Northern Mozambique Insurgency


Overview

As the world focuses on the dangerous insurgencies perpetrated by Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab, in southern Africa, a slow-growing insurgency has emerged in Northern Mozambique. Currently, the insurgency is concentrated in Cabo Delgado Province, with Mocimboa da Praia, Palma, Montepuez, and Macomia districts most affected. Like with other Islamist movements in the continent, the militants are interested in forming an Islamic state.

Since the growing insurgency is still at its infancy, analysists and researchers are still investigating the origin story of the dominant extremist group, Ansar al-Sunna, and factors that contribute to the growing insurgency in Northern Mozambique.  Ansar al-Sunna, who is referred to as the al-Shabaab by the locals, is believed to have begun when followers of Kenyan radical Cleric, Aboud Rogo, moved to the islands and began to preach their radical thoughts in 2013/2014, according to one theory.  The second theory of the origins of Ansar al-Sunna is an off-shoot of the Islamic Council of Mozambique (ICM), which traces its roots to the early 2000s. ICM created a chapter in Cabo Delgado known as Ansaru Sunna who built mosques and performed other social goods in the area. Though the case, the group was against a secular state and hoped to create an Islamic state in the future.  The group slowly become more radicalised and transformed to Ansar al-Sunna. The radicalisation process of Ansaru Sunna in some areas was so violent that their members frequently clashed in the police, some of their members were arrested. The third theory of the origin of Ansar al-Sunna was formed when street traders, united by economic frustration and radical Islam, came together in 2015. The feasibility of this theory is support by the fact that many in the community in Cabo Delgado province were tired of not benefiting from the economic boom in the area as a result of gas exploration. Most of the jobs created as a result of the gas boom were mostly skilled expatriates.  Moreover, despite the booming oil and gas industry, Cabo Delgado remains the poorest province, plagued by unreliable government services.

By October 2017, Ansar al-Sunna had become a menace in Cabo Delgado province. The group targets both the Mozambique security forces and the community at large. The extremist group attacks the community in the most brutal ways, using machetes and knives. In some cases, the group has decapitated community members, especially community elders. Following their raids, the militants are known to burn several houses down to continue to spread fear among the villagers.  Almost two years after the Ansar al-Sunna began becoming more brazen with their attacks, they have managed to kill at least 200 people in 49 reported incidents. These are conservative estimates due to the lack of information and access to some of the villages in Cabo Delgado province.

The Mozambique government and security agencies have been very slow in combating the shadowy insurgency in Cabo Delgado province. For the longest time, the government’s party line was that there was no Islamic insurgency in the northern parts of the country. In fact, some government elites believed the group were members of the Mozambican National Resistance (Renamo) party. However, as the attacks become more brutal, the government could not ignore the facts, especially when footages of mutilated bodies began circulating on social media. Moreover, the upsurge of violence threatened the booming gas and oil industry, which would negatively affect the Mozambican economy. The police began arresting hundreds of people, some of whom human rights groups believe were detained only because they are Muslim. Additionally, in their pursuit of the militants, they have sometimes killed civilians.

Two years after militants belonging to  Ansar al-Sunna conducted and claimed their first attack, information about the insurgency is limited. This is mostly due to the fact that the group has no clear objectives or written manifesto as other insurgent groups in the continent i.e. Boko Haram. The broader aspirations to creating an Islamic state and brutal attacks on unsuspecting villagers has been their rise of fame in Cabo Delgado Province. Like other African countries that have fought insurgencies, the Mozambican government has resulted in using force to combat the problem, which has limited success. With too many unknowns, the Mozambican government, with the support of the international community, should be addressing the socio-economic problems as a way to combat the insurgency before it gains momentum and becomes as dangerous of an insurgent group as Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab in Somalia. 

Facts

Key Actors

Where: Cabo Delgado province, Northern Mozambique

Members: 100 – 300 estimated

Foreign Fighters: unknown number; Come from Tanzania, Somalia, Kenya 

Deaths:  200 estimated

Displaced peoples: thousands

 

When the attacks began, the Mozambican government and police were adamant that there is no Islamic insurgency in Northern province of Cabo Delgado. However, as more attacks happened, the government could not ignore the clear signs that something is brewing up north. The realisation led to President Filipe Nyusi to ask the international community through the UN General Assembly to assist in fighting the menace. 

