October 4, 2020, is the 4th anniversary of the local jihadist network operating in the Northern region of Mozambique – the gas-rich province of Cabo Delgado with huge operational presence in villages and bushes along the district of Mocimboa da Praia. Locals refer to the armed jihadist group as the Machababos or ‘Alshabaab’, but the ISIS ideologically affiliated group calls itself Al-Sunnah Wa Jama’ah. 

 Why have Jihadists chosen Mocimboa da Praia as their new capital?

 There are varied strategic, ideological, leadership and operational reasons. The Northern region of Mozambique has for the past three years presented an ideal ecosystem for the existence, and violent activities of the ISIS-linked Jihadist group calling itself Al-Sunnah Wa Jama’ah but known locally as the Machababos or ‘Al-Shabaab’.


The complex terrain of deep forest and easy access to the Indian ocean makes the province of Cabo Delgado, and the district of Mocimboa da Praia perfect for any armed group to hide, launch hits and run ambush tactics. It provides an easy escape through the high-sea to neighbouring states and an ideal logistics route for smuggling of illegal goods, arms and ammunitions. It is for the same strategic and operational convenience that the Renamo opposition junta has been operating and surviving predominantly in this region.  


Familiarisation and local leadership support is a key factor for operational survival. The Jihadists benefit from the relationship of a local leader, Abdala Likongo, who is married to Esther John of the local Makunde tribe. – This local affiliation, support and knowledge of the people and the terrain provides the jihadist group with a huge advantage over government forces often deployed from outside the region with very little cultural intelligence and knowledge of the area. The Jihadist often win the hearts and minds of the local population who consider them as brothers, sisters, friends, relatives, neighbours or simply as victims of oppressive state tactics and abandonment.

Social & economic deprivation

For the past 3 years, the Machababos have easily sourced willing recruits from a vulnerable aggrieved local population that sees itself as marginalised, deprived and left to suffer by the central government in Maputo, even though the central government benefits hugely from the rich gas and other mineral resources exploited by multi-nationals in the relatively poorly developed Cabo Delgado region. 


The deplorable and unstable social, political and economic conditions have created a vacuum for organised armed groups to exploit. Dispute and resentment over land acquisition and encroachment from the exploration of Petrol, gas and forestry etc. by multi-nationals and people who migrated from Mueda Plateau and other high population density areas generates bitterness from local tribes, especially the unemployed or under-employed youths. The fighting force of the Machababos is hugely represented by these disgruntled youth from different districts in Cabo Delgado. In Mocimboa da Praia the main group constitutes youths from a local market in Naduadua Neighbourhood and coastal villages like Malindi.

Security response from Maputo

The response to dissent in Cabo Delgado from the central government in Maputo has been purely military- kinetic. The deployment of military and security forces has been disproportionate and mostly heavy-handed tactics – contrary to expectation. This tactic has been partly responsible for further alienating the local population and radicalising many youths towards enlisting themselves into organised armed groups (OAGs) like the Machababos to seek protection and revenge. Sources familiar with the region confirm that as far back as 1995, the response by the local police and state military force, especially in regards to any skirmishes linked to the local Mosque has been characterised by disproportionate force, detention without trial, false accusations, torture and human rights abuse.

Most of the youths arrested were either labelled as terrorists, Jihadist and agents of CIA without any supporting evidence.

There is no surprise that in such a connected context, the district of Mocimboa Da Praia provides a perfect cocktail for ISIS-linked Jihadist and other organised criminal groups to settle, operate and survive government counterinsurgency efforts thus far. 

Will ISIS’ threat intensify if they can capitalise on the natural gas projects in the region?

The ISIS-linked Machababos have strategically located their operational base close to a region that host Palma – Rovuma basin and the Afungi Peninsula -- home to multi-national gas exploration companies like Total, Exxon Mobile with an estimated investment value of 60 billion dollars. The political economy of the region is a key operational incentive if not the most important. 


The recent August 11, 2020, take over, and control of the port of Mocimboa Da Praia is a clear indication of the jihadist ability and intention to benefit from the logistics of gas projects in the region operating via road networks. Besides the potential for the Jihadist to benefit directly from gas-related illegal and legal transactions, the group is likely to resort to kidnapping for ransom of foreign expatriates, local workers and engineers deployed to work in those projects offshore and onshore. 


Engagement in the illegal exploration of rich forestry-related products like Timber and rare animal species is another key viable source of funding for the jihadist group if it becomes difficult to benefit from deep-sea exploration activities. These varied natural funding streams will intensify ISIS stronghold in the region by sustaining its ability to pay recruits and sponsor their violent activities against soft civilian and hard military targets.   

How much of a formidable force is the Al-Sunnah Wa Jama’ah? 

It is difficult to determine the real capacity of any jihadist group due to their clandestine structure and operations but observers of Mozambique’s ‘Al-Shabaab’ believe the Machababos have amassed a considerable fighting force and equipment like satellite phones, network computers and other necessary battlefield gadgets to withstand the Mozambique military forces and private mercenaries in asymmetric warfare tactics. The group demonstrates a semi-organised structure with the capacity and skill to plan locally, launch surprise raids, steal weapons and use complex military-grade arms and ammunitions from local police stations, military post and private security firms in the battlefield.  

