Home / Counter-Extremism / Jihadists in Mozambique: Where did they come from and how did it happen?

Jihadists in Mozambique: Where did they come from and how did it happen?

29 December, 2020

By Mette Kaalby Vestergaard – Research Assistant

Following independence from Portugal in 1975 came 16 years of civil war for the South-east African country of Mozambique – a conflict manifesting a small part of the global Cold War of those years. The anticommunist governments of South Africa and Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe) played a significant role in supporting the Mozambican government. At the beginning of the 1990s, peace came along with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the abolition of the apartheid system in neighboring South Africa and consequently the end of the military intervention by Cape Town. Moreover, Mozambique’s improving performance in the Human Development Index (HDI) along with other noteworthy enhancements in living standards for the population indicated a growing prosperity that should have been contusive to securing this stability in the long-term.

Developing peacefully compared to some of its African neighbors in the 1990s, Mozambique was considered by many to be a bastion of continental progress. However, November 2020 witnessed a horrific attack which led to the beheading of over 50 people by Islamist militants. This assault was the most serious incident yet in a Jihadist campaign that has been waged in the north of the country over the last three years.


The group representing the extremists is known as Al Sunnah (Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah), and is constituted mainly of young people of Mozambique nationality. Initially, it was primarily a religious sect and only later took up arms. The first members using the name Al Sunnah were identified on Southern Tanzanian territory back in 2015 – followers of Kenyan extremist Aboud Rogo Mohammed who, before his death in 2015, was known for his fund-raising for the Somali terrorist group Al-Shabaab.

Despite these first sown seeds on Tanzanian ground, the group is today mainly constituted of Mozambican nationals and this is also where it grew into the group known today. As such, inspiration to and support for the mobilization of the local young Mozambicans came from abroad, but the militarized group rose domestically within the territory of Cabo Delgado, today being a militant group which has international connections and networks. Hence, they have both internal and external support, and in 2019 stated their allegiance to Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP). The means and goals are similar to the ones exhibited earlier by ISCAP, namely attacks on civilians in the name of Allah, and with the intention of implementing sharia law on their territory.

Bad governance and poverty as the best conditions for terrorism

The Northern region of Cabo Delgado has been plagued with violence since 2017, with the local people and military fighting the Jihadists side by side. The population of Cabo Delgado is religiously distinct from the rest of the citizenry, as it constitutes a rather isolated group of Muslims. Moreover, this region also suffers challenges with poverty and unemployment, amongst other things, and has a notably high number of young people in the population.

In 2010, the opportunities of recently discovered gas reserves were beginning to settle in the minds of the Mozambican population, especially the youth. Unfortunately, the discoveries led to an increase in human rights abuses and land expropriations that have continued ever since, despite the hope and good expectations that first filled the population when the resources were found. The human rights abuses referred to include forced labor and child labor. Also, the media and general freedom of speech has been increasingly muzzled after the discovery in 2010. On top of this, restraints to the civil society environment have been introduced.

The region has also suffered further from bad economic governance following the discovery of new natural resources. Exemplifying this, the gain from the mining industry has led to an extreme increase in income for the few, instead of the many. Focus has as such been more on cash exports to immediately benefit those controlling resources, and less on investment and development related to industries for sustainable growth within Mozambique for the local people.

For terrorist groups to build a sustainable foundation there has to be a window open to gain power, support and influence. Such a window will be easier to exploit if the security structures are not in place and the population do not trust the government to work in their interest. It is, therefore, incumbent on governments to prevent such a window opening in order to block such groups from gaining a secure foothold. But due to poor governance in the North and high rates of corruption, a de-facto safe zone for terrorists has been allowed to develop, and now poses a critical threat to Mozambique’s national security.

A neglected youth

A factor very likely to have affected this rise of terror is that the disappointment from the failure of the discovered gas reserves to lead to an improvement in life quality for the young has led to a divided society. In essence, it has meant that it is very likely that the youth has felt neglected as a result of the failure of promised economic growth to deliver tangible gains – most notably better education and living conditions. This disappointment has resulted in a hostility towards the government and the society in which they live, and led to them seizing weapons to express their dissatisfaction.

