“This is a war. But we don’t know who is attacking; we don’t know why we’re fighting.”
Not only did the attack on a police station in northern Mozambique in October 2017 shock people, but it also spread confusion throughout the southern African nation.
What became clear after the fog cleared is that the country is facing a new militant group: Ahlu Sunnah wa Jamaah.
The northernmost province of Cabo Delgado has been hit by violence and the group not only threatens lives, but it also threatens the country’s hopes for prosperity, following a troubled past.
From 1977 to 1992, Mozambique witnessed a devastating civil war that killed nearly one million people and ruined the country’s already poor infrastructure.
The 15-year civil war was fought between the ruling Marxist-Leninist Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) and insurgent forces of the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO) that was backed by anti-communist, white-ruled Rhodesia and Apartheid South Africa.
Although fighting broke out again between the two groups in 2013 and 2016, the peace agreement that ended the deadly civil war managed to survive somehow.
However, this new militant organisation’s attacks could easily disrupt the relative stability that the country has enjoyed after decades of civil war and weak governance.
Who are the militants?
Ahlu Sunnah wa Jamaah is Arabic for “people of the Sunnah community”.
The group is also locally referred to as Al Shabab (The Youth), even though it has no connections with the Somali movement of the same name. It was essentially formed as a religious sect in 2015 by the followers of the late Kenyan cleric Aboud Rogo Mohammed.
‘Blacklisted’ by the US and the UN for allegedly supporting Somalia's Al Shabab militants, Mohammad was shot dead allegedly by Kenyan security forces. After his death, his followers left Kenya and eventually settled in Cabo Delgado.
Reports from the region show that the group has a strict interpretation of Islam with its Salafi creed and challenges the traditional Sufi strain of Islam prevalent in the region. The members of the group allegedly advocate for the establishment of a Sharia state.
But little more is known about if there is an organic connection between the group’s ideological stance and its motivation to prompt violence. Ahlu Sunnah wa Jamaah has divulged little about itself and has not yet made any confirmed public demands.
Jasmine Opperman, Africa director for the Terrorism, Research and Analysis Consortium told TRT World: “The lack of precise information implies that a motivation for attacks remains speculative.’’
Nonetheless, suggestions that the militant group is linked to international terrorist organisations, such as Boko Haram or Al Shabab, remain weak. Opperman makes it clear that there is no evidence of a direct link with any international terrorist groups.
Dr Eric Morier-Genoud from Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, agrees with Opperman. Morier-Genoud told TRT World: “No formal link to any external organisations has been uncovered by anyone.
However, a few experts who endeavour to clear confusion on the underreported militant group, say that the group was born out of local conditions; therefore it has to be analysed within the context of Mozambique.
Cabo Delgado: The province at the centre of the crisis
The group emerged in the northernmost province of Mozambique, Cabo Delgado. Muslims make up 20 percent of the total population of Mozambique but are dominant in Cabo Delgado, representing 58 percent of the local community.
Morier-Genoud points out that there has been a long-standing dissatisfaction of Muslims after independence in 1975, even though they gained representation in the national parliament in 1992.
The only comprehensive and first-hand reporting and research on the matter indicates that there is an ethnic factor to the story. Most residents of the coastal region belong to the Mwani ethnic group, who have been historically discriminated against by the dominant Maconde, the tribe of President Filipe Nyusii.
The discrimination is reflected in the distribution of land in the region since independence. Morier-Genoud says Muslim Mwanis are losing their properties, specifically due to international companies moving into the province after the discovery of massive gas and oil reserves.
The discovery of natural resources in the region raised people’s hopes of a significantly improved regional economy. However, hope was soon replaced by frustration when locals didn’t experience a significant impact on their lives.
Alex Vines, the head of the Africa Programme at Chatham House told TRT World: “The growth of commercial gem mining and now gas investments in the province have exacerbated the situation.”
Opperman brings these dynamics together and posits that the group has easily grown in a region where locals are frustrated by socio-economic exclusion, coupled with ethnic and religious disfranchisement.
“For many of these young people, the group also represents an opportunity to challenge local authorities, an opportunity to build a new social and political order,” said Sheikh Saide Habibe, co-author of the report into ethnicity in the region, echoing Opperman’s views.
Although its capacity is limited for now, analysts warn that the socıo-political conditions that the group has flourished in are extremely similar to Northeastern Nigeria where Boko Haram, the deadliest terrorist organisation in the world, was born.
“It’s similar to how Boko Haram started,” said historian Joao Pereira who was referring to both groups’ strategies to recruit young people who are frustrated by extreme inequality and religious discrimination.
“All the conditions are there for this situation to worsen.”
Nonetheless, Opperman and Morier-Genoud agree that a military response could exacerbate already-existing tensions and the government needs to devise non-military measures.
They emphasised the need for socio-economic development that would provide job opportunities to locals and community, engagement to build trust between different parts of society.
The group remains underreported on and is not fully understood. Conspiracy theories that the group is part of an international terrorist organisation or a part of the smuggling network do nothing but to help rumours outweigh any substantive analysis of the situation.
Despite the widespread confusion and lack of clarity about the group, one fact still stands: the new militant group is a local phenomenon, the outcome of specific political and social dynamics at play in Mozambique.
Even locals are completely confused by the phenomenon.
“This is a war”, says Anastacio Talene Nakupenda who woke up to the sound of gunfire in his village.
“But we don’t know who is attacking; we don’t know why we’re fighting.”