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Transnational jihadism and insurgency in Cabo Delgado

The conflict appears to be an irregular insurgency against the Mozambican state, but it retains close links to global jihad

By Liazzat J. K. Bonate, lead researcher on Cabo Delgado at Norway's Christian Michelsen Institute, and lecturer in African History at the University of the West Indies (UWI), St Augustine in Trinidad and Tobago
First published in the Cabo Ligado Monthly: February 2022

The violent insurgency in the coastal province of Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique began in October 2017, when some young Muslims stormed police stations in the city of Mocímboa da Praia. In 2019, the Islamic State (IS) began claiming responsibility for attacks in Cabo Delgado, and posted a video of the insurgents taking an oath of allegiance to the leader of IS. The conflict appears to be a resistance against the Mozambican state, and an irregular insurgency in a classical sense, with prolonged political-military activity through the use of irregular forces and illegal political organizations. Actions such as guerrilla warfare, terrorism, propaganda, clandestine recruitment, and international networking are designed to weaken the state’s control and its legitimacy. But the allegiance to IS also suggests that the insurgency is linked to transnational jihadism.

Transnational jihadism is a type of violent activism that is inherently “glocal” (global/local), because, although jihadists oppose nation states on the basis of local grievances, they also challenge the international order of Western hegemony. Transnational jihadism has three key elements: 1) it is an ideology based on a radical interpretation of the fundamental sources of Islam; 2) it seizes on local grievances, especially against the state, to trigger an insurgency or channel the existing resistance to its own benefit; and 3) it also resists and rejects the Western-dominated global order. All three of these elements appear to be present in Cabo Delgado, but detailed research is still lacking. The affiliation of the insurgents with IS indicates that they met the criteria expected by that organization. As Candland, Finck, and Ingram describe, the IS propaganda organs showed that they were accepted and Cabo Delgado was formally incorporated into IS’s Central African Province.

Transnational groups like IS emerged from Islamist ideologies, which attempt to articulate Islam into a political order. Islamism has roots in Salafism and in a mixture of Wahhabi doctrine and the interpretations of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), who emphasised takfir, and violent jihad. The former is the judgement of other Muslims as non-believers to be excluded from Islam for inadequate adherence to a rigid interpretation of Islam. The war in Afghanistan from 1978 to 1992 brought new ideologues to the fore, such as Ayman Al Zawahiri, a student of Qutb. Al Zawahiri insisted that the “far enemy” — the United States — was equal to the “near enemy,” its local puppets, constituting a system which Al Zawahiri called “veiled colonialism.” The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 gave rise to Al Qaeda in Iraq, which adopted brutal tactics and an extreme position on dealing with non-believers, and which ultimately led to the emergence of IS.

African jihadists have also participated in these global discussions and transnational wars. The Armed Islamic Group (GIA) of Algeria gave birth to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2001, which soon moved into Mali, Niger, and Chad. Somalia’s Harakat Al Shabaab was established in 2006 and the group declared allegiance to Al Qaeda in 2012 — the same year in which the jihadist group Al Hijra from Kenya did so. Boko Haram emerged in 2002 and 2003 in Nigeria and pledged allegiance to IS in 2015. It later split into two, with one wing becoming the Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) in 2016. As Candland, Finck, and Ingram note, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) of Uganda launched in 1995 and became affiliated with IS in 2019.

While global activism changed the nature and scale of local protests, Africa's jihadist movements remain deeply rooted in specific local socio-political settings and fights. To successfully expand in a given region, transnational jihadism requires ideological protagonists, and an enabling and fertile environment for exploring emotional entry points. A landmark early report into the insurgency by Habibe, Forquilha, and Pereira suggested it may have been initiated by Mozambican Salafis, who were influenced by northern Mozambicans schooled in Islamist ideology and transnational jihadism at Islamic universities abroad. They channeled resistance to the older generation of Salafis, and expressed dissatisfaction with the socio-economic situation of the country, in particular in the north. But subsequent studies on the matter provide no clear empirical evidence to support this hypothesis, nor do they unveil insurgents’ discourses and narratives.

It is also not clear whether Cabo Delgado insurgents had been in contact with regional or global jihadist movements before 2017 with the intention of starting an armed revolt. This is certainly a possibility, given that the northern coast of Mozambique has been part of the Swahili and the Indian Ocean commercial and cultural networks for centuries. However, radical jihadist movements were already present in Somalia, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Comoros, and Tanzania by the 1990s, and violent jihad did not emerge in Mozambique before 2017. As Luca Raineri explains, the abuses perpetrated by state authorities —  including allegations of corruption, systematic discrimination, arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial executions, etc. —  are the main drivers of jihadism.

The Cabo Delgado insurgency started in a very specific region and time; it emerged in the gas-producing regions of Mocímboa da Praia, and Afungi in Palma, amid expectations of an economic boom resulting from the construction of a gas processing complex there. In many oil and gas producing societies, violent extremism is generated by real or perceived grievances, such as discrimination, marginalization, injustice, repression, and other abuses by the state and security apparatus, which have exacerbated pre-existing grievances. This is also noticeable in Tanzania, where — similar to Cabo Delgado — there are high rates of unemployment and poverty in Muslim coastal areas. The Muslim communities of both regions likely influence each other’s position regarding the postcolonial state, neoliberalism, and transnational jihadism.

Furthermore, establishing the oil and gas industry in Cabo Delgado has been surrounded by controversy because of alleged patronage and corruption and because of growing inequality. This negative popular perception was further compounded by the belief that most jobs in the new industry appeared to go to foreigners and Mozambicans from the south of the country, rather than young local Muslims, whose hopes for employment and a better future had been dashed. This served as emotional, fertile ground for an insurgency directed not only against the Mozambican state and its allies, but also against the global hegemony of the West — embodied by the extractive companies.

Islamist ideology, in its many forms, remains attractive to some circles of the resistance, who seize, transform and reinterpret it. Even if IS disappears, jihadist ideology will live on and be carried forward by other Islamists. Military assaults to eliminate transnational jihadism, therefore, might not defeat the jihadists. In the case of Cabo Delgado, only the future will reveal the true impact of the continuing military intervention.