a joint commission on defense and security given ongoing attacks by ISIS-aligned insurgents in the region. On November 23, 2020, the two countries launched a joint operation to combat the Islamist insurgency that has ravaged Mozambique’s northernmost gas-rich province of Cabo Delgado that also borders Tanzania. Under the joint operation, the two countries will increase information sharing and strengthen surveillance along the Rovuma border. Additionally, Tanzania agreed to deport 516 suspected insurgents it had in custody back to Mozambique. (Source: U.S. Department of State, Bloomberg, Reuters)

On September 3, 2020, South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor told a parliamentary committee that the southern African regional body, Southern African Development Community (SADC), had asked Mozambique to provide information on the assistance it would need to counter its growing insurgency. South African officials claim the country will readily supply intelligence or military services to its neighbor if the government of Mozambique makes a formal request for assistance. (Source: Reuters)

U.S.-Mozambican Cooperation

Given the ongoing insurgency in northeastern Mozambique, on March 15, 2021, U.S. Special Forces soldiers began to train Mozambican troops to repel ISIS forces. As part of the program, a dozen Army Green Berets will train Mozambican marines for two months, as the insurgents have already displaced over 670,000 Mozambicans and continue to threaten some of the world’s largest gas reserves. ISIS in Mozambique has over 800 fighters, and some analysts believe that the group is connected to criminal networks that supply weapons and other equipment. Along with the training program, which will develop basic soldiering skills, the United States is looking to strengthen intelligence assistance to Mozambique. The program comes a week after the U.S. Department of State designated both ISIS-Mozambique—which is better known as ASWJ—as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), and Abu Yasir Hassan, the reported leader of ISIS-Mozambique, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT). (Sources: New York Times, U.S. Department of State)

Tanzanian-Mozambican Cooperation

On November 23, 2020, Mozambique and Tanzania signed a memorandum of understanding to join forces to battle ISIS-linked fighters in Cabo Delgado. Per the agreement, the two countries will combine their police forces, and Tanzania will deploy 516 fighters to Mozambique. Given the Mozambican army’s inability to contain the insurgency, extremist forces have managed to expand their influence and sphere of operation into Tanzania. (Source: Al Jazeera)

Countering the Financing of Terrorism

Mozambique is a member of the Eastern and Southern Africa Anti-Money Laundering Group (ESAAMLG). ESAAMLG members coordinate with one another to combat money laundering by implementing the Financial Action Task Force’s recommendations. Mozambique is also a member of the Asset Recovery Inter-Agency Network for Southern Africa (ARINSA) which is an informal multi-agency network that allows participating members to exchange information, model legislation, and country laws in asset forfeiture, confiscation, and money laundering. (Sources: ESAAMLG, UNODC

Mozambique is a member of the African Union and the Southern African Development Community but has not actively engaged in counterterrorism efforts with the two organizations. Mozambique is a member of the Partnership for Regional East Africa Counterterrorism (PREACT). The PREACT strategy is a multi-sector long-term initiative that seeks to strengthen civilian and security sector institutions to consistently offset the spread of violent extremism. Mozambique also has security cooperation Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) with regional and international partners. Partner countries include Malawi, India, Russia, Tanzania, Uganda, and the United Kingdom. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State)

Mozambique and Tanzania have partnered to coordinate counterterrorism efforts along their shared border. On January 15, 2018, the Mozambican and Tanzanian police forces signed a Memorandum of Understanding, which codifies the countries’ coordination on terrorism, drug trafficking, and money laundering efforts. The agreement also provides a mechanism for intelligence sharing. In November 2020, the two countries agreed to launch joint operations against Islamist militants along the border. The cooperation was spurred by attacks by ISIS-affiliated militants from Mozambique on Tanzanian villages that October. Though the militants are based in Mozambique, authorities believe many of the recruits come from Tanzania. Under the cooperation agreement, Tanzania also agreed to extradite more than 500 militants arrested to Mozambique. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, AllAfrica, Voice of America, Reuters, AllAfrica)

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