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A Looming Security Threat: Mozambique’s Jihadi Insurgency & Links to Drug Trafficking

Since 2017, a heavily armed ISIS-affiliated group known as “al-Shabaab” (previously “Ahlu Sunnah wal-Jamaa”) has repeatedly engaged in violent insurgency against the Mozambican government in the northern region of Cabo Delgado. In 2020, this ongoing conflict became significantly more violent, sparking international concern over the group’s intention to establish rule by Islamic law in the north of the country. Several African countries such as Rwanda and South Africa, but also member states of the European Union as well as the United States, sent equipment and soldiers to Mozambique to palliate the insurgency. This article briefly retraces the origins of al-Shabaab’s militant activity in Mozambique up until the most recent uprising in June 2021, analyzes its activities in the region, and explains how this Islamist presence affects the security of neighboring countries. I also look at how al-Shabaab generates funds through illicit activities, more specifically drug trafficking, and propose solutions such as addressing political and economic grievances and improving local governance in order to tame the ongoing conflict and limit illicit trade flows that fuel this hostility.

Origins of the al-Shabaab sect

Investigations led by the Journal of East African studies have traced the origins of Cabo Delgado’s al-Shabaab sect in the northern district of Balama back to 2007. At the time, similar Islamist movements had been reported in other districts of Mozambique. According to these same investigations, in 2007, a young Makua man named Sualehe Rafayel returned to his village of Muapé after spending several years in Tanzania. He joined a local mosque, but had diverging views on certain practices and ideas and decided to establish his own approach to the Islamic faith using his own personal compound as a religious building. Although Sheik Sualehe had dissociated himself from his local mosque, tensions continued to rise between different Muslim groups in his village that disagreed with his ideologies. In 2010, the rival groups met with the state and convinced the Mozambican government that Sualehe was a sufficient threat to be imprisoned. A year later, Sheik Sualehe was expelled from his country and relocated to Tanzania.

Inspired by Sheik Suahele’s ideology and movement, in 2010, a man named Abdul Carimo also began clashing with his local mosque and its followers. Much like Suahele, Sheik Abdul opened up a mosque in his residential compound, and later also opened a school. In October 2015, Mozambican authorities started understanding the seriousness of the security risks presented by the sect when members of Abdul’s al-Shabaab mosque violently attacked village members celebrating a national Peace Day. Between 2016 and 2018, the sect was regularly implicated in violent clashes with the local police and mosques. Despite the backlash from authorities and village members, the al-Shabaab sect was still able to quickly expand throughout the Cabo Delgado province during the 2010s.

Many of the group’s early leaders often studied religious doctrine and acquired military training in countries such as Sudan, Tanzania and even Saudi Arabia. These leaders have been able to recruit militants for years by targeting unemployed and disadvantaged youth and offering them loans that they could invest in any sector (including the illicit economy). Al-Shabaab started its transition to militancy by organizing resistance against mainstream religious leaders and criticizing other Muslims for not obeying Islamic law. In 2015, al-Shabaab leaders set up training camps throughout Cabo Delgado and established an official military strategy. October 2017 marked a turning point in al-Shabaab’s transition to an overtly militant group, when the sect launched a string of deadly attacks against authorities and local civilians.

Map of Mozambique

Source: United Nations Map No. 3706 Rev. 7. Jul 2020

Origins of the Insurgency

On the 5th of October 2017 , the town of Mocimboa da Praia in the Cabo Delgado district was the first of many villages to host a violent al-Shabaab uprising. Most militants were from the village itself, and had been recognized by locals during the attack. Their attacks were not carried out with the sole purpose of proliferating terror; instead, they wanted to show their rejection of the secular state and introduce Sharia rule. Eric Morier explains that in order to understand the goals of al-Shabaab, it is crucial to distinguish Islam from Islamism; the former is a religion, while the latter is a political ideology or a form of “religionized politics”. Morier also underlines the fact that the participants of al-Shabaab constitute a religious sect; “instead of trying to change the political order, they withdrew from it, and cut themselves off from society, so as to apply Sharia rule for themselves”. The participants tried to develop a “counter-society”, in which they set up their own social order through the establishment of a new justice, education and health system. In order to develop their Islamist counter-society, the group cultivated tensions with mainstream society and engaged in repeated violent insurgencies since 2017.

