Stable Seas has received requests from a variety of maritime stakeholders seeking a high-level brief of the escalating insecurity in northern Mozambique that is being fueled by the insurgent group Ahlu-Sunna Wa-Jama, or Ansar al-Sunna (ASWJ), in the hopes of better understanding the role they can play in supporting Maputo to counter ASWJ at sea. This document speaks to these requests. In 2020, ASWJ demonstrated significant escalations in tactical capabilities, operational tempo, and strategic targeting, including increased violence against civilians, a closer affiliation with the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province, expanded control over transportation corridors, and exploitation of the sea for operational purposes. Importantly, despite its affiliation with the Islamic State, ASWJ finds its roots in localized grievances in northern Mozambique. Overall, the group continues to pose a serious threat to the southern African region and has prompted a growing humanitarian crisis in northern Mozambique, with over 500,000 individuals currently displaced.
Conflict Background and Government Response
ASWJ formed as a religious sect around 2007, began mobilizing in 2015, and launched its first major attack in October 2017 against police units in Mocímboa da Praia, which is located in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique’s northernmost province and insurgency epicenter.1, 2 ASWJ seeks to govern northern Mozambique through a Sharia-based political order and is fueled by myriad factors including perceived and actual socioeconomic and political marginalization by the state and discontent towards the emerging liquefied natural gas industry in the Afungi Peninsula, both of which have fostered anti-government sentiments among disaffected youths.3 The Mozambican government has placed the majority of its focus on containing the group militarily with support from private security companies, including the Russian Wagner Group and the South African Dyck Advisory Group, rather than pursuing a multilateral response through the region’s cooperative bloc, the Southern African Development Community (SADC). To date, this response has been largely unsuccessful in containing the insurgency, a situation which has been further compounded by the limited operational capabilities—both on land and at sea—of the Mozambique Defense Armed Forces (FADM), and by accusations of human rights abuses by security services.4, 5 Given the growing number of actors involved in countering ASWJ, including members of the FADM, private security contractors, civilian militias, and Tanzanian and Mozambican law enforcement agencies, accountability for human rights violations may become more difficult to deduce. However, failure to investigate and hold individuals accountable fuels ASWJ’s anti government narrative and propaganda efforts, and has the potential to provide the group with new recruits.
ASWJ demonstrated a sophisticated escalation in tactical capabilities, operational tempo, and strategic targeting
in 2020. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), an estimated 395 attacks were
conducted between January and October 2020, double the number of attacks occurring during this period in the
preceding year.6, 7 Considering the total number of attacks over the past three years (650+ attacks),8 this suggests
that more than 50 percent of ASWJ’s attacks have occurred in 2020.
FATAL EVENTS INVOLVING AHLU-SUNNA WA-JAMA
Data from ACLED, map by Tyler Lycan
● Tactics and the Role of Violence: ASWJ routinely raids towns in northern Mozambique, gathering supplies, recruits (voluntary and involuntary), and food. It has become increasingly common to target civilians in these attacks, particularly with beheadings and kidnappings. According to ACLED analyst Jasmine Opperman, this violence serves a dual purpose, solidifying in-group formation while simultaneously sending a message to civilians that pro-government sentiments will not be tolerated and to the Mozambican government that their military counter-responses have failed as deterrence mechanisms.
● Geographic Expansion: ASWJ continues to occupy the port town of Mocímboa da Praia and has expanded its geographic area of operations in virtually every direction: north into the Mtwara region of southern 3 Tanzania, south into the Macomia District of Cabo Delgado, east into the Quirimbas Archipelago, and west into the Nangade District of Cabo Delgado, among others. Insurgents have also threatened to attack Mueda, a strategic town in the Muidumbe District which houses the FADM’s military operations in Cabo Delgado and is a key access route to the north.9
● Islamic State Affiliation: ASWJ is affiliated with the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province (ISCAP), which is active in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Since its first claim of responsibility in June 2019, the Islamic State has increasingly sought to ally itself with ASWJ.10, 11 While questions have been raised as to the extent of this relationship (e.g., communication, assistance, and training), what is clear is that the Islamic State has strategically co-opted ASWJ’s local narrative and
successes for its own propaganda and notoriety, and that this relationship is deepening.
