Foreign Fighters and the Trajectory of Violence in Northern Mozambique


On March 24, fighters from Ansar al-Sunna Wa Jamma (ASWJ) — a U.S. State Department-designated foreign terrorist organization that it calls “ISIS-Mozambique” — launched a multi-day assault on Palma, a coastal town of roughly 75,000 people located in Mozambique’s hard-pressed province of Cabo Delgado. The operation — which reportedly involved covert infiltration, multiple points of simultaneous attack, and maritime support — was well-coordinated, with clear evidence of prior planning and intelligence gathering. Over the course of the attack, ASWJ fighters targeted military personnel, banks, government buildings, a food warehouse, civil servants, and other civilians. On March 29, the Islamic State claimed the attack, emphasizing that ASWJ militants had killed Mozambican troops, local Christians, and foreigners. While security forces have largely reassumed control of the town, the total number of casualties is not yet known.

The widespread coverage of ASWJ’s attack in Palma — building on a year of operational success for the group — has likely elevated the profile of this conflict, including within the jihadist community, potentially increasing its appeal to regional and veteran foreign fighters. This risks further inflating the insurgents’ growing corps of foreign recruits. While publicly available information on the exact number and role of foreign fighters in the group is limited, ASWJ — or “al-Shabaab” as it is called in Mozambique — has had a long history with the foreign fighter community. Early academic research into the group revealed the presence of youth from Africa’s Great Lakes region, Uganda, and Tanzania. More recently, the Islamic State’s media arm, AMAQ, published a video showing ASWJ fighters who appear to be foreigners alongside Mozambican fighters in Mocimboa da Praia, echoing claims that former ASWJ prisoners have made about foreigners present within the group’s ranks. Tanzanian authorities last year intercepted multiple groups of young men who the authorities claim were en route to Mozambique, and South African officials a claims that South African nationals have joined the group.



Mozambique, and Cabo Delgado specifically, boasts many of the characteristics that facilitate the entrance of foreign fighters: Poor border security, weak and declining state presence, and an ascendant insurgent movement. The presence of foreign fighters in ASWJ’s ranks is already apparent. Less clear, however, is how foreign fighters might impact ASWJ as an organization and the trajectory of the conflict in Mozambique. Foreign fighters are often a boon to a nascent group, helping its local fighters to quickly develop the necessary military and technical skills to gain advantage on the battlefield. Over time, however, the presence of these foreigners within the ranks of an organization can become a liability, potentially sowing division within the group and shifting the strategic picture with the likely introduction of foreign assistance to the government combating the jihadist group. Towards this end, insight from al-Shabaab’s experience with its foreign fighters in Somalia may serve as a valuable point of comparison.

What We Know (and Do Not Know) About Foreign Fighters in ASWJ

Foreign fighters are not new to ASWJ ranks. Reliable estimates of the number of fighters currently in the group’s ranks — foreign or otherwise — are hard to come by, although one source recently estimated the group’s fighting corps to be in the ballpark of 2,000 combatants. Based on recent estimates and the number of foreigners already arrested in connection to the insurgency in Cabo Delgado, it is likely that foreign combatants in ASWJ currently number in the low hundreds and fill positions in both the leadership echelon and general rank-and-file. ASWJ’s sustained momentum over the past few years does appear to have coincided with a notable increase in size. While it is unclear how much of this recent growth is due to foreign recruits, what is clear is that foreign fighters have been active in the group for years. This is likely to continue.

The group’s foreign fighters to date are mostly sourced from its regional neighbors. Despite ASWJ’s connection to the Islamic State, there is little evidence — such as a global call to arms — that foreign fighters are arriving en masse to ASWJ through Islamic State-related channels. Instead, the group’s historical connections to various communities in Eastern, Southern and Central Africa — including in TanzaniaSouth Africa, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Somalia — suggest that the influx of foreign fighters to the group is mostly generated by ASWJ itself. For example, from May 2017 to March 2018 — well before ASWJ’s pledge to the Islamic State — the Mozambican government prosecuted 370 persons accused of association with the militant group, 52 of whom were Tanzanian, three Ugandan, and one Somalian. Last month, the International Crisis Group reported that the “biggest cohort of foreigners fighting within the ranks of ASWJ … are from Tanzania.” In March, the U.S. State Department identified Abu Yasir Hassan as the group’s leader and named him as a specially designated global terrorist. Hassan is reportedly a Tanzanian national. These foreign fighters, particularly those emerging from ASWJ’s connections to the “militant milieu in Tanzania” and reported ties to the Allied Democratic Forces in Democratic Republic of Congo, probably offered the group skillsets and training that they lacked prior to 2017.

