Mozambique: The New Theatre of Extremism in Africa

Al Shadab/ Image sor Representation/ Independent UK

Taking a toll on the Mozambican government, the Islamic extremists’ group Al-Shabaab captured the port in Mocimboa da Praia in Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique. The Mozambican military had to retreat after days of fighting due to weak strategy and lack of resources. The capture is in continuation of the insurgency efforts which started in 2017 by Islamic extremist groups. The control over the port will give them an upper hand on the major development activities that are in progress ever since the discovery of natural gas deposits in the deepwater Rovuma Basin, which lies off the northern coast of the country. A massive influx of foreign investment in the area has made the Cabo Delgado home to Africa’s three largest liquid natural gas (LNG) projects, combined worth around $60 billion U.S. dollars. The Mozambican government has downplayed the impact of this attack in their official statement having accepted that the port is captured by the insurgents but also stating that the situation in Cabo Delgado province is under control and security forces are working towards regaining the control of the port. The challenge that the Mozambican government has in front of them is, not only to eradicate the Islamic extremism from their country and ensure the safety of local communities but, also to provide a sense of safety to the foreign investors.

Africa has been known to be rich in natural resources and still has a lot of unexplored areas. This is the reason many multinational companies are investing here. Most of the central African countries are going through civil wars or transitioning to a new regime. The general population in these countries have suffered and are affected the most. The mainframe Islamic militant groups have been contained (to some extent) and uprooted from their strongholds in the Middle East. The COVID-19 and instability in Middle East politics have allowed militant leadership to revamp and regroup. Africa has a significant Muslim population under its shed. 27 out of 56 Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) member states are African countries, with a population of around 450 million Muslims. Coupling all the above factors together, Africa has become a new theatre of Islamic militancy. There are many local groups across the continent claiming allegiance to ISIL and Al-Qaeda to gain attention, funding, and spread their ideology among people. According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, Islamist militancy in Africa has doubled since 2012 when there were 1,402 events linked to these groups. Over the past 10 years, there has been a ten-fold increase in violent events (from 288 in 2009 to 3,050 in 2018). Islamist insurgency across the continent is higher than it has ever been. Initially, countries like Somalia were the main focal point related to such activities, but recent trends show that the Islamic insurgency has spread across the continent. Mozambique is the only country in southern Africa which shows the presence of Islamic extremist elements. Reports suggest that as many as 14 different groups are active in 12 different countries across the continent. Also in recent years, states like Somalia saw a gradual decline in the attacks and activities related to the insurgents, and the Sahel region has become the most violent area of the region. Lake Chad and North Africa were also affected by these activities. The presence of al-Shabaab in Cabo Delgado is linked with the Somalian “al-Shabaab” by some reports. However, observers of the events have still not come to the consensus about the same. The mainstream national and international media have been given very limited access to the region by the government and information related to the ground reality of the region is meagre. Since the attacks of 2017 journalists have been detained by the government, out of which few were foreigner journalists. 

Mozambique has still not risen from the after-effects of civil war that ended in 1992. This war had pushed Mozambique into deep waters of poverty. More than half of Mozambique’s 24 million people continue to live below the poverty line. The discovery of gas fields near Mozambique’s coast was going to play an imperative role in their economic growth and development. Apart from the ideological war between political parties, the country is suffering from internal issues like poverty, corruption, and health and sanitation. Along with the administrational issues, the intricate terrain makes it even more difficult for the government to provide adequate facilities and take care of the citizens. This has developed a sense of distrust and anger in the minds of the local population. The phenomenon of radical Islamism is fairly new in Mozambique. The 2017 attack on government’s institutions in Mocímboa da Praia district capital in Cabo Delgado province by an unknown group, later identified as Ahlu Sunnah wa Jama’a (ASWJ) or locally known as “al-Shabaab” or “Swahili Sunnah” claiming to practice radical Islam was the first evidence of the presence of such extremism in the country. The violence started in 2017 had a specific agenda restricted to grievances against local police and private security forces. As time has passed by, the gap between the government and locals has widened. What was started by a few local agitated youths has turned into a trained assault group in due course of time with the emergence of new leadership. Cabo Delgado has been under threat and has become a new region affected by an Islamic insurgency. Ever since the start of the insurgency in the region more than 700 civilians have been killed by the militants and around 200,000 were displaced. Security forces and government buildings have also been targeted. The year 2020 has witnessed a rise in the attacks by the insurgents in the region due to the COVID-19 situation as the government’s priority was to control the pandemic. The modus operandi commonly practised by the insurgents is to attack majorly in the outskirts of the district capital, targeting the civilian population to gain control over the nearby area. Simultaneously, they engage with security forces to control the supply chain routes and to weaken the presence of security forces in the region. Such attacks create an area around the district capital where governance is difficult, giving insurgents an advantage when they attack the capital.

