Making Waves: Militant Maritime Operations Along Africa’s Eastern Coast

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In March, two speedboats piloted by members of Ahlu-Sunna Wa-Jama (ASWJ) — a Mozambican terrorist group — reached the port city of Mocímboa da Praia in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province. As they attacked the port from the Indian Ocean, several other ASWJ militants approached overland from the west. The insurgents overran local security forces and killed dozens of soldiers and police. They also captured a weapons cache at the town’s military barracks, raided banks, freed inmates from the local prison, looted the local hospital for medical supplies, and forcibly displaced an estimated 24,000 civilians. This attack, one of several against Mocímboa da Praia over the past year, was only the beginning of ASWJ’s expanding maritime presence. Just five months later, the group would seize and maintain control of the port city. Ever since, ASWJ has increased its maritime tempo, used small crafts to target islands off the coast of Mozambique and, in doing so, demonstrated its maritime proficiency.

Maritime activities are an important aspect of the modern militant’s portfolio. Though there are technical and logistical barriers to entry, coastal and oceanic waters offer militants opportunities for both operational and financial gain. A decade ago, militants like Lashkar-e-Taiba used maritime channels to infiltrate India via boat and carry out a devastating attack in the country’s commercial capital of Mumbai. Today, militants have grown more sophisticated in their maritime strategies, using drone boats, floating mines, and even maintaining their own maritime fleets. Whether for moving organization’s members, staging complex assaults, smuggling weapons, or trafficking illicit commodities, maritime activities can afford militant organizations a number of advantages, broadening the scope of their operational range and spheres of influence.



Sea blindness (i.e., the tendency to ignore the maritime environment) opens the door for militant actors to operate at sea and undermines counter-terrorism efforts. Despite the prevalence of militant maritime activities, surprisingly little is known about the methods which violent nonstate armed groups exploit coastal areas. Our new research on this issue offers needed insight into the distinct patterns of maritime exploitation by two insurgencies active along Africa’s east coast: al-Shabaab in Somalia and ASWJ in Mozambique. Al-Shabaab has focused on exploiting ports and coastal waters to enhance its financial portfolio. Taking a different tack, ASWJ has largely leveraged its capabilities in the Indian Ocean to carry out attacks and expand its area of control. Recent efforts to establish maritime control by the governments of Somalia and Mozambique and their partners have been undermined by high levels of corruption, weak maritime capacity, or both.

Al-Shabaab’s Maritime Activities in Somalia 

Al-Shabaab has waged a violent insurgency in Somalia for more than a decade. In 2012, the group pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and has maintained close ties with the transnational terrorist group since. It has continued to be resilient even in the face of sustained counter-terrorism pressure. Maj. Gen. Dagvin Anderson, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, recently described al-Shabaab as the “most imminent” terrorist threat on the continent.

Al-Shabaab’s resiliency stems, in part, from its “criminal pivot” and successful exploitation of seaborne activities. In 2011, al-Shabaab established control over the ports of Kismayo and Mogadishu, which initiated a shift to a more maritime-focused portfolio and further cemented their pursuit of criminal financial activities. Although it eventually lost direct control over these strategic ports, largely due to successful African Union Mission to Somalia-led offensives, al-Shabaab has found creative ways to reinvent their activities in Mogadishu and maintain a maritime presence.

In doing so, the group has become a model of the crime-terror nexus where engagement in the illicit economy, particularly through the exploitation of maritime targets, has helped bolster its financial portfolio. Its earlier maritime engagements stem from the group’s involvement in charcoal smuggling, where it earned an estimated $70 million to $100 million annually at its peak. A 2012 U.N. ban on charcoal exports had the unintended consequence of pushing the group to pursue alternative revenue streams through maritime channels, including its involvement in sugar smuggling. Most notably, however, has been the group’s establishment of an elaborate taxation system with direct connections to Somalia’s largest port, Mogadishu. Unable to hold direct control over the port, al-Shabaab’s infiltration of commercial shipping agents and port institutions have given it the ability to obtain cargo manifests on imported goods which it then levies taxes on.

Al-Shabaab uses the Indian Ocean primarily for financial exploitation. However, the sea also offers important operational support to the organization. The group’s infiltration of port operations has given it a strategic advantage not only for extorting taxes, but also in identifying contents of incoming imports. Through its port monitoring, the group has been able to acquire a broad variety of improvised explosive device chemical precursors. Compared to the year prior, this led to a 32 percent increase in the number of IED attacks carried out by al-Shabaab forces between July 2018 and July 2019. Moreover, a seaborne assault in 2016, albeit unsuccessful, demonstrated the group’s ability to navigate the Somali coast. In Puntland, al-Shabaab maintains a presence where it regularly uses “small craft to move men and material.” Ties to a Somali pirate leader known as “Garfanje” have also afforded the group channels to procure weapons via maritime routes, and Garfanje has been known to lend his boats to the organization’s members.

