The Secret to the Northern Mozambique Insurgency’s Success

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This has been a banner year for Ahlu-Sunnah Wa-Jama (ASWJ) — or al-Shabaab, as locals call it — operating in northern Mozambique. Between January and September, the insurgent group launched an estimated 357 attacks, which is double the attacks it conducted during the same period last year. In the spring, ASWJ moved on from exclusively attacking isolated villages and individuals to launching complex, dual-front attacks against district capitals, remaining within those locations for short periods of time before leaving of their own accord. The insurgents have taken advantage of their month-long occupation of the port at Mocimboa da Praia to expand their maritime presence. They have increased attacks against islands off the coast of Cabo Delgado — the northern-most province in Mozambique — and heightened their potential threat to liquified natural gas operations 60 kilometers north of Mocimboa da Praia, all while continuing to raid villages for supplies.

The insurgency’s shift from a small group of disaffected youths attacking a police station to free their detained friends to an organization reportedly numbering 1,000 fighters can in part be attributed to ASWJ’s sound organizational foundation, avoidance of common strategic errors, and exploitation of government counter-insurgency mistakes. However, past performance is no guarantee of future success, and in some cases, an excess of victories can set an insurgency up to make critical errors that reverse the group’s gains and allow a well-prepared government to begin making headway against the organization. As impressive as ASWJ’s rise as been, the group is not invincible. The Mozambican government will need to quickly adjust its approach to the conflict to take advantage of future ASWJ mistakes when they occur.

Sound Fundamentals Helped ASWJ Take Off

ASWJ’s operational decisions and rapid growth point to the group’s development of a solid foundation during its formative period. Born of a religious sect that first emerged in 2007 and fueled by a combination of social and economic grievances, the group turned to armed jihad two years before launching its first attack on Mocimboa da Praia in October 2017.



ASWJ has demonstrated sound strategic thinking in its target selection. The group largely controls the main north-south road in Cabo Delgado and in September 2020 attacked vehicles on the northern portion of the alternate route. The month before, the group took over the port at Mocimboa da Praia, cutting the military off from a major resupply point and allowing the group to increase its presence along the coast, effectively carving out a base along the coast between the main road and sea. It is not an accident that ASWJ focused its activity in this area. Early academic research into the insurgency suggests the backbone of this group rested at least initially among the Mwani people, a group that has been historically dominant along the coast and active in the Indian Ocean economy. When attacking larger towns, the group has made a point of destroying infrastructure associated with the state. From administrative buildings, to cell towers, to schools and medical facilities, ASWJ has made the job of civilian governance impossible in the districts where it is most active, such as Mocimboa da Praia, Quissanga, and Macomia.

The insurgents have been conservative in their use of media, but the messages they have published have addressed broadly appealing and relatable themes regarding poor governance and corruption that stand to increase their appeal beyond a single ethnic group or region. Insurgent propaganda represents the group as advocates of the Muslim poor and claims that ASWJ “is not fighting for the wealth of this world.” The group has claimed Cabo Delgado for themselves and said they “occupy towns to show the government of the day is unfair. It humiliates the poor and gives the profit to the bosses.” The notion of corruption and material benefits being reserved for the elite is a message that likely resonates throughout the north. Cabo Delgado and neighboring Nampula and Niassa represent the poorest provinces in Mozambique, with poverty levels above the national average according to Mozambican officials and World Bank data, despite its wealth in natural resources, such as timber, natural gas, and precious stones. These three provinces are also home to a Muslim majority in a country where Muslims represent about 18 percent of the total population, providing the insurgency with a large pool of potential sympathizers nearby. Indeed, Mozambican academics following the security situation and local authorities have confirmed youth from Nampula have answered the insurgents’ call to arms and traveled to Cabo Delgado to join the group.

Avoidance of Common Strategic Errors

Even insurgencies that have mastered the fundamentals of their organization are vulnerable to strategic mistakes that have the potential of unraveling the group’s successes. Academic literature on common insurgent errors suggests ASWJ’s success thus far can be attributed in part to the group’s avoidance of the types of strategic errors groups commit in their early days, such as undertaking operations that exceed its capacity and using terror in a way that pushes the population to ally with the government or independently fight back against the insurgents.

