According to Maxim Shugaley, head of the Foundation for National Values Protection, the chaos that had gripped Mozambique by mid-2021 had been caused by the connivance of local authorities and the arrival of radical Islamists from other countries in the north of the country.
The situation in Mozambique is now close to critical. The northeast is actually under the control of terrorists from the Ansar al-Sunna group, who swore allegiance to the Islamic State* (ISIS, banned in the Russian Federation).
Together with Maxim Shugaley, wek.ru editors explored the root causes of the chaos in Mozambique and possible options for stabilizing the situation in the country.
Religious grounds of the conflict
Maxim Shugaley has worked extensively on sociological research in African countries. He explained that an unresolved religious issue was the fundamental cause of instability in Mozambique.
“Like most countries south of the Sahara Desert, both Christians and Muslims live in Mozambique. Of course, this peculiarity might be easily used as a tool. It is always easier to commit atrocities under the guise of religious goals,” said Shugaley.
In northern Africa, most of the population is Muslim while Christianity predominates south of the Sahara. Some groups practice traditional religions, including a variety of representations of fetishism, animism, totemism, and ancestor worship.
More than 50% of Mozambicans are Christians. There are about 20% Muslims. Local traditional beliefs are prevalent in various areas. Nevertheless, members of Ansar al-Sunnah plan to create their own state in the north of the country, where Sharia law will apply everywhere. Over the years, a terrorist international has formed there. Ansar Al-Sunnah has locals among the instructors as well as natives of Somalia and Kenya.
“There are even preachers linked to the terrorist attacks in London in 2005. This terrorist rabble has gathered in Mozambique,” Sugaley said.
He explained that radical Islam came to that country in the early 2010s with the help of preachers from neighboring Tanzania.
“For a long time, the authorities turned a blind eye to the growing threat to all of southeast Africa. Local politicians desperately pretended that everything went well in their country and that their army was well prepared. Now they are facing a dangerous situation beyond control,” Shugaley said.
Local intelligence agencies uncovered the first terrorist groups in the town of Mosimboa da Praia in 2013. Over time, residents started enrolling their children in madrassas (a Muslim institution that serves as a general secondary school) increasingly often instead of regular schools. A propaganda campaign was launched to recruit uneducated residents of the north of the republic into the ranks of jihadists. Immature young minds were the main targets.
“This is a common practice. In many countries of the Middle East and Africa, one can notice a similar trend. Here we would like to point out that the province of Kabu Delgado is located far from the capital. Therefore, it is difficult to control it. As a result, we get a strong core of a radical group in the region, to which the Mozambican leadership turned a blind eye,” said Shugaley.
From brigands to ISIS adherents
The first Islamist attack dates back to October 5, 2017. A group of 30 radicals attacked three police stations in Mosimboa da Praia in Kabu Delgado province. Seventeen people were killed in the attack, and weapons and ammunition were stolen.
The geography of attacks in the region has expanded since. At the same time, the Mozambican authorities preferred not to mention the spread of the terrorist threat in the north of the country. By the end of 2018, radicals had moved to the provincial capital, the city of Pemba.
“The targets of attacks were not only security forces but also civilians, especially those who professed Christianity. That is, the underlying background of the country's thriving chaos remained religious one way or another,” Shugaley said.
In 2019, Mozambique ranked first in the world in terms of the rate of violence by radical Islamic groups. The number of attacks more than doubled in 12 months, as did the number of deaths from terrorist attacks.
In June 2019, attacks by Mozambican radicals drew the attention of the Islamic State. In fact, ISIS took them under its wing. The organization’s leaders pledged allegiance to ISIS. After that, the whole world, not just southeast Africa, became aware of their existence. From that moment on, the issue has been much more global.
The capture of the port city of Mosimboa da Praia in August 2020 was a high-profile action by Ansar al-Sunnah. Although the radicals were driven out of the settlement a week later, the episode became fateful depicting the situation in the region very well.
“The propaganda story on the part of the radicals is remarkable. Shortly after the town was captured, the terrorists announced that the residents of Mosimboa da Praia would be exempt from paying all taxes. Consequently, the population became more and more supportive of the radicals and turned away from the Mozambican authorities. Obviously, just a bunch of criminals could not have worked out this strategy. The attacks and propaganda were masterminded by those who sought to benefit from destabilizing the region. I’m not pointing fingers at anyone, but it’s a very American style, given their extensive experience in this kind of manipulation of terrorists,” Shugaley said.
By 2021, the situation had become critical. Each attack by radicals on the army resulted in casualties among untrained Mozambican units and loss of weapons and military equipment. Whereas Ansar al-Sunna gunmen only had motorcycles and bladed weapons at their disposal as they embarked on the path of terror, they commandeered heavy weapons and trophy military equipment several years later.
