New jihadist group behind spate of attacks in northern Mozambique

Joaquim Nhamirre, AFP | The village of Naunde on June 13, after it was attacked by Islamists on the night of June 4-5.

Since the end of May, Mozambique’s far northern province of Cabo Delgado has seen a surge in violence perpetrated by a new Islamist group that first came to the fore in October 2017.


Residents of the Muslim-majority Cabo Delgado province have been describing the same situation for several months: Armed men emerge from the forests to wreak havoc on local villages – including looting and decapitation.

Such violence has intensified over recent weeks, prompting around three thousand people to flee Cabo Delgado and leaving 30 people dead since the end of May, according to a provisional count. These killings have been attributed to a jihadist group known as Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah.

The group first appeared in the region in 2014, but stepped up its activities in October 2017 with an attack on a police station and barracks in the city of Mocimboa da Praia, in central Mozambique.

Socio-economic causes of radicalisation

“Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah members tend to be socio-economically marginalised young people, without a decent education or formal employment,” said Sheik Habibe Saide, Joao Pereira and Salvador Forquilha, academics at Mozambique’s Maputo University who have been studying the Islamist group, in an interview with AFP.

These disadvantaged “locals” have been joined by “young immigrants looking for opportunities”, “religious leaders educated abroad” and “local merchants”, the academics added. Members of the Islamist group mark their difference from the country’s mainstream Muslims – who comprise 17 percent of the Mozambican population – with shaved heads, beards and white turbans.

“The birth of Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah is very similar to what was seen with Boko Haram in Nigeria,” commented Éric Morier-Genoud, senior lecturer in African history at Queen’s University Belfast, in an article for news website The Conversation. “It started as a religious sect which transformed into a guerrilla group,” he continued.

The group’s objective seems to be “to impose sharia law, a goal that’s perfectly consistent with their attacks on symbols of the government’s presence”, said Nick Piper, director of the Signal Risk consultancy firm, speaking to AFP. However, Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah has not made any political demands.

Al-Shabaab links

The three Maputo University academics believe that tribal politics have played a significant role in the radicalisation of Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah members. “Most of them are from the Kimwani ethnic group, while President Filipe Nyusi and many prominent political and military figures belong to the Maconde tribe.”

Even though Mozambique’s government has denied this, Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah members have links with the al-Shabaab militant group, many analysts say.

The Somalian jihadist organisation provides some of the funding for the nascent Mozambican group, which mostly comes from the “illegal trade of precious stones, drugs and timber”, observed Alex Vines, head of the Africa Programme at Chatham House think-tank in London, in an interview with AFP.

Dealing with Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah will “require more education, more jobs and better integration of young Muslims – not just a repressive response to stop attacks,” Sheik Habibe Said warned.

Éric Morier-Genoud proffered a similar analysis. “Going for an all-out repression to eradicate the “Islamist threat could radicalise other Muslims and root the problem deeper and more widely,” he added.

That said, some religious figures have accused the Mozambican government of not responding forcefully enough to the threat from Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah.

This article is adapted from the original in French

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