ASWJ has operated within its capabilities and with a clear understanding of the Mozambican security forces’ limitations, avoiding operations that could leave it vulnerable to well-timed or fortuitous government actions. Before the August attack in Mocimboa da Praia, the insurgents had not attempted to hold towns for more than a day or two. Government officials do not frequently provide updates on operations in Cabo Delgado, but official reports of terrorist combat deaths are often followed by new insurgent attacks, suggesting the group has the ability to regroup and adapt to battlefield realities. In the face of the security services’ successful collaboration with a private military group to safeguard Pemba in late April, the insurgents shifted their attention back to previous areas of operation rather than press on toward the town. Press reports claim that disaffected soldiers may have joined insurgent ranks, which would give the group further advantages in terms of intel and expertise in countering government operations. Even as the insurgents remain in Mocimboa da Praia, they have not attempted to take over any other towns, favoring supply raids against villages and expanding its presence on the roads.

Despite instances of gruesome violence, such as the beheading of 52 men in April, civilians have not actively sided with the government or organized a significant resistance to the insurgency. This suggests the group has kept its use of terror and strategic violence to levels that intimidate civilians without causing them to revolt. Indeed, civilians have reported instances of the insurgents providing food and money to civilians and frequently warning civilians to clear out of an area, commands that civilians regularly obey.

Over 250,000 people have been displaced since 2017 as a result of violence in Cabo Delgado — the attacks against Mocimboa da Praia and Quissanga in March 2020 displaced an estimated 50,000 people alone. Driving civilians away helps the insurgency keep the number of civilians it needs to control to a manageable level, reducing the risk the insurgents would resort to extreme violence as a means of population control.

Identifying and Leveraging Government Weaknesses

ASWJ leaders have taken advantage of the government’s disjointed counter-insurgency strategy. The government has thus far focused its primary line of effort on defeating the insurgency militarily, at times with air support from private military contractors. However, after years of neglect, the security forces generally lack the training, resources, and logistical support to launch an effective campaign and they often fall victim to ambushes, flee combat, or desert altogether. In response, the insurgents procure weapons and uniforms, and try to provoke government forces to overreact. ASWJ exploited weak command and control among units on the ground to infiltrate Mocimboa da Praia posing as soldiers in August as part of the larger set up for the operation against the town.

The insurgency has indirectly benefited from the government’s heavy-handed approach toward ASWJ to fill its ranks. A United Nations Development Program study of former jihadists throughout Africa from 2017 revealed that 71 percent of those interviewed had joined their respective movements in response to government violence against a loved one, a phenomenon that is likely at play in Cabo Delgado. Local media and international organizations have regularly publicized allegations of security service abuses against civilians, a theme that has appeared in insurgent propaganda as well. The lack of government programs thus far to address the social and economic issues driving the insurgency creates space for insurgent propaganda and recruitment to flourish. The insurgents initially recruited new members through social networks and family ties, but they have also leveraged poverty in the area to offer new recruits salaries, scholarships, and assistance in setting up businesses.

Success Is Not a Foregone Conclusion

Insurgencies’ initial successes do not guarantee future results and their leaders can allow overconfidence to overshadow common sense as the organization grows. ASWJ’s leaders are no exception and their recent activities along the coast may backfire if the group misjudges its ability to hold territory, exports terrorism, or allows criminal activity to usurp its ideological foundation.

In August, the government announced a counter-offensive to retake Mocimboa da Praia, but it has yet to get it off the ground, leaving ASWJ’s presence in the town virtually unchallenged for over a month. When a government offensive to retake the town begins, ASWJ may be tempted to stand its ground, regardless of the group’s capability to successfully do so, because of Mocimboa da Praia’s symbolic and practical value to the group. Early ASWJ members came from Mocimboa da Praia, launched their first attack there in October 2017, and reportedly wished to make the town the capital of their caliphate. Mocimboa da Praia is a key port in Cabo Delgado and maintaining control of it would allow ASWJ to hamper military logistics and increase its maritime presence.

The government’s ongoing struggle to roll back the insurgency, combined with the group’s continued success in raiding villages and controlling key transportation corridors risks imbuing ASWJ’s leadership with a sense of confidence that may outmatch its capability to hold territory. The group has continued to raid villages and islands near Mocimboa da Praia for supplies, while volunteer youth from Nampula may be trying to make their way to the town as well. ASWJ’s affiliation with the Islamic State, combined with weak border security and Cabo Delgado’s proximity to other areas of jihadist activity, likely makes it an appealing destination for experienced freelance jihadists, whose experiences would enhance the group’s capabilities as well. However, the area’s increased isolation since August, combined with difficulties for journalists reporting on this conflict, limit publicly available information about ASWJ’s capabilities and intentions.

