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Islamic State Mozambique (ISM)


Insurgency Overview


The Islamic State Mozambique (ISM) is the name given to the Salafi-Jihadist insurgent group that has been affiliated with the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province (ISCAP) since 2019, but has been active in Mozambique since 2017. The group is also known more commonly as Ahl al-Sunnah wa al Jamma’ah (ASWJ) and Al-Shabab, and has been active primarily in northern Mozambique in the provinces of Cabo Delgado, Niassa, and recently, Nampula (1). Estimates suggest the group possesses approximately 1000 fighters or less, mostly young, local, and radical Muslim men (2). The group's high profile attacks have led to international notoriety but pushed the South African Development Community (SADC) and the Rwandan Defense Force (RDF) to intervene in 2021 to assist Mozambican security forces in conducting counterinsurgency operations, which rolled back some of their gains.


History & Foundations


There have been long standing tensions in Northern Mozambique between the coastal Muslim Mwani and inland Makonde Christians, who have closer ties to the central government in the south. Though the region, especially the Cabo Delgado province, is rich in natural resources such as minerals, timber, and natural gas, much of the wealth and resource extraction has been concentrated among foreign companies and the Makonde elite who are connected to the central government (3). Low levels of economic opportunity and decades of perceived political marginalization and neglect locally and by the national government have created a vulnerable and disenchanted generation of Muslim youth.


Sects began to appear around 2007 that broke away from the existing Wahaabist community and began calling for the implementation of Shari’a law, as well as the rejection of the secular government and the state-backed Islamic Council of Mozambique (4). While it is unclear on the exact date of the formation of ASWJ/Al-Shabab, reports indicate they were recruiting young, impoverished men in at least four districts of Cabo Delgado in 2016, all while setting up training camps in the north of the province as early as 2015 (5)(6).


Following a series of escalations and a decline in the relations between the group, mainstream Muslim establishment, and civil authorities, they shifted to militancy in October 2017 with attacks against police in Mocimboa de Praia (7). Through 2017 and 2018, the group continued to carry out small-scale attacks against unprotected villages and small police outposts, growing and gathering strength and building networks. By February 2020, the insurgency had spread to 9 of Cabo Delgado’s 16 districts (8). A signal of the group's strength and growing influence was their brief captures of Mocimba da Praia in August 2020, and then the port town of Palma in March 2021, which forced the French gas company Total to withdraw and suspend their $20 billion investment in the province (9).


These successes for the group triggered the SADC and RDF interventions in the summer of 2021. Attacks and raiding continued throughout 2022, although the group has had to adjust its tactics as it has felt the pressure of recent counterinsurgency operations. While the group’s internal structure is unclear, it is believed that its leader is Abu Yasir Hassan, a Tanzanian, who has allegedly led the group since 2017 (10). Another individual named Abu Sulayfa Muhammad, more commonly known as Ibn Omar or Abu Suraca, is purported to lead the Military and External Affairs department for IS-Mozambique and is the senior commander for all attacks in North Mozambique. Additional intel suggests that Abu Sulayfa Muhammad is also the lead facilitator and conduit for communications within the group (11). The distinction between the two leaders’ roles and responsibilities is unclear, but both have been individually sanctioned by the U.S. Department of State.

Objectives & Ideology


The group originated from an Islamist sect whose initial aim was to establish a parallel society that was ruled exclusively by Shari’a (12). Since the shift to armed jihadism in 2017 though, their ultimate goals have become somewhat unclear and seem to be generally opposed to the secular nature of the state. Essentially, the group seeks to establish Shari’a locally and regionally. In the near term, their objectives appear to be to undermine the Mozambican government and security forces' authority and influence, build local support and networks, and combat foreign interests in the province (13).


The group's primary grievances are domestic, and are centered around issues within Cabo Delgado. This is reflected in the group being composed primarily of locals from the province and some surrounding provinces. Tanzanians have crossed the border to work in the mines, while there exists an ethnic and linguistic bond between the Mwani populations on both sides of the border, which hence gives credence to reports that suggest that Tanzanians comprise a sizable minority of the group (14).


Additionally, individuals from Somalia, South Africa and Uganda, and possibly even the Middle East and South Asia have been reported as being present during some of the group's attacks (15). The group's pledge to the IS may have led to an influx of foreign fighters starting in 2019, but this is largely unconfirmed (16).


