Is another Boko Haram or al-Shabaab erupting in Mozambique?

Thursday June 14, 2018
by Peter Fabricius

SADC and Maputo should be very concerned about the spike in terrorist-type violence.

A sudden upsurge in brutal violence in northern Mozambique, including
the beheadings of women and children, has sounded alarms that a violent
jihadist movement like Boko Haram or al-Shabaab could be evolving.
Since October last year, over 50 people have been killed in about 20
attacks in Cabo Delgado province on the Tanzania border.

Gruesome footage of headless and mutilated bodies has been
circulating on social media, accelerating an exodus of citizens from the
region. Multinational energy companies poised to exploit Cabo Delgado’s
huge liquefied natural gas reserves have paused. Fears are growing that
the violence could sabotage the exploitation of this valuable resource which remains Mozambique’s one great hope for defeating poverty.

Those allegedly responsible for the attacks apparently call
themselves Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamâ (often abbreviated to al-Sunnah). Locals
dub them al-Shabaab, even though the group doesn’t seem to be formally
affiliated to its more famous Somali namesake.

Has full-blown violent Islamist extremism arrived in Mozambique, and
indeed in southern Africa? Or are these just poor, marginalised locals
presenting ordinary crimes as something else? Or are they perhaps the
Mozambican National Resistance (Renamo)
in disguise? Or, even more cynically, are mercenaries deliberately
stoking violence to win a lucrative contract to protect the natural gas

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Interpretations have differed widely. But the latest attacks seem to
be forging a growing consensus that this is indeed an incipient local
variant of the sort of violent Islamist extremism seen elsewhere in
Africa. Both Mozambique and the Southern African Development Community
(SADC) should be paying more attention.

The birth of al-Sunnah in Cabo Delgado dates back to 2013 or early
2014, according to independent security analyst Johann Smith. But on 5
October last year it caught wider attention. Thirty to 40 gunmen
launched well-coordinated simultaneous attacks on three police or
military posts in the coastal town of Moćimboa da Praia, 70 km south of
the Tanzania border. Two police officers and 14 assailants were killed,
Smith said.

The attacks in Cabo Delgado 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.

Police spokesman Inacio Dina told reporters in Maputo that the
killers were common bandits, not terrorists. But analysts believe these
gruesome attacks on civilians demonstrate that al-Sunnah has raised its
terror campaign to a new level.

The upsurge in violence is also threatening Mozambique’s $30 billion gas bonanza, Bloomberg reported last week. It said
London-listed explorer Wentworth Resources hadn’t been able to gain
access to its onshore licences near Moćimboa da Praia due to safety
concerns since the attacks. This week Reuters reported
that US-based Anadarko Petroleum declined to comment on reports that it
had suspended work on its massive natural gas project in Mozambique.

Some observers are suspicious about the coincidence of the upsurge in
attacks and the awarding of a $750 million contract for protecting gas
fields to a private security consortium. The consortium involves Erik
Prince – founder of the famous US private security/military company –
and a Mozambique company linked to government intelligence. Others have
implicated ISIS and al-Shabaab, and some dismiss all this as alarmist

However the most comprehensive known investigation of al-Sunnah so
far suggests this is a genuine violent extremist Islamist phenomenon,
with some links to foreign jihadists, though not necessarily directed by

Islamic cleric Sheikh Saide Habibo and academics Salvador Forquilha,
director of the Institute of Economic and Social Studies and João
Pereira, assistant professor at Eduardo Mondlane University, conducted
three field trips to Cabo Delgado and Nampula provinces in November,
December and February. They interviewed a wide cross-section of society.

In their report presented late last month, they concluded that Ahlu
Sunnah Wa-Jamâ (which translates roughly as ‘adherents of the prophetic
tradition’) first appeared in the north of Cabo Delgado as a religious
group. In 2015 military cells were formed.

The province has a Muslim population of about 58%, compared to 18%
for Mozambique as a whole. Most al-Sunnah adherents are youths who feel
local communities are not practising correct Islam, the researchers
found. They don’t send their children to state schools.

The group’s leaders have links with ‘religious circles, commercial
and military activities of radical Islamist groups in Tanzania, Somalia,
Kenya and the Great Lakes Region’ – mostly through training there, the
report said.

Adherents have a uniform and distinctive appearance, wearing white
turbans, robes and long black shorts; shaving their hair and sporting
large beards. They are ‘armed with white weapons to symbolise jihad’.
The picture of al-Sunnah painted by the three researchers resembles the
beginnings of violent Islamist extremist groups elsewhere, like Boko Haram, some analysts warn.

Most members are ‘socially marginalised youth: without formal
employment; without schooling’. They’re largely from the Mwani ethnic
group, though they include young immigrants from other countries such as
Tanzania, Somalia and the Great Lakes Region. These people have been radicalised by ‘degrading social conditions’ in the country’s poorest province, as well as a sense of ‘political exclusion’.

The members 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. They preach the usual doctrines, including sharia
law. They finance themselves from illicit activities such as wood,
charcoal, ivory and ruby smuggling and outside donations.

The report concludes with several pertinent questions, including how
this Islamic radicalisation might affect current efforts to stabilise
Mozambique economically and politically and what government should do
about it. Some reports say the government has already responded harshly
by clamping down indiscriminately with many arrests and the closure of
mosques and madrassas.

If Pereira et al. are correct, the Mozambican authorities should
start by acknowledging the real nature of the problem. They should then
take care to target their counter-extremism measures more selectively
while tackling the socio-economic root causes of extremism that are so evident in Cabo Delgado.

Maputo should take note in particular of the recent United Nations Development Programme report Journey to Extremism in Africa.
Researchers interviewed 718 people, 495 of whom had been directly
involved in extremist groups. For 71% of the respondents, the tipping
point that prompted them to join extremist groups was violent or
repressive government actions against them or others close to them.

Smith fears that without proper intervention, al-Sunnah could go the
way of Boko Haram. He is concerned that neither Mozambique nor SADC are
taking the threat seriously enough.



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