A new round of militant activism
March 24, 2021, marked a new phase of the Islamic State's activity in Africa as radicals seized the city of Palma in the province of Cabo Delgado. The attack was aimed at foreigners living in hotels, in particular the professionals building an LNG terminal.
Despite the looming threat, the attack allegedly came as a surprise to Mozambican authorities. As a result, hundreds of people were killed, and tens of thousands of civilians were displaced. Unlike the attack on Masimboa da Praia, the terrorists in Palma burned hundreds of houses and executed large numbers of people.
The radicals easily resisted the onslaught of government forces, attacking them as they approached the city, thus providing themselves with an even greater resource of arms and military equipment. Moreover, after the inhabitants of Palma fled the city, the al-Sunnah took over a million dollars from local banks.
Each attack made the militants more powerful and resolute. They adhere to a strict tactic of preemptively seizing cities and then withdrawing from them and hiding in the forests to wait for the arrival of government forces.
Shugaley pointed out an important factor explaining the interest of terrorists and their possible patrons in the northern part of the republic.
“One must understand that the location of the province is ideally suited for setting up a new caliphate. Numerous offshore natural gas deposits are located there. Radicals are taking advantage of this fact. The area is a tasty morsel for Western businessmen: the French corporation Total operates there. It means that the money is also there, not in the capital of Mozambique. This is successfully used by al-Sunna militants, who do not encounter resistance,” said Shugaley.
The radicals storm Palma, expecting to earn money from selling natural resources. If they manage to gain a foothold in the north of the country, the militants could get rich deposits as well as the equipment left in the area.
“Even if the radicals do not seize the fields, they could stay in the forests and terrorize the workers of the expensive project, creating a hotbed of tension where both the Mozambican authorities and those companies that dare to operate in the northeast of the country lose their income,” Shugaley said.
The gas field was discovered near Palma in 2010. An impoverished Mozambique could breathe a sigh of relief as there was some hope for salvation. Western companies vied with one another to offer their projects for the construction of a liquefied natural gas terminal.
The French and American companies fought for the “tidbit.” The Americans launched the construction of a huge embassy complex in Mozambique. Experts calculated that Mozambique had the potential to become one of the three global exporters of gas by ousting Qatar. However, the plans did not come true. In 2020, Total stopped the project due to terrorist activity in the country.
Government helpless before jihad
The government of Mozambique decided to fight the militants with the help of outside forces. French security firms, the South African PMC Dyck Advisory Group, and even Russian experts worked in the country at various times.
“As far as I know, Russian forces were indeed engaged to stabilize the situation during the presidential elections in the country in 2019. The local authorities turned to private contractors from Russia. At that time, the radicals did try to move inland, toward the capital, but met with a rebuff from a serious opponent. The Russians proved to be the best, accomplishing the task with the fewest losses and liberating several cities at once. Only one specialist was killed and several were wounded, while the Mozambican military simply fled the battlefield to avoid being captured and killed by radicals. It was not possible to work with such unprepared 'allies', so our experts left the country, and everything rolled back,” said Shugaley.
There were numerous rumors in the Western media that there were members of the Wagner Group among the Russian specialists. However, this information has been not confirmed.
After months of ineffective struggle, French guards and members of the South African PMCs left the region. For various reasons, they failed to achieve their goals and simply left the country, leaving the army and citizens of Mozambique to face the terrorist threat alone.
The country's authorities decided that they could deal with the militants on their own. However, the events of the spring of 2021 showed that the army of the republic was inferior to the distraught and well-trained guerrillas.
After the capture of the city of Palma, it was decided to bring in foreigners again to confront the radicals. Soldiers from the Rwandan Armed Forces, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) were invited, and the Dyck Advisory Group was replaced by official military personnel from South Africa. Even the European Union agreed to send its instructors to train the local military in the fall.
“The way I see it, it will be too late in the fall. The Rwandans are now the only more or less real force there. The others are just scoring points on "helping" their neighbor, with minimal real efforts. To my thinking, we have already got a smoldering war in Mozambique, similar to the situation in Somalia. Without an attempted coup d'état, but that, I believe, is just for the time being. The Americans have also expressed their willingness to support Mozambique, and this is likely to end badly,” said Shugaley.
The fate of the people of Mozambique is being decided right now. With its vast reserves of natural resources, the country might say goodbye to poverty once and for all, following the example of other states. To do so, the problem of rampant militancy must be resolved as quickly and as effectively as possible. Otherwise, Mozambique risks repeating the fate of Middle Eastern countries that have become a field for terrorist wars and U.S. occupation.
- The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is recognized as a terrorist organization whose activities are officially banned in Russia by the Russian Supreme Court's ruling of 29 December 2014.
- The Caucasus Emirate is an international organization officially banned in Russia.
- The Turkistan Islamic Party (formerly known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement) is an international organization officially banned in Russia.