Approach to Resistance


Throughout 2017 and 2018, the group carried out small-scale, intermittent attacks but they began to become more numerous and violent throughout 2018 and 2019 (17). Their operations initially consisted of raids and attacks against undefended villages and small contingents of government forces. The group began to gain momentum in 2020, and the complexity and scale of its operations increased, while reports also indicated the group had begun abducting women and children and had spread to 9 of Cabo Delgado’s 16 districts (18). Evidence of the group's increasing capabilities was manifested in their internationally noted seizure of the port town Mocimboa da Praia in August of 2020, as well as by videos and photos showing that the group had gained access to AK-47s, light, medium, and heavy machine guns, RPGs, and mortars captured largely from military stores (19)(20). This showed a rapid advance in their ability to gather manpower and conduct bold, coordinated attacks with advanced tactics.


In March of 2021, the group launched an attack on and captured Palma. The attack appeared to have specific targets such as the town's airfield, military barracks, banks, and food warehouses. It resulted in the group seizing more than $1 million in recently-arrived military pay and food aid from local banks and warehouses (21). This indicated that the group may have timed their attack based on intelligence regarding the money and food's arrival, indicating their ability to conduct complex operations in urban environments and to gather and exploit intelligence.


The group has been noted for its brutality in its attacks with survivors attesting to beheadings, maiming, torture, burning of homes, crops, and other property, as well as kidnapping and theft as common tactics (22). Their attacks have also resulted in tens of thousands being displaced and fleeing their homes. In response to the deployment of Rwandan and South African troops in 2021, the group has demobilized many of its fighters, ordering them to go back to their homes and mix into the civilian population, bide time and recruit new youth (23). During the same period, they launched several attacks across the border into Tanzania.


In an attempt to adapt to counterinsurgent pressure, the group began to expand into the Niassa province, with a series of attacks being launched during the last half of 2021 but fizzling out by December (24). These attacks were allegedly led by a former local civil servant turned Al-Shabab cadre named Maulana Ali Cassimo. These allegations may confirm the theory that the group is attempting to send members recruited outside of Cabo Delgado back to their home provinces to spread the insurgency (25).


In 2022, attacks occurred in Cabo Delgados' southern provinces of Quissange, Ancuabe, Chiure, and Mecufi, and in Nampula Province, which previously hadn’t seen any attacks from the group (26). These areas have seen extensive recruiting efforts from the group in the past, with high poverty rates and Salafi activism in Nampula making it ripe for exploitation. These attacks appear to indicate that Al-Shabab has been attempting to expand southward, conducting raids and attacks with small units, likely as a result of continued counterinsurgent pressure. Based on the speed of the attacks, size of the units, and the distance they cover, the units conducting the attacks likely were relying on sleeper agents and networks of supporters in the region (27). Foreign troops have begun to notice the group has increasingly begun using rudimentary IEDs on roads, which could grow in sophistication if the group establishes ties with East African IS networks (28).


Alliances and International Connections


Though the group known as ASWJ and Al-Shabab pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2019 and was considered until recently part of ISCAP, the extent of their cooperation and coordination is relatively opaque. The group was designated as an independent wilaya in May of 2022, though this may be purely semantical as IS Central wants to appear to be expanding (29). IS’s Amaq News agency has posted videos and pictures from the group, though inconsistently, and the IS has through social media claimed many attacks conducted by the group, beginning in June of 2019 (30). Nonetheless, there isn’t significant evidence of material or technological support or exchange between the two groups.


As of now, a virtual link positively exists, the insurgents have oft flown the flag of the IS, and there is some communication between the groups (31). Every other aspect of their alliance, however, remains largely speculative, and the group has remained insulated from the fortunes of ISCAP and IS central. Ties between the Ugandan Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), which is the first component of ISCAP, and IS-M, have been suggested. Some sources say some fighters from IS-M have trained with the ADF in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and some Ugandans have been arrested in Cabo Delgado in connection with terrorism charges (32). It must be noted, nevertheless, that these ties are also somewhat ambiguous and difficult to confirm with upmost confidence.

Works Cited (Chicago-style)

(1) - Ryan O’Farrell, “Relocating or Expanding? Islamic State Mozambique’s Reaction to Foreign Intervention,” FDD’s Long War Journal, June 28, 2022, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2022/06/relocating-or-expanding-islamic-state-mozambiques-reaction-to-foreign-intervention.php.