The success of al-Shabaab’s use of the maritime operations raises three important points. First, poor maritime awareness in the past allowed the militant group to carve out a permanent presence in both licit and illicit economies. Ongoing advances by al-Shabaab have recently prompted efforts to bolster security along Somalia’s coast. These include a 1.2 million euro ($1.4 million) investment by the European Union’s Capacity Building Mission in Somalia to enhance the autonomy and capacity of the Somali Maritime Police Unit. Yet Somalia’s security sector notoriously suffers from endemic corruption, which can undermine the effectiveness of these programs. Second, the success of al-Shabaab’s financial growth and adaptability through its maritime activities are indicative of the value militant groups may place on seaborne activities for organizational longevity and vitality. Third, the group relies on Somalia’s ports and coastal waters to support its land-based operations by receiving arms and supplies and moving its fighters into position. Despite a handful of notable exceptions, al-Shabaab has not conducted extensive armed operations against maritime targets. One possible explanation is that the group is wary of a strategic misstep, given the enhanced presence of security forces in the country’s coastal waters and the group’s primary exploitation in this arena for financial gains. Overall, al-Shabaab’s model offers an attractive finance-forward template of maritime exploitation for other fledgling militant groups.

Ahlu-Sunna Wa-Jama’s Maritime Operations in Mozambique 

Nearly 1,000 miles from Mogadishu, Ahlu-Sunna Wa-Jama (ASWJ), has launched a major offensive in northern Mozambique. Formed as a religious sect in 2007, ASWJ initiated an insurgency in October 2017. Initially, the group focused on raiding small villages. In 2020, the militants began taking bolder steps, attacking district capitals and, in March 2020, increased its use of maritime operations. ASWJ is expanding its maritime footprint, indicating that these activities will likely continue to serve as a primary component of the group’s strategic approach.

In August, after a series of small probing attacks against coastal towns, the group attacked and occupied the port town of Mocímboa da Praia. ASWJ’s assaults on the port town have demonstrated an unexpected comprehension of advanced tactics, such as indirect fire and maritime approaches. While defending the city, the fuzileiros, an elite state military unit, were forced to retreat, despite helicopter support provided by the South African mercenary company Dyck Advisory Group. Naval support, in the form of two HSI32 Interceptors, was disrupted when one of the vessels was sunk after impact from a rocket-propelled grenade fired from the shore. Adding further devastation, newly trained government recruits en route as reinforcements were ambushed — leaving upwards of 50 dead.

ASWJ demonstrates a dangerous capacity for strategic planning and tactical execution, including their maritime operations. In addition to raids against coastal villages and the capture of Mocímboa da Praia, ASWJ is increasing their attacks against islands off the coast of Cabo Delgado and utilizing maritime routes to move fighters and loot resources. The recent string of island-hopping attacks embody a strategic effort by ASWJ to expand the group’s area of maritime control, secure free movement, and establish a zone of power projection. This mirrors their proven mode of operation in controlling land-based transportation routes in the region. If left to the whims of ASWJ, these islands could permanently alter the character of this conflict.

The insurgent group’s operational involvement along Mozambique’s coast has been a major force multiplier and a significant contribution to their ongoing success. Unlike al-Shabaab, ASWJ has thus far remained mostly uninvolved in financial maritime activities. This may change. The entrenched illicit criminal enterprises in Cabo Delgado, in addition to the severely underdeveloped transportation corridors in the region, provide a myriad of opportunities for the group to exploit maritime businesses and infrastructure. Even if the government is able to liberate Mocímboa da Praia, it is likely that the group’s infiltration and recruitment of locals give ample opportunity to use the port to expand their involvement in illicit financial activities such as heroin trafficking, the illegal timber trade, or the smuggling of gold and rubies.

Figure 1: Fatal Events Involving ASWJ

Source: Generated by authors. 

A comparison with the case of al-Shabaab in Somalia offers important insights into the possible future of ASWJ’s maritime activity. First, should the European Union deliver on its promises of military training and support to Mozambique (something the United States has yet to do), the occupation of Mocímboa da Praia may become too costly for ASWJ to continue well into the future. A critical opportunity for counterinsurgent forces comes when militant groups prematurely attempt to hold onto captured territory. Instead, similar to al-Shabaab’s experience in Mogadishu, the insurgents may shift to a less overt presence in the port, but still continue its recruitment of fighters, the extortion of local businesses and civilians, and the monitoring of trade routes. The group’s behavior in the beginning of the occupation hints at this strategy. On the other hand, should Mozambique security forces not receive sufficient international and regional support, ASWJ will likely take advantage of the government’s weak enforcement capacity to maintain control over Mocímboa da Praia, which ASWJ views as both strategically and symbolically important.