The sect carried out around 120 small-scale operations until 2018, and killed 38 civilians. The next year, al-Shabaab intensified its operations, carrying out 150 attacks and killing over 400 people. At the same time, authorities began linking these intensified attacks to the arrival of ISIS-linked militants originating from the DRC. In 2019, the al-Shabaab sect was officially incorporated into the Islamic State Central Africa Province (IS-CAP), after ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack carried out in Northern Mozambique. Today, there is still a great deal of uncertainty regarding the role played by foreign ISIS powers in Mozambique, but it is clear that since its insertion into the IS-CAP, the sect has significantly expanded its operations and size. A majority of the al-Shabaab sect is from Mozambique or Tanzania, but there is also an increasingly significant number of foreigners who traveled from the Middle East and South Asia to fight for the group.

In August 2020, al-Shabaab captured Mocimboa da Praia, where it is still exerting control today. For over a year, the sect’s attacks have become more violent and frequent, “often displaying trademark ISIS tactics like beheadings”. In under 10 months, al-Shabaab was responsible for nearly 400 attacks that left more than 1000 people dead. One of its most recent attacks in the town of Palma (24th March, 2021) left 2800 people dead and caused nearly 700 000 to be displaced from their homes. The inhabitants of Palma, a former fishing town that has recently been transformed into a hub for the gas industry, witnessed cruel scenes of locals being beheaded or hacked to pieces in the streets. This most recent offensive reveals that the dire military threat remains.

An International Crisis

Since Mocimboa da Praia is an oil rich district, many oil and gas companies such as TotalEnergies (a French multinational) feared that the situation would jeopardize their activities in the region. In August 2020, after being pressured by TotalEnergies, Tanzanian government officials announced that the country would significantly increase its border security operations. TotalEnergies’ CEO, Patrick Pouyanné, even travelled to Maputo to discuss the critical risk posed to the company’s multi-billion-dollar operations with Mozambican leader, President Filipe Nyusi. Al-Shabaab military operations kept gaining momentum in the region, until October when a group of fighters crossed into Tanzania and captured military equipment. The ongoing conflict started drawing the attention of leaders around the world, and precipitated TotalEnergies’ reduction of operations in the region. When Palma was raided in March 2021, TotalEnergies announced it was halting its operations, and ISIS later celebrated its accomplishments on its media channel.

As the sect has expanded, security officials have worried that the movement could attract more ISIS-affiliated foreign fighters and engender more insecurity in the region. Cabo Delgado’s conflict has already been intensified by the flow of jihadist militants to and from Tanzania. Additionally, Mozambican authorities have claimed that some members of al-Shabaab have gone to fight for the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in Uganda. Similarly, numerous militants from Uganda, the DRC, and Somalia have traveled to Mozambique to become involved with al-Shabaab.

Generating Revenues and a Link to Drug Trafficking

A key recent field of study regarding al-Shabaab is the provenance of their revenues. The sect appears to generate a considerable amount of income, since they are able to stage increasingly large military operations and open more recruitment and training bases throughout Mozambique. In the International Crisis Group’s June 2021 Africa Report on the Cabo Delgado Insurrection, the authors are able to trace back some of al-Shabaab’s revenues to protection money paid by local businesses. Militants have also been able to raise money through ransom payments and the channeling of funds from abroad. There are, however, many difficulties in tracing al-Shabaab funds; it is suspected that the group uses civilians to launder money, and also use phone transfer services. It has recently been suspected that the movement also generates funds through contraband profits such as networks of gold and gemstone smugglers operating in the area. Some experts have even found evidence that al-Shabaab receives taxes from drug cargoes that transit through waters and coastal lands under their direction.

