Understanding the Insurgency in Mozambique

Bridge over Rio Lúrio in Cabo Delgado. Photo Credit: F H Mira

Over the last year, the Mozambican Salafi-jihadist group Ahl al-Sunna wa Jama’ah (ASWJ)[i] has grown in scope, committing twice as many attacks as in 2019.[ii] Although there has been low-level violence in the Cabo Delgado region of Mozambique for years, the extent of the conflict increased in 2020, culminating in ASWJ’s extended takeover of the port city of Mocímboa da Praia. Given the inability of the Mozambican government to contain the insurgency and the threat to neighboring countries, the conflict is deserving of greater international attention and countermeasures.

All Insurgency Is Local

Although ASWJ maintains transnational linkages, the group is the result of domestic pressures and conditions in Mozambique. At first glance, ASWJ seems like an Islamist terrorist group emboldened through affiliation with the Islamic State. Both Mozambican government officials and Islamic State – Central Africa Province (IS-CAP) statements assert that recent attacks are by the Islamic State.[iii] However, not only are those ties murky, focusing solely on the threat that the Islamic State poses in the region ignores domestic insurgencies like ASWJ.

The role of Islam, particularly Wahhabist interpretations, should not be understated, but local ethnic and economic situations laid the groundwork for ASWJ’s extremist ideology to find support in Mozambique. Cabo Delgado and bordering provinces Niassa and Nampula have the highest rates of poverty in Mozambique; they have not reaped the rewards of natural resources, particularly natural gas and ruby deposits.[iv] Early ASWJ recruits included disempowered and impoverished male youths in Mocímboa da Praia who looked to Islam as a means of challenging the state and its economic structures.[v] From there, the group developed by articulating a message that resonated with the underserved population in northeast Mozambique.

Economic, social, and political marginalization are all exacerbated by ethnic divides in the region. The Mwani, a local Muslim ethnic group, holds grievances against majority ethnic groups, particularly the predominantly Catholic Makonde.[vi] This societal cleavage is useful for ASWJ recruitment and popularity, because ASWJ offers the possibility of increased standing and economic benefits if the current social structures are overturned. The geographic origins and spoken languages of many members indicate that the Mwani has served as a useful recruitment pool for ASWJ.[vii]

At the same time, ASWJ exists in a fluid environment where other jihadist groups exert ideological influence. Followers of a Kenyan imam, Aboud Rogo Mohammed, have played an important role in the radicalization of disaffected individuals in Cabo Delgado. Moreover, although IS-CAP has claimed that ASWJ is an affiliate, their relationship remains tenuous and uncertain.[viii]

A Failure to Concentrate

A combination of ASWJ’s strategic decisionmaking and the Mozambican military’s conventional weakness has prevented Mozambique from exerting enough force in Cabo Delgado to crush the insurgency. Even before the long-term takeover of Mocímboa da Praia over the summer, ASWJ attempted to take control of regional transportation links.[ix] Since the capture of Mocímboa da Praia, ASWJ has worked to control the main road linking to the south and develop increased maritime capabilities to complicate government operations.[x]

ASWJ has also avoided overextending itself, a problem that many other insurgencies face, by remaining conservative about occupying territory. Seizing territory can be useful for financing an insurgency and attracting new recruits, but it makes a group vulnerable to counterattacks. ASWJ has been quick to leave population centers after capturing them for a day or two, which they repeatedly did in Mocímboa da Praia before maintaining a presence there.[xi] As such, ASWJ benefits from financing, recruitment, and public displays of force, but avoids direct confrontations with security forces.

