A series of attacks by Muslim youth targeting villages in northern Mozambique has raised fears that a new Islamist militant group is gaining a foothold in East Africa. The group goes by the name Ansar al-Sunna, although locals refer to it as al-Shabaab after Somalia’s al-Qaeda terror network affiliate whose activities it appears to emulate (Intelligence Brief, June 4, 2018; The East African, June 8, 2018).
In what is a troubling development for Mozambique, the group has focused its activities on Cabo Delgado, the country’s northern-most province and a hub for mining and petroleum exploration, and has, according to some reports, brought a halt to development there.
Origins and Development
Ansar al-Sunna started as a religious organization in Cabo Delgado in 2015, according to media reports, and only later became militarized. Its early members were followers of Aboud Rogo Mohammed, the radical Kenyan cleric who was shot dead in 2012, possibly by the Kenyan security services. Continuing Rogo’s work, the early Ansar al-Sunna members first settled in Kibiti, in southern Tanzania, before entering Mozambique (The Standard, May 29; Club of Mozambique , May 23). Cabo Delgado— with its large Muslim population, high youth unemployment and marginal economic development — provided a suitable environment for the militant group to grow its membership.
The emergence of Ansar al-Sunna could have serious consequences for Mozambique as Cabo Delgado is expected to become a center for gas production, following several promising discoveries. Since then, however, villages in the province have experienced sporadic attacks from the suspected Islamist militants (The Standard, May 29). The group has taken control of mosques—or in some cases established its own—where members preach anti-state ideology and a radical interpretation of Islam (Global Initiative, April 23). Civilians have fled their homes, and some now fear that the attacks will disrupt gas production. Recent reports suggest that subcontractors for Anadarko, the oil firm leading the development efforts, had suspended work in Palma over security concerns (Zitamar news, June 8).
The group gained greater prominence in October 2017, when 30 gunmen attacked police units in Mocimboa da Praia, an Indian Ocean seaport in the Mozambique’s north. The port is a border travel post for Tanzania and other parts of the district by the same name. In the attack, the gunmen targeted three police stations, including the district police command, a police post and a natural resources and environmental patrol police station. The gunmen occupied the town and stole ammunition from the stations, before they were forced out by government forces. In the fight, two police officers and at least 10 militants were killed. Assault rifles and documents in Arabic were discovered at the scene of the attack (Radio Shabelle, Oct 6, 2017).
Recent attacks have been increasingly vicious. On June 7, militants armed with knives and machetes killed five people in Namaluco village in Quissanga district. Days earlier, the militants hacked to death seven people in a nearby village (The Citizen, June 7). On May 27, the suspected militants killed 10 people in two small remote villages in the northern province of Cabo Delgado, near the border with Tanzania. The militants reportedly beheaded the victims, burnt homes and set vehicles ablaze (Cameroon Concorde News, May 29).
Structure and Finance
Ansar al-Sunna’s radical interpretation of Islam is based on an ideology that was introduced to the region by young former expats who returned to the country having studied in Sudan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States (African Centre for Strategic Studies, March 25). It produced its first jihadist video in February, offering some insight into its motivations. The group appears intent on attempting to impose sharia across Mozambique. It opposes the government’s secular education program and takes issue with co-ed education and has allegedly banned its members from seeking hospital treatment.
Its finances are generated through trafficking in illegal timber and rubies, another resource that is found in the province. By one estimate, the group generates at least $3 million a year from trafficking in timber and $30 million from rubies, although these figures are likely exaggerated. 
Under-developed and largely ignore by the government, Cabo Delgado has also become a landing site for heroin shipments that are sent onward from the region to Europe and South Africa, according to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (Global Initiative, April 23). The group is likely also involved in the illicit trade in ivory and contraband goods, which would involve interaction with Tanzanians and other African, Chinese and Vietnamese nationals, with the revenues from these activities further boosting the militant group’s finances.
Further funds likely come from sympathizers, who donate via electronic payments. The group’s leaders use the money to boost recruitment and to meet travel expenses for its spiritual leaders, who travel within the province and on to Mocimboa da Praia and Tanzania (Club of Mozambique, May 23). It is believed Ansar al-Sunna leaders maintain religious, military and commercial links with fundamentalist groups in Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania and the African Great Lakes Region. Radicalized youth in the country allegedly sell their property to finance trips Somalia to train and wage jihad, although according to news reports, the group’s militant training has been facilitated by members who have been forced out of the police (Club of Mozambique, May 23).
Recruitment has mainly been through family ties and radical mosques. Members of the militant group are identified by their distinct dress of white turbans, shaven heads, long beards and black shorts. They refuse to send their children to public schools and allegedly enter mosques wearing shoes and carrying weapons. The group’s leaders allegedly shun dialogue with other Muslims.
The group has used jihadist videos similar to those used by radical movements in Africa to promote itself and radicalize its following. Its leaders have targeted poor, marginalized and unemployed youth, especially among the Kimwani, the smallest ethnic group in Cabo Delgado (Coast Week, June 12). In terms of organizational structure, the group is broken into cells, which allegedly enjoy relative autonomy.
The emergence of Ansar al-Sunna is an indication that Islamist influence is spreading in East Africa. It is clear that this group has been at least inspired by the successes of al-Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya. It is also evident that the response adopted by the Mozambican government is similar to that adopted by Somalia against al-Shabaab and Nigeria’s response to Boko Haram. In security operations launched in October 2017, the government responded to the attacks with an “iron fist,” bombarding areas believed to be the militant’s hideouts, closing down mosques (demolishing seven of them) and arresting hundreds of suspected militants (All Africa, April 24).
It must be noted that Ansar al-Sunna is still a relatively young militant group. Analyzing reasons for the group’s popularity and tackling concerns such as unemployment, exclusion and underdevelopment may help prevent it from spreading further. While this needs the involvement of the local community and government, involvement at the international level—how well Kenya controls the penetration of Islamists into Tanzania, and how Tanzania eliminates the route into Mozambique—will also determine what shape the group takes in future.
 Pereira, Joao, Salvador Forquilha, and Saide Habibe. Islamic Radicalization in Mozambique: The Case of Mocimboa Da Praia, Report, 2017 (unavailable online).