Small Wars Journal

Jihadism in Mozambique: The enablers of extremist sustainability

Tue, 10/20/2020 - 4:41pm

Jihadism in Mozambique: The enablers of extremist sustainability

Dr. Peter K. Forster



Violent extremism often emerges from a convergence of openings some created by government mismanagement and others arising from popularly embraced grievances. While all the factors are often difficult to identify, these openings breed the highly sought after instability desired by criminal and terrorist organizations.  By their nature, terrorist organizations exploit opportunities to seek recruits, generate resources, and take advantage of safe havens.  However, a group’s sustainability in a region is more complex and encompasses variables that influence its independence of action. In Mozambique, Ansar al-Sunna wa Jama’ah, (aka Al-Sunna wa Jama’ah) is benefiting from a number of drivers that has allowed it to grow an insurgency in the Cabo Delgado region since 2017. Failure to address the drivers will result in a sustainable and resilient organization that will continue to threaten Mozambique’s stability and potentially increase the threats regionally. 

Ansar al-Sunna (AaS) benefits from internal and external enablers that promote its sustainability and resilience and thus creates a challenge for Mozambique’s government and a threat to the private industry seeking to develop the natural resources in the Cabo Delgado region.  However, some fundamental questions that impact sustainability and resilient remain unanswered and will be addressed in this paper:

  • AaS is an evolving organization that is moving beyond a marriage of convenience among criminally and ideologically motivated gangs that makes it more resilient.
  • AaS leadership impacts its potential for increased organizational sustainability; however, is not well developed providing opportunities for disruption. 
  • The grievances embraced by AaS are sufficiently local or regional to establish an operational presence that yields recruits, finances, and training although the extent of their sustainability remains unclear.
  • Operational capabilities are improving in terms planning, execution, and lethality.
  • The presence of ISIS fighters and AaS’s affiliate status is the primary external accelerator towards the group’s improved sustainability and resiliency.

This paper explores the trajectory of the emerging jihadi presence in Mozambique from the identified start of the insurgency in 2017 through May 2020. It also provides an assessment of counterterrorism approaches and opportunities. A successful counterterrorism policy will deny AaS an opportunity to become sustainable and resilient. To analyze this problem, this study identifies key internal sustainability variables -- organizational status, messaging which encompasses ideological basis as well as grievances; leadership; operations (financing, recruitment, training, and attacks), and external factors – and assesses them in the context of improving extremist organization’s efficacy. It approaches the problem from an analytic deconstruction perspective of open source information, corroborating aggregate data, and fusing it with other information to form an analytic paradigm. It offers a definition of the variables that comprise sustainability then proceeds to examine how these variables are manifested in AaS. Within this context, the paper uses the hypotheses to analyze the extent to which AaS may or may not achieve sustainability based upon the defined criteria.  It concludes policy recommendations aimed at mitigating AaS’s development.

In summation, defeating AaS requires an understanding of its capabilities and intents as well as the development of counterterrorism strategy that addresses the threats posed by AaS while recognizing the vulnerabilities of Mozambique’s government in its struggle against AaS.  AaS is evolving as an organization with improved capabilities. However, its resilience is ambiguous. Opportunities still exist to implement an effective counterterrorism strategy that will erode its capability but whether the capacity or will do so remains unclear.


The Islamic insurgency in the northern Cabo Delgado region of Mozambique feeds upon the region’s relative isolation from the rest of the country, a large disenfranchised Muslim population, extreme poverty, and marginalized economic development that embraces illicit activities.[1] The discovery of significant gas reserves in the Rovuma Basin in Cabo Delgado in 2010 spurred infrastructure expenditures, land expropriations, and human rights abuses.[2] These factors have served to alienate the local population and allowed insurgents to exploit already existing economic disparity.  Second, the area’s traditional role as a transit route from East Africa to South Africa makes it attractive to external criminal and extremist groups. Faced with ineffective security forces and poor border security with Tanzania, the region has a high level of smuggling.[3] Third, the region continues to suffer from government mismanagement and lack of transparency that exacerbates the instability. The government has had difficulty maintaining sustainable physical linkage with the north which contributes to its isolation.  The military has been accused of arbitrary arrests, intimidation, ill-treatment and murder.[4] Although alleged, the reports’ credibility are enhanced by the government banning journalist from the region. Finally, government mismanagement is epitomized by a banking system that is vulnerable to money laundering which facilitates drug and other illicit trade.[5]

A growing jihadi ideological influence, finances acquired from illicit trade, and a perceived grievance against a corrupt government and inept religious establishment created the foundation of a violent extremist organization. In 2013, al-Shabab Mozambique, named for the region’s poorly educated youthful (i.e. al-Shabab) street traders in Mocimboa da Praia, emerged.  Not visibly connected to Somalia’s jihadi insurgency, by 2015, al-Shabab Mozambique had adopted Islamic fundamentalism and embraced smuggling, human trafficking, and established religious networks.[6] External connections accelerated Al-Shabab Mozambique’s, now called AaS, radicalization.  It preached radical Islam and paid to send young men to Tanzania, Kenya, and Somalia for military and ideological training while seeking weaponry.[7] Since the start of violence in October 2017, Mozambique has experience 775 disruptive events causing 1455 fatalities.[8] Mozambique’s economic malaise, corruption, ineffective yet unaccountable security services, and governmental opaqueness established an environment that breeds violent extremism and continues to sustain a radical movement. 