The weakness of the Mozambican military has rendered it unable to concentrate efforts on the insurgency. Mozambican forces are frequently underequipped and undertrained, and ASWJ capitalizes on this by launching deadly ambushes and massacres against security forces.[xii] Mozambican forces are too widely dispersed and unable to converge quickly enough on ASWJ insurgents.[xiii] The military has tried to compensate by re-recruiting veterans and hiring private military contractors.[xiv] Both the Russian Wagner Group and the South African Dyck Advisory Group have deployed to Mozambique, albeit with mixed results.[xv]

The Importance of Being Secure

The failure of the Mozambican government to defeat the insurgency is concerning for both domestic and regional stakeholders. Nearby natural gas deposits, which have spurred international investment and can strengthen Mozambique’s weak economy, are a vulnerability that ASWJ can exploit.[xvi] Insurgents may seek to boost their financing from natural gas revenue streams and increased money flow in the region once the projects are completed.[xvii] Although oil and gas companies have prepared for potential instability, delays in projects and revenues will add to the economic concerns that drive the conflict.[xviii]

The causes of the insurgency have primarily been domestic, but the flow of weapons, people, and money across the Tanzanian border have exacerbated the conflict.[xix] Porous borders suggest that the conflict can spread to neighboring countries, including Tanzania and South Africa.[xx] In October, ASWJ launched an attack in a village just over the Tanzanian border.[xxi] Moreover, IS-CAP has threatened to attack South Africa if it intervenes in Cabo Delgado, highlighting the regional threat that the group poses.[xxii]


The insurgency in Cabo Delgado is driven by domestic factors more than the potential benefits of transnational terrorism. The inability of security forces to combat the insurgency has led to insurgent control over the port city of Mocímboa da Praia and an increased reliance on private military contractors. As the conflict threatens domestic gas projects and gains momentum outside of Mozambique, it is crucial for international partners to assist Mozambique in combatting the insurgency.

Despite their hesitancy to intervene, neighboring countries such as Tanzania and South Africa should provide military support to Mozambique.[xxiii] Military assistance from the African Union or the United States could also help combat the insurgency or augment the capabilities of the Mozambican forces, while developmental assistance could help mitigate local drivers of the conflict. Regardless of the source of the aid, any assistance must consider the local context of the conflict and not exacerbate the political and social structures which fuel the conflict. Moreover, any assistance should also curb the human rights violations of the Mozambican forces which add to grievances and resentment in the region. By extinguishing the drivers of the conflict, Mozambican and international forces can hope to counter the insurgency altogether.


[i] The group is sometimes referred to as Ansar al-Sunna or al-Shabaab (no relation to the homonymous Somali group).

[ii] Emilia Columbo, “The Secret to the Northern Mozambique Insurgency’s Success,” War on the Rocks, Oct. 8, 2020, https://warontherocks.com/2020/10/the-secret-to-the-northern-mozambique-insurgencys-success/.

[iii] Fidelis Mbah, “Regional Leaders Meet as Mozambique Security Crisis Worsens,” Al-Jazeera, Aug. 17, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/8/17/regional-leaders-meet-as-mozambique-security-crisis-worsens.

[iv] Joseph Hanlon, “Mozambique’s Jihadists and the ‘Curse’ of Gas and Rubies,” BBC, Sep. 17, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-54183948.

[v] Joseph Hanlon, “How Mozambique’s Smuggling Barons Nurtured Jihadists,” BBC, June 1, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-44320531.

[vi] Nathan Southern, “Mozambique Faces a Nexus of Smuggling and Extremism,” Global Risk Insights, Oct. 1, 2018, https://globalriskinsights.com/2018/10/mozambique-faces-nexus-smuggling-extremism/.

[vii] Francisco Alemida dos Santos, “War in Resource-Rich Northern Mozambique – Six Scenarios,” Chr. Michelsen Institute, May 2020, https://www.cmi.no/publications/file/7231-war-in-resource-rich-northern-mozambique-six-scenarios.pdf.

[viii] Intel Brief “Spreading Violence and Growing Instability Plague Northern Mozambique,” The Cipher Brief, https://www.thecipherbrief.com/column_article/spreading-violence-and-growing-instability-plague-northern-mozambique.

