Islamic State claimed its first presence in Mozambique, saying in a statement on June 4 an attack by the army was repelled in “Metobe” in the “Mocimboa area.” The fighting was attributed to its Central Africa Province affiliate. Evidence of links between ISIS and local groups in northeastern Mozambique preceding this claim remain elusive, only increasing questions around the deadly insurgency carried out by Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama.
Previously, ISCAP-attributed attacks were limited to the Democratic Republic of Congo but ISIS on June 4 claimed: “The soldiers of the Caliphate were able to repel an attack by the Crusader Mozambican army,” and that the fighting led to “killing and wounding a number of them,” adding that “weapons, ammunition, and rockets” had been captured.
Mozambique police denied that ISIS was behind the fighting, with spokesperson Orlando Mudumane saying “the security forces distance themselves from these reports,” and that “the information is not true.”
ISIS also released two images purporting to show weapons and ammunition seized in the fighting. A weapons researcher known as Calibre Obscura identified some of the arms as a PK-pattern machine gun, an RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and two assault rifles – an East German AK-type MPi-KMS-72 and an AKMS with East German furniture. Along with the weapons there was various ammunition including mortar shells, RPG warheads, magazines, and an assortment of other items, including limes, juice boxes and water bottles.
The exact location of “Metobe” is unclear, but Mocimboa da Praia is in the northern Cabo Delgado province, where violence has been going on for over a year. There were no media reports or military statements about an attack in the region on June 4, but Africa researcher Jasmine Opperman told The Defense Post that the incident likely took place on June 2.
An offensive on that day by the armed forces of Mozambique (FADM) in the area of Ntoto, around 30 km (20 miles) south of Mocimboa da Praia, was intended to clear an area believed to contain an insurgent base. After initial success, a counter-attack by militants inflicted several casualties among FADM personnel and forced the rest to withdraw, Opperman said.
A week earlier on May 28, militants ambushed a truck carrying passengers and goods in the coastal district of Macomia, south of Mocimboa da Praia. Homemade explosives were reportedly thrown at the truck before militants opened fire. Eight people were found dead in the vehicle, another seven bodies were recovered nearby, and one person died the next day. Ten people were evacuated to hospital by helicopter. Among the dead were three soldiers who had been on the truck as protection.
Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama
Mozambique has grappled with terrorism blamed on jihadists since October 2017, when militants attacked a police station and military outpost in Mocimboa da Praia.
The violence has been centered in Cabo Delgado, a Muslim-majority province in northeastern Mozambique that borders Tanzania, and is the least developed region in the country.
Poor socio-economic conditions in Cabo Delgado may have been a factor in fueling the insurgency; with high unemployment, poverty, and ineffective government services. But the province has seen an influx of financing after the discovery of major gas deposits in 2010, although many locals have not benefited.
The violence in Mozambique is most commonly viewed as Islamist militancy, with the little-known Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama blamed for the attacks. There are reports the group may have initiated as a splinter from a peaceful sect before turning to violence.
Locals refer to the group as al-Shabaab, but it is not believed to be linked to the Somalia-based al-Qaeda affiliate with the same name.
It is unclear if Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama is responsible for the attack ISIS claimed.
Other theories blame the violence on links to organized crime networks or to the discovery of gas in the region, and the lack of public statements by the attackers has only increased confusion.
The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project has logged over 100 events reported to involve Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama, most of it focused on civilians. From January to April 2019, ACLED logged only three clashes between state forces and militants, compared to at least 30 attacks on civilians. Attacks had led to over 200 deaths and have caused thousands of people to flee their homes.
Many of the attacks have been defined by their brutality: civilians, including children, have been decapitated or chopped up, and their homes burnt. While firearms and rudimentary explosives have been used, often violence has been carried out with machetes and other similar weapons.
The government has responded with the deployment of more forces, although they have failed to halt the violence and there are reports of abuses. Human Rights Watch has alleged that security forces committed crimes against accused militants, including arbitrary detentions, poor treatment, and summary executions. Multiple mosques in the country have been closed as a reaction to the attacks and at least one was levelled. Journalists are often obstructed in their work by security forces, and several have been detained.
Alleged foreign connections
While the majority of Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama militants are Mozambicans from the local area, foreigners are also present, including Tanzanians and Ugandans.
Even less is known about the activities of any ISIS cells in the area. In May 2018 a photo was shared on pro-ISIS Telegram channels showing six fighters standing in front of the black flag infamously used by ISIS, but several other groups use the same flag, including Boko Haram, the Somali al-Shabaab, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
PT la photo qui a circulé en mai 2018 // à noter la revendication est sous l’appellation « province d’Afrique centrale » pic.twitter.com/1lVt1mGKEC
— Wassim Nasr (@SimNasr) June 4, 2019
Along with the picture it was claimed that a bayah, or pledge of allegiance, to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would follow. If such a pledge has been made it was not done so publicly.
That same month, the African Union claimed ISIS had expanded its reach into East Africa including Mozambique, but provided no details.
The statement and images released by ISIS suggest a line of communication from Mozambican militants to ISIS central, but that communication may not be direct. In the past such releases have typically been preceded by the building of ties and a bayah, or pledge of allegiance, to Baghdadi.
Separately, there are alleged links between Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama and the Allied Democratic Forces, a Ugandan-led Islamist group based in Democratic Republic of Congo. Six Ugandans have been arrested in Mocimboa da Praia and extradition proceedings are underway, Uganda’s Daily Monitor reported.
In July, the Somalia-based think tank Hiraal Institute cited a Tanzanian security official as saying Tanzanian militants with Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama had been in contact with Tanzanians who joined ADF.
Islamic State Central Africa Province
Until the June 4 attack in Mozambique, all activity attributed to ISCAP had been confined to the DRC. The group is believed by experts and analysts to have been formed from ADF or a splinter group that had previously built ties with ISIS.
ISIS has sought to expand into new regions through local groups or their splinters, just as they apparently did with the ADF. After a group has pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, it will act in ISIS’s name and propaganda coverage of its activities is released by ISIS central.
This model has previously been seen: in Nigeria a Boko Haram faction became West Africa Province, and Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in Egypt became Sinai Province.
The relationship allows ISIS to expand into a new region, while local forces gain financing, propaganda and legitimacy among would-be jihadists from being part of ISIS.
ISIS benefits – especially since the fall of its proto-state in Iraq and Syria – by signaling to its supporters that it will continue to expand.
With the lack of clear links between militants in Mozambique and ISIS, it remains unclear if the attack claimed by ISIS was carried out by Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama, a splinter, or a completely separate group. The lack of overt links between local militants and ISIS central creates rightful suspicions about the actual level and nature of ISIS involvement.
Like the insurgency itself, the apparent arrival of ISIS in Mozambique leaves more questions than answers.