Sustainability is the center of gravity for extremist groups.  A center of gravity refers to the epicenter of power and will towards which all energies should be directed.[9] Assessing a violent extremist group’s sustainability requires identifying the drivers of group development and resilience. At the core of the process is organizational status which is tied to network development and maintenance of operational presence. According to Gina Ligon, an organization has boundaries between members and non-members, shared goals, and collaborates towards those goals.[10]  For example, Al Qaeda’s continued longevity along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border resulted from its established network and operational presence that enhanced organizational legitimacy and resilience.[11] Leadership that reflects both command and control and resilience is the second component of sustainability. Al Qaeda’s continued relevance, albeit at somewhat reduced levels, is indicative of the importance of consistency and depth in leadership. A third contributor to sustainability is ideology or the ability to convince others to embrace a particular world view.[12] Often in new insurgencies, grievances are intensified by narrative and ultimately linked to an ideology that mobilizes action. In this environment, violent ideology may be amplified by collaborators or partners or through counter-productive government policies that serve to accelerate radical mobilization. Fourth, the capacity to implement organizational intentions with growing sophistication indicates organizational viability and resilience. These operational capabilities include increasing the number of fighters and coordinating attacks which signify the availability of organizational foundations such as leadership, recruits and finances.[13] Like ideology, operational capability may mirror strong leadership but also may be impacted by external accelerators.  For example, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) frustrated by a perceived lack of activity by the parent-organization, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, collaborated with others to conduct attacks with the goal of enhancing the IJU’s sustainability.[14]  Thus, the final variable to be considered is external accelerators.

Using a modified version of the Comprehensive Threat Assessment Table[15], this study analyzes AaS’s status as an organization, its leadership competency, the accelerators of radicalization – grievances and ideology; the evolution of operational capability , and external factors.  It uses a low, medium, and high scale to assess these sustainability factors. While presented individually, the sustainability variables need to be combined as a package to be useful.  The sustainability matrix (figure 1) visualizes the framework for presenting individual analytic results that also will be collated to provide a rationale for future trends.


Sustainability Drivers





Organizational Status















Operational Capability





External Accelerators





Figure 1: Sustainability Matrix


Organizational Status

Developing counterstrategies to combat AaS require a determination of whether it is an organization, a movement, or a conglomerate of disenchanted individuals.  Information on AaS’s actual organizational structure is difficult to acquire and leads to speculation that multiple factions are vying for primacy. In 2018, Sunguta West characterized AaS as having an autonomous structure of small cells with loose links.[16] Such a structure implies a limited organizational command, but other variables need to be examined. Re-visiting Ligon’s organizational criteria – membership, shared goals, and collaboration towards implementing goals -- are instructive in framing a more complete assessment of the organizational structure.  The differentiation between members and non-members in AaS appears to be along sectarian lines. The group is comprised of mainly young Muslims from northern Mozambique, although Tanzanians and others from central Africa, including radical clerics, have been identified among its members.[17] [18] This is not unanticipated considering the region’s porous borders, legal and illicit trade, and ease of movement.  “Members” adopt similar dress and customs denoting a sense of affiliation. White turbans, shaven head, long beards, and black shorts demonstrate some conformity but cannot be considered a uniform per se. Uniforms result both in “status differences” and increased lethality.[19] Overall, AaS appears to be a hybrid group comprised of homegrown individuals and foreign members that may result in frictions that have yet to reach an apex. As discussed later, these circumstances are dynamic and may be impacted by AaS’s relationship with the Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP).

There is a newly emerging sense of purpose and operational direction within AaS.  By mid-2018, AaS was an emerging religious organization. Certain leaders directed anger at the existing religious establishment and the government.[20] Reminiscent of Boko Haram, their narrative preached radical Islam in combination with opposition to western institutions, government authority and religious freedom.[21] These proclamations should be considered a foundation towards a shared ideological goal. Notwithstanding, there is little data to support the emergence of a leadership council.  Instead, organizational it appears still to be conglomerate of factions.

Two other variables to consider in organizational structure is financing and recruitment.  Illicit operations such as smuggling and trafficking and potential connections with organized criminal groups accounted for as much as $33 million in income in 2018.[22] This amount also undoubtedly included drug money.  Aided by corrupt banking processes, Cabo Delgado is a transit area for hashish, heroin, and cocaine.[23] Routes extend to South Asia and South Africa and are operated by Tanzanians, Chinese, and Vietnamese lending credence to the hypothesized organized crime connections.  More recently, AaS has adopted ISIS’s strategy of robbing banks and soliciting online contributions. These techniques indicate a more sophisticated organization that may also find ways to tax populations in areas under their control and even exploit natural resource sales. The adaptation of an evolving financial model give credence to the theory that an organization is developing  

Mozambique’s ongoing domestic conflict has created an environment where political violence is inherent. Proximity to continuous conflict is a driver to violent recruitment and the lines may blur if combined with shared goals.[24] For the AaS, recruitment has followed traditional methods such as family and personal connections, radical mosques, and other pull factors such as group-based identity, notoriety, grievances, and economic gain. Members of the marginalized Kimwani ethnic group have been targeted for recruitment for example.[25] It also has resorted to forced recruitment of youth.[26] Actual numbers are difficult to ascertain but continued violent government repression and growing operational success will attract new recruits. Although based in the Democratic Republic of Congo, ISCAP’s designation as the destination for ISIS’s African recruits also may augment AaS ranks albeit not without potentially igniting internal conflict.

