Mozambique: Jihadists from abroad pour into Cabo Delgado

Since the beginning of 2024, Mozambique’s northernmost province of Cabo Delgado has been engulfed in a new wave of violence.

Repeated clashes between armed insurgents and security forces have been rife in several coastal towns. As a result, around 100,000 people, including over 61,000 children, were displaced between early February and early March, according to the UN migration agency. 

Mozambique has been fighting the jihadist militants in the north since October 2017

The insurgent group was initially known as Ansar al-Sunna but proclaimed affiliation with the so-called Islamic State in 2019. It is known locally as al-Shabab, whose name comes from the Arabic word for youth but has no relation to Somalia’s al-Shabab militia.

Eyewitnesses repeatedly report brutal violence, beheadings and kidnappings. Around 780,000 people have been displaced because of the seven-year insurgency.

The insurgency erupted in October 2017 when fighters attacked coastal areas in gas-rich northern Cabo Delgado, close to TanzaniaImage: ALFREDO ZUNIGA/AFP/Getty Images

A similar situation is unfolding in the east of Congo (DRC), where flaring rebel violence has displaced around 7 million people.

In February 2024 alone, more than 100,000 people fled clashes between Congolese and Ugandan armies and the M23 rebel group, as well as other armed groups and soldiers believed to be part of the Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC).

Increased cooperation among Islamist terrorist organizations

“What does the war in the eastern Congo have to do with jihadist activities in Cabo Delgado?” Prof. Fernando Cardoso, an Africa specialist at the Autonomous University of Lisbon, asked rhetorically.

“Islamist fighters seem to move freely between both war scenarios,” he told DW.

“When they come under pressure from Congolese or Ugandan government forces in eastern Congo, they simply move to Cabo Delgado, and vice versa.

“Many of these heavily armed jihadist fighters, who are causing havoc in the eastern Congolese provinces of Ituri and North Kivu, have increasingly fled to the northern Mozambican province of Cabo Delgado in recent months,” Cardoso continued.

“There, they pursue their political goals according to a script dictated by the Islamic State (IS). According to IS, Cabo Delgado is supposed to be integrated into a caliphate to be established along the entire Swahili coast.”

Large parts of Cabo Delgado province are unprotected

Fernando Cardoso asserted that Islamist terrorist groups in Africa are becoming increasingly interconnected, making it easier for them to respond to advances by security forces.

Particularly vulnerable areas such as northern Mozambique are left defenseless against heavily armed jihadists, he said.

This thesis is shared by Mozambican security expert Egna Sidumo, who researches conflict resolution for Cabo Delgado at the University of Bergen in Norway.

“More and more fighters of different nationalities — mainly Congolese, Ugandans, and Tanzanians, but also Kenyans and South Africans — are streaming into Cabo Delgado,” Sidumo told DW.

To her, there is only one solution: security forces must also strengthen international cooperation. However, this has so far only been happening to a very limited extent.

“When pressured, Islamist fighters withdraw with their weapons from Congo to neighboring Tanzania,” Sidumo said. “And from there, it’s not far to Mozambique.”

In the hands of Mozambique’s Islamist fighters

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Mozambique must now understand that national solutions to the problem of jihadism are no longer sufficient, Sidumo said. According to her, the fight against Islamism must rather focus on the entire African continent.

The Congolese perspective

“I can confirm that jihadists from eastern Congo are present in large numbers in Mozambique,” said Fiston Mahamba, a Congolese investigative journalist and researcher at Sorbonne University in Paris. 

“Fighters from eastern Congo have been arrested in Mozambique several times.”

Mahamba added that there was reliable information to suggest that members of the Ugandan Islamist Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebel group, which has been entrenched in the impassable border area between Congo and Uganda since 2007, have trained the “Shababs” in Mozambique.  

The ADF, which the United States and Uganda have designated a terrorist group, originated in Uganda in the 1990s but now operates from North Kivu and carries out attacks in both Uganda and in Congo

Mahamba pointed out that Mozambican jihadists have also been caught in Congo.

The various jihadist groups in different regions of the continent have significantly intensified their contacts recently, according to Mahamba, who also works as an investigative journalist and is the co-founder of the French-language fact-checking portal Congo Check.

Mozambique: Five years of violence

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Who’s bankrolling the insurgency?

“They mainly finance themselves through smuggling of drugs and weapons, but also through kidnappings,” Mahamba said. 

“In eastern Congo, they regularly raid villages and loot the crops of cocoa farmers, for example. But there are also money transfers from abroad, for example, from organizations connected to IS: Regularly, emissaries from the Middle East arrive with suitcases full of money, from Syria or Iraq.”

This system is now gradually being transferred to neighboring countries in the region, especially to northern Mozambique, according to Mahamba.

“The influence of Islamist terrorist organizations in eastern Congo on the Mozambican ‘Shabaabs’ is unmistakable,” Mahamba added.

The investigative journalist cited an example: “Most propaganda videos released by the ‘Shabaabs’ in Cabo Delgado are written and spoken in Swahili, a style that is familiar mainly in Uganda and eastern Congo, but also in Tanzania,” Mahamba told DW.

This alone indicates that the influence of these countries on jihadism in Cabo Delgado is very significant and that at least some of the masterminds come from Tanzania, Uganda, or eastern Congo.

Edited by: Keith Walker

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Antonio Cascais