Mozambique faces a nexus of smuggling and extremism

Mozambique faces a nexus of smuggling and extremism

Fears arise over an Islamic insurgency in Northern Mozambique that threatens the recent discovery of $30 billion of oil and gas reserves. Yet these concerns may be clouding the reality of blurred lines between extremism and organised crime.

How has the Jihadi threat emerged?

The Cabo Delgado Province in Northern Mozambique has suffered from a rapid surge in Islamist violence since 2017. In October last year militants attacked a police station and a military post in the coastal town of Mocimboa da Praia, killing two policemen. Since then violent incidents from the group known as Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama (ASWJ) have intensified. Attacks on villages, burning of homes, kidnapping and public beheadings have become relatively common in the region.

ASWG took inspiration from the radical, Islamist and Kenyan-born preacher Aboud Rogo. The US and UN accused the controversial Muslim cleric of funding al-Shabab in Somalia, which seen Rogo placed on international sanction lists. In 2012, the assassination of Rogo left a void in direction for his followers. Many of whom were finding life more difficult under increased scrutiny from Kenyan security forces. Some started to migrate towards Kibiti, Tanzania, but this proved too difficult an environment for the group to successfully penetrate. This is likely due an already present and strong influence of radical preachers in Tanzania. They began spreading their extremist ideology towards the less stable area of Northern Mozambique.

Migration to Mozambique

The conditions in loosely-governed Cabo Delgado (the northernmost province in Mozambique, with little State influence and high levels of institutionalised corruption) provide the perfect breeding ground for extremist ideology. The region is notorious as a haven for smuggling groups; Cabo Delgado is a main transit route for up to $800 million worth of heroin suspected of being trafficked through the country on route to Europe. Organised criminals in the region also make a handsome income through ivory, timber and gem smuggling. It is therefore in the interests of influential criminal groups that Northern Mozambique remains unstable so that they can continue to access and smuggle illicit goods through the deep-water port in Nacala, that is currently run by powerful criminal networks believed to have political protection.

Attacks began after discovery of untapped resources

The discovery of an estimated $30 billion in gas reserves in the region threatens the status quo, which in turn threatens the activities of these criminal networks. It made sense, then, for criminal gangs in the area to embrace the extremist preachers.

With the impact of the gas exploitation looming, the new Imams were also able to resonate with the ethnic Mwani community in Cabo Delgado, many of whom fear the loss of their homes and way of life as a result.

A mostly Muslim population of around 120,000-200,000 people, with crippling levels of unemployment and poor education, the Mwanis responded positively to the anti-government sentiment spouted by the extremist Imams. The group further strengthened their ties with the community by building mosques and getting involved in local sectarian grievances between the Mwani and the larger Makonde and Makua ethnic groups.

Rapid surge in violence

ASWJ Imams enjoyed relative success in recruiting Mwani youths for their radical cause between 2012-2013. In 2013, Muslim community leaders attempted to resist the spread of these teachings. The militants responded by seizing mosques and connecting with local criminal networks. From 2015, the group began militarizing their movement and allegedly sent 30-40 youths to training camps in Somalia and the Great Lakes region.

On October 5th 2017, 30-40 militants seized the town of Mocimboa Da Praia, holding it for two days. One week later the militants attacked a specialised tactical police group known as the Rapid Intervention Unit (UIR), killing four police officers.

The following week, ASWG attacked the villages of Maluku, Colombe and Olumbi. Their attacks continued and they once again ambushed the UIR unit in December, this time killing the head of reconnaissance.

Militants continued running violent attacks in 2018 and increased their focus on soft targets, possibly due to increased military presence in major towns and cities.

At the end of May, ASWJ attacked two more villages and made a point of publicly beheading 10 villagers. In doing so, they raised their profile and notoriety. Consequently, in mid-June, many oil and gas companies ceased operations in Palma and Cabo Delgado. They promised to suspend work until the Jihadi threat has eased. The US and UK also called on their citizens to leave, citing the security threat.

What is the current status of the threat?

The group is likely unorganised and, as of yet, lacks a clear ideological foundation. Links to cross border terror networks are tenuous at best, but it does appear that some of their fighters have reached out to ISIS.

Some reports claim that ASWJ has become immersed in smuggling operations and could be making several million dollars a week through timber, gems, people and drugs. Yet, the switch to soft power targets, the use of tactics such as beheading and arson, a limited use of firearms and a reliance on machetes does not point to a group rich in resources. Nor do these tactics show the sophistication of a cross-border group with credible international connections. Rather a loosely fitted organisation that straddles the line between terrorism and organised crime.

As Cabo Delgado increases in volatility, both these groups benefit. The extremists see opportunity in ethnic divisions and extreme poverty for recruitment opportunities. Organised crime groups scare off investors from accessing the untapped profits of the underground resources and continue their criminality with impunity. It seems likely that the conflict will stay localised within northern Mozambique. ASWJ have, as of yet, shown no interest or capability in global Jihad.

Poverty and neglect

Many citizens in Palma consider the discovery of gas resources as something that will profit only a select few. The community of mostly farmers and fishermen has often felt overlooked by the government, something that has, historically, been a big driver for recruitment to the militant RENAMO organisation. RENAMO has contested the government over the equal distribution of resources, especially those in the centre of Mozambique, where RENAMO are based.

ASWJ may consider itself to be a Jihadi group, but many doubt the importance of religion within this conflict and instead point to poverty within Northern Mozambique as the driving force. Militants may have seen the Muslim population of Cabo Delgado as prime picking for extremist violence, but the pre-existing grievances over the distribution of wealth and resources is the underlying concern and one shared throughout the Southeast African State.

The government response

The authorities have responded to the attacks in a heavy-handed manner. In November of last year security forces started to close mosques associated with the group. In December, they deployed military forces to launch an attack on the coastal village of Mitumbate, causing 50 casualties, including non-combatants and children.

Over the past few months the government have deployed more security forces throughout the region and made hundreds of arrests under strict new anti-terror legislation. Some concerns linger over an overly aggressive response from the security services, prompting comparisons to the early days of Boko Haram. The government must be careful to not replicate the mistakes of the Nigerian government. An overly aggressive response by Nigerian security forces led to exacerbating the conditions in which Boko Haram could flourish.


A beefed-up, reactionary security response will do nothing to resolve the underlying motivations for violence. Cabo Delgado will never be short of potential militant recruits with little to lose and a resentment for the government.

The conflict appears to be relatively localised, with limited international training and possibly exaggerated links to the Islamic State. Mozambique, however, risks fanning the flames of a large-scale extremist insurgency.

As it stands, the insurgency is basic and unsophisticated. An effective response from the government would focus on building dialogue between community leaders (especially from the neglected Mwani ethnic group) and the international organisations that will exploit the resources, to ensure that the community receives fair compensation.

Currently, Cabo Delgado citizens have as much reason to believe that criminal groups will look after them as they do their central government. It is not too late to change this, but that change needs to come from negotiation, fair distribution of the resources under their feet and greater access to education and opportunity in the region.

About Author

Nathan Paul Southern

Nathan Paul Southern is a Scottish security analyst and investigative reporter. He holds a BA in Criminology from Caledonian University, a law degree from the University of Strathclyde and and MSc in Global Security from the University of Glasgow. His main research areas focus on non-state actors, geopolitical and maritime security in Asia, and Chinese expansionism.