Isis in Mozambique: Is it Africa’s turn?

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ISIS militants who surrendered to the Afghan government are presented to media in Jalalabad

Ever since the discovery of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) in the Mozambican province of Cabo Delgado, the Mozambican Army has been battling an “Islamist” insurgency. Civilians have been the main targets of attacks by “Islamist”, militants. The main insurgent faction is Ansar al-Sunna, a native extremist faction with tenuous international connections. It is alleged that since mid-2018, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has become actively involved in northern Mozambique and claimed its first attack against Mozambican security forces in June 2019.

Concerning the so-called “terrorism” in Africa, one observes a certain pattern unfolding, which raises many unanswered questions. First, why is the so-called Islamic terrorism in Africa concentrated in highly resourced areas? Second, can that be just a coincidence? When one looks at the geographical location of the so-called “Islamic terrorism”, one notices that it is concentrated in mineral, oil, and gas rich areas. From Mali, where there is an abundance of Gold, to Niger where Uranium is mined, Burkina Faso, and the Central African Republic with rich deposits of diamonds, in one way or another, they are battling terrorism.

Ansar al-Sunna, also known by its original name “Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamah” (translated “adepts of the prophetic tradition”), was initially a religious movement in northern districts of Cabo Delgado which first appeared around 2015. It was formed by followers of the radical Kenyan cleric Aboud Rogo, who was killed in 2012. Thereafter, some of members of his movement settled down in Kibiti, Tanzania, before moving into Mozambique.

Ansar al-Sunna claims that Islam as practised in Mozambique has been corrupted and no longer follows the teachings of Muhammad. The movement’s members consequently entered traditional mosques with weapons in order to threaten others to follow their radical beliefs. The movement is also anti-Christian and anti-Western, and has tried to prevent people from attending hospitals or schools which it considers secular and anti-Islamic. This behaviour alienated much of the local population. Instead of converting them to Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamah, so that the movement’s members broke away and formed their own places of worship. Over time, the group became increasingly violent: It called for Sharia law to be implemented in the country, no longer recognized the Mozambican government, and started to form hidden camps in Macomia District, Mocímboa da Praia District, and Montepuez District. There, Ansar al-Sunna militants were trained by ex-policemen, and ex-frontier guards who had been fired and held grudges against the government. The movement also contacted other Islamist militants in East Africa, and reportedly hired al-Shabaab trainers from Somalia, Tanzania, and Kenya. These al-Shabaab trainers acted as mercenaries, however, and aided Ansar al-Sunna not out of actual connections between al-Shabaab and Ansar al-Sunna, but due to the pay they received from the latter. Some of the Ansar al-Sunna militants have also journeyed abroad to receive direct training by other militant groups.

 The militants are not unified but split into different cells which do not appear to coordinate their actions. By August 2018, the Mozambican police had identified six men as leaders of the militants in Cabo Delgado: Abdul Faizal, Abdul Raim, Abdul Remane, Ibn Omar, “Salimo”, and Nuno Remane.  Ansar al-Sunna funds itself through heroin, contraband and ivory trade. A true Islamic organization would never fund its activities through drug money or any other haram (forbidden) source and drugs are forbidden in Islam.

 While religion does play a fundamental role in the conflict, some analysts believe the most important factors in the insurgency are widespread social, economic and political problems in Mozambique. Unemployment and especially youth unemployment are considered the main causes for locals to join the “Islamist rebels”. Increasing inequalities have led many young people to be easily attracted by such a radical movement, as Ansar al-Sunna promises that its form of Islam will act as “antidote” to the existing “corrupt, elitist rule”. The question that begs for answers is that these people have lived with poverty for centuries; why would they only now want to fight? What makes it suspicious is the timing of the insurrection. The fact that the uprising began immediately LNG was discovered, makes it very dubious. Of interest to note is the sudden appearance of key international players like the Americans and the Russians, who have all pledged to protect the newly found gas. This “protection” will come at a price which the poor will have to pay for.

 On 25 September, Russian military hardware, namely two Mi-17 helicopters, was delivered via a Russian Air Force An-124 (registration RA-82038) transport aeroplane which landed at Nacala. The Russian and Mozambican governments had previously signed an agreement on military and technical cooperation in late January 2017.

In October, the Mozambican military announced that it had detained 34 individuals traveling from Nampula to Cabo Delgado who are suspected of trying to join the ISIL-affiliated insurgent group. In the same month, seven Russian mercenaries and defence contractors from the Wagner Group and 20 Mozambican soldiers were reportedly killed by rebels in Cabo Delgado Province during two ambushes. The attacks were attributed to the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province. This November, a number of government troops and 5 fighters from the Russian mercenary Wagner Group were killed in an ambush, with ISIL claiming responsibility.

There is a lack of access to reliable information in the region due to journalists being intimidated by government and military personnel. On 5 January 2019, Mozambican authorities also unlawfully detained journalist Amade Abubacar who had reported on the insurgency. He was subsequently subjected to torture, and only released on bail after 107 days in detention. Why would the Mozambican government play hide and seek if it is an obvious and transparent terrorist war being fought in Cabo Delgado?

It has been reported that oil and gas reserves have been unveiled off the Western Cape, near Mossell Bay. Should the South African population be afraid? Prof Hussein Solomon of the University of the Free State, has always claimed that ISIS has training cells in South Africa, without providing one iota of evidence.


Dr Mustafa Mheta is a Researcher and Head of the Africa Desk at the Media Review Network, Johannesburg, South Africa.