Recent attacks attributed to Islamist militants in Mozambique have raised alarms over the emergence of a jihadist movement in the southern half of Africa – a section of the continent previously relatively untroubled by violent Islamist extremism.
Little, if anything, was known about the group behind the attacks, in October 2017, that targeted three police or military posts in the coastal town of Moćimboa da Praia, in the northern province of Cabo Delgado, near the Tanzania border. Two police officers and 14 assailants were killed.
In an article published on 14 June, the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS) sheds new light on that nascent jihadist movement. Its article, ‘Is another Boko Haram or al-Shabaab erupting in Mozambique?’, is based on recent field research carried out by local academics and experts.
The October attack marked the beginning of a series of 20 raids which claimed over 50 lives in Cabo Delgado province. The assailants apparently called themselves Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamâ (often abbreviated to Al-Sunnah), which translates roughly as “adherents of the prophetic tradition”. But locals dub them Al-Shabaab, even though the group doesn’t seem to be formally affiliated to its more famous Somali namesake, notes ISS.
The group first appeared in the north of Cabo Delgado (in 2013 or early 2014) as a religious group, before setting up military cells in 2015.
Since October last year, its attacks continued at a lower level, but they took a sinister turn on 27 May 2018, when attackers killed 10 unarmed civilians, several of whom were beheaded, and burnt many houses in Monjane village in the district of Macomia.
Security forces said the assailants were common bandits, not terrorists. But analysts quoted by ISS said the gruesome attacks on civilians demonstrated that Al-Sunnah has raised its terror campaign to a new level.
Until recently, the southern half of Africa has been relatively untroubled by Islamist activities, unlike the Sahel-Sahara region, where a number of ISIS and Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups are active; or East Africa, where the Somalia-based Al-Shabaab has been causing havoc in Kenya and other neighbouring countries; or the Nigeria-based Boko Haram, whose violent insurgency has affected the whole Lake Chad basin region, which comprises Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Recent years have also seen the development of Islamist activities in the Great Lakes region. For instance, numerous armed groups – including Muslim Defense International, formerly known as the Alliance of Democratic Forces (ADF) – operate in eastern DRC.
The attacks by Al-Sunnah militants have targeted the province of Cabo Delgado, a predominantly Muslim area – around 58% of the population, compared to 18% for Mozambique as a whole.
According to ISS, most of Al-Sunnah’s members are “socially marginalised youth: without formal employment; without schooling” – largely from the Mwani ethnic group. The group is also believed to recruit young immigrants from other countries such as Tanzania, Somalia and the Great Lakes region.
ISS points to “degrading social conditions” in the Mozambique’s poorest province, as well as a sense of “political exclusion”, as contributing factors of the radicalisation of some youth in the region.
Training and funding
The militants are trained both locally – sometimes by disaffected police officers and security guards – and externally, in Tanzania and the Great Lakes region, by militia chiefs hired by Al-Shabaab in Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia, according to ISS. The militants preach the usual doctrines: enforcement of Sharia (Islamic law); not sending children to state schools; and feeling local communities are not practising Islam correctly.
Adherents of Al-Sunnah are recognisable through their uniforms and distinctive appearance, wearing white turbans, robes and long black shorts, shaving their hair and sporting large beards, said ISS. They are “armed with white weapons to symbolise jihad”, the institute said.
The picture of Al-Sunnah painted by the researchers quoted by ISS resembles the beginnings of violent Islamist extremist groups elsewhere, like Boko Haram, some analysts have warned.
They finance themselves from illicit activities such as wood, charcoal, ivory and ruby smuggling, and outside donations.