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Counterproductive Counterinsurgency: Is Mozambique Creating the Next Boko Haram?

Hilary Matfess, Alexander Noyes
Sunday, September 1, 2019, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: Mozambique has a small terrorism problem, but the government’s response threatens to make it a big one. Hilary Matfess of Yale University and Alexander Noyes of RAND Corp. contend that Mozambique is overreacting to the danger with a heavy-handed crackdown that is inflaming tension while doing little to disrupt the most radical elements there. Indeed, they argue that Mozambique risks following the path of Nigeria, where a ham-fisted government response to a radical sect led to a surge in support for the group that became Boko Haram.

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Editor’s Note: Mozambique has a small terrorism problem, but the government’s response threatens to make it a big one. Hilary Matfess of Yale University and Alexander Noyes of RAND Corp. contend that Mozambique is overreacting to the danger with a heavy-handed crackdown that is inflaming tension while doing little to disrupt the most radical elements there. Indeed, they argue that Mozambique risks following the path of Nigeria, where a ham-fisted government response to a radical sect led to a surge in support for the group that became Boko Haram.

Daniel Byman


After the Islamist insurgent group al-Sunnah wa Jamaah (ASWJ) killed seven people in northern Mozambique in July, the Islamic State claimed involvement, the second time they have done so since June. In the weeks since, ASWJ attacks have continued, most recently the shooting of five people on August 23. The evidence to substantiate direct links between the Islamic State and ASWJ is slim—and ASWJ does not need a transnational affiliation to be considered a threat to stability in Mozambique. The group has clashed repeatedly with Mozambican security forces since October 2017 and is linked to more than 140 violent events that have resulted in more than 400 reported fatalities, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED).

The threat to the country and the region is real, and Mozambique’s current approach threatens to escalate the crisis. The experience of other African countries provides an instructive lesson: A hardline response that depends solely on repression will only make things worse.

Mozambique needs to handle this growing security challenge in a way that will tackle the problem instead of exacerbating it with heavy-handed tactics justified as being “tough on terrorism.” A more comprehensive approach, which focuses on shared socioeconomic development and leverages international partnerships, would be more effective in fighting extremist groups like ASWJ.

The Mystery of ASWJ

Mozambique had, until recently, avoided the type of extremist violence that has destabilized communities in East Africa and throughout the Sahel. Though Cabo Delgado, the province where ASWJ operates, is majority Muslim, the country is religiously diverse. Mozambique is 27 percent Catholic and 19 percent Muslim, with significant Zionist Christian, evangelical, and other religious communities, and these groups have enjoyed relatively harmonious interfaith relations.

Reliable information on ASWJ remains worryingly scarce. The group is referred to locally as “al-Shabaab,” but it has no clear direct links to al-Shabaab in Somalia. This nickname seems to be a moniker that the local population gave to the group—similar to how residents of North East Nigeria referred to Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad as Boko Haram because of the group’s rejection of Westernized culture and, specifically, government education.

Though some members appear to be from Somalia, Tanzania and Sudan, northern Mozambique is a commercial and migration hub in the region, so multinational membership is not surprising, nor should it be taken as a sign that ASWJ is a transnational jihadist insurgent group.

One attribute of ASWJ that is clear from its tactics is its penchant for violence against civilians. According to ACLED, more than 80 percent of the group’s attacks have been directed at civilians, and attacks on civilians are on the rise. There have been more than 70 instances of violence against civilians in 2019 to date—more than there were in all of 2018 (when just over 44 events were recorded). In one such event recorded by ACLED, in November 2018, militants thought to be associated with ASWJ killed a dozen people and set 40 houses on fire during an attack on a village near the border with Tanzania, causing approximately 1,000 people to flee across the border.

Though the group has been engaging in violence in Cabo Delgado for nearly two years, its objectives remain unclear and information about the group’s targeting patterns and membership base is limited. The group does not seem to prioritize the capture of territory—rather, it engages primarily in hit-and-run attacks. Some of these attacks have reportedly been on specific ethnic groups and against religious leaders with whom ASWJ has disagreements.

ASWJ is using to its advantage the influx of attention to the region following the discovery of vast stores of natural gas in the area. In 2011, a large cache of natural gas was discovered approximately 30 miles off the coast of the province. The gas fields are estimated to be worth $150 billion, $35 billion of which is expected to go to the Mozambican government, and energy companies Eni, ExxonMobil and CNPC have already staked billions of dollars on their development. Who will benefit from these natural resources is a hot-button issue nationwide, but tensions are particularly acute in Cabo Delgado, which holds the unenviable distinction of being the country’s poorest province. ASWJ’s recruitment effort may benefit from the sense of frustration many local residents feel when confronted by the possibility that the region’s natural resource wealth might not benefit its residents.

