Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP)
Ahl-e-Sunnat wal Jamaat
al-Shabaab in Mozambique
The US Department of State on 10 March 2021 designated the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – Democratic Republic of the Congo (ISIS-DRC) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – Mozambique (ISIS-Mozambique) as Foreign Terrorist Organizations under section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, as amended. The Department also designated ISIS-DRC and ISIS-Mozambique as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs) under Executive Order 13224, while also designating respective leaders of those organizations, Seka Musa Baluku and Abu Yasir Hassan, as SDGTs.
In 2011, natural gas fields valued at approximately $150bn were discovered about 40 kms (30 miles) off the Cabo Delgado coast. Today, Cabo Delgado is home to Africa’s three largest Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) projects: the Mozambique LNG Project (Total, formerly Anadarko) worth $20bn, Coral FLNG Project (ENI and ExxonMobil) worth $4.7bn, and Rovuma LNG Project (ExxonMobil, ENI and CNPC) worth $30bn. And gas is not the only valuable natural resource in the region. Rubies excavated in Cabo Delgado are also selling for millions of dollars. In 2014 alone, rubies from the Montepuez mine sold for $407m.
Amid all these riches, however, the local population of Cabo Delgado is living in poverty. A study conducted by the UN University World Institute for Development Economics Research in 2016 found that 90 percent of households in Mozambique’s northern provinces, including Cabo Delgado, were deprived, while less than 10 percent of households in southern provinces were considered deprived. The wealth gap between the north and the south of the country only grew with the establishment of the large LNG projects in the region, as the profits from these projects benefitted international investors and the Mozambican elite rather than the local population.
The growing inequality led deprived young men from the region to join insurgent groups led by local hardline preachers purporting to fight for justice and equality. As these groups started attacking gas projects and security forces, the Mozambican state and private mining companies responded by increasing military presence in the region.
The initial attacks by insurgents were committed with crude weapons and were very small-scale. But as sophisticated weaponry started making its way to the region in the hands of security forces, this changed very quickly. Insurgents started raiding government facilities and stealing weapons, and they used these weapons to stage more sophisticated and larger-scale attacks. ISIL (ISIS), meanwhile, started claiming that it has strong ties to and control over insurgents in northern Mozambique to show strength as it lost ground in the Middle East.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) announced the launch of the Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP) in April 2019 to promote the presence of ISIS associated elements within Central, East, and Southern Africa. Although ISIS-associated media portray ISCAP as a unified structure, ISIS-DRC and ISIS-Mozambique are distinct groups with distinct origins. The insurgents increased the frequency and scale of their violent attacks in 2020. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), the group carried out more than 570 violent attacks since January 2020.
ISIS-Mozambique, also known as Ansar al-Sunna (and locally as al-Shabaab in Mozambique), among other names, reportedly pledged allegiance to ISIS as early as April 2018, and was acknowledged by ISIS-Core as an affiliate in August 2019. Since October 2017, ISIS-Mozambique, led by Abu Yasir Hassan, has killed more than 1,300 civilians, and it is estimated that more than 2,300 civilians, security force members, and suspected ISIS-Mozambique militants have been killed since the terrorist group began its violent extremist insurgency. The group was responsible for orchestrating a series of large scale and sophisticated attacks resulting in the capture of the strategic port of Mocimboa da Praia, Cabo Delgado Province. ISIS-Mozambique’s attacks have caused the displacement of nearly 670,000 persons within northern Mozambique. Cabo Delgado province has been in the grips of a rebellion fueled by perceived neglect of the region by the national government. Islamist rebels linked to the "Islamic State" group have been exploiting the unrest, carrying out brutal attacks and recruiting disillusioned youth as they try to establish an Islamic caliphate in the region. Mozambique’s army struggled to contain the fighters, who have regularly beaten back the country’s security forces and air support from a private military group to capture and hold key locations during violent raids. Emboldened, the fighters have recently expanded their sphere of operation north into Tanzania, crossing the Rovuma River that marks the border between the two countries to carry out raids on villages in Tanzania’s Mtwara region.