● Consolidation of Transportation Corridors: ASWJ has increasingly sought to control and restrict access to key transportation routes in Cabo Delgado, including the road from Mocímboa da Praia to the provincial capital of Pemba.12 These targeted blockades on infrastructure and the continuing occupation of Mocímboa da Praia’s port have limited the government’s ability to move troops and supplies, hindered humanitarian aid and public services from reaching civilians, raised gas and food prices, and restricted civilian movement, forcing individuals to seek safety by dangerous sea routes.13, 14 This has prompted the Tanzanian government to ban food exports to Cabo Delgado out of fear that this food could end up in insurgent hands.1
ASWJ has significantly impacted the civilian population of northern Mozambique by creating mass displacement, exacerbating existing food insecurity, and committing acts of violence. According to the Mozambican Prime Minister, Carlos Agostinho do Rosário, more than 500,000 individuals have been displaced, a fourfold increase from earlier this year per the International Organization for Migration.16, 17 Many of these individuals have sought refuge elsewhere in Cabo Delgado, particularly in southern areas like Pemba, while others have crossed into southern Tanzania. Food insecurity is at a “crisis level,” per the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, and is expected to remain at such a level through early 2021.18 ASWJ activity has forced civilians to flee, abandoning their crops, and insurgents actively steal food in their attacks. Violence against civilians has directly resulted in more than 1,200 civilian deaths, and has inadvertently contributed to hundreds more, including the deaths of those who fled and then drowned at sea.19, 20 Local and multilateral organizations on the ground, including the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, Fundação MASC, Caritas Mozambique, the
International Committee of the Red
Cross, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Organization for Migration, and the World Food Programme, continue to support impacted communities, but increasingly face funding constraints and accessibility problems due to a lack of physical security.
Since March 2020, ASWJ has demonstrated high capability and intent to use the sea for operational purposes. The group continues to use ships to carry out amphibious assaults and move fighters and supplies, and has previously attacked port infrastructure, as evidenced by the August 2020 attack in Mocímboa da Praia in which an HSI-32 Interceptor patrol vessel was reportedly sunk with an RPG.21, 224 Attacking the surrounding islands of the Quirimbas Archipelago has also become part of ASWJ’s broader maritime
strategy, which has helped the group acquire assets and food, move freely, and project power.23 Geographic proximity plays a role here, especially considering the short distance from Mocímboa da Praia to these islands. For example, Ilha Metundo is roughly 20 nautical miles from Mocímboa da Praia and 8 nautical miles from Ilha Vamize, allowing ASWJ to carry out multiple surgical strikes in a single attack and return to shore fairly quickly. Two other factors enabling ASWJ’s exploitation of the sea are weak maritime enforcement capacity and coastal underdevelopment.24, 25 A lack of serviceable assets impedes the Mozambican government’s ability to respond in real-time to attacks at sea, while longstanding coastal neglect and provincial economic underdevelopment contribute to the group’s anti-government narrative. Private air support is being utilized to offset this gap in enforcement capacity and has already been used to destroy some of the boats captured by the insurgents.26 However, this operation has restricted access to some of the waters that fishers can use, due to fears of crossfire and the potential for mistaken identity, making it an unviable long-term response. A concerning development, though one unconfirmed by Stable Seas, is the alleged incident during the week of November 23 in which ASWJ members captured at least seven sailboats and detained 20 passengers.27 While it was reported as ASWJ’s first instance of piracy, the location of this attack—within Mozambique’s territorial waters—suggests that this was in fact an instance of armed robbery at sea and not piracy. Distinguishing between these types of attacks is critical, given that only the coastal state in which the incident occurs has jurisdiction for response and any legal action that follows. In other words, unless ASWJ launches an attack in Tanzanian waters, Mozambique will have to approve any maritime-related efforts to counter the group, including those pertaining to armed robbery at sea. Regardless, this incident is pertinent. Even if it was carried out by a subset of ASWJ members driven by opportunism, it demonstrates the group’s potential maritime capabilities. Given the low-risk nature of this tactic, largely due to a lack of maritime enforcement, if individual ASWJ members perceive this method to be fruitful, more incidents could arise in the future. However, at this stage, the threat is to local sailing vessels transiting near Palma and the Quirimbas Archipelago. ASWJ’s continued exploitation of the sea is allowing the group to wage violence on land, which is known as the land-sea nexus, contributing to the group’s sustainability and longevity.28