[ix] Joseph Hanlon, “Coordinated Cabo Delgado Attacks to Capture Transport Links,” All Africa, May 14, 2020, https://allafrica.com/stories/202005140480.html.

[x] Emilia Columbo, “The Secret to the Northern Mozambique Insurgency’s Success,” War on the Rocks, Oct. 8, 2020, https://warontherocks.com/2020/10/the-secret-to-the-northern-mozambique-insurgencys-success/.

[xi] Joseph Hanlon, “Insurgents Leave Mocimboa da Praia After 1-day Occupation Which Showed Local Support,” All Africa, Mar. 25, 2020, https://allafrica.com/stories/202003250046.html.

[xii] Jason Burke, “Mozambique Army Surrounds Port Held by ISIS-Linked Insurgents,” The Guardian, Aug. 16, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/16/mozambique-army-surrounds-port-captured-by-isis-linked-insurgents.

[xiii] Sirwan Kajjo and Amancio Vilanculos, “3 Years into Insurgency, Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado Remains Vulnerable,” VOA News, Oct. 7, 2020, https://www.voanews.com/extremism-watch/3-years-insurgency-mozambiques-cabo-delgado-remains-vulnerable.

[xiv] “Veteranos Devem Combater Terrorismo em Cabo Delgado, Refere Ministro,” Deutsche Welle, Sep. 5, 2020, https://www.dw.com/pt-002/veteranos-devem-combater-terrorismo-em-cabo-delgado-refere-ministro/a-54827213?maca=pt-002-Twitter-sharing.

[xv] For Wagner Group, see Steve Balestrieri, “Wagner Group: Russian Mercenaries Still Floundering in Africa,” SOFREP, Apr. 19, 2020 https://sofrep.com/news/wagner-group-russian-mercenaries-still-foundering-in-africa/; for Dyck Advisory Group, see Peta Thornycroft, “Anti-Poaching Squad Drives Insurgents out of Northern Mozambique with Snipers and Helicopters,” The Telegraph, June 9, 2020, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/global-health/terror-and-security/anti-poaching-squad-drive-insurgents-northern-mozambique-snipers/.

[xvi] Matthew Hill and Paul Burkhardt, “How an Insurgency Threatens Mozambique’s Gas Bonanza,” Washington Post, Aug. 21, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/energy/how-an-insurgency-threatens-mozambiques-gas-bonanza/2020/08/19/174b78aa-e210-11ea-82d8-5e55d47e90ca_story.html.

[xvii] David Whitehouse, “Mozambique’s Islamic Insurgency Poses Risks to Total’s LNG Project,” The Africa Report, July 23, 2020, https://www.theafricareport.com/34694/mozambiques-islamic-insurgency-poses-risks-to-totals-lng-project/.

[xviii] Sirwan Kajjo, “Coronavirus, Militant Attacks Impacting Gas Projects in Mozambique,” VOA News, Apr. 12, 2020, voanews.com/extremism-watch/coronavirus-militant-attacks-impacting-gas-projects-mozambique.

[xix] John Campbell, “Preventing the Next Boko Haram in Northern Mozambique,” Council on Foreign Relations, May 20, 2020, https://www.cfr.org/blog/preventing-next-boko-haram-northern-mozambique.

[xx] Andrew Harding, “Mozambique: Is Cabo Delgado the Latest Islamic State Outpost?” BBC, May 4, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-52532741.

[xxi] “Tanzania Confirms 1st Attack by Mozambique-Based Extremists,” Associated Press, Oct. 23, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/dodoma-tanzania-islamic-state-group-mozambique-48d8c438da403810a8a11f869ecd97ca.

[xxii] Brian Perkins, “Motivations and Roadblocks for South African Intervention in Mozambique,” Jamestown Foundation, Aug. 14, 2020, https://jamestown.org/program/motivations-and-roadblocks-for-south-african-intervention-in-mozambique/.

[xxiii] Ibid.

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