In Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado, the insurgent group Ahlu-Sunnah Wa-Jama’a (ASWJ) has spearheaded debilitating attacks on the state and local populations. Since 2017, the group – known locally as al-Shabaab – has consolidated its presence, seized key infrastructure and transport routes, and killed at least 3,382 civilians (Rambourg & Njanji, 2021; Risk Bulletin, 2020; Faria, 2021; Cabo Ligado, 2021).
The group’s origins, operational support structures, and financing are largely unknown; while some researchers point to an affiliation with the Islamic State (Estelle, 2021), others believe that the conflict system remains localized (Lucey & Patel, 2021).
Cabo Delgado, home to long-standing ethnic and religious divisions, is characterized by underdevelopment, informal economies, illicit trade, recently discovered liquid natural gas, and widespread government corruption (Lucey & Patel, 2021; Nkomo & Buchanan-Clarke, 2020; Haysom, Gastrow, & Shaw, 2018). Together, these realities create weak spots for a violent extremist group to exploit.
In its early response to the insurgency, the state sought military support from private companies such as the Wagner Group and Dyck Advisory Group. The heavily militarized response has been a topic of heated public debate, with local groups reporting abuses at the hands of national and private military personnel (Amnesty International, 2021). After initially preventing intervention by regional bodies, President Filipe Nyusi’s government took the issue to the Southern African Development Community (SADC). As of October, the SADC Mission in Mozambique has an estimated 1,000 troops on the ground, including 300 from the South African National Defence Force, and has extended its operations in Cabo Delgado indefinitely (Fabricius, 2021).
Apart from the militarized response, little has been done to address underlying factors such as economic and social marginalization and a lack of job opportunities for youth (Faria, 2021). Speaking at a press conference in September 2021, Nyusi rejected narratives attributing the emergence and consolidation of the insurgency to grievances (YouTube, 2021). Yet many locals continue to experience a dearth of opportunities while their livelihoods remain tied to the informal economy, now at increased risk of disruption from the conflict.
Insecurity in Cabo Delgado prevented Afrobarometer’s most recent national survey from collecting data in rural parts of the province. But findings from the rest of the country show that a quarter of Mozambicans feared violence from extremists during the past two years. Citizens believe that support for violent extremist groups in Cabo Delgado comes from other Islamist groups as well as ordinary people, and they say that recruitment is most often based on promises of material enrichment or on force.
Public disapproval of the government’s response to the insurgency has increased sharply, though many citizens express confidence in the ability of the government, SADC, and the African Union (AU) to resolve the conflict. Views on the best strategies to address the crisis vary widely, from increased military power to negotiation with the extremists, with only a small minority prioritizing job creation and other economic interventions.