Northern Mozambique the new vortex for Islamic extremism
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The AU Peace and Security Council also highlighted the urgency this week with commissioner Smail Chergui saying the AU must provide equipment and training to assist the Mozambican government in addressing the militant threat.
Cabo Delgado has been the site of beheadings and kidnappings of villagers, as well as villages being burnt to the ground. The increasing attacks on civilians are by an Islamist extremist group which calls itself al-Shabaab (or “youth” in Arabic). The group is not an offshoot of Somalia’s al-Shabaab, but has links to them.
To date the group has launched about 370 attacks since its first attack on a police station in October 2017. There have been 909 recorded deaths, although this number is predicted to climb exponentially. Human Rights Watch has called on the Southern African Development Community to urgently act against the insurgency that poses a risk to the whole region.
Few understand what is really happening in this impoverished corner of Mozambique, bordering Tanzania. But the combination of Wahhabi and Salafist influence from the Gulf and extremist Sheikhs from Tanzania and Kenya have brought a brand of extremism to northern Mozambique that has been germinating since 2015.
The Institute for Social and Economic Studies at the Eduardo Mondlane University of Mozambique produced an important study in September about the emergence of al-Shabaab, and is based on extensive on-the-ground interviews in northern Mozambique. Religious extremists from neighbouring countries, who have been influenced by Islamist scholars in the Middle East, used marriage as a strategy to entrench themselves in local communities. They married into families in Cabo Delgado, acquired land, and propagated their violent and extremist ideology within local communities.
The extreme poverty of the area and its economic marginalisation has made it ripe for recruitment, especially when schools and services are hard to come by. The state is largely absent from the area, and as al-Shabaab gained in strength and resources, it has even been able to pay its members wages in an environment where there is very little if any formal employment.
Al-Shabaab has attempted to capitalise on this void by setting up madrassas that preach an extreme form of Islam, and offer to feed and provide shelter for local children.
When al-Shabaab takes over an area, people are forced to attend lectures and watch videos of the sermons of the late Islamist extremist Kenyan Sheik Aboud Rogo Mohammed, who masterminded the attacks on the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998. In the al-Shabaab areas, Sharia law is imposed and those who try to escape are killed.
The idea is to isolate al-Shabaab members from the outside world, which is deemed “impure”, and get them to join a “holy call” to create a better world. Al-Shabaab leaders tell locals that their intent is to build a new social and political order, and that they are living in a corrupt world in which the Mozambican government is not to be trusted.
Locals are encouraged to join the international jihad and train for military operations.
The group has also established a dress code to distinguish themselves from the broader community where men have shaven heads and wear white turbans, grow large beards, don black gowns with short trousers, and are armed with knives and machetes to symbolise jihad. Women are forced to wear the burka, and no one is allowed to wear Western clothes. Women and children are often held captive and used as wives or sex slaves.
Civilians are used as human shields when they are confronted by the Mozambican armed forces. The group has even developed its own flag, which is black with white inserts.
Initially, when al-Shabaab emerged in northern Mozambique in 2015, they were inspired by religious leaders in Salafist circles abroad who encouraged them to penetrate local mosques to change the way they interpreted Islam. When this failed, they set up their own mosques.
Al-Shabaab has a supreme council on which sit some foreign combatants and Tanzanian sheikhs. Radical spiritual leaders in Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia have assisted with the religious and even military training of youths in northern Mozambique. At first the group had about 50 agitators, but the number grew to an armed force of more than 300. Today, it is estimated that the group may have as many as 1500 fighters capable of attacking the state.
Most of the youth who have voluntarily joined the ranks of al-Shabaab are uneducated and unemployed, and are often informal traders. The group has offered them an identity and a supposed “purpose in life”, as well as a means to earn a living through some form of wages or a cut in the illicit smuggling trade, which is flourishing in the area.
Al-Shabaab has been generating revenue from donations and the clandestine networks of trafficking in timber, rubies, ivory and coal. The burgeoning heroine trade coming from Afghanistan to the East Coast of Africa before being transported onwards to Asia and Europe is also an opportunity to make large sums of money. Some years ago it was estimated that the group had a turnover of $33million from illicit smuggling, and this must have substantially increased.
The Mozambican army has been largely ineffective in addressing the growing threat, with young and inexperienced recruits being sent into the area. The government response has been criticised. The army shelled a town in 2017 causing the death of 50 civilians. There have been random arrests and closure of mosques, which feed into the anti-government propaganda.
The government has failed to secure the border with Tanzania through which much of the illicit smuggling occurs, and many of the corrupt government officials on the border profit from the illicit trade.
Mozambique has turned to private contractors to protect foreign workers in the area. The government has agreed to pay Lancaster Six Group 80% of the cost of protecting foreign workers in return for an undisclosed percentage of ownership in state gas reserves. Lancaster Six Group is owned by the former Blackwater chief executive, Eric Prince.
The discovery of liquified natural gas (LNG) off the coast of Cabo Delgado in 2010 complicated the situation. Since then there has been a jockeying of foreign multinational companies to exploit the substantial gas deposits touted to be the third largest in the world, after Qatar and Australia.
Currently, global demand for LNG outstrips the supply which is why companies have decided to increase their investments in Mozambique. Italian Eni and the US Anadarko are the principle holders of the Mozambican offshore gas industry. It is estimated that those companies will be able to supply gas to Britain, France, Germany and Italy for the next 20 years.
Gas will be produced from 2022, and the government of Mozambique will start to receive revenue in 2028. But al-Shabaab’s increasing militarism poses a threat to the development of LNG, and Anadarko has already suspended work due to the increase in attacks.
If al-Shabaab were to target the gas pipeline in Mtwara, Tanzania, gas production could be halted altogether. This explains why there is a growing interest on the part of those European countries in stabilising the situation in northern Mozambique, and ensuring that al-Shabaab is neutralised.
The challenge for the AU, and South Africa as chair of the AU this year, is to ensure that Africa drives a process to assist the government of Mozambique in developing an effective counter-terrorism strategy and military capability to deal with the threat posed by al-Shabaab. Such a strategy needs to go well beyond the provision of armaments and military training, but more importantly needs to address the root causes of the crisis.
These root causes are impoverishment, a lack of income-generating activities, and social services. It is the lack of opportunities and hope in these communities that has led to youth joining the ranks of Islamist extremists. Without addressing the socio-economic root causes of this crisis, it will never be resolved in the long term.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media Foreign Editor.