Foreign Fighters and the Trajectory of Violence in Northern Mozambique
This commentary was originally published in War on the Rocks on April 13, 2021.
On March 24, fighters from Ansar al-Sunna Wa Jamma (ASWJ)—a U.S. State Department-designated foreign terrorist organization that it calls “ISIS-Mozambique”—launched a multi-day assault on Palma, a coastal town of roughly 75,000 people located in Mozambique’s hard-pressed province of Cabo Delgado. The operation—which reportedly involved covert infiltration, multiple points of simultaneous attack, and maritime support—was well coordinated, with clear evidence of prior planning and intelligence gathering. Over the course of the attack, ASWJ fighters targeted military personnel, banks, government buildings, a food warehouse, civil servants, and other civilians. On March 29, the Islamic State claimed the attack, emphasizing that ASWJ militants had killed Mozambican troops, local Christians, and foreigners. While security forces have largely reassumed control of the town, the total number of casualties is not yet known.
The widespread coverage of ASWJ’s attack in Palma—building on a year of operational success for the group—has likely elevated the profile of this conflict, including within the jihadist community, potentially increasing its appeal to regional and veteran foreign fighters. This risks further inflating the insurgents’ growing corps of foreign recruits. While publicly available information on the exact number and role of foreign fighters in the group is limited, ASWJ—or al-Shabaab as it is called in Mozambique—has had a long history with the foreign fighter community. Early academic research into the group revealed the presence of youth from Africa’s Great Lakes region, Uganda, and Tanzania. More recently, the Islamic State’s media arm, AMAQ, published a video showing ASWJ fighters who appear to be foreigners alongside Mozambican fighters in Mocimboa da Praia, echoing claims that former ASWJ prisoners have made about foreigners present within the group’s ranks. Tanzanian authorities last year intercepted multiple groups of young men who the authorities claim were en route to Mozambique, and South African officials claim that South African nationals have joined the group.
Mozambique, and Cabo Delgado specifically, boasts many of the characteristics that facilitate the entrance of foreign fighters: poor border security, weak and declining state presence, and an ascendant insurgent movement. The presence of foreign fighters in ASWJ’s ranks is already apparent. Less clear, however, is how foreign fighters might impact ASWJ as an organization and the trajectory of the conflict in Mozambique. Foreign fighters are often a boon to a nascent group, helping its local fighters to quickly develop the necessary military and technical skills to gain advantage on the battlefield. Over time, however, the presence of these foreigners within the ranks of an organization can become a liability, potentially sowing division within the group and shifting the strategic picture with the likely introduction of foreign assistance to the government combating the jihadist group. Toward this end, insight from al-Shabaab’s experience with its foreign fighters in Somalia may serve as a valuable point of comparison.