If You Ever Come Down To Mozambique: Northern Mozambique's ISIS Insurgency + Timeline of the Islamic State Insurgency
Article by Evan Centanni and Djordje Djukic
Northern Mozambique's Insurgency: What We Do and Don't Know
International headlines broke last week describing a takeover of a northern Mozambique "city" by what many of them called the "Islamic State" (IS; formerly ISIS/ISIL). If this came as a complete surprise to you, you're not alone - even international analysts were startled when the insurgency began in 2017, and though the insurgents have actually overrun Mocímboa da Praia more than once since then, news coverage has been pretty limited.
At PolGeoNow, researcher Djordje Djukic has been keeping an eye on this conflict for some time, and we're now pleased to present what we believe to be the world's first map series documenting territorial control in the northern Mozambique insurgency. (Although the current map is only at the whole-country level, we hope to add a closer-up map of Cabo Delgado province in the near future.)
For this inaugural edition of the new map report series, PolGeoNow editor Evan Centanni has also gone deep to research the nature and origins of the conflict, taking the time to piece together a more complete and cautiously-evaluated picture than you'll find in most conventional news reporting. For example, readers may be surprised to learn that the Mozambican rebels' allegiance to IS is still apparently unproven, and that the "city" they've captured is a town of about 40,000 people.
International media have also been haphazard in their reporting on who the insurgents are - right down to the name of their group and when it was formed. For our conclusions, and to get a better overall picture of what's happening in northern Mozambique, continue reading below.
Who are Mozambique's "Islamic State" Fighters?
The group of rebel fighters that news media are now calling an affiliate of the "Islamic State" is shrouded in mystery. Many analysts of worldwide Islamic religious extremism were surprised to hear about the group's first attack in October 2017, and a consensus has only gradually emerged that northern Mozambique is truly home to a radical religious insurgency.
One reason to doubt that was that most of the 2017-2019 attacks in Mozambique weren't publicly claimed by any group - an unusual departure from the typical Al Qaeda or IS strategy of claiming credit as a propaganda strategy. What's more, the Mozambican group rarely if ever seemed to target foreigners, suggesting it didn't have the anti-Western agenda of global jihadist networks. And the area wasn't known for any major history of religious extremism, nor was there a well-documented motivation for people there to rebel so violently.
Because of all this, some analysts were arguing all the way up to last year that calling the group religious extremists was little more than speculation based on scattered hints. Added to the mix were the government's extensive efforts to prevent journalists from reporting on the group, stories of strange behavior from fighters ("They don’t talk to you, they don’t meet your eye. They can’t even repeat their own names"), and the insurgency's close correlation in time and place with the emergence of a massive center for natural gas production and export.
Alternative theories ranged from organized crime disguised as religious war to cover-ups of government-internal power struggles. But over time more information has emerged, helping complete the picture of a secretive religious sect that, through conflict with outsiders and influence from foreign ideologues, gradually transformed into something along the lines of Nigeria's "Boko Haram" insurgency. For more on the group's history, see our timeline below.
Ahlu Sunnah, Ansar al-Sunnah, Al Shabaab - What is Mozambique's Insurgent Group Called?
Though there's been much confusion over the secretive group's name, it seems to call itself Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamâ ("Adherents to the Way and the Community") - a name also used by unrelated Muslim organizations around the world, most of whom are opposed to extremism. The name is often shortened to "Al-Sunnah".
That short name could also stand for "Ansar al-Sunnah" ("Supporters of the Way"), an alternative name sometimes used for the group. However, our research suggests that name more properly refers to the non-violent religious group the sect broke off from over a decade ago, and we have avoided using it for the insurgents in this article.
Along the same lines, some call the rebels "Swahili Sunnah" - a casual reference to the Swahili people who live mostly along the East African coast from northern Mozambique to Kenya, and are culturally different both from the majority of Mozambicans and from Islamic insurgents elsewhere in Africa. (One researcher reported that the group's core was made up of local Mozambican speakers of the Swahili-related Kimwani language, an indigenous minority within Cabo Delgado).
Locals would later nickname the group "Al Shabaab", after its perceived resemblance to the Al Qaeda-affiliated rebel group of that name that controls much of Somalia, three countries to the north. However, most experts don't think the Mozambican group has close ties to Somalia's Al Shabaab.
Are Mozambique's Insurgents Really "Islamic State" Fighters?
Once it became clear that al-Sunnah wasn't part of Somalia's Al Shabaab, the question soon shifted to whether the Mozambican insurgents were part of another Islam-oriented violent extremist group: the so-called "Islamic State" (IS; formerly ISIS/ISIL). Though originally based in Syria and Iraq, IS now advertises itself as more of a global network of anti-government insurgents. (Though IS and Somalia's Al Shabaab have similar ideologies, they are bitter enemies, and Al Shabaab has fiercely opposed IS's expansion into Somalia.)
