Recent events in northern Mozambique have focused world attention on a crisis that has been several years in the making.Jihadist militants aligned to the Islamic State overran a strategic coastal town in Mozambique’s mineral-rich Cabo Delgado province at the end of March, killing dozens of locals and expatriates, several of them beheaded and burnt.
The attacks on Palma town – and several others before it – have triggered a humanitarian crisis in Cabo Delgado, with more than 700,000 displaced from their homes since October 2017.
They have also drawn world attention to a simmering crisis that has the potential of exploding into a major regional challenge.
The world has watched with interest as Southern African Development Community (SADC) leaders engage in shuttle diplomacy as they seek a solution to the insurgency.
But who are these insurgents who are causing both the Mozambican government and SADC sleepless nights?
They call themselves al-Shabab (Arabic for “young men”), but should not be confused with a group in Somalia that goes by the same name.
The difference between the two is that whereas the Somalia terror group is linked to al Qaeda, the Mozambican outfit has pledged alliance to the rival Islamic State group based in Iraq and Syria, and has adopted the title of Islamic State Central Africa Province.
Mozambique’s al-Shabab is made up of disgruntled young men allegedly unhappy about the skewed distribution of wealth in their region.
Some analysts believe the insurgency’s roots lay in socio-economic grievances, with many locals in Cabo Delgado complaining that they have benefited little from the province’s ruby and gas industries.
“We occupy (the towns) to show that the government of the day is unfair. It humiliates the poor and gives the profit to the bosses,” one militant leader said in a video in 2019.
The man spoke about Islam and his desire for an “Islamic government, not a government of unbelievers”, but he also cited alleged abuses by Mozambique’s military, and repeatedly complained that the government was “unfair”.
Although the attacks in Cabo Delgado are said to have begun in October 2017, it is believed that the existence of this group pre-dates 2017.
According to a study by the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies, local Islamic leaders say the group has existed since 2014, the last year of former Mozambican president Armando Guebuza’s 10-year rule.
The Islamic leaders say the first signs of extremism came to light in 2014 and 2015 in the region’s Mocimboa da Praia district when young people from the local mosques began to rebel against the established mosques and started mosques of their own.
Some members of the group were recruited locally with promises of jobs and scholarships for education.
There are also indications that some of them came from other countries, including Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Cabo Delgado is Mozambique’s northernmost province, bordering Tanzania in the north, Niassa province in the west, Nampula province in the south, and the Indian Ocean in the east.
The insurgents speak local languages as well as Kiswahili and Arabic.
They profess a brand of Islam which is both rejected and denounced by Islamic authorities in the region.