THE beheading of women and children, among some 40 civilians recently killed by an Islamist sect in northern Mozambique has left the country on the throes of a humanitarian time bomb feared to reach proportions in Nigeria, which is enduring one of the world’s deadliest terrorism catastrophes.
Experts fear the terror by the guerilla movement known as Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah (which translates to “adherents of the prophetic tradition”) in the Cabo Delgado province on the border with Tanzania could as well mean Southern Africa is on the verge of full-blown violent Islamist extremism.
Since mid-May, the insurgency has uprooted over 1 000 Mozambicans from their homes.
Recently, staff at Anadarko, an international oil and gas company, refused to go to work fearing attacks. The United States Embassy also asked its nationals to leave the volatile province immediately.
Security analysts believe the birth of Al-Sunnah in Cabo Delgado dates back to 2013 or early 2014, but it caught wider attention when around 40 gunmen launched well-coordinated simultaneous attacks on three police and military posts in the coastal town of Moimboa da Praia, 70km south of the Tanzania border.
Two police officers and 14 assailants were killed.
There are striking similarities between the Al Sunnah’s and Boko Haram’s modus operandi as well as the conditions under which the militancy has thrived in Nigeria before spilling to neighbouring countries.
While Nigeria, where the Boko Haram has killed an estimated 100 000 people and displacing three million others, is the continent’s biggest oil producer, there have been vast oil and gas discoveries in Mozambique.
“There are economic as well as religious and security issues at play,” said Eric Morier-Genoud, lecturer in African history at Queen’s University, Belfast.
Cabo Delgado is home to 2.3 million people, 58 percent of whom are Muslims. Mozambique’s total Muslim population is put at 18 percent.
“Several factors — social, economic and political — have allowed an Islamist insurgency to develop in the north of Mozambique. Most are local issues rather than the outcome of an international, cross-border conspiracy,” Morier-Genoud said.
There are conspiracies that perhaps the Al-Sunnah is the rebel group-cum-opposition Mozambican National Resistance (Renamo) in disguise or mercenaries deliberately fanning violence to win lucrative contracts to protect the natural gas industry.
Coincidentally, the upsurge in attacks follows the awarding of a $750 million contract for protecting gas fields to a private security consortium with links to a United States private security company and a Mozambique company linked to government intelligence.
“Interpretations have differed widely,” said Institute for Security Studies consultant, Peter Fabricus, who raised the possibility of the terror spilling to Mozambique’s neighbouring countries.
“But the latest attacks seem to be forging a growing consensus that this is indeed an incipient local variant of the sort of violent Islamist extremism seen elsewhere in Africa. Both Mozambique and the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) should be paying more attention,” Fabricus warned.
Morier-Genoud said the birth of Al Sunnah was similar to what was seen with Boko Haram in Nigeria.
“It started as a religious sect which transformed into a guerilla group,” Morier-Genoud said.
Al-Sunnah wa Jama’ah, the professor said, is Arabic for “people of the Sunnah community.”
The group is also known as Al-Shabaab (The Youth), even though it is believed it has no connections with the Somali terror movement of the same name.
It is estimated Al-Sunnah now has between 350 and 1 500 members who are organised in tens of small cells along the coast of northern Mozambique.
Fabricus said research suggests most members of Al-Sunnah are “socially marginalised youths, without formal employment and schooling. They’re largely from the Mwani ethnic group, though they include young immigrants from other countries such as Tanzania, Somalia and the Great Lakes region.
It is believed they have been radicalised by rampant poverty in the country’s poorest province, as well as a sense of political exclusion.
Morier-Genoud concurred: “They (Mwani) feel they have been marginalised for decades by migration into their area, a lack of economic development and their neighbours’ political clout,” he said.
The government of President Felipe Nyusi has responded with force and entered into security agreements with Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Uganda.
A regional military command has been established and more troops have been moved into the north.
There are concerns government has perpetrated human rights violations with this intervention as hundreds of men and women were arrested in operations seen as targeting Muslims. Mosques and madrassas have been closed.
It is reported the Mozambican armed forces killed nine supposed members of Al-Sunnah.
Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said authorities should ensure security forces deployed against armed groups treat everyone in their custody humanely.
“Respecting the basic rights of detainees is not only a legal obligation, but important for restoring a secure climate that would allow displaced villagers to return home,” Mavhinga said.
Morier-Genoud said the state and its partners need to also devise non-military measures.
“They need to constructively engage with issues of land ownership, begin to address sectarian tensions, and avoid vexing Muslims in their security operations if they want to prevent the Islamist guerillas from tapping into local grievances and gaining more ground,” he said.
In Nigeria, a military crackdown has exacerbated matters with no end in sight to the insurgency by Boko Haram.
Fabricus said the Mozambican authorities should start by acknowledging “the real nature of the problem”.
“They should then take care to target their counter-extremism measures more selectively while tackling the socio-economic root causes of extremism that are so evident in Cabo Delgado,” Fabricus said.
Mozambique recently passed an anti-terrorism law with prison sentences of more than 40 years. — CAJ News.