An Islamist Insurgency Brews in Mozambique

An emerging radical Islamist movement in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado Province has led to the implementation of night-time curfews and the need for military convoy escorts through some areas. While the movement is still very small and distant from the key tourist areas in the south, this growing threat should not be ignored.

Residents of Naunde village were woken by gunshots around 2am on June 5th. Two of the attackers carried guns. The other three, armed with machetes, set houses on fire. Then they chased down a local chief and hacked off his head in front of horrified neighbours. They also killed six others, including an Islamic leader whom they beheaded in a mosque.

The attack, documented by Human Rights Watch, a pressure group, is one of several dozen carried out by jihadists in Cabo Delgado—a mostly Muslim, coastal province in Mozambique’s far north—since October 2017. Recently many have followed a similar pattern: hit-and-run raids during which attackers torch houses, steal supplies and behead victims. In May terrorists decapitated ten people, including children. Officials have tried to brush off the violence as mere banditry. But the attacks appear to be increasing.

Who the killers are and what they want is not entirely clear. Uncertainty surrounds even their name. They are known as Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jamaah (Arabic for “followers of the prophetic tradition”), though locals also refer to them as al-Shabab (“the youth”). They have no known ties to the jihadist group in Somalia, which is also called al-Shabab, but some researchers think the jihadists in Mozambique have received training abroad.

Beyond touting a strict form of Islam, the group’s political agenda is rudimentary. According to Joseph Hanlon, a researcher at the London School of Economics, Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jamaah emerged when groups of street traders, united by economic frustration and radical Islam, came together in 2015. They urged people not to pay taxes or send their children to state-run schools—and they stormed into mosques, knives waving, to lambast local Islamic practices as degenerate.

For years locals complained about the growing number of angry young men in their midst. But Mozambique’s corrupt and listless authorities did little. The group’s first attack, last October, took officials in the capital, Maputo, by surprise.

Cabo Delgado should be booming. Companies such as Anadarko and Eni are investing around $50bn (around four times Mozambique’s annual GDP) in the region to exploit huge gas reserves found in 2010. Gemfields, a British firm that makes gem-encrusted eggs, arrived in 2011 to mine what is said to be world’s biggest ruby deposit.

But locals say they have seen little benefit. Cabo Delgado still lags behind Mozambique’s more prosperous south. Many of the jobs created by the gas finds go to highly skilled expatriates, not locals, who are mostly illiterate. Young people in Palma, a town at the centre of the gas projects, protested in May, claiming that their job applications are ignored.

Adding to the misery are reports of ruby-related land grabs. In London lawyers are pursuing cases against Gemfields on behalf of over 100 small-scale ruby miners, who claim they were shot at, beaten up and sexually abused by police officers and the company’s security guards.

Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jamaah is not expected to hamper the region’s gas projects. But what happens next may depend on the state’s reaction. So far it has beefed up security and arrested hundreds of suspected jihadists. Eric Morier-Genoud of Queens University Belfast compares Cabo Delgado to north-east Nigeria during the early days of Boko Haram. There a heavy-handed crackdown helped transform a radical religious sect into one of Africa’s deadliest terror groups. The hope is that northern Mozambique does not go the same way.

The Economist

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Posted by on Aug 15 2018. Filed under African News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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