The Secret to the Northern Mozambique Insurgency’s Success

This commentary was originally published in War on the Rocks on October 8, 2020.

This has been a banner year for Ahlu-Sunnah Wa-Jama (ASWJ)—or al-Shabaab, as locals call it—operating in northern Mozambique. Between January and September, the insurgent group launched an estimated 357 attacks, which is double the attacks it conducted during the same period last year. In the spring, ASWJ moved on from exclusively attacking isolated villages and individuals to launching complex, dual-front attacks against district capitals, remaining within those locations for short periods of time before leaving of their own accord. The insurgents have taken advantage of their month-long occupation of the port at Mocimboa da Praia to expand their maritime presence. They have increased attacks against islands off the coast of Cabo Delgado—the northernmost province in Mozambique—and heightened their potential threat to liquified natural gas operations 60 kilometers north of Mocimboa da Praia, all while continuing to raid villages for supplies.

The insurgency’s shift from a small group of disaffected youths attacking a police station to free their detained friends to an organization reportedly numbering 1,000 fighters can in part be attributed to ASWJ’s sound organizational foundation, avoidance of common strategic errors, and exploitation of government counter-insurgency mistakes. However, past performance is no guarantee of future success, and in some cases, an excess of victories can set an insurgency up to make critical errors that reverse the group’s gains and allow a well-prepared government to begin making headway against the organization. As impressive as ASWJ’s rise has been, the group is not invincible. The Mozambican government will need to quickly adjust its approach to the conflict to take advantage of future ASWJ mistakes when they occur.

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