I had the pleasure of attending a seminar on Addressing the Threat of Violent Extremism in Southern Africa late last month with the expectation that it would perhaps offer a crash course on exactly what’s going on with regards to the emerging group in Mozambique. Quite interestingly however, it appeared the group had the distinguished panel of experts quite confused, as I’ve never quite listened to a series of presentations and discussions on the extent to which little is known about a particular group. So at this point it’s fair to say no one actually knows what is happening and whoever claims to know is lying. This is not to say there wasn’t any gold nuggets of information and insight shared, however most of it is shrouded in rumors and contradictory speculative analysis which makes it extremely difficult to formulate policy strategies to combat this emerging threat. Therefore, although I’m cognizant of the ever-increasing urgency of the situation its highly critical to understand our position in relation to the subject at hand. And we’re lost.
But here’s what we know: the group that was formerly known as Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamo (Shabaab) and now referred to as Ansar al-Sunna has been instigating increasingly sophisticated attacks in the Cabo Delgado region north of Mozambique since August 2017. Fast approaching nearly 300 attacks, the group has left a trail of destruction behind by setting houses ablaze, massacring villagers using machetes and knives and ammunition acquired from the Mozambican Defence Armed Forces (FADM) resulting in mass casualties and displacement to neighboring regions. With the Mozambican government enforcing media censorship and underplaying the severity of the group’s activities coupled with the presence of Russian private military personnel sometimes failing to work together with FADM forces on the ground resulting in major losses on both fronts, it’s clear parties involved are way in over their heads and implementing reactionary strategies.
Further, with the Islamic State suffering major losses in Iraq and Syria, particularly after the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October, not only has it been eager to recognize even the most insignificant call for recognition in order to establish affiliates in the African continent, its central African branch went further to make its first claim to attacks on the 4th of June 2019 and has continued to do so every so often ever since. Subsequently this led to contending speculations around whether the group was linked to the Al-Shabaab (considering it former name) or the Islamic State. Although this is the “million dollar question”, I think the biggest concern for most analysts is the group’s operational and tactical sophistication as noted by terrorism expert, Jasmine Opperman who states “they have access to intelligence, access to knowledge on where the deployments are when they’re at their most vulnerable, they have access to FADM uniforms, they have seized weapons that Wagner has given to the FADM – sophisticated weapons – which means their sophistication is escalating day by day.” To date, not much is known about the group’s leadership, organisational structure/components, or origins as Ansar al-Sunna has never formerly introduced itself or declared its motives, ideology and objectives.
However, without the benefit of any further information on the group I think there are various aspects that can be drawn from the emergence of Africa’s key terrorist organisations that one could consider to better forecast the nature of the group. I say this because the African continent has a distinct pattern of behavior by emerging groups , particularly of the nature we’ve come to know about the group which wouldn’t make it appropriate to assess against groups in other parts of the world. Firstly, a key piece of information is that Tanzania appears to be a country of overlapping networks between Ansar al-Sunnah and Al-Shabaab/Al-Hijra militants. Now if there’s anything that I’ve learnt over the past year is that networks matter for two main reasons: firstly, access or proximity to (long) existing networks contribute to the operational sophistication of emerging groups. Ansar al-Sunnah has demonstrated high operational efficiency and control which I don’t believe developed in isolation. Somalia’s earliest jihadist group, al-Itihaad al-Islamiya (AIAI) was inactive for the first 8 years of its establishment until it came in contact with a small network of Al-Qaeda militants accompanying Osama bin Laden on his residence in Sudan in 1991. Therefore, increasing reports of Tanzanian militants crossing the Mozambican border will continue to contribute to Ansar al -Sunna’s foreign (fighter) element which will yield considerable operational advantages for the group. Further, this cross-border cooperation has flung open the threat from a local to a regional phenomenon where on the one hand it could be considered a (South) East African phenomenon in a way that makes it difficult to separate it from the region’s most prominent actor, Al-Shabaab, and on the other the Islamic State’s central African province claim to attacks nudge the group closer towards being part of a continental (or even global) Islamic State agenda. In the middle of either ends of these key considerations, I argue against taking refuge in the ‘local factors thesis’, as it’s simply not sufficient enough to explain Ansar al-Sunna’s operational sophistication. Secondly, networks form the framework of ideological and capital exchange between individuals (and organisations) in the form of weapons, training or recruits that form the basis of strong strategic cooperation and partnerships which will most likely contribute to the increasing lethality of Ansar al-Sunna. The fact that exclusively all of Africa’s most prominent terrorist organisations are affiliated to international terrorist organisations and at some point engaged in some intercontinental cooperation simply demonstrates the tactical utility of cooperation among groups seeking to maximize their campaign of violent extremism.
Another crucial fact to consider in trying to understand the origins of Ansar al-Sunna is the role of Mozambicans in the Afghan mujahideen in the late 70s and 80s and possibly other theaters of conflict that have drawn individuals of varying nationalities to fight alongside international terrorist organisations like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State like the U.S invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2003, the 2011 Arab Spring or the Islamic State’s caliphate in 2014. Again, a cursory glance at the senior leadership of Africa’s main terrorist organisations-particularly those who have sought to drive an international agenda-reveals a common history and profile of individuals who fought, trained and became indoctrinated in Afghanistan during the war against the Soviet Union before returning to establish their own radical Islamic movements in their countries. Therefore, not only should the participation of Mozambican militants in other theaters of conflict not be overlooked but the threat of returning foreign fighters should be a key point of consideration in light of the likelihood Ansar al-Sunna emerges as an affiliate.
As I conclude, though not on a less concerning point, if one were to consider the geo-strategic positioning of Africa’s most prominent terrorist organisations stationed North, West and East of the continent, it appears both inevitable and logical that a violent extremist organisation would seek to establish its presence in Southern Africa with considerable determination and skill drawn from existing actors and their networks. This is why its crucial we get it right in Southern Africa before its too late by pooling our knowledge of the strategic, tactical and ideological evolution of violent extremism on the African continent. I look forward to beginning this endeavor.