On Tuesday, 23 October, more than 100 people were arrested in Tanzania, accused of planning to create radicalization camps in Northern Mozambique. This series of arrests is part of widespread security operations in South and East Tanzania.
Two weeks before, 189 suspected Islamist militants, including 42 women, began their trials in the northern province of Cabo Delgado. The suspects were accused of carrying out coordinated attacks against the police near the town of Mocimboa da Praia. In one incident, two police officers were killed and another five were injured. The charges included homicide, use of prohibited weapons, crimes against state security and public disorder. The 189 suspects are being tried under a new anti-terrorism law passed in April 2018 that allows for heavier sentences for crimes such as these.
Background of the jihadist movement in Mozambique
When it comes to jihadist movements on the African continent, the media spotlight is focused onto very specific areas. The most attention is placed in West Africa, where Boko Haram and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are wreaking havoc in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and the Sahel Region. Al-Shabaab in Somalia, who conduct periodic attacks in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, are another jihadist group that the world knows and fears.
Unfortunately, since Mozambique is not in any of these regions, few people have paid much attention to what is happening in this Southern African country. Since October 2017, there have been approximately 50 suspected attacks in the North, specifically in the Cabo Delgado region. As is usually the case, the jihadists are interested in imposing Sharia Law, starting in the Muslim-majority province of Cabo Delgado. Ansar al-Sunna, the most recognised Islamist group in the country, is intent on creating an Islamic state. Locally, the people refer to some of the jihadists as al-Shabaab, assuming a link between the recent spate of attacks and the Somali group, although the link is not strongly evident. Nonetheless, Dr. Alex Vines, the head of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, supports this view stating that Somali jihadist groups, such as al-Shabaab, provide funding to Mozambican groups through the illegal sale of precious stones, drugs and timber. As is also the case with Boko Haram recruits, socio-economic factors contribute significantly to the radicalization of the youth in Mozambique. According to academics at Maputo University researching the rise of jihadism in Mozambique, “Al-Sunnah wa Jama’ah members tend to be socio-economically marginalised young people, without a decent education or formal employment.”
The most common methods of attack seem to be guns, grenades and knife assaults. According to reports, about 90 people have been killed in such attacks and more than 1000 families displaced. Just a month ago, 12 people were killed and 14 wounded in a similar incident. Based on eyewitness accounts, it seems the militants come from diverse backgrounds including East and Central Africa – in the recent trial of 189 militants, many of them come from Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Burundi, as well as Mozambique.
Obviously, law enforcement and the military have been used most prominently by the Mozambique government to counter the rise of jihadist groups in the country. Following an increase in the frequency and intensity of attacks, President Filipe Nyusi assured the citizens that the military will respond firmly and ruthlessly to pursue and capture the jihadists. In addition to mass arrests in Tanzania and Mozambique, several mosques were forced to close.
It is too soon to know how the jihadist movement in Mozambique is going to proceed, as it only began to pick up steam by the end of last year. Like many jihadist groups around the world, they’re primarily attacking government institutions, like the police, while simultaneously spreading fear in the communities by attacking individual villagers that they believe are either collaborators with the enemy or just disapproving of their methods and goals.
The Mozambique government must learn from previous attempts, successful and unsuccessful, to combat jihadist movements. The use of the military to overcome socio-economic and political grievances has rarely, if ever, been fruitful. Despite this, Mozambique government officials, like many other African governments, continue to pursue such groups in such a manner. This propensity also stems from the fact that the government has used exactly such tactics while dealing with insurgent movements. Like in other African countries, the heavy-handed use of military force further disenfranchises the community and radicalises many of the affected.
Additionally, the Mozambican government should not let the discovery of natural gas off the shores of Cabo Delgado in 2012 to influence their response to the jihadist movement. The results of this mistake can been seen in Nigeria and Somalia where the presence of oil and the desire to extract valuable resources have blinded the government to many nasty consequences of their policies. It is understandable that Mozambique would like to capitalise on its natural gas as it is still one of the poorest and underdeveloped countries in the world (currently, the Mozambican economy is still dependant on agriculture). The ability to extract that natural gas will be massively beneficial to its economy. But this should never be an excuse for the government and its officials to curb the rights of the people.
For now, it is crucial that the world pays attention to the rise of jihadism in Mozambique and offers assistance and support to the Southern African country to holistically tackle the problem.