By: David Rilley-Harris, Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History (DNMMH)

Mozambique regional map (Institute for Security Studies).

Cabo Delgado (Wikipedia).

Since October 2017, Mozambique has been struggling with an insurgency in the northern province of Cabo Delgado. For several years insurgents have been terrorising and killing civilians. Insurgents have also attacked government buildings and have at times directly engaged the various security forces which the Mozambique government has tried to make use of. The insurgency has some clear domestic support in Cabo Delgado and could be construed as a civil war but a wide breadth of the international community, despite all of its divisions, has moved to respond to the crisis as though it was purely a fight against terrorism. The most relevant catalysts for international involvement are concerns that the fighting may spread into neighbouring countries, a creeping increase of support for the insurgents from the Islamic State (also referred to as ISIS / ISIL), and the lucrative development of substantial new gas resources in Cabo Delgado. The latter may well be the dominant factor as competition for natural resources has for generations been a driving force behind much internationally stoked violence throughout Africa.


One million Mozambicans died in the civil war which followed independence from Portugal in 1975. This seventeen year war was partly a Cold War proxy conflict and only ended in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union. The war was fought between Renamo (Mozambican National Resistance) and Frelimo (Liberation Front of Mozambique). Frelimo won and has remained the leading political party ever since with Renamo as the main opposition party. Typical to post-colonial African states, the borders of Mozambique were drawn for colonial purposes and made governance after independence difficult. The Zambezi River cutting through Mozambique provides a more natural border, with the area north of the river being more Muslim, less developed, and culturally more orientated to Eastern Africa than Southern Africa. While Mozambique as a whole is 18% Muslim, 54% of the people in the north most province of Cabo Delgado are Muslim.[1] The common languages in Mozambique are Portuguese, Swahili, and the local Kimwane language, with Swahili more prevalent in coastal areas in the north of Mozambique. With the Mozambican capital, Maputo, in the more developed south of the country, it was the people of Cabo Delgado in the north who have had the greater economic struggle and who found themselves feeling neglected by the Mozambican government. There must have been some hope for change when substantial gas reserves were discovered in Cabo Delgado in 2010. Instead, the northern population would find themselves being displaced from even more land than they had already been displaced from for ruby and graphite mining, and mostly outsiders would begin to benefit from the new jobs and profits.[2] The Renamo-Frelimo civil war resurged in 2013 and only quietened down to a tenuous peace in 2016. During this time, followers of a radical Islamic cleric who had been shot dead in 2012, Aboud Rogo, had made their way into Mozambique and founded Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamo (Adepts of the Prophetic Tradition) in 2015. Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamo would later become known as Ansar al-Sunna (Supporters of the Tradition) or Al-Shabaab (The Youth), not to be confused with the more widely known Somali Al-Shabaab. Ansar al-Sunna attempted to radicalise the existing Muslim population in Cabo Delgado with limited success. Increasingly eager for influence and probably seeking acknowledgement from the Islamic State, Ansar al-Sunna launched their first major attack on 5 October 2017.


Early on 5 October 2017, about 30 Ansar al-Sunna militants attacked the town of Mocímboa de Praia in Cabo Delgado targeting government buildings including police stations. Locals, including religious leaders, had been warning of increased radicalisation of Muslims in the region since 2014 but when the first attack came, security forces were unprepared and took two days to regain control.[3] Ansar al-Sunna lost 14 of their fighters in the attack but made away with firearms and ammunition. Two police officers and a community leader were killed. Five days later the police detained 52 radicals in the region. On 21 and 22 October 2017, government forces clashed with Ansar al-Sunna militants near the Cabo Delgado villages of Maluku and Columbe causing locals to flee their homes. On 27 October 2017, police confirmed the arrest of over 100 members of Ansar al-Sunna and on 24 November 2017 the Mozambican government ordered the closure of three radicalised mosques in Pemba, the capital of Cabo Delgado. Five days after the mosque closures the villages of Mitumbate and Maculo were attacked. Ansar al-Sunna destroyed a church, 27 homes, and executed two people decapitating one and burning the other to death. On 17 December 2017, they assassinated Mozambique’s National Director of Reconnaissance for the Police Rapid Intervention Unit. The government responded to the escalating attacks with an offer of amnesty for militants who surrender themselves. The offer was ineffective and in late December 2017, the Mozambique police and military forces began counter-insurgency operations starting with a large attack on Mitumbate which they had found to be an Ansar-al-Sunna stronghold. Government forces attacked Mitumbate from the air and sea in a fight that cost dozens of lives. In this attack, Tanzanian nationals had been included as targets. Radicalised Muslims from southern Tanzania seem to have already been crossing the border in order to join the insurgency.


