Inside Mozambique’s war on terror

  • Themes: Africa, Geopolitics, War

Since 2017, Mozambique has waged a war against al-Shabaab, a secretive and little-understood Jihadi group, in a battle for the future of the African nation.

Soldiers in a Mozambican military convoy.
Soldiers in a Mozambican military convoy. Credit: Mike Goldwater / Alamy Stock Photo

Towards Jihad? Muslims and Politics in Postcolonial Mozambique, Eric Morier-Genoud, Hurst, £40

It was mid-afternoon when a new batch of teenage recruits marched past me along one of the lonely roads that crisscross northern Mozambique. They walked silently, brushing red laterite dust into the air with every step, tin canteens clinking against their rifle barrels. These hundred-or-so young men had been deployed to fight a secretive Jihadist insurgency that has burned its way through Cabo Delgado, a neglected and destitute northern province, since 2017. I badly wanted to talk to them. I smiled and nodded. None reciprocated.

At the time, in the summer of 2022, the insurgents were on the move. Groups had burst out of besieged forest redoubts and were roaming into areas that had previously been considered safe. Families loaded with possessions were again appearing on roads leading away from smouldering villages with stories of kidnappings and beheadings. In the fields, there was fear. ‘They forgot about us,’ spat one farmer about the far-away government in Maputo. ‘Then they abandoned us to the bandits and the killers.’

When the Jihadists, known locally as al-Shabaab, overran a major town two years ago it looked as if gas-rich Cabo Delgado was about to go the way of the chaos that has gripped Mali or Somalia. Rwanda and South Africa quickly stepped in and eventually pushed the insurgents back into the bush. They have since engaged in a game of whack-a-mole which has proven more difficult than many expected.

Mozambique has tried to keep prying eyes away from Cabo Delgado. Al-Shabaab is more secretive and less well-understood than most other Jihadist insurgencies in Africa. The nature of their relation to the Islamic State (IS), the identity of their foot-soldiers, and ties to neighbouring countries have all proven difficult to decipher. Literature ion English on Mozambique is already sparse, and on the trajectory of Islam since independence from Portugal in 1975 even more so. This makes Towards Jihad? by Eric Morier-Genoud, a historian at Queen’s University Belfast, a welcome addition to the slim-pickings on offer.

This collection of academic essays written over twenty-five years is, in many ways, two books under one heading. There is one that will be of interest to scholars of southern Africa on how FRELIMO, the liberation movement that governs Mozambique, and the mainstream Muslim community have dealt with each other since independence. There is then a second, shorter one, which will be of interest to a wider audience on the origins of the insurgency in Cabo Delgado and religious radicalism more widely.

Both are stronger for the presence of the other. Morier-Genoud writes that a problem that has pervaded understanding al-Shabaab is a tendency to read history teleologically. ‘Reading history backwards,’ he complains, ‘ignores elements that are not clearly and directly related to the present.’ This makes Towards Jihad? a nuanced book that demands patience from those that are not approaching it from a purely academic standpoint. This is a strength – since by the time you reach the most compelling chapters on Cabo Delgado – you have a clearer idea of what al-Shabaab wanted to rupture and the broader backdrop to their emergence.

When al-Shabaab drove themselves into the headlines in 2017, many journalists and analysts were left scrabbling for information. Morier-Genoud has conducted deep fieldwork to reconstruct their origins and ideology. It is a pity that there is not more – hopefully there will be a longer book on Cabo Delgado in the future. He shows how al-Shabaab emerged as an eclectic scripturalist sect that wanted nothing to do with the wider Sufi majority in Cabo Delgado, the Wahhabi elites of southern Mozambique, and wanted to establish a sharia-based order in opposition to the secular state with which most Muslims had accommodated and worked with.

Among the puzzles that required explanation is how this small sect turned from isolation to a violent Jihad that has interrupted multi-billion-dollar gas projects, pushed more than one million people from their homes, and seen northern Mozambique careen back to war. Morier-Genoud argues persuasively that al-Shabaab’s aggressive approach towards their neighbours caused conflicts and tensions that eventually pushed the state towards repression around 2015. When tension meant that they could no longer reliably isolate themselves, they turned to the offensive.

Since 2018, when al-Shabaab is thought to have requested affiliation to the Islamic State, its ties abroad seem to have solidified. There are persistent rumours of exchanges of men and materiel from eastern Congo, where another IS affiliate is fighting. Diplomats in Maputo worry about the porous border with Tanzania. Morier-Genoud warns that a focus on these international ties ‘need to be kept in proportion.’ They are clearly important, but there are also differences with Islamic State. There are elements within al-Shabaab that have theological beliefs that don’t fit with its Arab counterpart; most al-Shabaab fighters are locals who speak Swahili and Portuguese; and the movement has previously stressed its operational independence.

What Morier-Genoud does, including by wrapping his discussion on al-Shabaab within a broader chronicle of Islam in post-colonial Mozambique, is to underline that none of this happened in a vacuum. The job of recruiting down-and-out young men was surely made easier for al-Shabaab by the chronic neglect and poverty that Cabo Delgado has suffered from. It did not have to be like that. Expectations had been sent sky-high by the discovery of huge offshore gas reserves, graphite, and rubies in recent years. Yet, along the copper-coloured paths, that snake into hinterland of Cabo Delgado, there is almost nothing to show for it. FRELIMO is hopelessly corrupt and has long mismanaged Mozambique. It has been reticent to make the changes that would see more money filter down to the very bottom. Collapsing Portuguese-era buildings are often the only brick structures around. Less than 11 per cent of homes are connected to the electricity grid.

Northern Mozambique was once the cradle of FRELIMO’s long anti-colonial struggle against the Portuguese. There is a long-standing perception that the mainly Christian Makondes people have since benefitted from historic support to FRELIMO at the expense of their Mwani and Makua neighbours. It is thought that al-Shabaab may have used such frustrations in recruitment.

Morier-Genoud’s chapter on Cabo Delgado is an adaptation of a well-received paper written in 2020. It was written before the Rwandan and the South African-coalition intervened to counter the insurgency. It is clear that the networks that al-Shabaab build have proven more resilient than they expected. There are persistent rumours that sudden increases in bored young men hanging around with motorbikes are evidence of their invisible networks mutating and spreading. Women freed from slavery say that they have seen their former captors walking casually through towns.

As anybody that has spent any time in Cabo Delgado – or discussing it in Maputo – will quickly realise, speculation and hearsay are currency. Many also entertain wild conspiracies about the disaster that has befallen the region. Middle Eastern spooks, dodgy South African contractors, and local Mozambican businessmen, all have their takes. It is not uncommon to hear blame being put on actors in the Gulf, or on vested interests within Mozambique itself.

This book should inoculate you to entertaining the most lurid of these stories. ‘The problem with such argument is that we know the origins and details of the insurgency,’ Morier-Genoud writes. What Towards Jihad? provides is a concise approach that outlines the key developments of Islam in Mozambique since 1975 as a backdrop to an accessible and deeply researched account of how al-Shabaab was born, evolved, and what direction it may go in.


Jacob Judah