Therefore, it is critical to incorporate the maritime domain in ongoing and future counterinsurgency efforts for long-term success. To guide these efforts, a consolidated maritime strategy should be created, one that seeks to deter an expansion of attacks at sea, prevent the numerous illicit trades in the region from becoming a source of group revenue, and shed light (via intelligence) on how exactly ASWJ is using the port of Mocímboa da Praia. Leveraging ship-based intelligence platforms, like ship-borne unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and enhancing coastal patrols are two such mechanisms that could stunt ASWJ’s freedom of movement and allow counterinsurgency forces to capitalize on any maritime-related strategic mistakes made by the group. In considering political and/or military assistance, SADC could leverage the precedent set several years ago under the umbrella of Operation Copper to extrapolate lessons learned and best practices for use in countering ASWJ at sea. The Regional Maritime Information Fusion Centre in Madagascar could assist in coordinating these efforts by providing actors with maritime-related intelligence and real-time information, while maritime capacity assistance programs and other partners in the region could lend further operational support via coastal patrols.
ASWJ is increasingly threatening regional security. In October 2020, the group launched its first incursions into the Mtwara region of southern Tanzania, where it targeted civilians and military infrastructure and criticized Tanzanian president John Magufuli. Foreign fighters are also believed to be present in the group, hailing from Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya (among other states), prompting concerns among regional actors.29, 30, 31, 32 While more intelligence is needed to ascertain the extent of this situation, the presence of foreign fighters from neighboring countries has the potential to increase the duration of conflict and the intensity of violence against
civilians, and prompt tactical innovation.33 Economically, ASWJ’s ongoing occupation of Mocímboa da Praia’s port, a key logistics supply hub, and expanding attacks in Cabo Delgado threaten the liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry in Palma and the Afungi Peninsula. While Mozambique has the most to lose from a stall in these projects, the investment and presence of international corporations (e.g., Exxon Mobil and Total) puts external actors on high alert. These concerns are valid; on December 7, ASWJ carried out a two-day occupation of Mute, a village located 12 miles from the Afungi Peninsula.34
Multiple actors and multilateral institutions including South Africa, Spain, Portugal, the European Union and SADC have offered varying types of assistance to the Mozambican government and the people of Cabo Delgado. Most recently, the US Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Ambassador Nathan Sales, pledged $42 million to socioeconomic and humanitarian projects in Cabo Delgado. While that is acceptable to Maputo, offers of landbased military assistance (outside the procurement of assets) have been largely rejected; President Nyusi is insistent that ASWJ is under control and that external forces are neither necessary nor welcome in Cabo Delgado
at this time. In terms of the maritime, aside from public reports that Japan is donating $1.9 million in assets to Mozambican maritime enforcement authorities, it is unclear whether maritime security has been privately or discussed with Maputo.35
ASWJ is growing in both its capacity and capabilities, and continues to pose a formidable maritime threat. In light of the group’s use of the sea to facilitate some of its activities on land, maritime security operations can serve as a low-hanging fruit, and a crucial entry point for bilateral, regional, or international actors seeking a sustainable solution to the crisis. Conversely, if the maritime dimensions of the insurgency continue to be neglected in the short term, we could see more intractable issues arise in the long term