Mozambique insurgency drives fears of Islamist jihad in S Africa

Isis claims 23 attacks in Cabo Delgado, while some say extremism product of poverty

A brutal insurgency under way in Mozambique's northernmost province that escalated in 2019 has raised fears that an Islamist jihad movement is seeking to establish itself in southern Africa.

South Africa-based terrorism expert Jasmine Opperman says the Islamic State terror group has claimed responsibility for nearly two dozen of the 189 attacks perpetrated by a shadowy extremist group last year in Cabo Delgado, a rural resource-rich area of Mozambique bordering Tanzania.

Since it first attacked police stations in the port town Mocímboa da Praia on October 5th, 2017, the group has left a trail of mutilated bodies and burned-out villages behind it, forcing at least 65,000 Mozambicans to become internal refugees.

Opperman, who is the Africa associate at the Islamic Theology of Counter Terrorism, a UK-based think tank, estimates up to 500 civilians, insurgents and security personnel have died in the group’s attacks so far.


“Isis [Islamic State] has claimed responsibility for 23 attacks in Cabo Delgado and I have been able to link 18 of these to verified incidents,” says Opperman, who added it was still unclear if the group, also known as Isis, played a role in the attacks, or if the local extremist group was now its regional proxy.

The increase in the Cabo Delgado group’s military operations in 2019 has continued into January 2020, according to Opperman, who says at least nine attacks against villages and security forces have been confirmed so far this month.

Last year’s escalation in violence reportedly coincided with the arrival of 203 well-armed Russian mercenaries – from a paramilitary force called the Wagner Group – in the province in September, who were deployed to support the Mozambique Defence Armed Forces’ anti-terror operations there.

However, South Africa’s Daily Maverick newspaper reported on November 29th that 11 of the Wagner Group’s soldiers were killed and a further 25 injured, in three separate battles with the militants.


"The soldiers left in Mozambique have retreated as far as their base in Nacala [the capital of Nampula Province] where they were retraining, acclimatising and gathering intelligence," the online publication stated.

Known locally as al-Shabaab, though it has not been directly linked to the Somalia-based regional terror organisation of the same name, the Cabo Delgado group’s leadership and fighting strength is not well-known.

There are seven to 10 terror cells moving around the province conducting attacks, says Opperman, but “their military strength is unknown, and it is unclear if the cells co-ordinate their attacks, or follow an overarching ideology”.

However, in December the group posted pictures on Twitter for the first time that showed its fighters with captured police vehicles and uniforms, and in one of the images a young man is holding an IS flag.

At the very least Islamic State’s claim of responsibility for 23 attacks in Cabo Delgado and the local groups use of its symbolism suggests they are using each other to attract international attention. But Opperman believes it is crucial to establish if their ties run deeper.

She also warned that Mozambique, itself a post-war state, appears ill-equipped to deal with the insurgency and that the Southern African Development Community (SADC) – the main regional intergovernmental body in southern Africa – has yet to outline how it might deal with a jihadist threat in the region.

“We have a serious situation on our hands in Cabo Delgado, but SADC has been silent about it so far. I can’t understand it, because we need a regional structure and strategy to deal with this [conflict].” Mozambique’s Frelimo-led government, which was re-elected last year, has so far revealed little about the group since it emerged, only saying the insurgents comprise local unemployed “criminals” and that the attacks are linked to global jihadists.

Efforts to find out more about the extremists and their motives have also been hampered by the government’s decision in 2018 to ban journalists and researchers from working in areas targeted by the insurgents.

Radicalisation research

However, a study last September by the Maputo-based Institute of Social and Economic Studies titled, “Islamic Radicalisation in Northern Mozambique: The Case of Mocímboa da Praia” provides insights into how and why extremism has emerged in the province.

According to Cabo Delgado residents interviewed for the study, the men who initially launched the insurgency came to the fore in 2014 in a religious group who wanted locals to adhere to an extreme form of Islamic law.

When this was opposed by local religious leaders, who expelled the extremists from their mosques, the group began to incorporate military cells into its structures in 2015, training recruits in military camps hidden in local forests.

"At first, the group's members were mainly young people from Mocímboa da Praia, but their leaders had links with certain religious and military circles – fundamentalist Islamic cells in Tanzania, Kenya, Somalia and the Great Lakes region," the study states.

The researchers also found the young people who joined the group were motivated by poverty or unemployment; the need for camaraderie; a desire for adventure; or a compulsion to create a new order in the province that would benefit them.

“Al-Shabaab gave young recruits from Mocímboa da Praia and other districts a sense of security, support and community – they satisfied the youth’s emotional needs,” the study found.

There is no reference to Islamic State or its militants being involved in the Cabo Delgado insurgency in the report.

Joseph Hanlon, a UK-based academic and journalist who has followed Mozambique's development for decades, believes that poverty rather than an extremist ideology is the insurgency's main driver.

In the December edition of his Mozambique Bulletin, he wrote that rather than Islamic State being the hidden hand behind the insurgency, “all the evidence is that this is a local uprising fuelled by growing poverty and inequality – most of the land has been taken [from the people] for mining so there is no free farmland, and inequality is increasing”.