EXPLAINER | What's behind the 'ISIS' attacks in Mozambique and how does it affect SA?

Protesters waving ISIS flags in Sringaar.
Protesters waving ISIS flags in Sringaar.
Getty Images
  • The insurgent attacks in northern Mozambique started in 2017, but escalated recently, with more than 1 000 people killed and 210 000 displaced.
  • The attacks are carried out by an extremist Islamic group called Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah with ties to ISIS.
  • The South African government has been very stingy with information on the matter, apart from admitting that there is a concern that the insurgency could spread to neighbouring countries. 

Earlier this month, Middle Eastern Islamic terrorist group ISIS warned South Africa not to get involved in the extremist insurgency in northern Mozambique.

This is what you need to know about the insurgency in Cabo Delgado:

What is the source of the conflict?

It started in the early hours of 5 October 2017, when assailants wielding machetes and machine guns attacked police offices and government buildings in Mocímboa de Praia, in the Cabo Delgado province. After two days, the death count was 17 – two police officers, 14 assailants and one civilian.

According to an Institute for Security Studies paper by David Matsinhe and Estacio Valoi, the province's Muslim residents, including religious leaders, maintained that signs of the radicalisation of young people appeared in their communities since 2014. While the authorities were warned, nothing was done until the event of 5 October 2017.  

It is estimated there were at least 18 attacks between October 2017 and December 2018.

In the past year, the attacks escalated.

In February, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that at least 28 attacks were carried out in Cabo Delgado in the first month of this year.

According to the commission, at least 100 000 of the province's residents had been internally displaced by February this year. By June, this figure was reported as 210 000

"Armed groups have been randomly targeting local villages and terrorising the local population. Those fleeing speak of killings, maiming, and torture, burnt homes, destroyed crops and shops. We have reports of beheadings, kidnappings and disappearances of women and children," UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic said in February.

"The attackers at times warn the local population where and when they will strike, creating panic as people rush to flee their villages. Most leave everything behind, having no time to take any belongings, food or ID documents. So far, hundreds of villages have been burnt or are now completely abandoned as attackers carry out a wide and indiscriminate campaign of terror. Government institutions have also been targeted."

It is estimated that more than 1 000 people have died in the attacks.

Who are the attackers?

While the locals reportedly refer to the militant extremists as "Al Shabaab", the group that has become known as Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah has nothing to do with the Somalian terrorist group Al Shabaab.

It is believed that the group grew out of radical Muslim clerics and that their goal is to establish an extreme form of Islamic law in the province.

However, they reportedly have links with the criminal underground in the region. While Mozambique is a key port in the global heroin trade, reports suggest that Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah is involved in the cannabis trade, but not opioids

It also hasn't gone unnoticed that their activities started shortly after plans became known to exploit the mineral-rich region's offshore gas fields – believed to be among the biggest in the world.

READ | 'ISIS' warns SA: Steer clear of Mozambique conflict

In June 2018, ISIS for the first time claimed credit for an attack in Mozambique. While their relationship with ISIS isn't crystal clear, Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah appears to operate as some sort of affiliate. According to the US-based Jamestown Foundation, Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jammah was incorporated into ISIS in 2019 and includes militants from Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.

Professor Theo Neethling, of the University of the Free State's department of political studies, in an article in The Conversation, describes the organisation as follows: "[M]any of its members appear to be socioeconomically marginalised young people without a proper education and formal employment. They have been joined by young immigrants in a similar marginalised position. It is estimated that the movement’s members are organised in tens of small cells along the coast of northern Mozambique."

How does it affect South Africa?

"From a South African standpoint, four main issues stand out: The danger of the spread of Islamist extremism so close to home; the strategic importance of the area under siege; weakness of Mozambican security forces; and combating organised crime," Neethling wrote.

What has been South Africa's response?

Like the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and African Union (AU), the South African government has been largely quiet about the insurgency in its neighbour.

International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor noted in an interview with the SABC on 22 May that South Africa and Mozambique were in discussions regarding the security situation in Cabo Delgado.

At a meeting of the Portfolio Committee on Defence on 3 June, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula could only be drawn to say the following on the matter: "There are challenges with Mozambique. Yes, there are."

However, in a written response to a parliamentary question, she admitted there was a concern based on military intelligence that the insurgency could spread to neighbouring countries and added that there is a plan to deal with this, without providing any details.

This past week, DA MP Kobus Marais's question on whether SANDF special forces or maritime reaction squadron was in Mozambique went unanswered in Parliament.

"As we stand, we know we have soldiers in Mozambique," Marais said, but his was the last words spoken on the topic.

South Africa does have a military presence in Mozambique, through its participation in SADC's anti-piracy "Operation Copper".

Earlier this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa extended this deployment of 200 SANDF members until 31 March 2021 at a cost of R154 million.

In his article, Neethling warns that if the SANDF would get involved "it would certainly be venturing into a highly violent and complex landscape, requiring a counterterrorism type of operations".

"Such operations are always highly challenging," he wrote. 

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