The violence in gas-rich Cabo Delgado began in October 2017 when members of an armed group, which later pledged allegiance to ISIL, attacked police stations in the key port town of Mocimboa da Praia. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) stated in November 2020 that there has been a four-fold increase of displaced people in Cabo Delgado to more than 355,000 from some 88,000 earlier in 2020. By the end of 2020, more than 2,200 people had been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.
Several radical militant groups have been active in Cabo Delgado in recent years, including Ansar al-Sunna, which has been responsible for terror attacks against civilians and government forces in northern Mozambique. The group is known locally as al-Shabab, although they have no known links to the armed group of that name operating in Somalia, and it also goes by Ahlu al-Sunna and Swahili Sunna.Since 2017, militants affiliated with the group have carried out attacks in the Muslim-majority gas-rich region.
The attacks in Cabo Delgado started in 2017 in the small town of Mocimboa da Praia and have now spread to seven districts, or about a third of the province's territory. More than 900 people have been killed, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED). The unrest forced more than 200,000 locals to flee and raised concern among energy giants operating in the gas-rich region.
Mozambique admitted for the first time the presence of ISIL-affiliated fighters in the country amid escalating attacks in the gas-rich Cabo Delgado northern province, according to a statement. The public acknowledgement came on 24 April 2020, just days after police reported a "massacre" of 52 villagers who had refused to be recruited into the ranks of the shadowy group that has terrorised the region's villages and towns for more than two years.
Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP), affiliated with ISIL, had claimed some of the attacks in the region since last June posting images of killed soldiers and seized weapons. In recent weeks, the fighters unmasked themselves, openly declaring their campaign to establish an "Islamist caliphate" in the gas-rich region. They have been scaling up their attacks, seizing government buildings, blocking roads and temporarily hoisting their black-and-white flag over towns and villages across the province.
While Mozambican authorities insisted the security situation in northern Mozambique remained under control, observers believe that government armed forces had failed to provide adequate security. According to the UN, the violence in Cabo Delgado has displaced more than 100,000 people throughout the province.
Since 2017, a largely domestic terrorist group that has aligned itself with ISIS has carried out at least 75 separate attacks in eight northern districts of Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province – Ancuabe, Ibo, Macomia, Meluco, Mocimboa da Praia, Nangade, Palma, and Quissanga. These attacks have led to at least 150 civilian deaths and the reported internal displacement of several thousand citizens.
Locals originally referred to the group as “al-Shabaab” – a name that in local parlance was intended to mean “the youth” and which does not appear to convey a link between this group and the Somali-based group with the same name. Independent local media outlets and academics have begun referring to the group as Ahl-e-Sunnat wal Jamaat, meaning “Followers of the Sunni Tradition and Unity,” the name some group members appear to use to describe themselves.
The group’s leaders have linkages with like-minded terrorist groups in East Africa. In 2018, the terrorist group shifted its focus to small, remote villages in an effort to minimize direct conflict with government security forces. With limited exceptions, the group conducted nearly weekly attacks on rural villages in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province. The attacks varied in intensity and scale, but generally included the use of firearms, edged weapons (e.g. machetes and other metal objects), or arson, and often included the theft of food and other basic supplies. These attacks frequently included beheadings and kidnappings.
On May 20, attackers fired on a passenger bus, killing one. The bus was traveling between Nampula City and Mocimboa da Praia along National Highway 1, the main north-south route running nearly the entire length of Mozambique’s coast.
On May 27, suspected members of the group carried out an attack in the village of Monjane, 45 kilometers south of the regional hub of Palma. Observers reported that a group of five armed men clad in civilian robes with turbans obscuring their faces kidnapped between five and 10 people, including two children. The victims were subsequently found beheaded.
On November 22, terrorists reportedly killed 12 people, including women and children, in Chicuaia Velha. The attackers set fire to as many as 40 homes, with unconfirmed reports that some victims burned to death.