Context: smuggling and illicit trade

Mozambique has a long coast line, which provides an opportunity for illicit trade and smuggling – something that the country has traditionally been used for due to its placing between east and south Africa. This pre-existing pattern has been magnified by a movement of drug smuggling routes from Kenya and Tanzania, to costal Mozambique. There have been indications over recent years that Northern Mozambique is becoming the new center for drug smuggling. This is an important dynamic to notice, as this shows that the government is not capable or not willing to combat smugglers. This absence of effective governance and the creation of a de-facto sanctuary for criminals only served to facilitate the creation of a safe zone for terrorists.

As such, it is important to note that if drugs can get through, so can finance, weapons and people. As already noted, relations between Al Sunnah and ISCAP and also Al-Shabaab in Somalia have been identified, despite a lack of data on the degree of collaboration and fidelity between the groups. This network combined with its geographic location enable them to establish a flow of finance, weapons and people back and forth to Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia. This tendency was also seen back in August 2020 when Al Sunnah took over the coastal city of Mocimboa de Praia and gained control over the port which is primarily used for oil exports, but also holds potential for the above mentioned activities.

 Jihadism: A regional dynamic?

Another perspective is that the growth of global Islamic extremism has catalyzed the creation of the violent groups in the region in general. However, it is more likely that the observed phenomena have resulted from a combination of this and the above-described context.

A question that comes to mind at this point is if the violent jihadists in Cabo Delgado can be seen as a regional dynamic or an internal and local matter. Quantitative data indicates that it should be approached as a regional issue. The terrorism index in Kenya, which implies the frequency and level of impact from terrorism, has been falling since 2014, while rising in Mozambique. While Tanzania has been relatively less affected by Islamic terrorism, the number of attacks they experienced decreased along with Kenya’s. Hence, it seems that the movements of criminal activities described above and the Islamist violence that often follows, are combined and affect each other in this case, which make it a regional dynamic.

Government action

Until now, the Mozambican government has been against an intervention that includes other state’s militaries on their territory, though they have a newly established combined mission with Tanzanian forces on their bilateral boarder. They have as such only acquired help from other South African countries by receiving military supplies. Until now, this has proved insufficient to combat the hostile groups in Cabo Delgado to any significant degree.

Additionally, the action, given its military character, has primarily been at government level, and hence not included local initiatives such as the civil society network. As mentioned earlier, corruption has oppressed civil society actors by excluding them from the governing process and limiting their freedom of expression. It has been proved in other cases such as Nigeria and Mali, that this is crucial for combating the local networks of terror, especially when dealing with young people.

Prevention and prospects

Despite the Muslim population in both neighboring Zimbabwe and Zambia constituting a very small minority, preventative measures should be put in place in terms of identifying areas vulnerable to the rise of Islamist terror groups. As a consequence of the efforts to fight the jihadists, the existing groups in Northern Mozambique are very likely to attempt to seize territory and influence in neighboring countries where possible. The same goes for Tanzania, where a lot of attention is already given to this issue.

For now, the next few months in Northern Mozambique do not look promising with regards to the protection of the civilian population. Fighters are consciously joining the Al-Sunnah and violence continues to create huge refugee flows and cause death. The newly established combined military effort between Mozambique and Tanzania to combat the violence, will bring further clarity to whether this is a local phenomenon or if this will only move the group to a different locality joined by other jihadists from the region.

Image: Bridge over Rio Lúrio, border between Nampula and Cabo Delgado provinces, Mozambique (Source: F. Mira via CC BY-SA 2.0)

About Mette Kaalby Vestergaard

Mette Kaalby Vestergaard holds a MSc. in International Security and Law from University of Southern Denmark and an undergraduate degree in Market and Management Anthropology. She has basic military training, acquaintance with teaching and experience from a peace building NGO in Ghana, where she worked with early warning systems in West Africa. Her research focus is on Sub-Saharan Africa and cross-border conflict dynamics and subsequent risk analysis. Additionally she provides research on topics such as genocide prevention, peace building, R2P, cultural conflicts, civil-military collaboration and military operations.