March 24, 2021

IntelBrief: ISIS in Mozambique Poses Growing Regional Security Threat

Mozambican flag (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The U.S. has designated ISIS in Mozambique as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) and Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT).
  • There are concerns that the recent U.S. designations could hinder the delivery of critical humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations.
  • U.S. Green Berets are currently training Mozambican marines, but to date, the effort remains modest in scope – although that could change.
  • If ISIS in Mozambique continues to gain momentum, it could evolve into a regional threat and attract foreign fighters from elsewhere in Africa.

In a signal that the Biden administration is growing concerned about the strength of jihadist groups in sub-Saharan Africa, the United States recently designated The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – Mozambique (ISIS-Mozambique) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) under section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The State Department also designated ISIS-Mozambique as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs) under Executive Order 13224 and labeled the organization’s leader Abu Yasir Hassan as an SDGT. Similar treatment was given to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – Democratic Republic of the Congo (ISIS-DRC) as both a FTO and SDGT, and to its leader Seka Musa Baluku as a SDGT. While these groups are distinct entities, they operate under the banner of the Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP). Locally, the Mozambican group is known as Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah, while the DRC affiliate is comprised of factions that were formerly part of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), but now generally present themselves as ISCAP.

The ASJ group in Mozambique forms ISIS’s beachhead along the Swahili coast in southeastern Africa. The militants operate throughout northern Mozambique, including the Cabo Delgado region. They have recently begun launching attacks in the Afungi peninsula, disrupting operations of the French energy corporation Total, which is involved in liquid natural gas (LNG) exploration in the country. The jihadists have also been active throughout Mocimboa da Praia and have attacked transportation and other infrastructure. The most active geographic area where the insurgency operates is mired in poverty, with high levels of illiteracy and egregious corruption. The majority of locals do not benefit from the vast natural resources, including an abundance of mineral and gas resources. There is not enough evidence to claim a causal relationship, but there are concerns that perceptions of increased marginalization and inequality, given the scale of profits from LNG, creates an enabling environment for radicalization and mobilization. There are also some concerns that the recent U.S. designations could hinder the delivery of critical humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations due to resultant limitations on both civil society organizations’ access and engagement in areas controlled by terrorist groups.

In recent weeks, ISIS in Mozambique has drastically reduced its media operations, perhaps as an operational security measure. Since the group has become more prominent — evidenced by the recent designations — its fighters increasingly risk entering the crosshairs of the United States. ISIS-Mozambique is likely seeking to avoid the fate of other ISIS affiliates which have been hampered by U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Toward such U.S. initiatives, the United States currently has Green Berets training Mozambican marines, but the effort to date remains modest. U.S. troops are an obvious upgrade over South African mercenaries, who were hired by the Mozambican government and have been plagued by allegations of human rights abuses. In 2019, Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group deployed to Mozambique but withdrew after suffering a string of casualties.

To date, the insurgency has killed more than 2,500 people and displaced as many as 700,000 civilians. Reports indicate that hundreds of civilians have been beheaded since the conflict began in 2017, including children as young as eleven years old. ISIS in Mozambique is believed to have upwards of 800 fighters, and if it receives increasing support from ISIS core — whether in terms of funding or tactical expertise — it could continue to gain momentum and eventually form a viable threat throughout the region. If the group captures and holds large swaths of territory, it could attract foreign fighters from throughout sub-Saharan Africa to further bolster its ranks. Militants have also staged cross-border attacks into Tanzania, foreshadowing the potential regional threat posed by spillover violence and a growing insurgency.