Despite the organization’s demonstrated linkages to outside communities, ASWJ has deep-set local roots. As academic Eric Morier-Genoud has put it, “the insurgency builds on a Mozambican religious sect whose leadership was primarily Mozambican.” In the few public statements the group has made, it has spoken in local languages and focused on themes of corruption and abuse of the poor by FRELIMO, the party that has ruled Mozambique since independence. These messages likely resonate with a local audience that has seen little in the way of effective governance, particularly since the start of this conflict. Locals began calling the group al-Shabaab (“the youth”) because they recognized them as local youth, a name the group seems to have embraced. Therefore, it is appropriate to think about the non-Mozambican nationals fighting in the ranks of ASWJ exactly as that — foreigners. This bears unique, and somewhat mixed, implications for the insurgency, its leaders, and local civilians.

How Foreign Fighters Impact the Trajectory of Violence 

Comparative insights from the observed activity of foreign fighters in al-Shabaab in Somalia (not to be confused with ASWJ, which is commonly referred to as “al-Shabaab” by locals in Cabo Delgado) suggest that foreign fighters are not strictly a net gain for an insurgent group over time. Like ASWJ, al-Shabaab recruited a significant number of foreign fighters in its formative years, even prior to declaring its allegiance to the leadership of a transnational terror organization (in al-Shabaab’s case, al-Qaeda). The al-Shabaab case is well-suited to offer insight into how foreign fighters may influence ASWJ and shape the broader trajectory of the conflict in Mozambique. We emphasize three of them here.

First, foreign fighters offer a means of augmenting ASWJ’s violent attacks and battlefield performance. In addition to serving as combatants, veteran fighters from foreign territories have provided fledgling domestic insurgents with the military experience and technical expertise needed to advance the local warfighting effort. For example, in the earlier phases of al-Shabaab’s campaign in Somalia, foreign recruits significantly improved the group’s sniper operations in Mogadishu as well as the group’s use of improvised explosive devices. Since 2008, foreign nationals from a variety of countries, including Sudan, Kenya, the United Kingdom, and the United States, have fought alongside al-Shabaab. Seasoned fighters from Yemen have been especially influential in the group. Analyst Katherine Zimmerman, for example, stated in a U.S. congressional testimony that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula “almost certainly provided the equipment or the expertise for al-Shabaab’s 2016 laptop bombing” of a Daallo Airlines flight in February 2016.

Over the past year, ASWJ has demonstrated a much-improved capacity for operational design and tactical execution, including their maritime activities. In 2019, the Armed Conflict and Location Event Dataset recorded 38 armed attacks involving ASWJ and state forces, producing a total of 263 fatalities. In 2020, those numbers surged to 105 and 747, respectively. This increase in armed engagements between ASWJ and local security forces is only part of the whole picture. From 2017 to early 2019, the group mostly relied on crude weapons, such as machetes, and unsophisticated tactical methods. Since then, the group has significantly improved its material capabilities and the sophistication of its attacks. In a recent article, journalist Tim Lister reported that by mid-2020 ASWJ had captured over 100 assault rifles, heavy machine guns, several mortars, and more than 20 RPG-7s from local security forces. The well-established smuggling network in the region offers an additional potential source of small arms. Moreover, ASWJ has shown itself capable of conducting complex operations. Last month’s attack on Palma entailed a multi-stage operation and several points of simultaneous attack with operational maritime support. That the ASWJ militants are now capable of attacking — and even holding — strategic urban spaces clearly indicates that the group has matured from an adolescent insurgency into a formidable and entrenched force.

Second, an influx of foreign fighters to ASWJ may prompt heightened pressure from regional and international counter-terrorism forces. In the case of al-Shabaab in Somalia, scholars Tricia Bacon and Daisy Muibu convincingly argue that foreign fighters have ultimately proved a long-term liability to the group’s strategic mission, mostly by inviting more sophisticated and sustained counter-terrorism efforts. More recently, this prompted al-Shabaab’s leadership to undergo a self-imposed process of “domestication,” returning its focus to the local drivers of the conflict and the group’s local constituents.