The insurgency is also at risk of exporting terror within southern Africa. Violence near the Tanzanian border has already prompted Tanzanian officials to increase their military presence and activity in that area. At the same time, Southern Africa Development Community observers and officials are growing concerned about the regional security implications of the relationship between ASWJ and the Islamic State’s Central African Province. The Islamic State warned South Africa in July, through its propaganda arm, to stay out of the conflict. Even if ASWJ does not directly deploy fighters abroad, a lone-wolf jihadist attack anywhere in the region would almost certainly backfire on ASWJ and increase pressure on regional governments to respond.

ASWJ’s presence along major roads and waterways in Cabo Delgado leave it well-positioned to deepen its involvement in the illicit economy. The province has a well-established heroin trafficking route, and has seen in recent years a flourishing trade of illegal timber, ivory, and rubies — activities that have reportedly lined the pockets of traffickers and elites alike. Early research into ASWJ indicates the group does not rely on the illicit economy for funding in a very structured fashion, but its presence in areas where this trafficking occurs, and its growing maritime capacity, may introduce the debate within the group’s decision-makers. Carving out a role in the criminal economy would enable the group to acquire resources for recruitment and growth, but potentially at the expense of its ideological identity. Academic literature indicates insurgencies that incorporate crime as a significant source of income risk having criminal activity supplant their ideological drivers and introduce divisions between the ideologues and those who see the insurgency as a means of enrichment.

Preparing the Government to Act

ASWJ has successfully avoided the traps and missteps that can cut an insurgency short, but the opportunities to make strategic errors will remain as the organization grows and develops. Mozambique’s security services will require extensive training and preparation to effectively take advantage of any insurgent mistakes and shift momentum in its favor.

First, the government should get a handle on security forces’ human rights abuses and hold those soldiers and their commanders accountable for their actions. Local media has reported various instances of government abuse against civilians, from harassment to allegations of extrajudicial killings, undermining any sort of trust between the civilian population and the security services. Moreover, most members of the security services come from southern provinces and do not speak the local language, making it more difficult for the government to connect with the civilian population in northern provinces like Cabo Delgado. Providing civilians with security would offer them an alternative when ASWJ inevitably crosses their thresholds of tolerance.

The Mozambican security forces need a total reboot, not just a boost from foreign forces or private military contractors. The Mozambican government should seek foreign partners to develop the security services’ intelligence collection and analytic capabilities, basic training, and specialized counter-insurgency training. Enhancing these capabilities would help the government take advantage of ASWJ’s future mistakes. Maputo recently took steps in this direction through a request to the European Union for logistical and training assistance, but these specialized units, when they materialize, would need robust training in human rights and should be deployed throughout the theater of operations to avoid locals perceiving them as being used to serve elite interests alone. Mozambique also needs to greatly enhance its maritime capability to combat an insurgency that is expanding its presence in the Indian Ocean. Continued participation in U.S.-led regional maritime exercises, combined with Mozambican investments in its navy, would help improve security along the coast. More importantly, these exercises create an opportunity for members of Mozambique’s navy to build working-level relationships with foreign counterparts, which could come into play as the conflict demands greater regional coordination.

Finally, the government has a great opportunity with the recently launched Integrated Development Agency of the North to start implementing the socioeconomic programs necessary to improve the quality of life in Cabo Delgado, Niassa, and Nampula and counter some of the insurgency’s narrative about corrupt elites neglecting poor Muslims. This agency’s broad portfolio includes providing humanitarian assistance and employment programs in these provinces, which, if successfully implemented, would serve to provide an alternative for youth. Maj. Gen. Anderson, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, has noted the importance of development and humanitarian aid in countering insurgency narratives across Africa, highlighting U.S. assistance to cyclone victims in Mozambique in 2019 in his comments.

Looking Ahead

ASWJ has been on a winning streak since it launched its first attack in Mocimboa da Praia three years ago, thanks in large part to its solid foundation, strategic decision-making, and exploitation of government missteps. However, the group’s success risks introducing hubris and overconfidence into its leadership, potentially tempting them to take risks that the organization is unprepared to weather, such as holding territory, exporting terror, and delving deep into the criminal world.

The Mozambican government and security services need to start positioning themselves to act should ASWJ fall victim to one of these classic strategic blunders, but they will need assistance from experienced partners to do so. The United States, as Mozambique’s largest aid donor, can leverage programs that are already in place to energize Maputo’s nascent efforts at addressing the root causes of this conflict. Washington has built up a wealth of lessons learned from support to other counter-insurgency programs globally that could be brought to bear in guiding Mozambican authorities in the development of their own tailored counter-insurgency strategy. ASWJ is not invincible, but it will be up to Maputo to demonstrate that is the case.



Emilia Columbo is currently a senior associate (non-resident) with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She previously served as a senior Africa and Latin America security analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency.

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Mass Communication Spc. 1st Class Kyle Steckler)