Finally, collaborative tactics as defined by targets and attacks, to be examined in depth under operational capability, remain embryonic. Until June 2019, there was limited evidence of a meaningful strategy beyond terrorizing the local population, which is more reflective of criminal enterprises. Since then, targeting is more focused on government infrastructure and personnel. Attacking police, for example, serves the dual purpose of prompting a repressive government reaction and demonstrating that the government cannot provide security. These shifts led to an assessment that organizational status is improving but still low. Furthermore, due to the lack of any apparent centralized command, it is reasonable to assume factions still exist in AaS. This means that the organization’s resilience is not well developed and thus is susceptible to disintegration from its own internal friction and/or an appropriate application of “sticks and carrots”.  The challenge is identifying how to effectively implement these strategies.   


Sustainability is directly tied to quality, resilience, and duration of leadership. Researchers define leaders as being either charismatic reflecting positivity, future orientation, and community drive; ideologues, who are authoritarian and speak of past greatness; or pragmatists, who look at improvement and rationality.[27] According to a study from START at the University of Maryland, operational influence is significantly more prevalent among leaders than strategic influence.[28] START’s assessment provides two relevant questions for analyzing AaS’s leadership structure: who is directing operations and what is the linkage between operational influence and military experience. Applying these concepts, a meaningful AaS leader needs to articulate an ideology that grasps the attention of individuals which is essential to attracting new recruits. Second, they must effectively identify potential allies and opponents as well as fence sitters or those who remain undecided on whether to participate in the movement. Third, leaders need to establish personal legitimacy and operational tempo by demonstrating a religious or military pedigree, and preferably both.  Both are considered important legitimacy factors in the Islamic extremist world and enhance operational influence by contributing experience or justification for action.   

Considering the insurgency’s longevity, the AaS’s leadership is not as developed as might be expected and thus represents a potentially exploitable vulnerability. In the early stages of the insurgency, at least eight individuals were identified as potential leaders.  These suspected leaders had religious, military, and commercial ties outside of Mozambique and even reportedly avoided dialog with other Muslims.[29] No evidence was found that this group coalesced to form a leadership council. Furthermore, few of the identified variables contributing to successfully leadership appear to be present in AaS.  Goals were fragmented and interests potentially deflected by other external interests. Since 2018, the speculation surrounding who was in charge is stabilizing. According to local mainstream imams, two individuals, a Gambian called Musa and a Mozambican named Nuro Adremane have emerged.[30] Musa is reported to be an aggressive recruiter who seeks to transform the local grievances into a revenge narrative.[31]  If he is able to intertwine his grievance narrative with jihadism, he may prove to be an ideological driver for AaS.  Adremane allegedly trained with al-Shabaab in Somalia providing status as a military commander as well as some ideological credentials.[32] However, an ideological foreigner versus militaristic local offers a combustible situation.  Still, if the two can avoid self-destructive friction, a union may serve AaS well.  To build a resilient organization, they must build a nascent leadership group to provide leadership depth. Today, no structured leadership group appeasr to exist.  As a result, this study assesses that factions have leaders but the coalescence among these leaders is limited.  Finally, the ISCAP relationship is an important undefined variable. The current AaS leaders and potentially other “wannabes” face significant challenges.  Are they able to embrace the ISCAP mantel? Is ISCAP willing to accept them or will ISCAP seek to identify their own protégé and shura council? What is the tipping point in the relationship between ISCAP and other leaders.  As a result of numerous ambiguities and unknowns, leadership as a sustainability factor is low and right now static.   


Ideology is the underpinning of a resilient extremist movement. Connecting ideology with a community of interest around a grievance creates a powerful mobilization factor for extremist groups. As previously noted, Musa has been able to articulate a violent response to the community’s grievance against the Mozambican government.  The narrative is being increasingly united with radical Islam. Although Mozambique’s Islamic tradition has been one of Sufism, a more radical and directed Islam has emerged. Aboud Rogo Mohammed, a Kenyan cleric who preached in Swahili, is believed to be the inspirational leader.[33] Killed in 2012 in Kenya, his message was spread through videos and followers who fled to Tanzania.[34]  Uninhibited by border restrictions, traveling spiritual leaders, ex-pats who studied in Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States, and immigrants from Somalia spread radical Islam into Mozambique. Jihadism took root in families and radical mosques in Mocimoba da Praia.[35]  

Creating a message is only part of the ideological formation process. Message distribution and amplification also are critical. As John Horgan points out, radicalization is fomented by engagement with peers, authority figures, and society.[36] An ideology truly becomes embedded when it shapes discussions and actions. By May 2017, jihadism was growing in northern Mozambique but faced challenges from the traditional Sufi outlook and hostility from the government affiliates. Warned of mounting extremism by Cabo Delgado’s pro-government Islamic Council, the government responded with arrests in Quissanga and the closure of radical mosques in Mocimboa da Praia.[37] Rather than suppressing extremism, these actions increased the appeal of the nascent movement attracting new recruits and lending a sectarian veneer to the emerging conflict.

