By Diego Maloney
Known locally as “al-Shabaab” (although not affiliated with the Somalia-based terrorist group of the same name) and internationally as Ansar al-Sunna, the Islamist militant organisation has for years terrorized communities in northeast Mozambique, with attacks becoming ever more frequent and ferocious.
Active in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province since 2015, the group has expanded the scope of its operations with a series of violent attacks since October 2017 in pursuit of establishing an Islamic caliphate in the region. Despite being nominally organised under a single banner, the group is known to work in different cells that do not coordinate their actions. Though primarily active in the province’s Mocímboa da Praia and Palma districts, the group has at times taken large swathes of territory both inland and along the coast in the last year and regularly raids military installations and villages.
Though radical Salafist ideology plays a major role, social and economic stressors afflicting the province serve as Ansar al-Sunna’s greatest strength in advancing both group cohesion and the radicalisation of potential recruits. Primarily the result of high youth unemployment, several other factors enable recruitment efforts. Extractive mining of natural resources, land expropriation without compensation and a heavy-handed government response to local grievances has allowed for a steady flow of local recruitment to continue unabated. Former policemen, who joined Ansar al-Sunna because of disgruntlement with the government, and mercenaries from other Islamist organisations in east Africa have helped professionalise the group through training.
What stands out as the most important aspect to understanding the dynamics of the conflict is how cyclical it has become. Local recruitment is facilitated by ineffective governance as corruption scandals have marred the nation’s economy through embezzlement of funds and unregulated operations of foreign companies. As the economy stalls and the number of disgruntled citizens grow, recruitment efforts surge as does the number and scope of attacks in the region. This has halted economic production in the once-bustling mining and petroleum sectors, further decimating the local job market in the process.
An “iron fist” approach by government forces which includes targeting mosques, and the hiring of foreign military contractors such as the South African-based Dyck Advisory Group (DAG) are other examples of how the poor response by government officials has helped to establish Ansar al-Sunna, rather than dismantle it. Anti-graft laws have been passed in the last decade but it remains to be seen how government forces will allocate sufficient resources to address the growing presence and influence of Ansar al-Sunna in the near-term. A renewed strategy will be necessary in order to establish the rule of law once again in Cabo Delgado.
Diego Maloney is a US-based political and security risk analyst.