Militants in Mozambique (DefenceWeb).


Within three months a concern over radicalisation in Cabo Delgado had turned into a substantial insurgency. By the end of 2018 there would be an estimated 18 separate attacks.[4] Five civilians were killed in Olumbi in January 2018. In March, civilians were killed in and around the villages of Chitolo and Manilha with dozens of homes burned down and more homes abandoned by frightened locals. In April, Mozambican security forces managed to pursue militants after an attack on the villages of Diaca Velha and Mangwaza where they burned four houses, took three hostages, and killed one civilian. 30 of the militants were captured. In May, in the village of Monjane, Ansar al-Sunna beheaded 10 people including children. From May 2018 it became increasingly acknowledged that Ansar al-Sunna had won assistance from the Islamic State. June 2018 saw at least 23 civilians killed in no less than five separate attacks in the villages of Rueia, Naunde, Namaluco, Changa, and Nathuko. At least six of these victims were beheaded and well over one hundred homes were burned down. In August 2018, the Mozambican police had identified six different leaders of the multi-headed insurgency (Abdul Faizal; Abdul Raim; Abdul Remane; Ibn Omar; “Salimo”; Nuno Remane).[5] A former Mozambican soldier named Mustafa Suale Machinga was caught and handed over to police by locals who accused him of being a militant leader in Litingina village on 7 December 2018. A Ugandan who was one of the Ansar al-Sunna leaders named by police, Abdul Rahmin Faizal, was captured in February 2019. After May 2018, Ansar al-Sunna attacks had increased to six or seven per month and the number of attacks would continue to increase reaching and average of sixteen attacks per month by mid-2019.[6] The struggle of the Mozambican government in handling the insurgency was further exacerbated by Cyclone Idai which killed over 600 Mozambicans in March 2019 and was followed by Cyclone Kenneth in April 2019.


In June and July of 2019 the Islamic State publically claimed responsibility for attacks which killed at least 23 people and the Mozambican government was beginning to look for help from outside of their borders. Reluctant to ask for help from individual neighbouring countries, or from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Mozambique initially tried to turn the tide with mercenaries. During September 2019 two Russian Mi-17 helicopters landed in Mozambique and the Russian mercenary contractor, Wagner Group, launched counter-insurgency operations in October 2019. As many as 200 Russian mercenaries may have arrived in Mozambique.[7] Johann Smith, an independent political and security risk analyst, said that “ISIS immediately reinforced the insurgents” to counter the Wagner Group who were unprepared for the combat conditions that they would encounter.[8] During October and November 2019 Ansar al-Sunna forces retreated into the woods across Cabo Delgado but 12 Wagner Group mercenaries were killed along with more than 20 Mozambican soldiers. Islamic State (ISIS / ISIL) claimed responsibility for the Mozambican and Russian casualties and Ansar al-Sunna were far from defeated. There was tension between the mercenaries and Mozambique’s soldiers, and with the number of insurgent attacks growing, the Wagner Group withdrew to the city of Nacala in Mozambique’s Nampula Province.[9]


