For the first time, a jihadi group in Mozambique has seized and held a significant town, after an assault that demonstrated growing sophistication, tactical awareness, and firepower. Fighters of Ahl al-Sunnah wa al Jamma’ah (ASWJ) captured Mocimboa da Praia in Mozambique’s northernmost province of Cabo Delgado in early August 2020; by mid-October 2020, government forces had still not dislodged them.
The occupation of Mocimboa is a step-change in the ASWJ’s capabilities and ambitions since the group’s first attack on the town three years ago. This article explores the origins and evolution of the insurgency and seeks to demonstrate that it has benefited from a unique combination of circumstances: a traditional Islamic leadership out of touch with younger, radicalized Muslims; widespread economic and social deprivation in northern Mozambique amid a wealth of natural resources, compounded by ethnic cleavages; corruption and ineffective governance; and security forces that are poorly equipped, trained, and led.
These factors have not only enabled the exponential growth of the insurgency but attracted attention, support, and promotion from the Islamic State over the last year as it looks to Africa as promising territory. The insurgency in Mozambique was officially co-opted as part of the Islamic State’s Central Africa province (ISCAP) in June 2019.
Critically, the expansion of the insurgency now directly threatens the development of Mozambique as a major exporter of liquefied natural gas and thereby its economic future.
The analysis draws from a range of sources, including regional experts who have followed the insurgency since its inception, academics who have studied the evolution of jihadism and different strands of Islamic thought in the region, and human rights organizations and analysts in Mozambique. Some have preferred to speak on background so as to be more candid. The article also draws on a range of research papers published in the last few years and the author’s own experience analyzing jihadi groups and the environments in which they flourish, including reporting in Syria and Iraq.