Leader’s personality also plays an important role in disseminating the message. In the case of Mozambique, Musa, the Gambian quasi-leader of AaS, successfully amplification of a vengeful narrative of victimization, humiliation, and moral superiority against the government generally and the security forces specifically lay a foundation for exploitation by jihadism.[38] Nothing in his strategy is unique to AaS. By embracing local grievances as their own, offering a different path to disenfranchised youth, and terrorizing those who object, Musa’s approach reflects the strategies of al Qaeda, the Islamic State (ISIS), and Boko Haram.   In February 2018, a video promoting the imposition of Sharia including opposing secular- and co-education and banning hospital treatment across Mozambique fanned the flames of jihadism.[39]

Through increased media propaganda, co-opting local grievances, discrediting the government, and even the distribution of food to a captured village, jihadism’s viability is growing.[40] In May 2020, the BBC acquired a video of a local militant leader proclaiming the desire for an Islamic government while excoriating the government for corruption and humiliation of the poor.[41] Today, the local grievances have converged with the jihadism and become part of a broader regional and global movement.

Notwithstanding, the extent to which AaS has embraced the global jihad as a matter of convenience versus zealot converts remains unclear. The presence of ISCAP will continue to amplify a violent jihadi ideology targeting the government and companies seeking to develop the natural reserves in Mozambique. Considering the current situation, the ideological variable may be rated as a medium risk but one that has growing appeal and resilience as the insurgent’s operational capability improves and government counter-strategies flounder.

Operational Capability

Operational capability may be used as a measure organizational sophistication which contributes to resilience. According to another START study, the lethality of attacks, the number and lethality of attacks on hard targets and successful attacks on hard targets reflects a more sophisticated organization.[42] Hard targets generally are considered government facilities and critical infrastructure and police and military personnel. Discriminate target selection means that the group is implementing a risk analysis process. For example, attacking a hard target not only causes a government direct pain but provides the group with ancillary benefits such as increased reputation that may assist with fundraising or recruitment. It also may erode the population’s faith in the government’s ability to protect. In the risk process, these factors must be weighed against costs and countervailing risks of the operation. What is the cost of acquiring and possibly losing the necessary expertise and equipment to plan and execute such an attack?  What is the organizational impact of failure since hard target attacks have a higher failure rate?  What is likely to be the government’s response to a successful attack? The same calculation process may be used in soft target attacks, the overall risks are less as are the rewards for success. Regardless, the process reflects organizational maturation.

AaS’s initial attacks in October 2017 targeted various police station in Mocimbao de Praia and resulted in the militants seizing arms and ammunition before the government forces pushed them back.[43] This successful hard target attack was followed by additional reports of incidents targeting contractors working in gas industry, and military and police personnel. AaS’s initial operations indicate the emergence of a viable organization; however, a subsequently quiet six month period reduced the perception of threat. When attacks resumed in mid-2018, the sophistication of the earlier ones was lost.  Rather than continuing to target government and economic infrastructure, civilians became the most prevalent target. Of the 34 identified attacks linked to militants from May 2018 through May 2019, only one targeted a government facility, killing a palace guard, and two attacked Andarko gas and oil workers. [44] Thus, rather than reflecting the highly organized group that perpetrated the October 2017, the attackers seemed to be marauding bans of brigands who burned houses and beheaded villagers with machetes. In spite of AaS uploading a video of 10 beheaded bodies in June 2018, analysts continued to view it as small loosely linked cells.[45] Their weapons were unsophisticated but the terrorizing tactics were reminiscent of ISIS strategy to coerce and intimidate local populations in Syria. But, there is no evidence that this was AaS’s strategy. In May 2019, a small shift occurred when voter registration facilities were attacked.[46] While these attacks sought to disrupt voter registration, they were viewed as opportunistic rather than strategic but directly challenged the government.

In early June 2019, the ISCAP announced AaS was its affiliate. On June 4, attacks on administrative posts in Dacia and Quionga killed 18. For the first time, ISCAP claimed responsibility for actions in Mozambique. ISCAP also claimed they had repelled an army counter-assault in Methubi, a claim denied by the police.[47] Although subsequent attacks initially took place throughout the region, they still lacked a clear strategy in spite of ISCAP involvement. Violence continued to primarily target rural communities burning houses and vehicles, killing livestock, kidnapping and beheading villagers.[48] However, by September 2019, enhanced tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) contributed to growing threat and increased lethality.

Targeting infrastructure in larger population centers, coordinated multiple vectors attacks on the same venue and simultaneously different locations and improved weaponry and mobility, indicate improved tactical command, and operational training and resources.  Prior to May 2019, the largest single fatality count was 15 from a vehicle attack in January 2019.[49] Since then there have seven attacks with more fatalities including April 7, 2020, when 52 were killed in an ISCAP claimed attack in the Muidumbe District.[50] Violence will exceed 2019’s 663 fatalities, as 401 were reported between January and May in 2020. Notwithstanding, the greater concern is the changes in group activity or “strategic development,” as ACLED characterizes it.[51]

Measured in terms of tactical capability, targeting, and weapon use, the AaS’s operational development is improving. There is increased targeting of the Mozambique Armed Forces (MAF) and skirmishes with their Russian mercenaries, the Wagner Group. In many respects, October 2019 was a watershed. During that month, AaS clashed directly with the Wagner Group killing two, albeit losing 30 militants, but recovered to ambush an MAF unit days later killing 20.[52]  In November and December, seven and nine MAF members as well as 28 and 50 civilians killed, respectively.[53]