The Islamic State had claimed responsibility for 26 attacks since 2017.[10] About 20 of those attacks had occurred after June 2019.[11] Several hundred people were killed in 2019 alone and most of the villages in Cabo Delgado had been abandoned, but the Mozambican government was still saying little about the insurgency and was euphemistically referring to the militants as “criminals”.[12] While the Islamic State had joined the conflict to a notable degree, they were not the initiating belligerents. Ansar al-Sunna had received some level of support from Cabo Delgado civilians from at least 2017 and had been launching attacks all the while. The Mozambican government was looking to secure profitability in the newfound natural resources in Cabo Delgado and also deal with a population in the province that had become increasingly agitated. The Islamic State could gain the type of reputation they enjoy by becoming involved in the conflict but the real impetus for the insurgency originated within Cabo Delgado. Professor Theo Neethling of the University of the Free State’s Department of Political Studies, described Ansar al-Sunna as largely “socioeconomically marginalised young people without a proper education and formal employment… joined by young immigrants in a similar marginalised position”.[13] In a 2019 global human rights assessment report, the US State Department mentioned attacks on Mozambican civilians including “arbitrary killings by government security forces”.[14] Mozambique’s own security forces had failed to halt the insurgency, the Russian Wagner Group mercenaries were on the back foot, and Mozambique was still avoiding international involvement.


Escalation and westward spreading of attacks (News24).


2020 began with an uptick in insurgency attacks. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated 28 attacks in January alone.[15] Since 2017 the insurgents had become increasingly bold and attacks in Cabo Delgado had also begun to spread farther west through the province. In late March 2020 a large insurgent attack demonstrated the increasing complexity of Ansar al-Sunna planning. The attack was on the town of Moçimboa da Praia and came from both land and sea. The insurgents destroyed government buildings and took control of the town for most of a day before leaving. While they were in control of Moçimboa da Praia they avoided attacking civilians and instead distributed looted food and goods. Unfortunately this had not become their new standard and 52 civilians who refused to join their cause were killed by insurgents in Xitaxi village on 7 April. On the same day, security forces intercepted an attack on Muidumbe village killing 39 insurgents. Over the next few days security forces also killed nearly 100 insurgents on small islands just off the Cabo Delgado coast. It was at about this time that South African mercenaries, Dyck Advisory Group, had become involved in the fighting, mounting attacks on the insurgents with light aircraft.[16] In late April and through May Mozambique’s Interior Minister, Amad Miquidade, reported that a total of over 170 insurgents were killed after at least 20 insurgent attacks on 11 different villages with some of those casualties occurring after an insurgent attack in Quissanga District.[17] By mid-July 2020, the Dyck Advisory Group mercenaries had lost one helicopter in combat but still had one or two Gazelle gunships, two Bathawk microlights with front-guns, an old Allouette helicopter armed with a 20mm cannon and two fixed wing aircraft.[18] The helicopter that Dyck Advisory Group lost may have been one of the Gazelle helicopters, registration ZU-ROJ, and could be the helicopter that was seen downed on 10 April 2020.[19]


Bathawk microlight (DefenceWeb).

Gazelle, registration ZU-ROJ (DefenceWeb).


