Volume 6, No. 2, February 2024
Editor: Rashed Rahman
Religious extremist terrorists seizing Pemba, the capital of the northern province of Cabo Delgado in Mozambique, which triggered a mass exodus of local people and foreigners fleeing for their lives, has focused attention on the rise in the province of an Islamic State (IS) affiliated movement called Ansar al-Sunna. Mozambique is a Catholic majority country, a legacy of Portuguese colonialism from which the Mozambican people gained their independence after the 1964-74 armed struggle led by the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), partly helped by the ‘flower revolution’ of 1974 in Portugal that got rid of the fascist and colonial legacy of dictator Salazar. While Catholics constitute 60 percent of the population, a significant minority of 19 percent are Muslim, concentrated largely in the north of the country.
Cabo Delgado is the poorest province of the country. However, hopes for a better future have been fuelled by the discovery of off-shore gas that could propel Mozambique to the position of holding the fourth or fifth largest LNG reserves in the world over the next 30 years. In and around Pemba, oil and gas giants Total and ExxonMobil are developing these reserves and setting up plants to process the gas. However, the gas bonanza is unlikely to trickle down to the local inhabitants of Cabo Delgado. Although poverty and deprivation cannot be ignored as factors feeding into the Islamist insurgency in the north, the story has external dimensions that can only be ignored at one’s own peril.
Religious extremist militancy and terrorism worldwide originated from the Mujahideen struggle against the Communists and later the Soviet Union in Afghanistan from the 1970s, which later, through many twists and turns, transmogrified into the present-day Taliban. The latter lost their hold on power in Afghanistan after their ‘guest’, Osama ben Laden and his al Qaeda organisation attacked the US on 9/11. The Taliban, and as it later transpired, Osama sought safe havens in Pakistan and continued their struggle inside Afghanistan and the world at large respectively, the former through support from Pakistan, the latter through the ambiguity of the Pakistani security establishment that was caught with its pants down when Osama ben Laden was discovered and killed in Abbottabad, a stone’s throw from the Pakistani military’s main training academy.
It is the spread of religious extremist ideology that confronts Mozambique, and many other countries in Asia and Africa today. A brief digression into Mozambican history would clarify.
The 1964-74 armed struggle against Portuguese colonialism led by the Marxist FRELIMO was helped by the Soviet Union and its ally Cuba. But years after coming to power, FRELIMO faced a civil war with a rightwing movement first sponsored by the (colonial) Rhodesia Central Intelligence Organisation and formally founded in 1975 as the Mozambique National Resistance (RENAMO) as part of an anti-communist movement against FRELIMO. That civil war finally wound down after a FRELIMO-RENAMO peace agreement in 1992.
Islam arrived in Mozambique in the 7th-8th centuries and was concentrated in the north. It owed its rapid spread in the country to Sufi teachings and practices. The Portuguese colonialists considered Muslims a threat and excluded them from the process called assimilado (assimilation). This outcome was also due to Catholicism being the determining characteristic of Portuguese colonial culture and identity. In the north, the Portuguese colonial authorities aligned themselves with non-Muslim ethnic groups, thereby deepening long standing ethno-religious cleavages.
By the 1960s, Wahhabiism as enunciated by Saudi Arabia pushed Sufism on the back foot in the northern region. After independence in 1974, the Marxist FRELIMO government sought to secularise the state and society by banning religious teaching and leaders, describing them as ‘backward’. Islam in particular, given its increasingly radical Wahhabi leanings, was pointedly targeted. During the civil war against RENAMO in the 1980s, the FRELIMO government loosened its stance on Islam to prevent RENAMO taking advantage of unrest in the north. But just six years after the civil war ended in 1992, a group of young Islamic radicals broke away from the northern Islamic Council supported by the government and formed Ansar al-Sunna, wedded to strict adherence to Sharia and anti-secular in outlook to the extent of opposing any group amongst the northern Muslims aligned with the FRELIMO government. Ansar al-Sunna’s ranks were fed by a radicalised faction of youth who had studied in conservative, if not openly Islamist institutions abroad in East Africa, Saudi Arabia, etc.
In January 2016, Ansar al-Sunna embarked on an armed struggle that yielded 703 attacks till December 2019, of which 302 were in Cabo Delgado. The FRELIMO government’s initial response to this threat was slow, but following an uptick in 2017 in the brutal attacks against government security forces (a source of captured weapons and ammunition) and civilians (74 percent of the attacks between January 2016 to December 2019), arrested a number of suspects. Of these, 189 accused were put on trial in October 2018 in Pemba. Three mosques set up by Ansar al-Sunna were closed.
Ansar al-Sunna’s forays against government forces aside, the bulk of their attacks target defenceless civilians, including in the process beheadings, torture, rape and kidnapping of women, burning homes and destroying property, and especially targeting teachers. The victims are non-Muslims or anyone who opposes the Ansar al-Sunna fanatics. How this behaviour and conduct can be justified in the name of Islam speaks of the tragedy of extremist distortion of its message and spirit at the hands of the cavalier purveyors of barbaric extremism who are spreading through sub-Saharan Africa.
Mozambique is one of several African countries that are suffering from the spillover of extremist religious terrorism spawned initially by the Afghan wars and by now metamorphosed into a hydra that may not be organisationally one, but in thought, intent and methods is barely distinguishable. Meanwhile IS, after being uprooted from its conquered territory in Iraq and Syria, far from dead, is spreading its and its ideological collaborators’ message and methods to countries from sub-Saharan Africa to the Asia-Pacific region.
Pakistan and the US-led west cannot shrug off responsibility for the original sin of spawning and supporting fanatical religious extremist proxies in Afghanistan for extremely dubious purposes and their unintended consequences. Marxist regimes worldwide have been forced to make compromises to a greater or lesser degree with capitalism since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As the heavy presence of Total and ExxonMobil in Capo Delgado shows, Mozambique is no exception. However, by and large the FRELIMO government is still wedded to a progressive, pro-people policy. In the north, the struggle against Ansar al-Sunnah will have to be waged by military means (counterinsurgency) as well as weaning the terrorist group’s support away by people-oriented development without any discrimination on the basis of religion.