In 2020, the situation continues to deteriorate. The AaS, or at least a faction with it, appears to be more closely tactically and strategically align with ISCAP. AaS has seized more significant towns and security installations which provide weapons, money, and food.  On March 23, 2020, twenty were killed when AaS launched a coordinated air and sea attack on the port city of Mocimboa da Praia, with 28,000 inhabitants the largest city attacked thus far.  Here, ISIS’s black flag was raised, even though ISCAP did not claim responsibility for the attack.[54]  Operations also reflect an ISIS’s influence.  Three banks were robbed, prisoners were freed from jail, and barges owned by the oil and gas conglomerate were destroyed in the March attack.[55]  On March 25, the district police state in the port city of Quissanga, with a population greater than 40,000, was attack.  Here again, the ISIS flag appeared and video from both the March 23 and 25 attacks were posted on ISIS’s Amaq website.[56] On April 7, Muidumbe, in central Cabo Delgado, was struck. Prior to the attack, locals were warned in local dialects to stay inside.[57] Government buildings, hospitals, and banks were targeted and 52 were killed including the beheadings of those who refused to join the group.[58] The disparity among claims of responsibility supports previous analysis that multiple AaS factions are active but also indicates a growing ISCAP influence, if not command and control. ISCAP has ramped up its media operations through postings on Amaq and Al-Naba, which talked about overrunning military posts, attacking Christian homes and disrupting electrical transmission and pone service. [59]  Another posted contained a video of the downing of a private military contractor’s helicopter.[60]  ISCAP videos and comments released in May 2020 have openly discussed its role in Mozambique and claimed AaS as “caliphate soldiers.”[61]

Commentary by the insurgents is not the only sign of its increasing strength. Mozambique’s Information Agency (Agencia de Infomacao de Mocmbique aka AIM) admitted that eleven villages in seven regions were attacked from May 5 – 12, 2020.[62] Another AIM account reported that the MAF had “surprised” and destroyed a “motorized terrorist unit.[63] While some skepticism may surround the number of jihadi casualties in this report, increased AIM focus reflects growing government awareness of the insurgency. Second, the “motorized terrorist unit” is intriguing. This unit represents a level of organizational structure not previously mentioned. It may be assumed that the motorcycles provided reconnaissance for the main mechanized unit (the vehicles were unidentified) which was supported by a tanker truck to facilitate mobility and range. Although the relationship with ISCAP is difficult to establish, ISCAP is gradually assuming a predominant role by defining the enemy and portraying Mozambique as a new front in the global jihad. The videos and physical presence provide evidence of a growing relationship regardless if factional differences exist.  Furthermore, ISCAP’s ultimate ability to transplant local leadership should not be ignored

Another significant part of understanding organizational sustainability is what is missing in the TTPs. The AaS has not used ramming or encouraged suicide knife attacks such as those seen in Europe and elsewhere.  The absence of these low tech methods may be explained by an inadequate supply of vehicles and the inability to mobilize individuals to action beyond the AaS’s primary area of operation. A second explanation is that there is no longer a need to resort to unsophisticated attacks.  Analyzing the data available, operationally capability is rated at a medium level and improving. ISCAP’s embracing of AaS, albeit not yet complete, is a watershed event.  Coordinated air and sea attacks, better focused attacks on infrastructure, and the introduction of automatic weapons and support systems indicate increased sophistication in planning and improved resources positively impacting operational capability. This development represents a growing threat to energy sector operations as well as provincial governability. However, the differences evident in the claim of responsibility for the March 25 versus the April 7 attack indicate that the home-grown Islamist’s insurgency has not been completely subsumed by ISCAP.  This offers a potential opportunity for counterterrorism exploitation but also is time sensitive as ISCAP’s presence is growing.

External Accelerators

External accelerators refer to those drivers that increase the speed and effectiveness of insurgent groups but are external to the group. In the case of Mozambique, ISCAP’s emergence in the region and the failure of government counterterrorism strategy and operations are converging external accelerators.  Although it was announced in late 2019 that AaS was added to ISCAP, it remains ambiguous whether this relationship is a partnership or takeover. However as previously discussed since mid-2019, ISCAP presence has positively influenced AaS operational TTPs, strengthened its jihadi ideology, and improved its use of a media.  

According to the UN, ISCAP numbers about 2000 fighters from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique and other primarily east African countries.[64] The ability to attract foreign fighters from across East Africa reflects the region’s political, social, and economic frictions and lays the groundwork for a broader jihadi insurgency. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that ISCAP is seeking an operational base in southeastern Africa that ultimately links operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique similar to its on-going efforts in western Africa. This is supported by the appearance of online video combining the areas and reports that ISCAP’s Mozambique operations are being commanded and planned from the DRC.[65]

The government of Mozambique is the second external accelerator.  The government’s prolonged conflict with Mozambique National Resistance (RENAMO) has contributed to instability, poor governance, and abuse in the country.  Strategically, the government’s pre-occupation with RENAMO has deflected attention from emerging threat in the north.  Furthermore, this conflict has negatively impacted operational and tactical response. Rooted in its conflict with, and more recently, efforts at disarming and demobilizing RENAMO, Mozambique’s security forces allegedly have long been involved in mass killing, sexual violence, disappearances, torture and destruction of property.[66] The failure to investigate alleged abuses resulted in a 2018 Human Rights Watch report labeling the security services as having “impunity for abuse” has inflamed the problem.[67] The abuses continue. As recently as April 2020, security services were accused of firing on fishermen over a nine day period.[68] These abuses have directly contributed to the security forces becoming targets of loathing and hatred among the Muslim population of Cabo Delgado which has been effectively translated into the violent narrative and recruitment message.  