Rumors of IS involvement began to spread soon after northern Mozambique's insurgency began, but remained rumors until June of last year, when international IS media claimed its fighters had carried out an attack that was assumed to be the work of al-Sunnah.
It soon became clear that IS officially considers itself to have a branch in Mozambique, or at least wants the world to think so. If true, that would presumably mean that al-Sunnah (or parts of it) became an IS affiliate by pledging allegiance to the group's leadership. The alternatives - that IS had sent fighters to Mozambique from elsewhere or raised its own militia in the country - seem much less likely based on the evidence available.
Solid information about ties between al-Sunnah and IS has been extremely sparse. When IS first started claiming credit for attacks in northern Mozambique, most analysts were skeptical. But the idea that the Mozambican insurgents are truly now loyal to IS - or even cooperating extensively with the group - has grown increasingly plausible over time. The US government, for its part, recently said it believes the ties are probably real, while other analysts aren't entirely convinced yet.
After the insurgent takeover of Mocímboa da Praia last week, many international news media have reported that Mozambique's al-Sunnah is known to have pledged allegiance to IS. However, PolGeoNow has been unable to independently confirm that, and it's unclear how the other outlets suddenly decided to treat that claim as a fact. As far as we can tell from publicly-available sources, there's still not solid proof that al-Sunnah's own leadership considers itself part of IS, or even that any of its members do (for that matter, no one seems to know much of anything about al-Sunnah's leadership at all).
It does seem increasingly likely that IS headquarters and Mozambique's al-Sunnah agree on the affiliation, or even are materially cooperating. For one thing, there are now numerous accounts of fighters in Mozambique raising a black flag like the one used by IS. But it's important to remember that very similar flags are also used by non-IS insurgent groups. All in all, it still seems possible that only some of Mozambique's insurgents are loyal to IS, or even that IS's presence in Mozambique could be mostly a fiction.
Mozambique Insurgency: The Why and How
While al-Sunnah's motivations once baffled analysts, discussion has since turned to various factors that, with the help of hardline religious ideologies imported from other countries, might explain why some northern Mozambicans would turn to violence. For one thing, it's not so hard to imagine that some of the north's Muslims - who are a majority in their region - might feel perpetually marginalized by the country's Christian majority and secular-socialist southern-based government.
But maybe more importantly, the insurgency's home province of Cabo Delgado is the worst-stricken by poverty in Mozambique, and many of its people probably feel they're being denied a cut of their province's rich natural resources. Besides the huge natural gas reserves mentioned above, Cabo Delgado is also home to the world's largest ruby mine - and both of these are largely controlled and operated by foreign corporations.
And those resources may also play a more concrete role in the insurgency. One researcher reported that the group was funded through heavy involvement in illegal timber, ruby, and heroin trades, as well as donations from outside supporters. Some have even speculated that the Mozambican ruling elites' own covert involvement in trafficking may have made the government more reluctant to interfere with the group's activities.
As for weapons, strategy, and fighting ability, it's now widely believed that al-Sunnah has won both assistance and membership from insurgents across the border in Tanzania, and possibly elsewhere in Africa as well, while some of its local members might also have traveled abroad to learn from like-minded rebels in other countries. For a bit more detail, see the timeline below.
Timeline of Mozambique's Insurgency
The following timeline chronicles Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamâ's development in Mozambique prior to the 2017 start of the armed insurgency, followed by territorial changes, major violent incidents, and important political or military developments since the conflict began. Information gathered directly from sources available online is indicated by in-line links to the source materials. Data for entries cited as "(ACLED)" comes from the freely-available ACLED conflict database (see footnote for full citation).
Amid political and other disagreements, a group of religious leaders from northern Mozambique broke off from the country's mainstream Islamic Council to form a new group, known as Ansar al-Sunnah ("Supporters of the Way") or Ahl al-Sunnah ("Followers of the Way"). Although Mozambique's majority religion is Christianity, Islam is the dominant religion in the north.
While the Islamic Council was led by Mozambican Muslims of Indian descent, the new Ansar al-Sunnah was led by younger, African-descended Muslims who felt the Council was discriminating against them. They also objected to the Council's close ties to Mozambique's secular-socialist ruling political party, FRELIMO, which was unpopular in the north.