Second, ASWJ is likely to continue to conduct armed operations and attacks at sea. This diverges from the approach taken by al-Shabaab in Somalia, a function of the weak presence of government security forces along the northern coast of Mozambique and ASWJ’s own expertise in maritime activity. Members of the Mwani ethnic group, who reside on the coast, are one of the ethnic groups from which ASWJ was formed. Access to such maritime skill sets matters. The group’s ongoing methodical expansion to the region’s coastal islands sets the group up for an extensive campaign of armed strikes against maritime targets — such as civilian boats, government patrol cruisers, and port towns — in Cabo Delgado and, potentially, the region’s booming liquified natural gas industry.

Lastly, ASWJ may soon choose to enter into the criminal networks already active within Cabo Delgado’s ports and coastal waters, which some have labeled “a smuggler’s paradise,” as a means of boosting its financial resources. With the group maintaining an estimated force of 1,000 fighters and expanding its operations into southern Tanzania, ASWJ will require a steady stream of financial revenue. The ready accessibility of an illicit market in the group’s area of control may be too tempting an opportunity to pass up.

Looking Ahead 

Militants around the world use the ocean to their strategic advantage — and in distinct patterns. While militant maritime exploitation is not a new phenomenon, the recent sea-based activities of al-Shabaab and ASWJ may be harbingers of things to come. These groups are illustrative of the extensive and various methods by which militant actors effectively exploit coastal areas. It is no coincidence that these organizations are also prominent threats to security in the region. The respective successes of these militant groups may serve as templates for ongoing and future insurgencies in and outside of the region.

Violent nonstate actors capitalize on the seaborne activities in distinct patterns corresponding with differences in the strategic environment as well as their relative strengths and organizational needs. Policymakers would do well to monitor maritime operations conducted by militant groups early in their existence. For al-Shabaab, its seafaring strategy has been folded in with its mastery of extortion and racketeering. Its operational maritime activities, on the other hand, are limited and reliant on connections to criminal networks. For ASWJ, the composition of its rank-and-file gives the group a distinct advantage for operational activities at sea. This, coupled with the current maritime deficiencies of the Mozambican security forces, indicates that seaborne operations are likely to continue to feature strongly in ASWJ’s strategic approach to the Cabo Delgado region. Of equal concern is the present opportunity that ASWJ has to expand its financial operations by engaging with the maritime-based criminal enterprises active in its area of control.

It is imperative that decision-makers overcome sea blindness and devise tailored strategies to counteract militants’ specific maritime activities. Efforts to address militant-based maritime threats begin with active government presence in ports and coastal waters, but they cannot end there. In Somalia, the government relies heavily on the presence of international navies to police its waters, including the European Union Naval Force Operation ATALANTA. While promising, these units focus predominantly on piracy, and the efficacy of recent capacity-building efforts to enhance the Mogadishu Maritime Police Units are still unknown. The potential U.S. withdrawal from Somalia may also undermine the longevity of such efforts. Moreover, rampant corruption has persistently undermined much of the U.S.- and E.U.-led counter-terrorism efforts in the country. Given al-Shabaab’s concentrated focus on using the port towns and mid-sea transshipments for financial gains, non-kinetic approaches will also be necessary, including impeding the group’s use of hawala networks to fund these trades.

In Mozambique, strengthening the government’s maritime security forces should be a major component of counter-terrorism efforts. Based on a recent assessment, the Mozambique naval force includes a total of only 200 personnel and 12 vessels (i.e., patrol boats), one of which was sunk by ASWJ in August with an unknown number of persons on board. The dearth of security force presence in northern Mozambique undercuts the government’s capacity to capitalize on any current or future strategic missteps by ASWJ. In both countries, a more holistic approach is necessary — one that includes economic development, overcoming corruption, supporting the rule of law, and protecting the human rights of people living in coastal areas. Counter-insurgency efforts should remain a priority in the region. Optimizing these strategies necessitates a vision that does not stop where land meets sea.



Tyler Lycan is a maritime security researcher with Stable Seas. Before he earned a master’s degree from the University of St. Andrews, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps. His research focuses on maritime security, terrorism, civil-military relations, and African security. You can find him on Twitter @JtylerLycan.

Christopher Faulkner is a visiting assistant professor in international studies at Centre College. He earned his Ph.D. in security studies in 2019 from the University of Central Florida. He writes on rebel recruitment, civil conflict, and civil-military relations. You can find him on Twitter @C_Faulkner_UCF.

Austin C. Doctor is an assistant professor at Eastern Kentucky University. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Georgia. He writes on militant organizations, armed conflict, and political instability with a regional focus on Africa. You can find him on Twitter @austincdoctor.

Image: African Union Mission to Somalia (Photo by Stuart Price)