Starting in 2019, the government’s recruitment of foreign military contractors such as the Wagner Group and subsequently the Dyck Advisory Group (DAG) to assist in establishing stability and protecting the energy industry has further eroded government legitimacy. These actions reflect Maputo’s lack of interest in and probably incapability of providing security in Cabo Delgado. In the eyes of the local population, Wagner and DAG are mere extensions of a corrupt government. They worsen the situation precisely because their mission demonstrates insensitivity to realities on the ground.  Furthermore, direct engagements by these forces with the AaS have had mixed results. The DAG, a South African group which replaced the Wagner Group that was discharged for being ineffective, attacked the militants from the air on April 9, 2020 in Mbau which caused collateral damage.[69] Such actions offer a propaganda bonanza to an insurgency that is improving it social media capabiities. The contributions of external accelerators to AaS’s sustainability is judged to be high and improving but not yet hopeless.  The government has it within its power to change its approach although it will require assistance to develop a new approach. The presence of ISCAP is attracting global attention which could include resources to improve counterterrorism capabilities particularly as it threatens the energy resources.


Figure 2 provides a summary of the assessments of the sustainability factors based upon an analysis of available data.  The figure is followed by additional conclusions and suggested counterstrategies.


Sustainability Factors





Organizational Status















Operational Capability





External Accelerators





Figure 2


Mozambique’s situation is troublesome when assessing AaS’s organizational sustainability. Although the AaS is judged to have a low organizational status, indicators of maturation beyond a “marriage of convenience” among gangs exist.  Also the positives of ISCAP’s presence from an insurgency perspective currently are outweighing the negative. The result is improved sustainability and resilience. Within Cabo Delgado, AaS has launched attacks in nine of its 16 districts; however, specific territory does not appear to be held by the AaS.[70] The ability to take and hold territory implies a sufficient organizational structure to impose some governance, a capability AaS appears to currently lack. If the insurgents demonstrate an ability to control districts, this would change the organizational assessment.  From a counterterrorism perspective, the status of the organization is not well understood. Intelligence is needed to determine AaS and AaS-ISCAP’s structures

In this study, leadership is assessed to be one of the weaknesses confronting the AaS and offers a counterterrorism target. No single leader or leadership council has emerged which makes the organization susceptible to splintering as differences over goals intensify. Ironically, leadership also is an area in which the introduction of ISCAP influence is a detriment. As seen in other circumstances, friction can easily emerge between home-grown insurgents and foreign fighters. In Mozambique, this friction already exists. Exacerbated by clash between Salafi-jihadism and Sufism as well as foreign versus domestic militants, little intervention may be needed to inflame a volatile situation. While a passive approach allowing internal dissension to render the group ineffective is low cost, it also presents uncertain results and takes time. A more active counterterrorism operations including disinformation, counter-narrative information, and targeted eliminations can increase confusion, expand existing cleavages, and accelerate the possibility of group break-up.

The challenge from a counterterrorism perspective is implementing a policy directed at the multiple variables of sustainability. The first step is assessing how to disrupt the AaS-ISCAP connection. A multi-pronged approach that focuses simultaneously on attacking the linkages between the organizations and denying access to northern Mozambique to foreign fighters will weaken ISCAP’s influence.  Identifying and eliminating the key conduits between AaS and ISCAP will interrupt communications. Enhanced border security will reduce the flow of fighters, money, and weapons.  However without outside advice and capacity building, mapping the social networks and transit routes may be beyond Mozambique’s capacity. Second, when considering the government’s inability to avoid collateral damage, the costs of forceful intervention are potentially high. Similarly, exploiting cleavages is limited by the security services lack of local legitimacy.  Still, interrupting linkages and identifying cleavages with a particular focus on understanding the differences in leadership perspectives has some merit.  It also requires developing a positive relationship with local populations who have suffered at the hands of the AaS.  These strategies require enhanced intelligence and an injection of resources to securitize and stabilize selected areas then to build governmental integrity. It is unclear that Maputo has the will, capability, or resources to accomplish this objective and thus desperately needs capacity building programs.

If leadership and organizational status are the weak links in terms of sustainability, ideological foundation and operational capability are both seen to be improving contributors to organizational sustainability. Cabo Delgado’s regional focus, promulgated primarily through trade and migration, has fueled an Islamic identity. Ideologically, Musa has been able to mobilize that identity through the articulation of the local grievance that has attracted recruits. Additionally, ISCAP’s presence has accelerated the evolution of an Islamic identity into jihadism by raising awareness of AaS’s cause locally and connecting it to the global jihadi movement. The ideological factor is rated as medium because questions remain about the extent to which it is ideology that is attracting recruits and the effectiveness of growing media campaign.  However, it is improving because with the exception of the government closing a few radical mosques, AaS and ISCAP dominate the idea space. Countering ideology ultimately rests in a communication strategy based upon an effective counter-narrative as well as a means to minimize the social media’s penetration into vulnerable communities. There is no effective counter-narrative. The government also lacks the intelligence to target specific ideological hotspots and the capability to technically disrupt the communications.