A religious fundamentalist sub-faction of Ansar al-Sunna split off in Cabo Delgado province and began building its own mosques by the late 2000s, trying to create its own social order separate from other Islamic organizations and the government. Its hardline interpretation of Islam was unpopular in the region, but its beliefs were generally not spread through violence. The group was active in several districts of the province, with one of its largest congregations in the coastal town of Mocímboa da Praia.
Though it's not clear whether the name was used from the beginning, the fundamentalist sect would apparently come to call itself Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamâ ("Adherents to the Way and the Community"), or al-Sunnah for short.
Members of al-Sunnah began coming into conflict with their neighbors, who were mostly mainstream, non-fundamentalist Muslims. Major flare-ups came in 2010, when one of the group's mosques was destroyed by local villagers, and 2015, when sect members tried to forcefully impose a ban on alcohol in the town of Mucojo, ending up in a violet brawl with police.
Analysts say some of the the sect's members were probably followers of a radical Kenyan preacher whose teachings were spread internationally by video. His disciples from Kenya also moved to southern Tanzania after his death in 2012, and arrived in northern Mozambique by 2015.
Amid repeated calls for intervention against the insurgents from other Muslims, including the Islamic Council, the Mozambican government began taking an interest in al-Sunnah's activities. This eventually led to the late-2016 arrest of several of the group's leaders on charges such as spreading disinformation, refusing to send children to school, and wielding knives as weapons. More arrests followed in 2017.
Probably as a reaction to the government crackdown, some al-Sunnah members began to militarize in secret, with like-minded fighters probably arriving from Tanzania after being driven out of that country. Immigrants from Somalia and other parts of Africa may also have joined, and the group may have gradually developed communication with like-minded groups in those countries. Meanwhile, many of the group's fighters are thought to have trained outside of Mozambique.
October 5-8, 2017
In their first major attack, which came as a surprise to many outside observers, al-Sunnah fighters attacked three police stations in Mocímboa da Praia, killing between 2 and 16 people. The fighting continued for two days, with government forces reasserting control of the town by October 8 (ACLED).
In response to the outbreak of violence, Mozambique's government would soon close many mosques suspected of having links to the insurgents. As of eight months later, six had been allowed to reopen, while seven had been marked for permanent destruction.
October 21-22, 2017
Skirmishes between presumed al-Sunnah fighters and government forces took place at two villages in Cabo Delgado. A nearby installation of US-based Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, involved in developing the province's natural gas industry, was evacuated.
Because locals called the attackers "Al Shabaab", there was initially speculation that the attacks could have been carried out by the actual Al Shabaab rebel group from Somalia. However, they had been heard speaking local languages such as Swahili and Portuguese, and experts quickly agreed they weren't Somalis.
December 17, 2017
The National Director of Reconnaissance for Mozambique's Police Rapid Intervention Unit was assassinated in the town of Mocímboa da Praia.
December 26-28, 2017
Counter-insurgency operations were launched around Mitumbate village outside of Mocímboa da Praia. Two days later paratroopers and marines attacked the village, considered an insurgent stronghold, leaving around 50 people dead, including women and children.
Local media reported that more than 200 people had been arrested in Mocímboa da Praia over the past three months in relation to the violence, but that some had been released under orders from the courts, allegedly including some who had convinced the courts of their innocence before quickly returning to the insurgency.
March 12, 2018
Presumed al-Sunnah fighters attacked a village north of Awasse, burning 50 houses and killing residents.
April 20-22, 2018
Three insurgent attacks were conducted in Cabo Delgado province, two against villages near the edge of Nangade district and one in Palma district.
A photo emerged online claiming to show fighters in Mozambique pledging their loyalty to the so-called "Islamic State" (IS; formerly ISIS/ISIL). Analysts were highly skeptical.
Around the middle of the month, government forces captured two al-Sunnah bases somewhere in Cabo Delgado province (ACLED).
May 27, 2018
Ten people, including children, were beheaded in a village in the Palma district of Cabo Delgado.
June 5-12, 2018
Insurgents attacked and burned several villages, beheading a number of residents, in the districts of Macomia, Quissanga, and Nangade.
August 16, 2018
Government forces raided an al-Sunnah base near Pundanhar village by the Rovuma River, claiming to have killed the group's leader (ACLED).
A 60-year-old South African man nicknamed "White Papa" was arrested in Mozambique for allegedly supplying and funding the insurgents.
September 21, 2018
The rebel fighters burned 55 houses in a village in Cabo Delgado province, probably between Macomia and Meluco, and killed 12 people.
November 3, 2018
Another 45 houses were burned in an attack on a remote village north of Mucojo.
February 8, 2019
The fighters killed seven people and kidnapped four women, apparently near the same village where 55 houses had been burned in September.