On November 27, a group of suspected terrorists armed with AK-47s and machetes, reportedly killed one civilian and injured another in The group also set fire to 14 informal retail stalls, stealing some goods prior to the arson.
The frequency of attacks, including beheadings, the razing of villages and clashes with security forces, was growing, with around 16 so far in January 2020. South Africa's International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor said that attacks by militants affiliated with the Islamic State in neighboring Mozambique were cause for concern. History has shown that poorer regions are most vulnerable to violent external incursions as material incentives are easily disbursed to attract young people to these negative activities.
Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: On August 3, the Mozambique president announced the approval of additional counterterrorism legislation under a new law, the Legal Regime for Repression and Combating Terrorism. The law adds articles to the penal code that provides for the punishment of anyone committing, planning, or participating in terrorist acts, as well as for those who provide or receive training for terrorist purposes. It also stipulates punishment for individuals who travel or attempt to travel to join a terrorist organization, as well as those who facilitate such travel. An ongoing counterterrorism trial of more than 189 defendants – held in an improvised court in Cabo Delgado and closed to the media – is seen as the first test of the new law. Many of these defendants were later acquitted.
Mozambique lacks a counterterrorism strategy or national action plan, and as a result, the response to terrorist threats has been primarily focused on security and ad hoc. The government reports that in its operations in Cabo Delgado, military units and elements of the national police coordinate through a joint headquarters that de-conflicts government interventions and facilitates the transfer of detainees to police control. A more formalized working group is in development, which would provide more consistent and comprehensive information sharing. On 01 February 2020 Exxon Mobil Corp. and Total asked Mozambique to send more troops to defend their operations in the far north after a string of attacks by Islamic militants. Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado is home to one of the world’s largest gas discoveries in the past decade, and both oil majors are working on massive LNG projects. At that time there were about 500 troops in the region and the companies wanted another 300.
Mozambique and Tanzania signed a memorandum of understanding 23 Nov 2020 to join efforts in the battle against an escalating armed campaign by ISIL-linked fighters in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique’s northernmost province. The agreement, sealed by the two countries’ police forces during the weekend, includes the extradition of 516 fighters from Tanzania to its southern neighbour. Islamist militants attacked several villages in Cabo Delgado province in northern Mozambique, allegedly beheading more than 50 people, state media and police said on 09 November 2020. "They set the houses on fire and then hunted down people who had fled into the woods and began their macabre action," a police officer told a press conference. Witnesses told local media that the militants had driven residents of one village onto a football pitch before murdering them there. The militants also reportedly abducted women and children.
In April 2020, the militants shot dead and beheaded more than 50 youths when they allegedly refused to join them. Islamist insurgents captured a strategic port in the restive province of Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique. The insurgents reportedly took control of the port after a Mozambican naval force defending the vicinity ran out of ammunition. The takeover of the port of Mocimboa da Praia on 12 August 2020 came after five days of fierce clashes between the insurgents and Mozambican security forces. The private South African military unit of the Dyck Advisory Group, which provides air support to the Mozambican government in combating insurgents, tried to join the battle. But its involvement was minimal, due to a helicopter refueling stop in Pemba, Cabo Delgado’s provincial capital.
Since 2017, Islamist militants, some of which are affiliated with the Islamic State terror group, have been carrying out attacks against civilians and Mozambican armed forces. The violence has killed more than 1,000 people and displaced over 210,000 others, according to the United Nations. IS-affiliated media released images showing dead bodies allegedly of Mozambican soldiers, as well as weapons and ammunition seized from the military. In April 2019, IS claimed the so-called Central African Province, known as IS-CAP. Terror attacks carried out by IS-CAP have so far been limited to Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In late March 2020, Mocimboa da Praia and Quissanga, two small towns in the province of Cabo Delgado, were assaulted and besieged by militants reportedly affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) terror group. The militants briefly took control of government buildings within 48 hours and raised their flag in both towns before retreating. Despite leaving Quissanga, the insurgents still control small nearby villages and say they will not leave [as long as] state military forces aren’t present.
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