An influx of foreign fighters would create a similar dilemma for ASWJ, a group that, unlike al-Shabaab, has not blatantly tried to attract international attention. Thus far, ASWJ has deftly exploited local grievances and capitalized on the corruption and weakness of the Mozambique government to gain domestic recruits and at minimum keep the civilian population largely neutral. The organization has also purposefully maintained a low public profile, releasing only five propaganda videos since it first came on the scene, suggesting the group’s audience is not the international community, but rather those closer to home. However, the Islamic State claims to credit for attacks in Mozambique will likely elevate ASWJ’s profile among veteran foreign fighters, drawing in new recruits as well as increasing concern from the international community about the conflict. These external forces may ultimately run counter to the ASWJ leadership’s apparent preference to stay out of the limelight and force the group to reevaluate the benefit of these foreign fighters within their ranks. Indeed, despite the Mozambican government’s reluctance to collaborate with regional partners on this security issue, the United States recently launched a two-month training program for Mozambican marines and the Portuguese are set to begin a similar program this month.

Finally, the sustained presence of foreign fighters poses a threat to ASWJ’s internal cohesion. Scholar Thomas Hegghammer aptly describes foreign fighters as “insurgents in every regard but their passports.” Though perhaps trivial at face value, with different passports come a host of potential challenges that local commanders must address — and be prepared to adapt their patterns of management accordingly. Foreign nationals — especially those recruited into middle or upper management positions — will inevitably seek a say in ASWJ’s strategic direction and, relatedly, its theory of victory (i.e., “the assumptions that group strategists make about how the execution of the military operations that they are planning will translate into the achievement of the political objectives that they are pursuing”). This can lead to intra-group fractures. Scholar Kristin Bakke summarizes this dynamic succinctly: 

Although transnational insurgents may strengthen a domestic insurgent movement by contributing resources, fighters, and know-how, they can also weaken the movement by introducing new ideas about what the struggle is about and how it should be fought.

Examples of this dynamic are legion. In 2011, after foreign fighters in Somalia “ran afoul” of al-Shabaab’s leader, Ahmed Godane, the group systematically killed a number of its foreign recruits. In 2012, Omar Hammami, an American foreign fighter and al-Shabaab celebrity turned pariah, claimed that al-Shabab leaders threatened his life due to “differences” over matters of “Shari’a and strategy.” Hammami and other high-profile foreign fighters subsequently broke away from the group and continued to antagonize their previous comrades-in-arms. The feud culminated in September 2013 when al-Shabaab’s intelligence branch managed to track down and kill Hammami.

In other cases, foreign fighters pose a threat to insurgent cohesion by straining sentiments of camaraderie within the rank-and-file. Language and cultural barriers, in particular, tend to pose a practical obstacle to coordination and socialization within the ranks. Academics Scott Gates and Sukanya Podder argue that the “combination of ideological motivation, non-parochialism, and detachment from local politics” can generate a clash of preferences and interests within a rebel organization between foreign and local members. Force cohesion (and effectiveness) is directly affected by inter-combatant bonds — and the presence of foreign fighters can disrupt these ties. On this point, scholar Vera Mironova records one native member of the Syrian insurgent group Jabhat al-Nusra stating that “The only drawback of foreign fighters was they had their own communities and way of living. They weren’t highly integrated into our society.”

After the attack in Palma, ASWJ leaders will likely consider the rate and method of territorial expansion, the nature of the group’s engagement with the local civilian population, and the extent to which the group hopes to invite or avoid greater levels of foreign military support — issues that are tied to the group’s vision for its success and long-term goals. The high-stakes nature of these choices has the potential to provoke disagreement between the group’s leadership, local members, and foreign recruits. The political overtones to ASWJ’s attack into southern Tanzania last October may already point to some Tanzanian influence in the group’s decision-making, but one that distracts from the group’s overarching grievances against the Mozambican state. The opportunity for entrenched factions to emerge along these lines is significant. In addition, while foreign fighters from the Swahili coast, such as Tanzania and southern Kenya, may be able to leverage a shared history to better integrate into the group, those coming from farther afield will likely find the transition more difficult, much like those joining al-Shabaab did.