As the conflict in Mozambique escalated it became less a case of Mozambique trying to avoid international involvement, and more a case of the conflict having become internationally intertwined on its own. Martin Ewi, the regional coordinator for Southern Africa of the Institute for Security Studies in the ENACT organised crime project, said that ISIS has sleeper cells in South Africa and has recruited South Africans with some included in the ranks of the Mozambique insurgency.[20] The Jamestown Foundation reported that Ansar al-Sunni included members from Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.[21] Both South African and Russian mercenaries had tried to help Mozambican security forces halt the insurgency. South Africa chaired the African Union in 2020 and President Cyril Ramaphosa promised a focus on “intractable conflicts” but named those conflicts as being in Libya and South Sudan.[22] Nonetheless, in an interview with the SABC on 22 May 2020, International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor said that South Africa and Mozambique were holding discussions regarding the Cabo Delgado security situation.[23] While President Ramaphosa suggested that the international community should help with conflicts in Africa, Minister Pandor expressed concern about the “increased military presence” in Africa of France, the United States, China, Russia and Turkey.[24] The mandate of the African Union requires it to first defer to regional security organs like SADC. SADC did meet in Harare on 19 May 2020 and gave member states permission to militarily assist Mozambique but provided no specifics.[25] The Islamic State  relies on terrorism to provide control through intimidation and various voices had indeed expressed fears that South African involvement could lead to terrorist attacks within South Africa’s borders. A successfully established violent Islamist state in Cabo Delgado would surely be more terrifying. As State Security Minister Ayanda Dlodlo later said, it “becomes a responsibility for all of us in SADC to assist Mozambique in whatever way we can” because South Africa cannot extricate itself from conflict in the Southern Africa region.[26] Within weeks of South Africa beginning to openly discuss military intervention in Mozambique, the Islamic State issued a formal threat. In June 2020 in an editorial of the ISIS publication, Al-Naba, they said in Arabic that South African intervention “may result in prompting the soldiers of the Islamic State to open a fighting front inside its borders! – by the permission of God Almighty”.[27] The ISIS publication also suggested that there was a conspiracy by the United States and European countries to make South Africa take the lead in Mozambique.[28] In late July 2020, Minister Ayanda Dlodlo said she was taking the ISIS threat “very, very seriously. We will not take them as idle threats. We have a responsibility to secure our people”.[29]

Islamic State fighters including two suspected South Africans (DefenceWeb).


In a South African parliamentary session on 8 July 2020, questions from a main opposition party MP, Kobus Marais, revealed the likelihood that South Africa was already in Mozambique having deployed a South African National Defence Force (SANDF) special forces unit and a maritime reaction squadron, probably in June 2020. A SADC (South Africa; Malawi; Tanzania; Botswana; Lesotho; Angola) Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) would only be deployed on 15 July 2021, and before the end of that year the SANDF would suffer their first soldier killed in combat in Cabo Delgado. Becoming truly international, involvement in Cabo Delgado would also include Rwanda, Uganda, Portugal, Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union (EU). By the completion of this article in May 2022, the conflict is still raging.

A SANDF special forces unit in Mozambique (DefenceWeb).



[1], Justin Cronje, 26 June 2020.

[2], Joseph Hanlon, 25 August 2020.

[3] Matsinhe, D.M. and E. Valoi: Institute for Security Studies, The genesis of insurgency in northern Mozambique, October 2019.

[4], Jan Gerber, 11 July 2020.

[5] Tony Blair Institute for Global Change., various authors, 19 June 2020.

[6] Tony Blair Institute for Global Change., various authors, 19 June 2020.

[7], AFP, 5 January 2020.

[8], Azarrah Karrim, 19 December 2019.

[9], Azarrah Karrim, 19 December 2019.

[10], Azarrah Karrim, 19 December 2019.

[11], AFP, 12 March 2020.

[12], AFP, 12 March 2020.

[13], Jan Gerber, 11 July 2020.

[14], AFP, 12 March 2020.

[15], Jan Gerber, 11 July 2020.

[16] Fabricius, P.: Institute for Security Studies: How Serious is the Islamic State Threat to Attack South Africa?, 23 July 2020.

[17], AFP, 15 May 2020.

[18], Hannes Wessels, 17 July 2020.

[19], DefenceWeb, 15 April 2020.

[20] Fabricius, P.: Institute for Security Studies: How Serious is the Islamic State Threat to Attack South Africa?, 23 July 2020.

[21], Jan Gerber, 11 July 2020.

[22], Carien du Plessis, 28 January 2020.

[23], Jan Gerber, 11 July 2020.

[24], Carien du Plessis, 28 January 2020.

[25] Fabricius, P.: Institute for Security Studies: How Serious is the Islamic State Threat to Attack South Africa?, 23 July 2020.

[26], Qaanitah Hunter, 19 July 2020.

[27] Fabricius, P.: Institute for Security Studies: How Serious is the Islamic State Threat to Attack South Africa?, 23 July 2020.

[28], Qaanitah Hunter, 19 July 2020.

[29] Fabricius, P.: Institute for Security Studies: How Serious is the Islamic State Threat to Attack South Africa?, 23 July 2020.

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