Since 2017, the Mozambican province of Cabo Delgado has been grappling with a brutal jihadist insurgency that threatens to spiral out of control and precipitate destabilizing effects throughout East Africa. Ansar al-Sunnah, the militant group behind the escalation of the insurgency, has often been described as “more criminal than jihadist”, stressing the centrality of the link between crime and terror and the socio-economic grievances under it. – these as structural drivers of conflict that must be fully broken down in order to respond effectively to Mozambique’s “faceless insurgency”.
On March 10, 2021, the US State Department announcement the designation of the Central African Province of the Islamic State (ISCAP) as a foreign terrorist organization, an unprecedented gesture for a jihadist network operating entirely south of the Sahara which underlines the displacement of the transnational jihadist threat from the Middle -Orient towards Africa. Although ISCAP operates as a network of low-affiliated organizations Stretching across sub-Saharan Africa from Uganda to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, nowhere does the group have a stronger presence than in Cabo Delgado province in northern Mozambique, where the local jihadist group Ansar al-Sunnah led a “Faceless uprising” resulting in the establishment of a de facto proto-state centered on the regional capital of Moçimboa da Praia. While the proliferation of violent extremist ideologies in Cabo Delgado is understandably of deep concern, the key to remember for policymakers seeking to understand the dynamics of contemporary conflicts in northern Mozambique should be a contextual appreciation of Cabo’s complex political economy. Delgado which underlies localized grievances against both the state and foreign investors. By addressing these “root causes” of the insurgency in Mozambique, policymakers can glean valuable information on the social, economic and development approaches needed to counter the rise of violent extremism in sub-Saharan Africa.
From Ansar al-Sunnah launched their first assault At a police checkpoint in October 2017, the insurgent group steadily escalated its violent activities, gradually increasing the scale of the attacks before finally launching a full-scale offensive that resulted in the capture of Moçimboa da Praia in August 2020. Like other ISIS affiliates, the Ansar al-Sunnah insurgency has been particularly known for his excessive brutality, with decapitation and common burning for the captives of the group. However, unlike other ISIS franchises where influxes of foreign fighters with global agendas have engulfed localized jihadist ecosystems, Ansar al-Sunnah relies primarily on local grievances to fuel its insurgent activities, exploiting widespread socio-economic deprivation, weak state capacity and hostility towards predatory extractive industries. for the benefit of corrupt local elites and foreign multinationals.
The political economy of radicalization in Mozambique
Cabo Delgado has long been one of Mozambique’s most marginalized provinces, boasting high levels of youth unemployment, low state capacity, and the lowest per capita incomes of any region in the country. Given the region’s rich natural resources (including timber and precious stones), porous borders with Tanzania, and the state’s lack of investment in creating viable economic opportunities, Cabo Delgado stands at center a thriving illicit border economy on which many local citizens depend for their livelihoods. In addition, the predominantly Muslim Mwani minority of Cabo Delgado has long harbored latent ethnic grievances against the Catholic Makonde because of perceptions of preferential treatment regarding scarce public sector employment opportunities. In keeping with the historically marginalized status of the remote northern region, Cabo Delgado has traditionally acted as a hub of resistance against state control, which is a major redoubt for Moçambique Freedom Front (FRELIMO) guerrillas during the Mozambican Civil War in the 1970s. Nevertheless, despite widespread impoverishment and neglect by state authorities, the province remained relatively problem-free before the discovery of huge reserves of oil and natural gas off the coast of Cabo Delgado in 2010.
However, initial hopes that on a large scale investments in offshore natural gas fields of $ 30 billion by multinational energy giants such as Total, ExxonMobil, BP, Eni and Shell would signal a turnaround in the economic situation of Cabo Delgado, which quickly evaporated. Legitimate grievances quickly emerged profits of these new extractive industries flowed mainly to Mozambican political elites and foreign investors, while the job opportunities promised to residents did not materialize. In addition, the constraint displacement of coastal fishing and farming communities making way for onshore support facilities without adequate compensation fueled further antagonism, both against foreign multinationals and between local communities, with displaced residents resettling on farmland encroaching on neighboring settlements. These grievances were further exacerbated by the ramifications of anthropogenic climate change in the low-lying coastal communities of Cabo Delgado. In 2019/20, unusual weather patterns driven by warming surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean have meant that historically without cyclone Mozambique suffered the shock of Cyclones Kenneth and Idai in rapid succession, destroying agricultural crops and devastating fishing villages, thus exacerbating underlying socio-economic deprivations.