The Mozambican police and army have arrested hundreds of suspected Ansar al-Sunna militants, some of whom were foreign nationals, mostly from Tanzania.

Amnesty International has accused the Mozambican government of suppressing journalists in covering the upsurge of machete attacks by armed groups thought to be linked to Ansar al-Sunna. The arrest of Amade Abubacar is an example that Amnesty International uses as an example of restriction of media freedom. 

Who are they: Ansar al-Sunna wa-Jama, in short, Ansar al-Sunna, is an Islamist insurgent group solidifying its roots in northern Mozambique. Though specifics about its history is still unclear, some claim that the group was formed by followers of the radical Kenyan Cleric Aboud Rogo, who was killed in 2012. Rogo was accused of supporting al-Shabaab, both financially and sending fighters to Somalia to support their cause. The second theory of the origins of Ansar al-Sunna is an off-shoot of the Islamic Council of Mozambique (ICM), which traces its roots to the early 2000s. ICM created a chapter in Cabo Delgado known as Ansaru Sunna who built mosques and performed other social goods in the area. Another theory about Ansar al-Sunna’s origin is that street traders, united by economic frustration and radical Islam, came together in 2015.

Beliefs: Like other extremist groups, Ansar al-Sunna believes that Muslims in Mozambique have strayed from how Islam is supposed to be practised, also calling for the strict interpretation and practice of the Sharia law. It is still unclear whether the growing insurgency is leaning towards supporting ISIS or al-Qaeda. Unlike Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab, Ansar al Sunna does not have a clear objective or manifesto. 

Structure: The structure of Ansar al-Sunna is not as organised as other organisations, possibly since it is still at its infancy stages. Current knowledge is that the group operates as mostly autonomous cells that do not necessarily coordinate their attacks. In August 2018, the Mozambique police identified six men who are possible leaders of the extremist groups. They are Adual Faizal, Abdul Raim, Abdul Remane, Ibn Omar, “Salimo”, and Nuno Remane. Their official capacity within the organisation is not apparent.

Target: Their primary targets are the military, police and the population at large. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), there have been 49 attacks attributed to Ansar al-Sunna, and about 200 people are believed to have killed, half of whom were civilians.

Fighters: It is believed that the majority of the fighters are of Mozambican origin. The estimate is that there are at least 200 fighters. Tanzanian, Kenyan and Somali nationals can also be found in the ranks of Ansar al-Sunna, though it is unclear the exact number within the ranks.

Financing: Some analysts have speculated that the group funds itself through the sale of contraband and illicit drugs such as heroin, as well as the ivory trade, according to a study conducted by Muslim cleric Sheikh Saide Habibe and Researchers Joao Pereira and Salvador Forquilha. The sale of the illicit drugs and contraband is not unique to them but rather a rising tread out of Cabo Delgado province which Ansar al Sunna and other criminals are benefiting.

Note: Locals in Cabo Delgado province call the insurgents al-Shabaab. This term should not be misinterpreted to mean that the group is a faction or an affiliate of the Somali insurgent group, al-Shabaab, that operates in Eastern and the Horn of Africa.

In June 2019, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), through their social media platforms, claimed that their fighters in Mozambique have conducted in the southern African country.  The group claimed that the attack killed at least 16 people and the surviving militants captured military equipment. They also claimed that their fighters stormed into a Christian village in northern Mozambique, burning houses and forcing residents to flee their homes. 

Much is still unknown about ISIS in Mozambique. Sometimes Ansar al-Sunna is discussed synonymously with ISIS. The link between the two groups or whether Ansar al-Sunna officially pledged their allegiance to ISIS making them an affiliate of the group still being investigated.  

Mozambique-Russia relations stems from the anti-colonial movement in the 1960s. But from 2017, the two countries have been increasing their military alliance, signing several military pacts. Henceforth, Russia has been supplying arms and military equipment, as well as training Mozambican troops. With a Russian foothold in the country, Kremlin-linked companies have benefited economically from the Mozambique-Russia relationship.  In August 2019, PJSC Rosneft Oil Company, a Russian company, signed an MOU with the government to allow the oil giant to develop offshore natural gas fields in Mozambique.  Most of the efforts will be concentrated in the oil-rich Cabo Delgado Province. The deal came around the same time as when the Kremlin cancelled almost all Mozambican debt. 

