By Benjamin Harbaugh
On June 6th, 2019, Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi spoke to constituents in the coastal city of Beira. He was there to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the traditional Muslim holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan. Nyusi took the opportunity to address reports of increased violence coming from the northern province of Cabo Delgado. In his speech, the president mentioned Mozambique’s history of religious tolerance and said that, because of this inclusive past, religious violence could not be present in Mozambique. Less than a year later, Nyusi’s claim that religion does not play a role in the rising violence has been proven tragically incorrect.
President Nyusi spoke that day about religious violence in response to a statement put out by ISIS two days earlier claiming responsibility for an attack on security forces. According to a report by the Economist, a poorly-understood sect known as Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamo (ASWJ), translated adherents of the prophetic tradition, came into existence as early as 2008 and is known to have ties with ISIS. The group appears to have been influenced and supported by other extremist groups from East Africa, most notably Tanzania and Congo. ASWJ launched its first attack in 2017 in Mocimboa da Praia, where vast oil reserves worth an estimated $60 billion were discovered in 2010. However, their attacks were infrequent and only somewhat successful. Perhaps because of their limited nature, the role of religion was not well understood in these early attacks.
That all changed by the beginning of 2020. The UN released a statement in February, 2020 that almost three dozen attacks had occurred in just over a month. Since February, the violence has only intensified, with their most audacious attempt occurring at the end of March. On March 23rd, ASWJ attacked and captured Mocimboa da Praia before being repulsed by security forces the following day. These attacks began to show the religious motivation of the insurgents more clearly. After an attack on the district capital of Quissanga, the jihadists filmed a video where they called for Sharia law. In another instance, the attackers demanded the closure of secular schools. ISIS often claims responsibility for these attacks and has even published photos of Mozambican insurgents in their weekly magazine labeling them “soldiers of the caliphate.”
Thankfully, there is still time to address the situation. The local population is known for its tolerance and the ASWJ is still inherently local in its actions even as their link to ISIS grows stronger. For the time being, attacks are likely equal part regional economic grievances and extremist theology. According to a 2016 report by the World Bank, Mozambique has high levels of income inequality that largely benefits cities and overlooks rural areas. Some of these areas have had little government support and face dreadful poverty. The northern province of Cabo Delgado is no exception. Although oil projects are predicted to infuse Mozambique with large sums of cash, locals are justifiably worried that the benefits will accumulate in cities. As the inhabitants of Cabo Delgado are unsupportive of radical Islamist theology, addressing the economic and social concerns of poorer areas would likely undermine efforts to convert Mozambicans to the ASWJ’s brand of religious extremism.
It’s important that measures are taken sooner rather than later. Boko Haram began in a similar fashion, practiced military techniques within two years of forming, and carried out destabilizing attacks soon after. Many analysts see a similar trajectory for ASWJ if authorities don’t act fast. Unfortunately, President Nyusi is dragging his heels. The President took more than three days to react to the jihadist attacks in late March and did not announce any specific measures to combat the ASWJ.
A recent article from the Center for Strategic & International Studies proposes a way forward for the Mozambican government. In the article, the author suggests that Maputo should develop a strategy, increase accountability amongst the security services, and integrate government ministries in their response. While these measures will address the insurgency militarily, the dual factors of religion and inequality cannot be ignored. In order to deny the ASWJ future recruits, the tolerance of the Mozambican people should be highlighted, and the jihadists aberrant theology should be condemned. One thing is for certain—President Nyusi cannot delay any longer. He must recognize the ASWJ as an Islamist terrorist movement and take swift action to his protect people.
Benjamin Harbaugh is a former intern in the Office of International Religious Freedom at the Department of State and a graduate student at The American University in Washington D.C. where he currently studies U.S. foreign policy and security. He is passionate about supporting vulnerable communities around the globe and has worked alongside the persecuted Church in countries such as Cuba, Russia, Vietnam, and more. Engaged in the relationship between government action and religious freedom, Ben believes in the importance of U.S. involvement for Christians around the world. When he isn’t studying, Ben enjoys long-distance running and traveling with his wife.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.