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Experts discuss the Islamic insurgency in Northern Mozambique

On May 15th, a panel of experts hosted a webinar in which they discussed the ongoing Islamic insurgency led by Ansar al-Sunna in the Cabo Delgado province of Mozambique. In attendance were Ms. Martina Perino and Dr. Gregory Pirio, as well as Professor Hashem Mekki who moderated the panel.

Ms. Martina Perino, originally from Mozambique and Italy, is the Program Manager for the Great Lakes and Southern Africa at the International Republican Institute. She has 10 years of democracy and governance experience in Africa and Europe, having worked in Zambia as the Governance and Social sectors Program Manager at the EU Delegation.  She has also been an election observer in Mozambique, DR Congo, Zambia, Kosovo, and Albania. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics and a Master’s in International Development.

Dr. Gregory Pirio is an experienced researcher on political, social, and religious issues. He holds a Master’s degree in African Studies and a Ph.D. in African History from UCLA. His dissertation focused on the political economy of Mozambique and Angola. As a consultant to The Strategic Trade Advisory Corporation, Dr. Pirio has produced studies on civil wars in West Africa and their impact on the politics and economy of the region. He is held in high regard as a Subject Matter Expert on African affairs by the U.S. military, having completed a major study for them on Islamic radical groups in East Africa.

Professor Hashem Mekki teaches Arabic Language at The Institute of World Politics. He is also the owner of Bridge Language Solutions, which provides translation, interpretation, and teaching services in the Washington, D.C. area and the founder of Kele Global, a non-profit organization promoting social issues in Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan.

To start the event, Ms. Perino gave a brief history of Mozambique since it gained independence from Portugal in 1975. The most relevant events were the discovery of natural gas off the Cabo Delgado coast in 2011 and rubies in Cabo Delgado proper in 2009. This should have led to renewed economic activity, but instead, these issues helped foment the Islamic insurgency currently going on in Cabo Delgado.

Dr. Pirio provided the history of the Islamic group called Ansar al-Sunna. He noted that the insurgency has gone through three distinct phases:

  1. Salafist Social Welfare Phase – a phase in which the demands of the group were based on developing local conditions in a non-violent manner
  2. Violent Revenge Phase
  3. Caliphate Phase – a phase in which the group shifted from violence towards a more “hearts and minds” approach and created “liberated” zones

At its core, Dr. Pirio argues that the insurgency is rooted in distrust of the Mozambican government. Locals in Northern Mozambique are often distrustful of ruling elites from the capital, Maputo, which is some 1,000 miles from Cabo Delgado.

One key factor behind this distrust is that locals do not see the benefits of living in a region that is rich in natural resources. The government has given concessions to large international corporations to extract the gas and rubies, yet the supposed benefits have not manifested for the locals. Furthermore, many locals have been displaced to make way for these projects. Dr. Pirio noted that many of the recruits to Ansar al-Sunna were, in fact, those very same displaced young men.

Cabo Delgado has a large Muslim population. But it is only relatively recently that Salafist mosques have begun to emerge. Numerous Mozambicans traveled to Afghanistan to help in the war against the USSR and, on their return to Mozambique, proceeded to radicalize mosques.

Furthermore, many young men gain scholarships to study in Saudi Arabia and bring back with them, to Mozambique, a Salafist view that sees Islam as a political tool. These Salafist mosques are different from the traditional local Sufi mosques of the region. It is important to note that these mosques also provide welfare services such as food distribution, which was vital to the first phase of the insurgency.

It was not until October 2017 that these groups became violent. The evidence shows that the first recruits came from Montepuez, where most ruby mines are. This is important, as Dr. Pirio argues that African Islamist groups turn violent when they can develop a narrative of revenge, in this instance against the government and international corporations that have displaced countless locals.

Ansar al-Sunna has moved away from random violent acts towards more operational strategies such as the occupations of towns and the establishment of a caliphate. Seemingly, this is very much a local effort. It is unclear if much of this insurgency derives from foreign training, if any.

Government forces have been engaging Ansar al-Sunna, but locals cannot often tell the difference between government forces and Ansar al-Sunna violence, as both do similar damage. Importantly, the Mozambican military has a poor human rights record.

On a regional level, Zimbabwean and Tanzanian troops have gathered on their respective borders with Mozambique due to concerns of spillover violence. Many regional players are keen to avoid the regionalization of the conflict since the regions that border Mozambique tend to be economically lucrative.

Ms. Perino highlighted the important role of the media in fighting the insurgency. Mozambican journalists have been trying to raise awareness of the issue, but many journalists have been arrested without trial in Mozambique over the past few years. The media can play a crucial role in bringing this conflict to light, and recently Human Rights Watch, an international group, has highlighted the violations in Mozambique, bringing with it an international spotlight.

Following the opening discussion, questions were asked by the virtual audience. Ms. Perino and Dr. Pirio noted that in order to quell the violence and unrest in Cabo Delgado, local needs must be met. Consultation with local political parties, civil society, citizens, and media by both the Mozambican government and international groups like corporations invested in Mozambique and the African Union, will build confidence in the government as well as address the underlying issues that have led to the insurgency. Ms. Perino and Dr. Pirio both seemed optimistic that this problem will indeed be solved.

Watch the webinar here

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