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Targeting the leaders of the Mozambique insurgency

Two years after the US designated “ISIS-Mozambique” as a terrorist organization and named Abu Yasir Hassan as its leader, there are no indications that the leadership has been seriously impacted

An announcement from Islamic State of the death of a senior member of the insurgency in Mozambique, Mustafa al-Tanzani, in April 2023

April 2023 saw unconfirmed reports of a change in the leadership structure of the insurgency. It also saw  the designation by the European Union on 24 April, of Abu Yasir Hassan, and Bonomade Machude Omar, widely known as Ibn Omar, as individuals subject to sanctions for terrorist activity, and of “ISIS-Mozambique” as an organization subject to such sanctions. This came over two years after the designation of “ISIS-Mozambique” as a terrorist organization by the United States government, and of Abu Yasir Hassan as its leader, and over 18 months after Bonomade Machude Omar was identified as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist.” In the time since the United States’ initial designations, there has been some success in pushing back, and containing the insurgency, but there are no indications that the leadership has been seriously impacted. Designations, while demonstrative of intent, may have little impact bearing in mind apparent leadership structure and practice, and support systems.

This piece is from the Cabo Ligado Monthly: April 2023
Cabo Ligado Monthly: April 2023 — Cabo Ligado
Cabo Ligado — or ‘connected cape’ — is a conflict observatory established by ACLED, Zitamar News, and MediaFax to monitor political violence in Mozambique.

Such designations express confidence that the leadership has been identified. However, the only insurgent leader for whom there is consistently credible information in the public domain on his identity, likely role, and origins is Bonomade. He is known to have held a prominent position in the movement both pre-2017, and since the start of the conflict. Of other leaders, there has been no shortage of names presented. The Rural Environment Observatory presented profiles of four leaders in August 2021, including Bonomade and Maulana Ali Cassimo. The latter was also the subject of a profile by the Institute for Economic and Social Studies.

The most recent detailed list of leaders was presented by the Center for Democracy and Development (CDD) in October 2022. This lists a total of 18 leaders, or senior figures identified by SAMIM, active in September 2022, and spread over Nangade, Muidumbe, and Macomia districts. Ibn Omar is mentioned as being based in Muidumbe at the time. The name Abu Yasir Hassan does not appear. However, a name listed as one of his aliases by the EU, Sheikh Hassan, does appear on that list. The name Sheikh Hassan was not presented by the US as a known alias. Sources close to SAMIM say that the Sheikh Hassan identified by SAMIM was killed sometime between October 2022 and February 2023.

Also dead is Mustafa al-Tanzani, whose martyrdom was announced by IS on 12 April. CDD listed a Mustafa as a leader in Macomia district in October 2022, but it is not known if they are the same person. A report circulating on social media from 20 April claimed that following his death, a new hierarchy was in place. It listed Ulanga, as a spiritual leader, Farido as chief commander, and Abu Suraka/Ibn Omar as chief of operations. Three base commanders were also listed: Abu Faizal in Nkonga, Sheikh Nguvu in the Mussuri base in Muidumbe, and Sheikh Mamudo as the Falluja base commander in Macomia. This report cannot be confirmed but is consistent with a known structure of base commanders operating in a flat command structure which may help explain the group’s resilience and tactical coherence.

Given his name, Ulanga is likely Tanzanian – the name is common in the country’s Morogoro region. Other leaders are thought to be Mozambican. This is to be expected, and does not preclude continued international support, even if limited. The most striking evidence of likely external support is enhanced IED capacity. IEDs that struck the BDF in Muidumbe district twice in March, are more sophisticated than those used in the past, and more consistent in their production. The Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team of the United Nations noted in its February 2023 report that IEDs in use from July to December 2023 had likely been developed with external technical assistance. The recent technical enhancements suggest this has continued.

The sanctions announced by the US and the EU may have a limited impact. Both orders freeze the assets of the individuals and entities named, and prohibit US and EU citizens and entities from funding them. The measures themselves will have little if any impact given that funding comes from the region, and the two individuals are quite unlikely to have assets in the US or the EU. Actions taken by states in the region are likely to have a greater impact.

Tanzania’s National Risk Assessment of last year, focusing on money laundering and terrorist financing, is instructive in this regard. Firstly, in order to become compliant with Financial Action Task Force (FATF) requirements, Tanzania has recently amended its Prevention of Terrorism Act to criminalize the financing of travel by “terrorists.” The report also notes the challenges in tackling financing when increasingly so much of it is through “self-funding from legitimate sources,” referring to mobile phone transactions, and bank transactions.

Tanzania’s heightened actions on terrorist financing arise from its ‘grey-listing’ by the FATF, or designation as a “jurisdiction under increased monitoring.” Mozambique, too, was on that list, and there are signs that it has kickstarted some reforms.

How news of the sanctions was greeted in insurgent bases in Cabo Delgado is not known. IS’s al-Naba magazine dismissed them in an editorial in its 4 May edition, stating that “Mujahideen do not heed or pay attention to such decisions, because in the sky is their sustenance and what they are promised.“