Recruitment Base

Similar to Boko Haram leadership recruitment tactics in the early 2000s, in the North Eastern States of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe (BAY States), the leadership of the Machababos are known to recruit and gain operational and ideological support mainly from a huge pool of vulnerable, unemployed and aggrieved local youth Muslim population. This focus on local recruitment eases communication, loyalty, commitment and operational manoeuvres. However, many sources have reported an increase in foreign fighters from neighbouring Kenya, Tanzania who communicate in local Swahili and ‘brown skin’ men possibly hired from Somalia to train local recruits. 


Some sources say the Machababos have about 1000 trained male fighters, but this figure is likely an under-estimate of the real combined fighting force when compared to the massive area of operation and the nature of attacks launched by the Jihadist in different locations simultaneously. The military-style rotation of about 100 fighters in every location for every 24 hours has been observed as a rare tactic demonstrating a huge fighting force and organisation. There is yet no evidence of female frontline combatants – although women have been accused of acting as a support system to the jihadist operations. 

The battlefield experience of some of the Machababos fighters measured in effective planning and execution of attacks against national forces has prompted local sources to believe that a huge and increasing number of fighters come from deserters of the national army. It is believed that the jihadist pay their fighters better than state security forces – a possible narrative used by either pro-jihadist groups to attract more recruits from government forces or by state military personnel to expose the meagre salaries of frontline forces. Unconfirmed reports of State forces killing and searching the pockets of dead Jihadist for valuables and cash has populated social media platforms.

Are they carrying out public executions and corporal punishments?

The Machababos have so far avoided carrying out gruesome public executions of enemy forces to mirror ISIS core early tactic of spreading terror at the peak of its self-declared Caliphate in Raqqa and Mosul. This may be due to the local connections of the group leadership within Mocimboa da Praia – they need the population to trust them more and fear them less – public executions will reverse that objective. 

However, State forces and suspected spies have been captured and beheaded by the jihadist group to send a warning message -- while women have been the subject of targeted kidnapping. Sources say the jihadist keep the ‘beautiful’ women as sex slaves, referring to them as ‘Pasta’ while women who are not favoured are labelled as ‘Mapira or Sorgum’ and are sent for hard labour in Jihadist owned fields as punishment. 


 Two Brazilian nuns (Sr. Eliane da Costa and Sr. Ines Ramos )from the congregation of St. Joseph Chambery in Mocimboa da Praia were kidnapped for 24 days with no reported harm done to them. They have been liberated and returned to Brazil, where they are receiving medical and psychological support.

Have they started to impose Jihadist laws in the region? 

The prerequisite to impose any jihadist laws on the local population is the ability to exert full control and dominance within a specific location other than isolated villages living in ungoverned spaces that have never experienced any form of state control. 

This is the 4th year of active violence in the region, and the ISIS-linked Jihadists are yet to demonstrate enough capacity and control to enable them to impose and police their jihadist laws on the local population. There is yet no evidence of local Sharia courts set up by the Machababos for trials. But there is growing concern that the Jihadist are collecting local taxes from mining firms albeit not organised. 

Sources believe that one firm that has fallen victim to jihadist exploitation is the Montepuez ruby mining company. The open-pit precious gemstone firm has previously (2019) paid an out of court settlement of about $7.8 million to community members residing close to the mining field in Mozambique for alleged human rights abuses. Even though Jihadists have no known presence in the Montepuez region, the firm is an easy target for Jihadist. 

At the moment, the Machababos are focusing on holding pockets of strategic locations in and around the district of Mocimboa da Praia to deny government forces free access -- but short of administering any huge territory like ISIS core did when it took over Mosul and Raqqa between 2014-2015.  

Could this be the base for a new caliphate or Can African military forces crush them?


The ISIS-linked jihadist group operating in the district of Mocimboa da Praia need the support of the local population and full control of the territory to convince ISIS core of any potential of a newfound jihadist Caliphate in South-East Africa. – The Jihadists are far from this position. 

A crushing defeat depends on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the government counterinsurgency strategy. Might is not necessarily the right approach in asymmetric warfare. A successful strategy needs to be comprehensive, bottom top, multi-faceted and involve the local population, regional (East and South Africa community) as well as international support for civil-military stakeholder engagement. 


The current preference by Maputo for help and support towards overwhelming military force is likely to be counter-productive and unsustainable in the ecosystem in which the ISIS-linked Jihadist have chosen to operate. The jihadist mastery of the social and cultural settings, deep forest and complex terrain makes a military victory unlikely and costly.

If the underlying push and pull factors of land disputes, health, trade and equitable distribution of wealth are not addressed, the use of force will eventually be a redundant tactic, and ordinary civilians will pay the ultimate blood price.

About The Author

David Otto is the Director for Stepped In – Step Out UK Ltd and a Counter Terrorism and Organised Crime Expert. He is a Certified Anti -Terrorism Specialist (CAS), a Certified Master Anti -Terrorism Specialist (CMAS) and a programme trainer with the Anti -Terrorism Accreditation Board (ATAB). Twitter @ottotgs



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