by Mustafa Mheta (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 48, No. 10, Rabi' al-Thani, 1441)
Ever since the discovery of natural gas (that is converted into Liquefied Natural Gas — LNG — for export) in the Mozambican province of Cabo Delgado, the army has been battling insurgents claiming to be “Islamists.” Civilians have been the main targets of militant attacks. The leading insurgent faction is Ansar al-Sunnah, a native extremist group with tenuous international connections. There are reports that since mid-2018, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has become actively involved in northern Mozambique and claimed its first attack against Mozambican security forces in June 2019.
Concerning the so-called “terrorism” in Africa, there is a certain pattern unfolding that raises many serious questions. First, why is this so-called Islamic terrorism in Africa concentrated in highly resourced areas? Second, is this just a coincidence? When one looks at the geographical locations of so-called “Islamic terrorism,” one notices that it is concentrated in mineral, oil, and gas rich areas.
From Mali, where there is abundance of gold, to Niger where uranium is mined, Burkina Faso, and the Central African Republic with rich deposits of diamonds, in one way or another, they are battling terrorism.
Ansar al-Sunnah, also known by its original name “Ahl al-Sunnah wa-al-Jama‘ah” (“adepts of the prophetic tradition”), was initially a religious movement in the northern districts of Cabo Delgado, which first appeared around 2015. It was formed by followers of the radical Kenyan cleric AboudRogo, who was killed in 2012. Thereafter, some members of his movement settled in Kibiti, Tanzania, before moving into Mozambique.
Ansar al-Sunnah claims that Islam as practised in Mozambique has been corrupted and no longer follows the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Whatever the truth in such allegations, the group’s members carrying weapons entered traditional masjids in order to threaten worshippers to follow their radical beliefs. The group also espouses anti-Christian and anti-Western rhetoric and has tried to prevent people from attending hospitals or schools that it considers secular and anti-Islamic. Such behavior alienated most of the local population. Instead of converting them to Ahl al-Sunnah wa-al-Jama‘ah, the group’s members broke away from the main body and formed their own places of worship.
Over time, the group became increasingly violent. It called for “Shari‘ah” to be implemented in the country without clarifying what that means, no longer recognized the Mozambican government, and started to form secret training camps in Macomia District, Mocímboa da Praia District, and Montepuez District. Former policemen and ex-frontier guards who had been fired and held grudges against the government started to train Ansar al-Sunnah militants in these camps.
The group contacted other militant outfits in East Africa, and reportedly hired al-Shabab trainers from Somalia, Tanzania, and Kenya. Al-Shabab trainers acted as mercenaries. They aided Ansar al-Sunnah not out of any ideological affiliation or actual connection, but due to the money they received from the group. Some of the Ansar al-Sunnah militants have also gone abroad to receive direct training from other militant groups.
The militants are not unified; they are scattered into different cells without appearing to have any coordination for their activities. By August 2018, the Mozambican police had identified six men as leaders of the militants in Cabo Delgado: Abdul Faizal, Abdul Raim, Abdul Remane, Ibn Omar, “Salimo,” and Nuno Remane.
Like other militant groups, Ansar al-Sunnah also funds itself through illicit trade including selling heroin, contraband, and ivory. A genuine Islamic organization would never fund its activities through drug money or any other haram (forbidden) sources, such as drugs that are forbidden in Islam.
While religion does play a role, albeit limited, in the conflict, some analysts believe the most important factors in the insurgency are widespread social, economic, and political problems in Mozambique. Unemployment and especially youth unemployment are considered the main causes for locals to join the rebels. Increasing inequalities have led many young people to be easily attracted by such a radical movement. Ansar al-Sunnah promises that its form of Islam will act as an antidote to the existing “corrupt, elitist rule.” The question, however, is that these people have lived in poverty for centuries; why the sudden urge now to fight for riches? The timing of their emergence is highly suspicious.
The fact that the uprising began immediately after gas was discovered in Mozambique makes it very dubious. Also of interest is the sudden appearance of key international players like the Americans and the Russians, who have all pledged to protect the newly found gas. This “protection” will come at a price that the poor will have to pay. On September 25, Russian military hardware, namely two Mi-17 helicopters, was delivered via a Russian Air Force An-124 (registration RA-82038) transport plane that landed at Nacala. The Russian and Mozambican governments had signed an agreement on military and technical cooperation in late-January 2017.
In October 2019, the Mozambican military announced that it had detained 34 individuals traveling from Nampula to Cabo Delgado who are suspected of trying to join the ISIL-affiliated insurgent group. The same month, the rebels reportedly killed seven Russian mercenaries and defence contractors from the Wagner Group and 20 Mozambican soldiers in Cabo Delgado Province during two ambushes. The attacks were attributed to the “Islamic State’s” Central Africa Province. Then last month, a number of government troops and five fighters from the Russian mercenary Wagner Group were killed in an ambush. ISIL claimed responsibility for the attack.
There is lack of access to reliable information in the region due to journalists being intimidated by government and military personnel. On January 5, 2019, Mozambican authorities also unlawfully detained journalist Amade Abubacar who had reported on the insurgency. He was subsequently subjected to torture, and only released on bail after 107 days in detention. Why would the Mozambique government play hide and seek if it is an obvious and transparent terrorist war being fought in Cabo Delgado?
It has been reported that oil and gas reserves have been discovered off the Western Cape, South Africa near Mossell Bay. Should South Africans be worried in view of developments in neighboring Mozambique? Professor Hussein Solomon of the University of the Free State has claimed that ISIS has training cells in South Africa but he has provided no evidence. While vigilance is necessary, in the absence of clear proof, such pronouncements, even by academics, remain speculative.
Dr. Mustafa Mheta is Head Re-searcher/Head of Africa Desk with the Media Review Network, Johannesburg, South Africa.