With their economic interest secured, unsurprisingly, reports emerged that Russian soldiers were operating in Mozambique.  The soldiers are linked to the Kremlin-affiliated military contractors, the Wagner Group. According to senior director of the Penn Biden Centre for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, Michael Carpenter, “…Wagner Group is almost like an official arm of state policy in Russia. I mean, obviously it’s not officially recognised, and yet its services can be a proxy for the Kremlin.”  On 2 October 2019, initial reports stated that a contingent of at least 200 soldiers belonging to the Wanger group landed in Mozambique.  Kremlin Spokesperson immediately issues denying reports, reiterating “there are no Russian soldiers in Mozambique.” Three days following the report and Kremlin’s denial statement, local and Russian media reported that 2 Wagner Group soldiers were killed in an ambush. Almost three weeks later, another 5 Wanger Group soldiers were killed in an ambush. The Kremlin has not commented on either incident. The attacks perpetrated by suspected Ansar al-Sunna militants. 

Timeline

40 unidentified militants raid 3 police stations in Mocimboa da Praia, killing 17 people, including 2 police officers and a community elder. The militants managed to steal firearms and ammunition. Through police investigations, 14 of the 30 perpetrators were later captured. The survivors say that the militants said that they reject state health and education products, and do not pay taxes. In addition to capturing the 17 original perpetrators, the Mozambique police detained 52 suspected Ansar al-Sunna militants connected to the raid at police stations on 20 October 2017.

Fleeing residents state that Ansar al-Sunna militants and government forces are engaged in battle in Maluku village, 30 km outside Mocimboa da Praia. The skirmishes continue to Columbe village

Mozambique police announce the arrest of 100 Ansar al-Sunna suspected militant. The police say that the arrested individuals are connected to the October 5th The added that some of the arrested include foreign nationals

Mozambican government announces the closure of three mosques in Cabo Delgado. The government says that the three mosques are liked to Islamic fundamentalism.

Suspected Ansar al-Sunna militants attack Mitumbate and Maculo villages, brutality killing two and injuring two others. According to the villagers, the bodies of the two killed victims were decapitated then set on fire. Additionally, the militants destroyed at least 27 homes and a church.

Mocimboa da Praia district government names, Nuro Adremane, and Jafar Alawi, two Mozambican nationals as suspected organisers of the raids on police stations in October. The local government says that the two individuals have outside exposure, studying Islam in Tanzania, Sudan and Saudi Arabia. They also added that there is a possibility that they have received prior military training.

A local independent newspaper, “O Pais”, claims that Mozambican paratroopers and marines conduct operations in Mitumbate, possible Ansar al-Sunna stronghold. They came through the sea and by air. The newspaper alleges that at least 50 people killed, including women and children. It is unclear whether many of the dead were suspected militants.

An unspecified number of suspected Ansar al-Sunna militants attack a market and government administrative building in Olumbi town, Palma district. The attack resulted in the death of 5 people

A video is posted on social media encouraging people to join the fight for Islamic values and establish Islamic law as the law of the land. In the video, unidentified 6 men are speaking to the audience. The video is both in Portuguese and Arabic

Unidentified men allegedly attack Chitolo village, according to Radio Mocambique. They claim that the raid resulted in the burning of 50 homes and the death of unspecified villagers

Unidentified men attack Diaca and Velha villages in Nangade district and Mangwaza village in Palma district. Reports indicate at least four houses were burnt, one person was killed and another three were abducted. The Mozambican security forces conducted operations to capture culprits. The security forces say they arrested 30 suspected militants

South African newspaper, lowvelder, citing unnamed intelligence sources, alleges that at least 90 ISIS militants have infiltrated northern Mozambique. The article says that some of the ISIS fighters sent are from Tanzania. Mozambican government categorically dies the allegations. The spokesperson for the Mozambican police added that the country is protected by well-armed Frontier Guards. This allegation comes just a report from the African Union also stating that ISIS forces have a presence in Mozambique.

