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Insurgency in Northern Mozambique

Understanding the evolving violence in Mozambique's northern Cabo Delgado province.


Since late 2017 Mozambican security forces have been battling a limited Islamist insurgency in the country’s North Eastern province of Cabo Delgado. In recent months, violent action on the part of the extremists has escalated, resulting in their capture of the key strategic port Mocimboa da Praia, over the course of Tuesday the 12th and Wednesday the 13th of August.[1]

So far, the insurgency has claimed around 1500 lives, and the current battle in Mocimboa da Praia is taking more each day.[2] On top of this, at least 250,000 people have been displaced by the conflict which has in turn exacerbated deadly cholera and Covid-19 outbreaks.[3]

The Commonwealth Security Group have published this briefing to help provide an understanding of the situation, and to encourage greater international awareness and engagement with the evolving situation in Mozambique.

Growing Insurgency

Beginning in earnest in late 2017, the insurgency has consisted of a growing series of small-scale raids and violent attacks on rural populations, infrastructure and oil workers that saw a sharp increase in the first half of 2020. Indeed, between January and August 2020, the country experienced almost the same number of violent incidents as in the previous two and a half years.[4] Adriano Nuvunga, Executive Director at the Center for Democracy and Development in Mozambique notes that recently “Insurgents have gained confidence, capacity, more coordination, and they have been bolder in their actions.”[5]

Ahlu Sunna Wal Jammaa

The main group identified to be orchestrating the insurgency are the jihadist organisation known as Ahlu Sunna Wal Jammaa (ASWJ). In a video circulated widely on WhatsApp an unmasked, but as yet unidentified, militant leader exclaims that the motivation of the insurgents is to “show that the government of the day is unfair. It humiliates the poor and gives the profit to the bosses” as well as to put in place an “Islamic government, not a government of unbelievers.”[6] The group appears to have little formal organisational structure and seemingly no centralised leadership. The rank and file of the insurgency appears to be comprised of young men from rural areas in Cabo Delgado, drawn to ASWJ through perceived grievances against the government in Maputo, and a lack of economic opportunity.

Links to the Islamic State

Both the government and the militants themselves have suggested that the insurgency is linked to the Islamic State. IS have taken credit for several of the attacks in Mozambique leading many commentators to argue that ASWJ is a “franchise” of the Levantine terrorist group. Despite this, there is a lack of concrete evidence of strong operational and day to day links between the extremist groups. Whilst the organisations are clearly communicating and do share some similar motivations and tactics it is wrong to wholly conflate them at this stage in the insurgency life cycle.

Cabo Delgado province within Mozambique

Impact on Mozambique Gas

Complicating the situation in northern Mozambique is the country’s booming oil wealth. In 2010, a major off-shore gas field was discovered in Cabo Delgado that many hoped would provide the wealth to turn the country’s fortunes around. As the gas extraction projects, now worth some $60 Billion, have grown, the insurgency has grown alongside them. Without stating a direct causation between the two phenomena, the correlation is hard to ignore. There is a risk that negative environmental and social impacts of the gas boom, including the relocation of some communities and perceived widening of wealth inequality, have helped spike angst towards central government and the multinational corporations involved. Insurgent rhetoric exploits these concerns to radicalise people, exacerbating tensions and driving conflict.[7]

Regional Reactions

As the conflict escalates, regional powers are beginning to voice their concern over the insurgency. During a virtual summit of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) last month Mozambican president Filipe Nyusi assumed the chairmanship of the bloc, as it expressed its “solidarity and commitment to support Mozambique in addressing the terrorism and violent attacks and condemned all acts of terrorism and armed attacks”.[8] Tanzania has mobilised forces along its southern border with Cabo Delgado to disrupt insurgent supply lines and prevent the conflict from spilling over.[9] Designs of a broad South African and Zimbabwean intervention in the conflict have yet to progress officially.[10]


Over the past 12 months the insurgency in Cabo Delgado has intensified and become more violent. While operational ties with the Islamic State are still fairly limited, the quasi-official link up demonstrates a worrying intent, and likely increasing intransigence. Given the importance of the region’s economic wealth to the wider wealth of Mozambique, and the geographically important location; close to international shipping lanes, and the border with Tanzania, it is vital that the insurgency is comprehensively addressed sooner rather than later. There is a risk of the region becoming a focal point and staging post for jihadist activity in the wider South East African region. The relative nascency of the stated connection with the Islamic State, and its brand of aggressive nihilist jihadism, offers some opportunity for a concerted push back. The knock-on effects of the violence on Mozambique’s health and energy security demonstrate the holistic security challenge that violent extremism can present. The international community, regionally, pan-Commonwealth, and across the globe must work closely with Mozambique to address both the violent actions and original grievances of the insurgency.

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10]


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