Drug trafficking in Mozambique, however, is not a recent phenomenon. César Guedes (of the UN office on Drugs and Crime) once described drug trafficking in Mozambique as a huge problem exacerbated by the government’s inability to prevent international crime in its maritime spaces and wide-reaching coastlines. In 2018, it was estimated that between $600m-800m of heroin transitted through the country every year, and much of the funds generated were used to bribe government officials and local authorities. In 2017, following the first al-Shabaab insurgency, Mozambican drug syndicates were joined by other contraband such as gem and timber smugglers, but also wildlife and human traffickers (including organs removed from slain bodies in the street). Although it is essential to not reduce al-Shabaab militants to traffickers, it is also important to note that the insurgents and syndicates could overlap to some extent. For example, shortly after the first insurgency, a boat seized off the coast of Mozambique coming from Asia was found to be smuggling both drugs and arms for militants.

Solutions to tame the conflict.

The jihadi insurgency in Northern Mozambique is deep rooted and feeds off of weak governance, wide-spread corruption and ethnic and religious marginalisation. Therefore, any eventual solution to this security issue must be all-encompassing. An initial first step towards taming the conflict would be for the African Union or United Nations to organize a meeting encouraging regional allies and international partners (all of which are or could be affected by the insurgency) to find a multidimensional solution to the issue. It will be impossible to dismantle al-Shabaab without addressing some of its root causes: poverty, youth unemployment, and religious marginalization. The Mozambican government therefore needs to develop a plan to meet the challenges faced by local youth to prevent them from being recruited into militant organizations.

In addition to this, it is crucial for the international community to pressure the Mozambican government to address and alleviate economic and political grievances in the district of Cabo Delgado. The Mozambican government should view the Cabo Delgado insurgency as an opportunity to tackle more general challenges throughout the country, and improve governance on local and regional scales. Although the roots of the conflict are complex and interwoven, it is certain that many of the members of the sect have felt a sense of mistreatment and injustice from the central government. Recently, this has been exacerbated by the massive development of natural resources, more specifically natural gas, that has in no way benefitted local communities of the district.

Gas and oil companies that have immensely benefited from the region’s rich natural resources could have an important role to play in the dismantling of al-Shabaab. Cabo Delgado’s offshore gas fields are some of the largest in Africa, and “are estimated to contain over 100 trillion cubic feet of gas, with the potential to generate US$95 billion in tax revenue over the next 25 years.” Before the Palma insurgency, multinational companies such as ExxonMobil and TotalEnergies were planning on investing tens of billions of dollars in gas-related projects. Due to the insurgency, many of these investments have been halted or postponed. With a little pressure from these companies, the government would be able to transform the province of Cabo Delgado into a logistics and transportation hub hosting thousands of workers. Oil and gas companies could also invest some of their funds into educational initiatives, increased security measures, and overall boosting of the local economy in order to mitigate jihadi control.

With regard to al-Shabaab’s ties with drug smugglers and illicit markets, the Mozambican government needs to develop a permanent and effective solution to increase its maritime and coastal security. Mozambique’s military has been stunted by decades of under-investment and has faced serious challenges while trying to combat al-Shabaab in Cabo Delgado. It is crucial that the government places the military (Forças Armadas de Defensa de Moçambique, FADM) at the centre of the country’s security response. In order to do so, Mozambique’s foreign partners need to provide more support in military training and material, and help establish a specialised military unit constituted of commandos and marines. César Guedes (representative of UNODC) explains that drug trafficking routes are modified in accordance with the actors of the transit countries, and, as such, the Mozambican government can take strong and decisive action in order to divert traffickers’ activity elsewhere.


Over the last decade, al-Shabaab has gained significant momentum in the natural-gas rich province of Cabo Delgado. Insurgencies there feed on a complex network of tensions, inequality and Islamist militancy. In order to tame these tensions, the Mozambican government needs to urgently address the underlying grievances of the local population and invest more to strengthen its military. Foreign powers must also come together, with the help of multinational companies, to boost local economies, help develop a strong military and navy, and pressure local governments to alleviate poverty and create more youth opportunities. Without immediate action, the Cabo Delgado insurgency could quickly escalate into an international crisis.


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