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Pictured: Burned and damaged huts in the village of Aldeia da Paz outside Macomia, Mozambique on August 24, 2019. On August 1, 2019, the village was attacked by an Islamist group. (Photo by Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

Jihadists in northern Mozambique have intensified their military operations this year in an apparent attempt to establish an Islamic Emirate in the province of Cabo Delgado. The Islamist insurgency, which began in October 2017, remained below the radar until recently. The escalating violence, however, has become a security concern for Mozambique’s regional neighbors, including South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia. Radical Muslims from Kenya and Tanzania are transforming what was initially a low-intensity ethnic rebellion, into a full-fledged Islamic jihad against Mozambique’s central government.

Ansar al-Sunna (Supporters of Sunni Tradition), aka Ahlu wa Jamo, is affiliated with the Islamic State’s Central African Province and is inspired, in part, by Somalia’s leading terrorist organization, Al-Shabaab. Ansar al-Sunna, estimated to consist of about 20 cells operating throughout northeast Mozambique, is responsible for the murders of about 2,000 people, mostly civilians. These martyred innocents are largely from the same ethnic Kimwani tribe as their murderers, who reside in villages in Cabo Delgado Province. The terrorist group has driven approximately 200,000 people from their homes and burdened the majority Christian country’s central government.

Although Mozambique’s Muslims are historically moderate and predominantly Sufi, the Islamic infrastructure (mosques, madrassas, and of Islamic courts) of Cabo Delgado is becoming increasingly radicalized. Ansar al-Sunna’s guide was a Kenyan Islamist firebrand named Aboud Rogo.

Imam Rogo assisted Al-Qaeda’s East Africa network to carry out the twin bombings of the US embassies in 1998 in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Rogo, assassinated by unknown gunmen in Mombasa, Kenya in 2012, remains an inspirational “martyr” of many sub-Saharan African jihadists. Some have infiltrated into Mozambique over the country’s porous 800-kilometer northern border with Tanzania.

Ansar al-Sunna’s tactics mirror the brutal atrocities of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Their attacks, mostly concentrated on towns and villages along Cabo Delgado’s Indian Ocean coastline, include beheadings, torching homes, and seizing hostages. The terrorist network finances itself by ivory poaching, narcotics trafficking and other black market activities. Recruits include common criminals, corrupt police, and malcontent border guards, as well as some Mozambique Armed Forces personnel who are integrated into the group’s terrorist cells.

The most significant territorial seizure by the terrorist group is Cabo Delgado’s strategic port of Mocimboa da Praia. The port is adjacent to off-shore oil and natural gas reserves that have attracted heavy investment by US-based petroleum companies Exxon and Andarko, as well as the France-based Total. Reportedly, many members of the Kimwani tribe, who are the largest ethnic group in Cabo Delgado Province, are joining the jihad. The Kimwani resent foreign investment in the area’s petroleum reserves; they apparently view the activity as exploitative. Extremist Muslims have used the presence of Western oil companies as a recruitment tool, exploiting Cabo Delgado’s economically depressed population.

The most recent major attack by the jihadists took place in early November in Cabo Delgado’s village of “24 de Marco.” The assault claimed the lives of about 50 men, women, and children. All of the victims were beheaded, making the slaughter the most horrific terrorist incident to date.

The intensification of terrorist operations this year, coupled with the more radical theological profile of Ansar al-Sunna, has been motivating Mozambique’s neighbors to take action. South Africa is deploying Special Forces’ advisors from the Dyck Advisory Group alongside Mozambique’s regular army units to combat the terrorists. Both Uganda and Tanzania are sending weapons to Mozambique’s military. The central government has even hired the Russian mercenary Wagner Group to help fight the Islamist terrorists. Wagner combatants have been clashing with Ansar al-Sunna jihadists, and sustaining casualties in the process.

One sign that the fight against the jihadists may not be going well is a report that Eric Prince’s American mercenary outfit, Frontier Services Group, has cancelled a logistics support contract with Mozambique. There are indications that US diplomats are indirectly joining the effort to assist Mozambique by encouraging Zimbabwe to explore ways in which it might help the government combat jihadists. The European Union also has announced its intent to help sustain Mozambique’s government with financial assistance.

The Islamist cause has also been receiving international support. The Islamic State’s Central Africa Province claims that jihadi volunteers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo are joining the ranks of Mozambique’s terrorists. Clerics from Saudi Arabia and Sudan are providing ideological instruction in fundamentalist Wahhabi Islam to selected fighters. Ansar al-Sunna jihadists are, for the most part, trained in camps within Mozambique; some are trained in camps in Kibiti in northern Tanzania or in the Great Lakes Region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Islamic State’s Central African Province may have bigger plans for Mozambique’s Ansar al-Sunna. If the jihadists are able to establish an Emirate under Sharia in Cabo Delgado Province, it could serve as a jihadi model, threatening the stability of other states in southern Africa. Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Africa, as well as Africa’s Indian Ocean states of the Comoros and Madagascar, could be targeted.

There is the serious possibility that what began as a localized insurgency by an economically deprived ethnic minority in northern Mozambique could develop into a full-fledged regional Islamic jihad, if not checked by a relentless and effective counter-terrorism program. Given the rapid radicalization of Ansar al-Sunna, this outcome seems an increasingly likely development. Indeed, Ansar al-Sunna’s affiliation with the Islamic State’s Central African Province could replicate in southeast Africa the challenges posed by the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara in Sahelian West Africa or Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Dr. Lawrence A. Franklin was the Iran Desk Officer for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. He also served on active duty with the U.S. Army and as a Colonel in the Air Force Reserve.

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