On October 5, 2017, armed men carried out a pre-dawn attack on three police stations in Mocímboa da Praia, a district in Mozambique's northern province of Cabo Delgado. The attackers killed 17 people and made away with guns and ammunition. They reportedly told the villagers that they don't believe in Western education and would not pay taxes.
Since that first ambush, the attacks have spread to several districts in the region and have become more frequent. The attack last Wednesday claimed dozens of lives and lasted several days. Three years later, the mystery surrounding the identity and motivation of this group persists. Locally, they are known as al-Shabab (the youth), but the group has no known connection to Somalia's jihadi group with a similar name.
According to Sergio Inacio Chichava, a senior researcher at the Institute of Social and Economic Studies (IESE) in Mozambique, the country's authorities must be aware of who these attackers are by now. "The government has enough intelligence to say who the group that is attacking Cabo Delgado is and what their intentions are," Chichava said.
"This group has never hidden, from the beginning, that it intends to impose Sharia," Chichava told DW.
Who are Mozambique's Islamist insurgents?
"That is the million-dollar question," Adriano Nuvunga, executive director of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) in Mozambique, said. "Everyone has been asking for the past three years who these people are. There is an understanding that local grievances drive this conflict, and it might have been hijacked by international terrorist dynamics," Nuvunga told DW.
Nuvunga, a human rights activist, blamed marginalization and extraction of natural resources by the elites without local development as a critical source of the conflict. French energy giant Total has invested $20 billion (€16.9 billion) in extracting liquefied natural gas (LNG) in Cabo Delgado. A network of illicit economic activities, including drug trafficking, brutality and violation of human rights by different interests of politically exposed people might also have contributed.
There was talk of radical Islamist groups in Mozambique as early as 2016, Chichava said. However, some experts believe they had started mobilization a decade earlier.
Around 2007, local Muslim leaders said they had noticed a "change" in the behavior of some Muslim youth. The group started practicing a different form of Islam, drinking alcohol and entering the mosque with shoes. Later, the disenfranchised young men formed a group called Ansar al-Sunna and quickly adopted a stricter version of Islam.
According to military intelligence sources on the ground, the group currently has about 4,500 members, 2,000 of whom carry arms, AFP reported. It is also believed that foreign fighters from Tanzania and Somalia are part of the group, but their role is unclear.
After the October 5, 2017 attack, the group released a video stating their intention of turning the gas-rich Cabo Delgado region into a caliphate.
Mozambique plans to start exporting natural gas from Cabo Delgado as early as 2022. But the growing military presence of insurgents poses a severe threat to megaprojects. The violence has claimed the lives of at least 2,600 people, half of them civilians, according to the US-based data-collecting agency Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED). More than 700,000 have fled their homes.
Government's confusing explanations
Maputo has sought to explain the identity and objectives of the brutal attackers by issuing four different hypotheses. At first, the government admitted that the "insurgents" were individuals aiming to install a state based on Islamic law and principles. In 2019, the main Ansar al-Sunna extremist group declared their allegiance to the so-called Islamic State (IS).
Authorities then changed their story and pointed the finger at former miners from Montepuz who were allegedly being manipulated by foreigners from Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The authorities reportedly expelled the foreigners from the mines for conducting illicit operations. Another explanation given was that a group of Mozambican businessmen in Beira had financed the insurgents because they were unhappy with the government's fight against the illegal timber trade. Lastly, they said this was a "war waged by external forces in collusion with some Mozambicans."
Researcher Eric Morier-Genoud believes that there is still "a lot of silence" from the authorities. "It would be good for the government, the army, and the police to give a substantial official explanation of what is happening in Cabo Delgado and to do regular briefings on the situation," Morier-Genoud told DW. "This way, the government could control the narrative, while the people would be more enlightened and more reassured," the academic, based at Queen's University Belfast, added.
Threat to neighboring countries
Mozambique's violence has caused jitters in neighboring Tanzania, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. "There is already some overspill into Tanzania," Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at Chatham House, said.
Earlier this month, the United States designated the Ansar al-Sunna group, which it dubbed "ISIS Mozambique," as a foreign terrorist organization. The US named Abu Yasir Hassan — a Tanzanian national — as leader of the group, which is also known as Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama. The US this month started training Mozambican forces in counterinsurgency operations.
"It is important to remember that although this is a Mozambican problem at the core, it is also a regional issue," Vines said, adding that coordination and cooperation between Mozambique and Tanzania on this particular issue had improved.
However, Jasmine Opperman, a researcher at ACLED, sees US support as a "real step towards expanding its influence and presence" in the region. "It is a clear attempt by the US to ingratiate itself in Mozambique and various countries in Africa," Opperman told DW. She said she was concerned by "the internationalization of Cabo Delgado that may, in turn, ignore the local roots of the problem. "It gives the 'Islamic State' a status in Mozambique that it does not have."
'SADC has been silent'
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has remained largely silent on Mozambique's security challenges. "There is a disappointment on how SADC has been silent," rights activist Nuvunga said. "Not only its inability to act proactively in supporting Mozambique to fight extremist violence in northern Mozambique but also the mere silence when it comes to solidarity."
Alex Vines said he thinks military advisers from SADC members South Africa, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe could be embedded with Mozambican forces. "A full force would struggle. This is not the sort of conflict that SADC has a lot of experience in confronting," Vines said.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the fiscal challenges that have hit SADC countries make it difficult for the regional body to assemble a united force.
Nuvunga said it was unfortunate that regional bloc had failed to amplify Mozambique's voice in mobilizing the international community to support its fight. "I think it is frightening," the Mozambican activist said.
Antonio Cascais, Jane Nyingi, Nadia Issufo and Madalena Sampaio contributed to this article.