Foreign Fighters Complicate Regional and International Support 

An influx of foreign fighters will almost certainly exacerbate Mozambique’s already-tense relationship with its neighbors, particularly South Africa and Tanzania. Specifically, foreign jihadists joining the ranks of ASWJ would provide the Mozambican government with a pretext to deflect attention away from its own difficulties in containing the group. Mozambique has frustrated its neighbors with its reluctance to request assistance from abroad despite the declining humanitarian and security situation in the north. Indeed, last year, in the wake of ASWJ’s August attack on Mocimboa da Praia, Defense Minister Jaime Neto said that the only request that Mozambique had of its neighbors was “vigilance at the borders, to keep these bandits out of our country,” passing some of the responsibility for Mozambique’s security onto regional partners. If foreign fighters are seen as having a key role in enhancing the insurgents’ strength and effectiveness, the Mozambican government may try shifting the blame the international community places on it onto neighboring governments and organizations for failing to prevent the conflict from worsening. At the same time, Mozambique’s neighbors may face increased insecurity as foreign fighters transit through their countries on the way to Cabo Delgado. According to a U.N. study from 2018, foreign fighters arrested in Malaysia on their way to Syria used the country as a place to plan attacks and collect funds. The recent designation of ASWJ as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States would likely increase pressure on countries if they found themselves in this situation to avoid looking like they were providing material support to the insurgents in Mozambique.

To the extent that Mozambique accepts foreign security assistance, as it has with U.S. and Portuguese training missions to its marines, these partners will need to tread carefully to avoid creating a wave of “accidental guerrillas,” galvanizing greater jihadist engagement in Cabo Delgado. Academic research suggests that Ethiopia’s entrance into Somalia in 2007 inspired foreign fighters to come to lend aid to al-Shabaab against this incursion. The African Union’s Somalia mission was similarly viewed by jihadists as an occupation by infidels, again galvanizing foreign fighters to act. A similar phenomenon could come into play in Cabo Delgado, where the Islamic State’s propaganda arm has already accused South Africa and Tanzania of meddling in the conflict. In addition to maintaining a low-key presence, discrete cooperation in law enforcement and intelligence sharing has the potential to transfer important skills to Mozambican counterparts while chipping away at the organization.

The introduction of new foreign fighters, particularly those driven to respond to perceived Western security interference, will also likely exacerbate an already declining humanitarian situation. Fighters motivated to combat Western security assistance may introduce new threats in the battlespace with the likely introduction of new modes of warfare, such as improvised explosive devices and vehicle-born improvised explosive devices, further complicating the ability of internally displaced people to safely flee areas of combat and the ability of aid organizations to help them. Indeed, the arrival of foreign fighters to Mozambique bodes ill for the already beleaguered civilian population. Recent academic studies reveal that to better integrate foreign fighters, the indigenous leaders of a group will institutionalize or permit sexual violence and other forms of civilian targeting, suggesting a potential uptick in the need for medical and psychological support to foreign fighters’ victims.

Looking Ahead

Foreign fighters’ influence on the ASWJ insurgency — both now and in the future — is likely to be multi-dimensional. In the immediate term, foreign recruits offer ASWJ a reliable means of boosting their battlefield effectiveness and regional prestige. Down the road, should ASWJ continue to target a significant number of foreign recruits, this decision could ultimately become a strategic mistake. The presence of foreign fighters could carry downstream consequences for the group including weakened internal cohesion, reduced support from the local population, and unwieldy mission creep should the group choose to expand its strategic ambitions beyond the northern regions of Mozambique. These consequences would threaten many of the fundamentals that have allowed the group to succeed, such as avoiding hubris in decision-making and keeping the civilian population neutral.

An uptick in foreign fighter flows to Cabo Delgado may create new opportunities for the United States to work toward stabilizing security in the region, even in a scenario where the Mozambican government remains cautious toward external security support. Indeed, discretion in lending aid would be essential to reduce the risk of inspiring would-be foreign fighters to join the fight in Cabo Delgado. As Mozambique’s neighbors grow more concerned over insecurity there, the United States could engage with these security services on intelligence collection and analysis and border security initiatives to better track fighters and prevent their entry into Mozambique. The recent foreign terrorist organization designation by the U.S. State Department, with its authorities to prosecute anyone lending material aid to ASWJ, would open the door to for greater law enforcement and judicial training programs and collaboration. Mozambique and its neighbors would likely benefit from joint training exercises that, while not expressly connected to combatting ASWJ, would still impart skills that would help Mozambique and its neighbors in that fight and create working-level relationships that would foster future collaboration.



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. You can find her on Twitter @EColumbo2019.

Austin C. Doctor is an incoming assistant professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a member of the executive committee of the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Georgia. He writes on militant organizations, terrorism, armed conflict, and political instability. You can find him on Twitter @austincdoctor.

Image: U.S. Embassy in Mozambique

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