In response to these dynamics of economic marginalization and social exclusion, a significant faction of Cabo Delgado’s large population of uneducated youth adopted Ansar al-Sunnah. Although the appeal of Salafist-jihadist ideologies may partly explain the appeal of Ansar al-Sunnah among marginalized youth in Cabo Delgado, the socioeconomic deprivations and anti-state grievances undoubtedly play a much more important role in the recruitment of Islamists in the province. Indeed, Ansar al-Sunnah has long been considered “more criminal than jihadist”, with the group exploiting a bewildering array of illicit income streams including illegal logging, drug trafficking and human trafficking, all of which contribute to a multi-million dollar transnational criminal enterprise masquerading as jihadist rhetoric.
This is not to say that religious extremist ideologies have no place in Mozambique’s insurgent ecosystem. During the 2010s, young local members of CISLAMO – a non-violent Salafist organization created in the 1980s – began to lawyer for the imposition of a stricter version of Islam than that preached by the traditionally moderate Sufi religious authorities of Cabo Delgado. In 2015 and 2016, Salafi agitators began removing their children from public schools, attacking liquor stores and demanding the imposition of Islamic clothing in public. In June 2016, these radicalized young people, familiarly called al-xababi (al-Shabab) stormed a local mosque, prompting a series of tit-for-tat reprisals that further polarized relations between moderates and radicals. It is widely accepted that such al-xababi the agitators have since turned into the ideological core of Ansar al-Sunnah. Nonetheless, the main motivations of the majority of jihadist recruits forming the backbone of the Cabo Delgado insurgency remain fundamentally rooted in economic grievances and social marginalization rather than ideological fervor.
Mozambican political elites, urged to attract and reassure foreign investors in the Cabo Delgado natural gas fields, sought to minimize the crisis by spreading a story of stability that conceptualizes jihadist insurgents as little more than local criminal gangs. While Ansar al-Sunnah’s ties to the criminal underworld are obvious, Maputo’s desire to cultivate a stable environment conducive to foreign direct investment underpinned a highly militarized response involving vast allegations of human rights violations by Mozambican forces, an approach that is more likely to push marginalized youth towards Ansar al-Sunnah, whether attracted by economic or ideological incentives. In addition, Maputo addiction on foreign private security contractors such as the Russian Wagner Group and the South African Dyck Advisory Group fueled the narrative of victimization by foreign intruders, further exacerbating localized grievances in Cabo Delgado.
Preventing disasters: the risk outlook for Cabo Delgado
Looking ahead, Cabo Delgado’s immediate prospects look grim with an endless insurgency on the horizon. In 2020, violence against civilians in the province doubled from 2019 levels. Since 2017, nearly 4,000 have been killed and 400,000 have leak in the southern provinces of Mozambique or across the border with neighboring Tanzania. This influx of refugees has led NGOs to voice concerns about food security and the spread of COVID-19 in cramped and unsanitary camps. In addition, evidence has emerged that Ansar al-Sunnah has started to develop more concrete links with other militant organizations operating in sub-Saharan Africa, such as the Allied Democratic Forces in Uganda and Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as becoming more and more integrated in the illicit cross-border economies that stretch across East Africa.
What is even more concerning is that the myriad of social, economic, political and ethnic grievances underlying the Cabo Delgado insurgency are not unique to sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, significant parallels can be drawn between the situation unfolding in northern Mozambique and the existing conflict dynamics in the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, the Niger Delta and the Lake Chad Basin. Given the past trajectories of these insurgencies, including their tendency to cross porous borders and generate overflow conflicts in neighboring countries, authorities in South Africa and Tanzania should be alert to signs of similar contagion effects coming from Cabo Delgado – and be prepared to take strong action to nip them in the bud. In Cabo Delgado itself, Mozambican authorities, foreign multinationals, humanitarian agencies and international partners must be prepared for an uphill struggle to tackle the root causes of radicalization and violent extremism. As with any effective humanitarian response, this will require a long-term, holistic commitment to address the myriad of social, economic, ethnoreligious and political grievances that fuel perceptions of marginalization and deprivation. A fundamental part of this process will be to restore confidence in formal state institutions, minimize negative environmental externalities and inspire foreign multinationals to deliver on their promises to create meaningful economic opportunities for the citizens of Cabo Delgado. Nonetheless, Mozambique’s “faceless insurgency” appears likely to worsen before it improves.