Improved operational capability is the easiest measure to demonstrate empirically. Violence and targeting of government facilities is increasing.  Again, ISCAP presence has changed this dynamic. Starting on March 23, 2020, with the temporary capture Mocimboa da Praia and continuing with the March 25, April 7, May 5, May 11, attacks attributed to ISCAP targeted hospitals, banks, prisons, UN storage facilities, and multiple military facilities.[71] In terms of casualties inflicted, hard and symbolic targets destroyed, weapon acquisition, and propaganda exploitation, the results are judged to be successful. 

Counter-finance and counter-recruitment operations are essential to combating the growing operational capability.  They require improved border security, security cooperation and information sharing, and hardening targets to disrupt operational capabilities. The initial phase of any counterstrategy is the identification of the threat, an assessment of potential vulnerabilities, and the likelihood of success of interdiction. In Mozambique, smuggling, drug trafficking, online donations, and bank robbery are the jihadist primary funding vehicles.  Disruption of the financial network is achieved by mapping the network, tracking and regulating money flows including foreign exchanges, and eliminating generating and account receivable nodes for online and physical money sources. Such operations demand expertise, technical capabilities, and regional cooperation. Bank robbery is mitigated by improved physical security. Notwithstanding, a major hindrance to a successful counter-finance campaign is Mozambique’s corrupt banking system that facilitates the drug trade.[72] Although not a member of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), Mozambique does officially participate in the Eastern and Southern Africa Anti-Money Laundering Group (ESAAMLG). According to the ESAAMLG August 2017 – July 2018 report, Mozambique had not undertaken the government reform needed to comply with international counter-terrorism counter-financing standards, improved reporting mechanisms to improve counter-operations, and has made “no sufficient progress” on regulation and supervision.[73]    

Counter-recruitment needs to keep foreign terrorist fighters out and reduce the attractiveness of AaS domestically. Again, border security and regional cooperation are essential.  Domestically, much of the recruitment occurs through more traditional methods -- family and friends and targeted recruitment of disenfranchised groups.  Online recruitment remains limited which is in the government’s favor. However, long periods of violence in Mozambique have provided “proximity to conflict” which tends to converge vigilantes and extremists when interests match.[74] This provides a pool of recruits motivated by adventurism, criminality, and violence as well as those embracing violent Islam.  The range of motivations offers a vulnerability to be exploited. The life cycle for adventurism, criminal opportunity, and even attraction to violence is shorter and more susceptible to forceful counter-measures than ideological motivation. These actions are needed now to avoid deepening ideological commitment among AaS’s members.

In conclusion, the bad news is that with the exception of static leadership, all sustainability areas assessed are improving. Of particular concern to the deteriorating situation is the tactical and strategic influences of external accelerators, specifically, ISCAP and others who provide weapons, training, media resources and an ideological foundation.  The region’s energy resources promise to continue to motivate ISCAP’s interests as ISIS seeks to establish roots in southeast Africa. However, it is the protection of access to these resources that may motivate outside countries to become involved. The lack of an effective government counter-terrorism strategy offers limited optimism. It is unclear that MAF and other security sector components are effective at tactical disruptive techniques let alone able to implement a more comprehensive strategy. The MAF apparently lacks operational planning. For example, it should assess local climate conditions to determine how weather matches up with its capabilities. Does the dry season enhance the effectiveness of air operations, a capability where the MAF holds an advantage? Additionally, the presence of the Wagner Group and DAG and the general population’s negative perception of the security services, imply that neither law enforcement nor the military may be capable of an effective counterterrorism strategy. Finally, improved regional security cooperation is critical to effective counterterrorism operations.  At the current time, Tanzania and South Africa are best prepared to lead a regional coalition. Beyond ESAAMLG, Tanzania’s cooperation with other states is minimal, although in August 2020, it ostensibly did undertake some border operations.  South Africa also has recently provided some counterterrorism assistance but the level and longevity, particularly in the time of COVID, is not clear. Ultimately, border security, regional cooperation and information sharing are limited. A cooperative capacity building strategy on combating violent extremism is needed but inter-governmental frictions inhibit progress.  Whether AaS can or wants to expand beyond Cabo Delgado is unclear but it may be assumed that ISCAP will seek to exploit more geographic vulnerabilities.  Operationally, AaS has the capability to disrupt energy production. Either the disruption of energy development activities or a move further south may result in greater regional and international interest in confronting the group but a coherent counter-strategy seems to be far off. As time passes, AaS is becoming more sustainable and resilient and thus a growing threat.





[2] G. Pirio, R. Pittelli, and Y. Adam. (2018). The Emergence of Violent Extremism in Northern Mozambique. Africa Center for Strategic Studies. March 25, 2018. Accessed @

[3] “How Mozambique smuggling barons nurtured jihadists” BBC 6/1/18.