February 22, 2019
A group of Anadarko Petroleum workers was attacked by insurgents near an under-construction liquified natural gas (LNG) plant in Palma district, marking the first time that gas industry workers had been targeted.
May 3, 2019
After a brief halt to attacks surrounding the arrival of Cyclone Kenneth, rebel fighters destroyed a village just south of Macomia town, killing six villagers. Subsequently, several other villages were raided and burned in Macomia and Meluco districts.
May 28, 2019
The transnational "Islamic State" organization (IS; formerly ISIS/ISIL) claimed credit for an attack that reportedly killed 16 people in a village outside of Mocímboa da Praia. IS attributed the attack to its "Central Africa Province" , a branch of the group that it claims is also active in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Some analysts accepted the evidence presented in the claim as confirmation that IS had recognized Mozambique's al-Sunnah as one of its affiliates. However, others were skeptical on whether IS had any real ties to Mozambique, and even questioned whether the attack had really happened.
July 3, 2019
Seven people were killed in an attack on a village between Nangade and Mocímboa da Praia, which was also claimed by IS.
July 24, 2019
IS media released a video purporting to show fighters in Mozambique pledging allegiance to the transnational organization, though outside analysts were still not convinced.
August 1, 2019
RENAMO, a decades-old rebel group unrelated to Cabo Delgado's insurgents, signed a final peace deal with the Mozambiqan government, agreeing to disarm and withdraw its last holdouts from a hidden base in central Mozambique's Gorongosa Mountains. The group had fought a civil war against the FRELIMO government from 1977-1992, later returning to conduct a small insurgency from 2013 until a ceasefire in 2016.
The Russian private military company known as the Wagner Group established a contract with the Mozambican government to help combat the insurgency, outbidding at least two regional soldier-for-hire groups, led by a South African and a former Rhodesian respectively.
September 3, 2019
French corporation Total purchased Anadarko's stake in the liquified natural gas (LNG) project in Cabo Delgado after Anadarko was bought by another international oil company that chose to sell off its assets in Africa. Total owns the largest stake in the project, with another 15% held by Mozambique's national hydrocarbon company, 20% by a Japanese firm, 10% each by three Indian companies, and 8.5% by a firm from Thailand.
September 13, 2019
Some 160 Wagner Group private military contractors (PMCs) arrived in Mozambique to provide assistance to the country’s military, and were stationed in the city of Nampula and the Cabo Delgado towns of Macomia and Mueda. The number later increased to 200.
October 5-7, 2019
The Mozambique military conducted several operations alongside the Russian PMCs in the Macomia and Mocímboa da Praia districts of Cabo Delgado province, with sources saying the coastal stretch between the two towns had become a war zone. In retaliation, the insurgents attacked the Wagner PMC base in the area, leaving five rebels and one Russian PMC dead.
October 10-27, 2019
Seven PMCs were killed during two insurgent ambushes on October 10 and 27, the first in Macomia district and the second in the Muidumbe district. The second ambush left 20 soldiers and five of the PMCs dead. Four of the killed contractors were beheaded.
November 19, 2019
Tensions were reported to be growing between the Russian PMCs and the Mozambican military following several failed operations.
November 25, 2019
Two hundred Wagner PMCs withdrew from Mozambique, though some were reportedly still present in Pemba and Mocímboa da Praia.
February 17, 2020
Insurgents attacked three villages in the Nangade and Meluco districts, killing three people.
The Wagner Group withdrew completely from Mozambique.
March 23, 2020
Insurgents briefly captured the key town of Mocímboa da Praia, before withdrawing later in the day.
March 25, 2020
Rebel fighters raided Quissanga town, killing six security forces members before withdrawing the same day. Some of them were waving black jihadist flags like those used by IS.
April 6, 2020
Rebels "occupied" a town southwest of Quissanga district, near where the insurgents would later be reported to have a major base. (ACLED).
April 7, 2020
A massacre just northeast of Muidumbe town left 52 villagers dead, in what the government would later label an IS attack. Police said the villagers were killed after refusing to join the insurgents.
April 7-13, 2020
Security forces reported killing 129 insurgents during three battles, part of what they described as retaliation for the massacre near Muidumbe. One battle took place in Muidumbe, and the other two on the small islands just off the coast. During the clashes, PMCs from the South African private military company the Dyck Advisory Group launched helicopter strikes against the rebels.
April 24, 2020
Mozambique's government said for the first time that the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) was present in the country.
Meanwhile, analysts said that the allegedly IS-affiliated fighters, presumed to be one and the same as the al-Sunnah rebels, had recently begun operating more openly, calling for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate, raising the black flag used by IS, and temporarily seizing buildings, roads, and villages.