Al Shadab/ Image for representation/ Platform Media

The actions of militant group Al-Shabaab responsible for the insurgency in Cabo Delgado believes in the religious fundamentalism of combating Western influence, the radical implantation of Sharia law, and fighting the enemies of Islam. They adhere to the preachings of the late radical Kenyan Imam Aboud Rogo, who was killed back in 2012 by unnamed assailants in Mombasa. The leaders of the group have links with fundamentalist Islamic cells in Tanzania, Kenya, Somalia, and the Great Lakes region. They have developed a sophisticated diverse system to recruit young poor men from various channels including but not limited to madrasas, social media networks, and by using Aboud Rogo’s videos, whereby using “plot theory” he was seen spreading propaganda. Like other terrorist groups in the past, Mocímboa da Praia’s Al-Shabaab also profoundly utilized social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and videos to recruit combatants. They have also adopted the marriage strategies, in which the foreign members of the group get married in the local family and receive support from locals and financial resources as well. In return, these families are not attacked by the group. The local group controlled two mosques where they taught their thoughts and version of Islamic ideology. This has provided a base for the extremist group to recruit those who have received education from such mosques. This was closed by the government when the attacks started in 2017. The recruiters have focused on locals with grievances against the government, police forces, and private security of these companies working there. They have been interacting with local imams and leaders to help them recruit youths by transforming their grievances into a feeling of righteous revenge. The Mocímboa da Praia Al-Shabab has grown from 50 agitators of local mosques to an armed force of some 300 well-equipped jihadists from various parts of the continent. The Al-Shabaab is financing its operations through getting themselves involved in local illicit activities such as timber trafficking, production, and marketing of charcoal, exploration and sale of mineral resources particularly rubies, ivory hunting and it’s marketing network. The involvement of the group cannot be ruled out from the so-called “Southern Route” in which Mozambique along with Tanzania have the main corridor for heroin and cocaine trafficking. According to the data published by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a U.S. based crisis-mapping project, there have been more than 100 violent incidents in the Cabo Delgado region this year which had around 285 reported fatalities that takes the toll to more than 1100 from the beginning of the insurgency. The lack of good governance in the region has also contributed to this situation. The region of Cabo Delgado has received a great amount of investment in recent years to support the extraction of petroleum, natural gas, and the world’s largest pink sapphire and ruby deposits. The locals were promised that this will bring employment and development in the area, however, jobs have gone mainly to foreigners. The government has already put a halt on artisanal mining, which was the primary source of livelihood for the locals. There have been reports of human rights abuses by UK-based British Gemfields. Leigh Day, a law firm based in the UK has reported that Gemfields was involved in the illegal land occupation, and ill-treatment of miners, with the collusion of local police and private security forces which has led to the death of 29 miners. These are the recorded deaths, although the actual count is unknown. A few experts put forward a theory, which says that the kins of death miners and those who were displaced due to such incidents, fostered Islamic fundamentalism out of revenge. Anadarko Petroleum, a US-based company, had been sanctioned by the Mozambican government to build an onshore liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in Palma, one of the districts in Cabo Delgado. The locals were assured that a significant amount will be given specifically towards the resettlement efforts, development, and benefit of local communities. Corruption along with tribal divergences and political affiliation in the country has also a major part to play in this. According to the Corruption Perception Index 2019, Mozambique ranks 146 out of 180 countries. The police and public administration have major transparency issues and are highly susceptible to bribes. This is one of the main reasons that these human rights abuses and violent crimes by the MNCs and police forces have gone unnoticed. The locals felt helpless, resulting in the adoption of such outlawed methods.

The future of Mozambique seems to be clouded by the presence of extremism on its soil. On one hand, the discovery of pockets of valuable natural resources worth 60 billion dollars and investment by multinational companies promises to bring them out of the generation-long poverty crisis, whereas, on the other hand, the presence and prosperity of Al-Shabaab in Cabo Delgado will take the country back to civil war times if the situation is not handled promptly. The most affected party of these growing tussles between the militants and security forces are the local people. The militants are justifying their actions in the name of grievances and Islamic law, whereas the military police and private forces are raging through the villages implementing extra-judicial methods since they were clueless about the members of the militia as every one of them was dressed in local attire. The police are complaining of being the weaker side in terms of arms and weaponry. Bringing peace and solution would require a multi-pronged approach.

Image source: ET

The regional powers must come together to tackle the situation as the situation will affect them in the long run. There needs to be a consolidated effort to tackle this situation. The police and private military contractors must be well equipped with advanced arms and ammunition. This can be done by taking the help of neighbouring countries and others in the international community. They must also be told and trained to handle locals with care and not to abuse human rights. This has been one of the driving factors of locals joining militant groups. The interaction between the government and the locals needs to be strengthened. The help of humanitarian service groups is strongly suggested for this purpose. The government needs to help displaced locals in transition and settlement. The government needs to act swiftly and strongly towards the investigation of alleged crimes and to find out the large-scale impact of these multinationals working in the region. The grievances must be addressed to loosen the deep roots of distrust of locals that these militant groups are using to their advantage. If the conflict in Cabo Delgado extended for any reason and order of the Mozambican government did not restore in the Mocimboa da Praia’s port, the Mozambican government needs to identify the alternative for the port in the country to maintain the business continuity and minimize the losses. The Mozambican government should also consider involving the international community to resolve the issue but that option might cost them the share of the natural reserves. The international economic bloc such as the Southern African Development Community (SDAC) cannot be passive with their contingency planning about the issue, as it has affected a member state. The efforts of hard brute force must be combined with soft power to completely eradicate the militancy and prosper towards a better future. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for Mozambique and how it will impact the situation on the continent.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Kuldeep Sharma and Koushlender Singh Bundela

Kuldeep Sharma is a security professional with demonstrated experience in the field of security, geopolitical, and counter-terrorism intelligence. He is currently working as an Asset Protection Officer with a leading Oil & Energy Company || Koushlender Singh Bundela is a security professional having experience in Geopolitical risk assessment and Counter-terrorism. Currently working as Manager Governance and Integration in one of the leading hydrocarbon industries

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