Africa Defense Forum
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Mozambican Terror Has Echoes of Boko Haram


In northern Nigeria and northern Mozambique, two violent extremist groups are separated by thousands of kilometers but connected by certain characteristics.

Both emerged in regions where state security was largely absent and local grievances against the government had grown. Both insurgencies preached the rejection of traditional education in favor of a radical form of Islam. Both movements are funded through the illicit economy. And, in both places, an initial heavy-handed response by the military did not stop attacks and might have helped extremist recruitment.

In Mozambique, Ansar al-Sunna (ASWJ) has been linked to attacks on civilians and security forces in the battle-scarred Cabo Delgado province, where more than 4,000 people have been killed and more than 800,000 have been displaced by violence since 2017.

The group’s tactics — and the challenges they pose — are similar to those used by Boko Haram in Nigeria, according to Theo Neethling, professor of political science at South Africa’s University of the Free State. Boko Haram has wreaked havoc in northern Nigeria since 2002.

“State fragility and governance limitations not only provided fertile ground for the rise of Boko Haram and Ansar al-Sunna. They also prevent the relevant state institutions in Nigeria and Mozambique from solving the problem,” Neethling wrote in The Conversation.

ASWJ gained international attention when the militants seized and terrorized Palma, a strategic port city of 75,000, in an extended battle from late March to early April 2021. The group killed dozens of civilians and Soldiers, displacing tens of thousands and destroying several buildings.

According to Neethling, ASWJ and Boko Haram both “emerged as militant Islamist movements committed to establishing Islamic caliphates in their countries.”

There is no proof of control of ASWJ or Boko Haram by foreign extremist organizations.

“This implies a strong local context and drivers,” Neethling wrote. “But there are clear ideological linkages or sentiments. They both communicate with regional or international jihadist groups.”

The groups also fund their operations illegally. ASWJ is involved in illegal mining and loggingand seizes cash and goods during attacks.

Boko Haram derives income through kidnapping for ransom, bank robberies, collecting taxes and cattle rustling.

Exploiting Limited Security

As Neethling noted, both groups typically operate in poverty-stricken parts of their countries where formal security is limited.

Boko Haram has terrorized large swaths of northern Nigeria since 2009. During that time, more than 35,000 people have been killed and more than 2 million people have fled the country.

Bappa Tambaya, a 57-year-old cattle herder in northern Nigeria was left scarred by shotgun pellets after a suspected Boko Haram attack in March. Tambaya was dozing in the shade of a tree after a long day grazing his cattle when he heard motorcycles approaching. There were no security forces in the area.

Tambaya saw guns and reached for his bow and arrow. He shot several times but did not realize someone was behind him until he heard gunfire and felt a piercing pain in his head. He believed he hit some of the attackers because they fled.

“I lost consciousness after shooting my blessed arrow,” Tambaya, who bears pellet scars on the side of his face, told Nigeria’s HumAngle Media. “I fell to the ground and blood covered me.”

According to Neethling, state fragility and governance limitations provided fertile ground for the rise of ASWJ and Boko Haram.

Those factors “also prevent the relevant state institutions in Nigeria and Mozambique from solving the problem,” wrote Neethling, who argued that an approach that addresses the root causes of the insurgencies is more effective than a military approach.

SADC Extends Mission in Cabo Delgado

Military forces have made gains in Mozambique.

A bilateral military pact with Rwanda and its 2,800 troops has helped stabilize Palma, while the Southern African Development Community Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) and its 1,900 personnel have helped improve the security situation in other parts of Cabo Delgado.

However, renewed violence in June saw at least 53 people killed in six districts across the province. More than 60,000 people, including nearly 33,000 children, fled their homes, according to charity organization Save the Children.

In response, the SADC extended SAMIM for another year, beginning July 16. The aim is to facilitate the safe return of civilians who fled Cabo Delgado’s violence, according to a report by 360 Mozambique.

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