April 25, 2020
The Armed Conflict and Location Event Data Project (ACLED), a freely-accessible database of conflict events, estimated that 1,100 people had been killed since the start of the insurgency in October 2017, including 700 civilians. According to the ACLED, 285 of the dead had been killed since the start of 2020, including more than 200 civilians.
May 3-12, 2020
Insurgents attacked 11 villages in Cabo Delgado. Meanwhile, security forces reported killing 50 insurgents.
May 5, 2020
Government forces reportedly retook control of Quissanga town, though sources did not specify when they had lost it (ACLED).
May 20, 2020
Mozambican military forces were reported to have captured an insurgent base in Quissanga district (ACLED).
May 28, 2020
Rebel fighters raided Macomia town, raising the same black flag used by IS, as well as several villages farther north along the main road.
South African special forces were deployed in Mozambique, according to a member of South Africa's parliament, though their activities were classified and little else was publicly known about their presence.
June 1, 2020
Security forces recaptured Macomia. They reported killing 78 insurgents and injuring 60, and said that two of those killed were Tanzanian leaders of the group, including one who had allegedly led the October 2017 attack that kicked off the insurgency.
June 3-5, 2020
Insurgents attacked three villages, killing 11 or 13 people. One village was located at the eastern end of Meluco district, south of Macomia town; another at the northern end of Macomia district, east of Muidumbe town; and the last along the coast just southeast of Mocímboa da Praia.
June 17, 2020
Security forces resecured two villages, about 15 km (10 mi) north along the coast from Mocímboa da Praia, that had been attacked and looted by insurgents.
June 27, 2020
Insurgents once again captured Mocímboa da Praia. The same day, an IS-claimed attack left eight workers of a private construction firm dead.
June 30, 2020
Security forces recaptured Mocímboa da Praia. The South African PMCs led the counterattack in helicopter gunships, targeting a dozen insurgents, while one soldier was killed during the fighting and thirteen were wounded.
July 1, 2020
Government forces attacked what some reports said was the insurgents' largest base, located between Quissanga and Meluco. The incident was described in several different unverified accounts, with one saying that 100 insurgents and between 12 and 15 soldiers were reported killed in the fighting. One account said the base was destroyed, while another said that the government forces failed to capture it.
July 23-25, 2020
Insurgents raided a village just west of Mucojo, proceeding to occupy it for two days, also launching attacks on Mocujo itself.
July 25-26, 2020
Insurgents attacked a village north of Macomia, leaving two civilians dead. Security forces recaptured the village the next day.
July 28-29, 2020
Insurgents attacked Mocímboa da Praia, as well as a village between Macomia and Muidumbe, where nine civilians were killed. Likely at the same village, 12 insurgents were killed when ambushed by a local anti-insurgent militia, possibly armed as part of a new government effort to raise self-defense groups against the rebels.
August 5-9 2020
Insurgents launched a new assault towards Mocímboa da Praia. On August 8, security forces withdrew from a village between Mocímboa da Praia and Awasse. The next day, the insurgents were in control of Awasse and parts of Mocímboa da Praia.
Dyck PMCs provided air support to the government side, but were unable to turn back the rebels' move on the towns due to their helicopter base being located too far away in another part of the province.
Reporting from the area was limited by power and cell service outages thought to be caused by infrastructural damage inflicted in rebel attacks.
August 11, 2020
Insurgent forces took full control of Mocímboa da Praia in a new attack after government soldiers ran out of ammunition and resupply efforts were bungled. The so-called "Islamic State" (IS) claimed credit, also saying it had captured two military bases near the port town.
The takeover was attributed by international news media to both Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamâ and IS, reflecting the now-widespread belief that the Mozambican group is indeed IS-affiliated, though this still appears to be unproven.
During this time, Tanzania announced that it would launch an offensive against insurgents in the forests along the border with Mozambique. ACLED reported that the number of dead in the conflict had increased to at least 1,300.
August 16, 2020
With Mocímboa da Praia still under insurgent control, the Guardian reported that government forces were surrounding the town in preparation for a counterattack, while South Africa was considering a military intervention.
In contrast to the insurgents' previous raids of Mocímboa da Praia, this appears to be an intentional effort on the rebels' part to hold control of the town.
Graphic of Mozambican flag is in the public domain (source). Timeline entries cited as "ACLED" are based on information extracted directly from the ACLED database: Raleigh, Clionadh, Andrew Linke, Håvard Hegre and Joakim Karlsen. (2010). “Introducing ACLED - Armed Conflict Location and Event Data.” Journal of Peace Research 47(5) 651-660. https://www.acleddata.com/