The Rise of Ansar Al Sunna in Mozambique

The terrorist group Ansar Al Sunna, a proclaimed ISIS affiliate operating in East Africa, has been drawing the attention of the world with some recent violent insurgency attacks in the Cabo Delgado Province, Mozambique. The growing influence and power of the Ansar Al Sunna poses increasing challenges to the Mozambican government. The recent attack in Palma, home to $60bn in liquafied natural gas (LNG) and significant foreign investment, has drastically increased the stakes for both Ansar Al Sunna and the Government of Mozambique.


Figure 1. Map of Mozambique. Credit: Institution Nacional de Estatistica.

Ansar Al Sunna, previously known as Ahlu Sunna WA-Jamo (ASWJ), was founded in 2008 by followers of Sheikh Aboud Rogo, a Kenya based extremist known for supporting Al-Shabaab in its insurgency within Somalia. Following Sheikh Rogo’s death in 2012, many of his followers moved to Northern Mozambique and started off, initially, as a non-violent Islamist organization willing to enforce and incorporate a stricter sharia law in the Cabo Delgado province. In 2017, the group made a clear statement by attacking police stations in Mocimboa da Praia, and the rapid response police vehicles as well, stealing equipment and supplies in both instances. Since then, attacks on government installations have become more frequent, together with extremely violent executions, as well as brutality towards the local community, where reports of beheadings and livestock theft became a weekly occurrence. In the summer of 2019, the group pledged alliance to ISIS and became part of The Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP).


The drive toward radicalization that Ansar Al Sunna underwent has become a point of study in the terrorism literature. Certain factors, such as poverty, unemployment, economic inequality, political marginalization, and government abuse characterize countries riddled with extremism. Government forces in Mozambique have carried out vicious attacks against civilians accused of collaborating with or supporting the insurgency. The military and police have committed extrajudicial executions, acts of torture and other ill-treatment, and have mutilated bodies.


Strategically, Ansar Al Sunna may target the northern coast of the country because the Maritime enforcement capacity of Mozambique is severely limited. With a score of 31 in the ‘stable seas maritime security index’, Mozambique is the 4th lowest in East and Southern Africa. Countries with a high maritime enforcement capacity can successfully conduct maritime interdiction operations and patrol their coastal areas more effectively against criminal activities.


A weak maritime enforcement capacity, instead, emboldens terrorist organizations like Ansar Al Sunna both directly and indirectly, because it facilitates illicit trade that organizations might use for potential business opportunities. Indeed, the world's largest heroin trafficking route is from Pakistan to South Africa, and Mozambique being a key transit point empowers Ansar Al Sunna to benefit from the illicit drug trade that runs through their jurisdiction of northern Mozambique. They can, therefore, enforce levies and taxes on heroin and any other illicit product directed to the market.


It is difficult to understand the precise motive behind the attacks as the group has remained silent, with no reasoning for their attacks, brutality, or overall objectives. As a result, it is difficult to understand the group's motivations.


Furthermore, the extreme brutality of their attacks on civilians begs the question of whether the group is interested in any close ties with the communities they work in. Reports and studies have found that there are commercial and religious ties to Tanzania; links to Al-Shabaab and other terrorist organizations in Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and the Great Lakes region; and business, religious, and cultural relationships with individuals and organizations in Saudi Arabia, Libya, Sudan and Algeria.


The future outcome of the war against the insurgency of Ansar Al Sunna depends on whether the government is going to change tactics, moving to a less heavy-handed approach, as this has been ineffective in their campaign against the insurgency in Cabo Delgado. The use of foreign private military companies, such as Russia’s Wagner group, have only escalated the frustrations of locals, with reports of abuse by security forces rampant. The focus should rather shift to the population of Cabo Delgado, listening to the grievances made by communities and providing better healthcare, education and employment opportunities to the poorest province in Mozambique. Perhaps closing domestic maritime security gaps could aid in the disruption of potential funding and business opportunities for terrorism in illicit trade and drug trafficking. With current foreign investment in the North at a tipping point, it is time for the Government of Mozambique to reassess their options before the opportunity for economic growth through foreign investment disappears, mostly because of the lack of effective control of the province of Cabo Delgado, its community and the insurgency.