According to a local newspaper, Mediafax, a policeman has been fired over allegations of assisting insurgents in northern Mozambique. The article cites two studies conducted by Institute of Economic and Social Studies and Civil Society Support Mechanisms which detail the history of Ansar al-Sunna in Mozambique, including how their fighters are trained. The studies say former policemen and frontier guards are still providing training to militants, according to the two studies.

Ten people, including children, are reportedly beheaded in Palma districts of Cabo Delgado province. One of the deceased is believed to be the leader of Monjane village. One of the residents said that the leader was targeted because he provides information to the police about the whereabouts of Ansar al-Sunna. Locals claim that Ansar al-Sunna, or al-Shabaab in their terms, is responsible for the killings.

US embassy warns its citizens about a possible attack in Cabo Delgado. This comes just 12 days after ten people, including children, were beheaded by suspected Ansar al-Sunna militants and five days before five people were decapitated in Macomia district. Two days before the warning, in Macomia district, six men armed with machetes and guns attacked Naunde village killing at least seven people and injuring four others.

Similar to incidents reported over the past three weeks, armed men with machetes and firearms have attacked a village, this time in Nangade district. Four people have been confirmed dead. Reports also indicate several homes were burnt.

On 12th, an unspecified number of armed men attack a village in Macomia district. One villager is decapitated, several animals are killed, and houses are burnt down.

Suspected Ansar al-Sunna militants kill 12 and injure another 15 people in Paqueue village] in Cabo Delgado province. Ten of the twelve were shot dead while the other two were burnt to death. It is being reported at one of the dead bodies was also decapitated postmortem

Mustafa Suale Machinga, suspected Ansar al-Sunna commander, arrested after residents captured him in Litingina village in Nangade district in Cabo Delgado province. The 30-year-old previously served in the Mozambican armed forces.

Suspected Ansar al-Sunna militants beheaded four people, including the head of the village, in Manila village in Mocimboa da Praia district. Five other people were seriously injured while six houses were burnt down.

A days later, four insurgents were captured in Palma. It is yet clear whether the captured militants are the same ones as those who attacked a peasant couple in another neighbourhood in Palma a day prior. 1000 people have fled the area due to the increased terror threat.

Abdul Rahmin Faizal, a suspected insurgent from Uganda, was captured in Mozambique. Mozambican police say that Faizal is a senior figure within the growing insurgency movement in the northern part of the country. Faizal was arrested alongside three other Ugandan nationals. In a statement, the police commander in the region said that “these people are extremely dangerous. Their mission was to receive those recruited in Memba and other coastal districts and provide materials for attacks against Cabo Delgado communities. They buy knives, machetes and axes, which the criminals use to hack innocent Mozambicans to pieces. They were giving instructions on how to use these weapons.” The arrest comes just as another suspected Ansar al-Sunna militants attacked a village in Cabo Delgado district, killing and decapitating 7 men and kidnapping four women.

In March, according to Amnesty International, journalist Amade Abubacar, who was arrested 5 January 2019, is in critical condition indention. They claim that the allegations that the is ‘being ill-treated and denied medical treatment must be investigated thoroughly and transparently.” Amnesty International continues to say that the government must charge Amade with a “recognizable criminal offence or release him immediately and unconditionally.”

On January 5th, Amade Abubacar, a Mozambican journalist with the Nacadje Communitary Radio, was arrested by police while documenting deadly attacks by armed groups in Cabo Delgado province. The attacks, which began in 20`7, have been blamed on the local group Ansar al Sunna, sometimes referred to as al-Shabaab by locals. He is being held at the Mieze Correctional Centre in Pemba district, Cabo Delgado province.

ISIS claims that their militants have successfully attacked the Mozambican army in Mitopy, Mocimboa da Praia district. The attack, they claim, killed at least 16 people and wounded 12 others. The group also claimed that they managed to capture weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades from the military. The police refuted ISIS’ claims. Researchers and analysist are sceptical over ISIS’ claims,

Between 10 and 27 October, two separate incidents have resulted in the deaths of 7 Russian soldiers attached to the  Kremlin-linked private military contractor, Wagner group, by armed insurgents in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province. In the first incident, 2 soldiers were shot dead following an ambush in Macomia district. 17 days later, a second ambush resulted in the deaths of 5 soldiers in Muidumbe district. Reports say that four of the five were shot then beheaded while the fifth died later in the hospital. 

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