Alleged abuses at the hands of corporate security guards, issues over land, widespread youth unemployment and high levels of distrust in the government are also contributing factors to the development of an insurgency in the region. ASWJ has sought to capitalize on these tensions: In February the group attacked an Anadarko convoy, leading the multinational oil and gas company to suspend construction of a liquefied natural gas plant.

Government Crackdown

Mozambique’s response to the spate of ASWJ attacks has been extremely heavy handed and militarized, with allegations of widespread human rights abuses by security forces. After the group’s first attack in October 2017, the government shuttered mosques and detained up to 300 people without charging them. The government has not let up. In late 2018, the government again carried out large-scale arbitrary detentions, and the counterinsurgency campaign as a whole has been characterized not just by mass arrests but also by torture and extrajudicial killings.

In addition to physical repression, the government has also responded to the crisis through media suppression and censorship. Since June 2018, the government has barred media access to the region; those who have attempted to circumvent the ban have been detained. In January of this year, Amade Abubacar was arrested for his reporting on violence in Cabo Delgado and was denied food and medical treatment. Unsurprisingly, this has had a chilling effect on Mozambicans’ willingness to speak openly about the conflict. On a recent trip to Mozambique, one of us (Noyes) found a general reluctance to discuss the emerging threat.

Repression of this nature is likely to backfire. Indeed, detaining or killing religious leaders usually only inflames tensions and accelerates the threat.

Unlearned Lessons?

Mozambique is at risk of repeating mistakes made elsewhere in Africa when responding to extremist insurgencies. Both Nigeria and Kenya responded to similar threats with repressive tactics, but this only amplified religious and ethnic tensions and provided fodder for extremist recruiting. The rise of Boko Haram—the deadliest group in Africa in 2015—and the enduring threat from al-Shabaab in Kenya show how these approaches proved counterproductive in the long run.

A turning point in Boko Haram’s history came in 2009. A confrontation between sect members and the Nigerian police originally concerning a helmet regulation escalated and prompted a harsh response from the state. The crackdown resulted in the deaths of more than 700 people in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, including the sect’s leader Mohammed Yusuf. When the group reemerged under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau a few years later, it had metastasized from a largely nonviolent dissident sect with some criminal characteristics into a violent and virulently anti-state movement.

A similar process played out in Kenya. After a series of al-Shabaab attacks, the Kenyan government cracked down on the Somali and Muslim communities there, arresting thousands. This strategy of collective punishment backfired terribly. A 2014 study looking at al-Shabaab recruitment in Kenya, found that the “single most important factor that drove respondents to join al-Shabaab, according to 65% of respondents, was government’s counterterrorism strategy.” The killings of several clerics in Mombasa, Kenya, also ratcheted up tensions and grievances.

A recent United Nations report found that this pattern holds beyond just Nigeria and Kenya, concluding that those who join extremist groups very commonly hold grievances against the government and particularly distrust the police and military.

These findings suggest that Mozambique’s militarized approach to counterinsurgency is likely to be counterproductive.

A New Course

Despite recent claims of ties to the Islamic State, at present the ASWJ threat appears to be domestic, with scarce evidence of direct ties to international extremist groups. But if the government continues to respond in a heavy-handed manner, the threat is likely to grow, with potentially devastating effects for the country and region. Indeed, justifying a crackdown on this group as necessary to respond to a transnational terrorist group may be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Instead, regional and international actors should pressure Mozambique to adopt more comprehensive rule of law and governance approaches. International actors could offer to train and professionalize Mozambican security forces while urging the government to respect human rights, follow due process, allow journalists access to Cabo Delgado and hold members of the security forces responsible for past abuses.

They could also help facilitate community dialogues aimed at easing tensions and fostering discussions on how to fairly distribute wealth from the natural gas boom. Impoverished northern Mozambique needs development-focused efforts in particular.

International corporations operating in the region can play a role and could be encouraged to engage with local communities through corporate social responsibility programs and fair labor practices. They can also use their influence to help push the government in the right direction.

Such efforts are no panacea. However, the recent history of a number of African states grappling with similar insurgencies suggests that repression will only make things worse.

Hilary Matfess is an assistant professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. She is also a Council on Foreign Relations term fellow, a research fellow at the Research on International Policy Implementation Lab, and a non-resident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa Program.
Alexander Noyes is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and former senior adviser for security cooperation assessment, monitoring, and evaluation in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy.

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