In the shadow of several headline-grabbing insurgent movements operating across Africa from Mali to Somalia, northern Mozambique is in the grip of a low level but rapidly worsening jihadist insurgency.

The group launched itself onto the jihadist scene on October 5 of last year, with a coordinated attack by an armed group of more than thirty well-trained fighters. The insurgents seized control of the town of Mocímba da Praia in the northern province of Cabo Delgado after attacking three police stations and looting arms and ammunition from the police.

The attack took many by surprise. The provincial Islamic Council of Cabo Delgado, however, claim they have been warning authorities about the growing threat for at least five years.

During their brief occupation of the town, the attackers denounced western education and state-sponsored health care, declaring that Islam forbids its adherents from paying taxes to, and thus condoning, the secular state.

The men asserted themselves as members of al Shabaab, which means “the Youth” and is the name of east Africa’s most prominent home-grown insurgent group, based in Somalia. It is unclear if the Mozambican group considers itself an offshoot of or merely sympathetic with the Somalian iteration.

The promulgation of such beliefs, however, and the desire to establish Sharia in place of the secular state, indicates that this Mozambican al Shabaab is inspired if not directly supported by other international jihadist movements. Reports that at least one of its leaders trained in Somalia corroborate this.

Perhaps encouraged by its October 5 debut, the group has expanded its operations. On October 21, insurgents clashed with police in the fishing village of Maluku, about 30 km from Mocímboa da Praia. The following day, a skirmish took place near Columbe, a small town near a facility owned by the U.S.-based Anadarko Petroleum Corporation. And on November 29, armed insurgents attacked the towns of Mitumbate and Maculo, destroying a church, killing two, and wounding dozens.

That month, the Mozambican government began, somewhat belatedly, to take action. On November 24, the government ordered the shuttering of three mosques situated in the towns of Cariaco, Alto Gigone, and Chiuba. The mosques were associated with extremist Islamist elements, and congregants were known to be supporters of the Mozambican al Shabaab, which is also becoming known by the moniker Swahili Sunna.

The provincial Islamic Council once again informed the media that they had made multiple complaints about the mosques over the years but had been ignored until the insurgency began to gain traction.

On December 4, the Mozambican government named Jafar Alawi and the Somali-trained Nuro Adremane as the leaders of the insurgency. Some Mozambican media report that a Gambian Imam named Musa is also a leader of the insurgency.

At the tail end of 2017, the government launched its first counterattack. On December 29, Mozambican army paratroopers carried out an assault on the town of Mitumbate, believed to be a stronghold of the insurgents, killing some 50 people and taking another 200 prisoner. Women and children were among those killed.

Like other regional insurgencies, including Somalia’s al Shabaab and, across the continent, Nigeria’s Boko Haram, the group’s message of achieving justice through the establishment of an Islamic state resonates with local residents, particularly youths, who have struggled to contend with a lack of economic and social opportunity.

Cabo Delgado is rich in resources from petroleum to gemstones, and in recent years has been the focus of considerable investments in infrastructure to support extractive industries. A March 25 report by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies links the violent dissident version of Islam driving the insurgency to regional poverty, pointing out that locals who lose their land to expropriation by foreign timber and mining companies are easy targets for radical Imams looking to recruit foot soldiers for their insurgency.

Although the Mozambican government claims to have a hold on the situation, the group has undoubtedly gained a foothold in the region, and attacks have continued in recent months. On January 13, men fired into a village market in Olumbi in the Palma District of Cabo Delgado, killing 5. In March, insurgents burned homes in the village of Chitolo, killing ten, and attacked a Puma service station near the town of Dondo. Earlier this month, on April 15, armed insurgents attacked the town of Ncumbi, just south of Palma, killing and wounding an unknown number of residents.

And the group appears to be attracting recruits. On the same day as the attack on the Olumbi market, Mozambican police arrested 24 men travelling in a bus from Nacala, in Nampula Province, to Caba Delgado. The men are assumed to have been traveling to join the group.

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