The UK Government on 12 June advised its citizens to avoid non-essential travel to Palma, Mocimboa de Praia and Macomia districts in north-eastern Cabo Delgado Province, citing increasing violence by groups “with links to Islamic extremism”. Four days earlier, the US Embassy in Maputo “strongly advised” US citizens to leave Palmas district, citing potentially imminent attacks on government and commercial targets there. The warnings came after six men armed with machetes killed at least seven people in Macomia on 4 June. Another five locals were killed in a similar attack in Quissanga district two days later. The incidents followed the beheading of ten villagers near Palma on 27 May.
Mozambique’s Muslim minority, which make up around 20% of the total population, is concentrated in the country’s North. These communities have long had an acrimonious relationship with the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO)-dominated Government, in part due to their widespread belief that since independence in 1975, FRELIMO’s policies have favoured the southern regions of the country. The resultant economic and political marginalisation has created significant local resentment towards the Government and security forces. Anger has been further fuelled in recent years by the failure of recent gas discoveries in the region to lead to a significant improvement in economic conditions in the North, and by repeated severe droughts, which have exacerbated social pressures.
These dynamics have led to local Muslim youths being increasingly attracted to anti-government violence, with some forming small militant groups with a loose Islamist identity, as underlined by their demands for Sharia law. The first significant incident of associated violence occurred on 5 October, when 30 men attacked three police stations in Mocimboa da Praia, killing two policemen, stealing firearms, and briefly occupying the town. The Government has responded to the rising violence robustly, with the police launching raids on suspects, closing and in some cases destroying mosques associated with militants, and detaining several hundred people. President Nyusi also fired the heads of the Army and intelligence service in October for not preventing the Mocimboa da Praia attack.
Local people refer to the militants as “al-Shabab” (the youth), but there is no evidence of any substantial links to the al-Qaeda-aligned Somali group of the same name. Indeed, the militants refer to themselves as “al-Sunnah wa Jamaah”, a name which conservative Muslim groups often use to indicate their perceived alignment with Sunni orthodoxy. That said, there is potential for hardline militants to build more tangible relations with jihadists elsewhere over time, as they attempt to expand their capabilities and as regional jihadist groups aligned to both al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) compete for their loyalty. IS in particular may seek to claim any further attacks – even if it has no direct role in these – in an effort to demonstrate that it is expanding in new locations following the loss of its Caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Al-Sunnah wa Jamaah could also adopt more religious language and specific Islamist-influenced political demands to win increased support from hardliners in the North, where there is a large conservative and Islamist community.
Al-Sunnah wa Jamaah capabilities are currently very low, with its associated militants mostly operating in small groups of 10-25 with limited logistical support and only basic weapons such as machetes. Indeed, a primary aim of many attacks has been plundering supplies, while other incidents – such as the beheadings of villagers – will be intended to deter locals from cooperating with the authorities. Similarly, the killings in Macomia and Quissanga may have been intended as a response to increased police raids over the last three months, as well as to refute official claims that the group was being defeated.
For now, the group’s attacks will remain largely low-level and isolated, taking place mostly in remote, rural and poorly-secured villages, and militants will seek to avoid substantial clashes with much better armed security forces. That said, there will remain the potential for sporadic high-profile operations, especially against state-linked targets, as the militants seek to steal further supplies and weapons and to appeal to local anti-Maputo sentiment. In addition, there is the potential for isolated attacks against remote commercial facilities, although this again will be largely driven by a desire to obtain supplies or to demonstrate anger with the lack of local development, rather than by ideological factors.
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