[4] Mozambique Events of 2019. Human Rights Watch. Accessed @

[5] The World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency (hereafter CIA Factbook) accessed @

[6] Ibid. & Fredson Guilengue. (2020). Banditry, terror or revolt? Unpacking the violent conflict in Cabo Delgado. Daily Maverick. May 19. Accessed @

[7] “How Mozambique smuggling barons nurtured jihadists” BBC 6/1/18.

[8] The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). Accessed @

[9] Forster P.K, Kruczek G.J., Sullivan, A. (2020) Decapitating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force and the Implications for US Policy in Iraq and Beyond.  Small Wars Journal June 16 2020 @

[10]  Ligon, G.S., Simi, P., Harms, M., & Harris. D.J. (2013)” Putting the “O” in VEOs: What makes an organization?” Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict, 6, 110-134.

[12] Srenshaw M. (1988) The Subjective Reality of the Terrorist: Ideological and Psychological Factors in Terrorism. In: Slater R.O., Stohl M. (eds) Current Perspectives on International Terrorism. Palgrave Macmillan, London accessed @

[13] Shannon Ebrahim. (2020). The AU must act against Mozambique’s very real IS threat. IOL. April 19. Accessed @

[15] Specter A., Kelton I., Shays C. (1999). Combating Terrorism: Need for Comprehensive Threat and Risk Assessment of Chemical and Biological Attacks. Report prepared for US General Accounting Office. National Security and International Affairs Division, Washington DC. @

[17] Habibe S., Fork S., Pereira. (2019). Islamic Radicalization in Northern Mozambique.  IESE No.17/2019. ISBN 978-989-8464-43-9.

[18] “How Mozambique smuggling barons nurtured jihadists” BBC 6/1/18.

[19] Monica Pizzo. (2020). Formalization within a terrorist group increases capacity for lethal violence. National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (START). April 30. Accessed @

[20] “How Mozambique smuggling barons nurtured jihadists” BBC 6/1/18.

[23]  Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[36] John Horgan. 2008 618 (1): 80–94. Accessed @

[38] Ibid.

[44] Overall there were 350 events which included 230 categorized as civilian. The study tried to determine which of those events were tied to the northern insurgency and assessed from that perspective. The ACLED Dashboard and Crisis Group Database used for statistics and definitions of confrontations. ACLED @ and Tracking Conflict Worldwide, International Crisis Group (ICG) Accessed @

[46] ICG @

[49]ICG @

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] ICG @

[54] Dozens killed in Mozambique for refusing to join terrorists. Deutsche Welle. April 22, 2020. Accessed @

[55] Jason Burke. (2020). Islamist groups kills 52 in ‘cruel and diabolical’ Mozambique massacre. The Guardian accessed @

[56] Mozambique: Is Cabo Delgado the latest Islamic State outpost? BBC (hereafter BBC) May 4, 20202. Accesses @

[57] Ibid.

[60] Mozambique villagers ‘massacred” by Islamist. BBC April 22, 2020 accessed @

[63] According to the report the “unit” was comprised of 3 vehicles, 3motorcycles and a tanker truck. Agencia de Informacao de Mocambique 2020 @

[64] In addition to Mozambique and the DRC, the report lists fighters from Burundi, Chad, Ethiopia, Eriteria, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, Tanzania, and Uganda. United Nations, Security Council, Twenty-fifth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities, S/2020/53.(20 January 2020). Available from

[65] United Nations, Security Council, Twenty-fifth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities, S/2020/53.(20 January 2020). Available from

[66]“The Next One to Die” State Security Force and Renamo Abuses in Mozambique. Human Rights Watch. January 12, 2018. Accessed @

[70] Mozambique Islamist insurgency intensifies. Deutsche Welle March 25, 2020 accessed @

[71] ACLED @ and National Counterterrorism Digest 6-13 May 2020.

[73] First Round Mutual Evaluations – Post Evaluation Progress Report of Mozambique August 2017 – July 2018.ESAAMG. Access @

[74] Jessica Trisko Darden. (2019). Tackling Terrorists’ Exploitation of Youth. American Enterprise Institute. May. Accessed @


Peter Kent Forster

Dr. Forster is a professor emeritus of Security & Risk Analysis in Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST). He continues his work in risk and crisis management, situation awareness, social network analysis, counterterrorism policies and strategies and participates in on-going research projects. Efforts include using simulations and tabletop exercises to improve command and control in counterterrorism and engaging government and civil society in addressing terrorist threats. Dr. Forster is the co-chair of the NATO/OSCE Partnership for Peace Consortium Combating Terrorism Working Group (CTWG), co-editor of NATO’s Counter Terrorism Reference Curriculum and co-course academic director of NATO's Defence Against Terrorism course.




About the Author(s)

Dr. Forster is a professor emeritus of Security & Risk Analysis in Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST). He continues his work in risk and crisis management, situation awareness, social network analysis, counterterrorism policies and strategies and participates in on-going research projects. Efforts include using simulations and tabletop exercises to improve command and control in counterterrorism and engaging government and civil society in addressing terrorist threats. Dr. Forster is the co-chair of the NATO/OSCE Partnership for Peace Consortium Combating Terrorism Working Group (CTWG), co-editor of NATO’s Counter Terrorism Reference Curriculum and co-course academic director of NATO's Defence Against Terrorism course.



Thu, 09/23/2021 - 9:19am

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