(2) - “The Islamist Insurgency in Mozambique,” IISS, n.d., https://www.iiss.org/publications/strategic-comments/2021/the-islamist-insurgency-in-mozambique.


(3) - Tim Lister, “Jihadi Insurgency in Mozambique Grows in Sophistication and Reach,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, October 22, 2020, https://ctc.westpoint.edu/jihadi-insurgency-in-mozambique-grows-in-sophistication-and-reach/.

(4) - Sabrine Baiou, “Understanding the Meteoric Rise of the Islamic State in Mozambique - New Lines Institute,” New Lines Institute - New Lines Institute Is the First Independent, Non-partisan American Think Tank, June 22, 2021, https://newlinesinstitute.org/terrorism/understanding-the-meteoric-rise-of-the-islamic-state-in-mozambique/.


(5) - Lister, “Jihadi Insurgency in Mozambique Grows in Sophistication and Reach.”


(6) - Colin Clarke, Daveed Garenstein-Ross, and Emelie Chace-Donahue, “The Evolution and Escalation of the Islamic State Threat to Mozambique,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, April 13, 2021, https://www.fpri.org/article/2021/04/the-evolution-and-escalation-of-the-islamic-state-threat-to-mozambique/.


(7) - Lister, “Jihadi Insurgency in Mozambique Grows in Sophistication and Reach.”


(8) - Ibid.

(9) - Baiou, “Understanding the Meteoric Rise of the Islamic State in Mozambique - New Lines Institute.”


(10) - “Abu Yasir Hassan,” Counter Extremism Project, n.d., https://www.counterextremism.com/extremists/abu-yasir-hassan.


(11) - “Designations of ISIS-Mozambique, JNIM, and al-Shabaab Leaders,” U.S. Department of State, August 6, 2021, https://www.state.gov/designations-of-isis-mozambique-jnim-and-al-shabaab-leaders/.


(12) - Eric Morier-Genoud, “The Jihadi Insurgency in Mozambique: Origins, Nature, and Beginning,” Journal of Eastern African Studies 14, no. 3 (July 2, 2020): 407, https://doi.org/10.1080/17531055.2020.1789271.


(13) - Clarke, Garenstein-Ross, and Chace-Donahue, “The Evolution and Escalation of the Islamic State Threat to Mozambique.”


(14) - Lister, “Jihadi Insurgency in Mozambique Grows in Sophistication and Reach.”


(15) - Clarke, Garenstein-Ross, and Chace-Donahue, “The Evolution and Escalation of the Islamic State Threat to Mozambique.”


(16) - Morier-Genoud, “The Jihadi Insurgency in Mozambique: Origins, Nature and Beginning.” 406.


(17) - Lister, “Jihadi Insurgency in Mozambique Grows in Sophistication and Reach.”


(18) - Ibid.


(19) - O’Farrell, “Relocating or Expanding? Islamic State Mozambique’s Reaction to Foreign Intervention.”


(20) - Lister, “Jihadi Insurgency in Mozambique Grows in Sophistication and Reach.”


(21) - Lister, “The March 2021 Palma Attack and the Evolving Jihadi Terror Threat to Mozambique.”


(22) - Lister, “Jihadi Insurgency in Mozambique Grows in Sophistication and Reach.”


(23) - “Winning Peace in Mozambique’s Embattled North,” Crisis Group, September 6, 2022, https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/southern-africa/mozambique/winning-peace-mozambiques-embattled-north.


(24) - O’Farrell, “Relocating or Expanding? Islamic State Mozambique’s Reaction to Foreign Intervention.”


(25) - Ibid.


(26) - Ibid.


(27) - Ibid.


(28) - “Winning Peace in Mozambique’s Embattled North.”


(29) - ZITAMAR NEWS, “IS Designates Mozambique as Its Own Province Following Battle in Quiterajo,” Zitamar, May 13, 2022, https://zitamar.com/is-designates-mozambique-as-its-own-province-following-battle-in-quiterajo/.


(30) - Lister, “The March 2021 Palma Attack and the Evolving Jihadi Terror Threat to Mozambique.”


(31) - Morier-Genoud, “The Jihadi Insurgency in Mozambique: Origins, Nature and Beginning.” 406.


(32) - Lister, “Jihadi Insurgency in Mozambique Grows in Sophistication and Reach.”

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