They've been around for some time, but it was only late last month that they started to grab more of the world's attention. On May 27, the Islamist militant group Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Hamo attacked Monjane, a town in northern Mozambique's Cabo Delgado province, beheading 10 people. But the group, known locally as al Shabaab (even if there are no indications of direct links between it and the more famous Somali jihadist outfit) has been active for months, attacking police stations, silencing opponents, robbing banks, looting weapons and burning villages. And given that the ocean floor off Cabo Delgado just happens to hold vast reserves of natural gas, the emergence of Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Hamo doesn't just affect Mozambique but the global energy industry. One week after I wrote about the factors to consider when gauging the success of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations against a militant group, now is the perfect opportunity to assess how an emerging militant group like Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Hamo stacks up against the measurement criteria.
Forecasting the trajectory of an emerging militant organization is important for companies, governments and nongovernmental organizations attempting to understand how the organization may impact their operations, particularly when that group subscribes to a jihadist ideology. Understanding the goals and objectives of groups like Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Hamo in Mozambique is critically important to such a forecast, as is an examination of how the organization's military capability, armaments and support networks change over time.
The Emergence of a New Jihadist Threat
Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Hamo first emerged on the radar in October 2017 after 30 militants stormed the town of Mocimboa da Praia, in Cabo Delgado, attacking a bank and police stations. The group killed two police officers and two bank guards, captured weapons and even retained control of the town for nearly a day before authorities succeeded in forcing them to retreat. Although Mocimboa da Praia is merely a small town in a remote portion of northern Mozambique, Cabo Delgado's energy riches have given Maputo cause for concern due to the importance of natural gas exploration for Mozambique's financial future. The latent threat that such a group poses to multinational corporations active in the area is not taken lightly. While the gas fields themselves are offshore, Anadarko, a major corporation involved in exploration in the area, plans to make the costal town of Palma a major natural gas export terminal. Other companies working in other blocks, such as ENI and ExxonMobil, do not plan on establishing onshore infrastructure.
Researchers Joao Pereira and Salvador Forquilha, along with Mozambican imam Sheikh Saide Habibe, conducted a study in the wake of the October 2017 attack to gain a better understanding of Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Hamo. Their study, which was released late last month, noted that the organization is a youth movement linked ideologically to regional jihadist theologians such as Aboud Rogo. The theologian was a Kenyan imam who founded a movement in Kenya and Tanzania called the Muslim Youth Center, which declared allegiance to al Qaeda and was also linked to Somalia's al Shabaab. According to the study, Rogo's killing (possibly at the hands of the police) in Mombasa in August 2012 scattered his followers. Some moved to Somalia to join the ranks of al Shabaab, while others moved into Tanzania and even into northern Mozambique, where they began to propagate their austere form of Islam.
After arriving in northern Mozambique in 2015, radical preachers aligned with the movement began to clash with established mosque leaders in Cabo Delgado, frequently labeling the traditional Muslim leaders as "heretics" for not following the "proper" form of Islam. According to the study, the group established military cells in late 2015 in response to the growing hostility between the group and local religious and government leaders. The report also notes that some members received training in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia.
Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Hamo's first attacks in October last year appeared to stem from the arrest of a group of conservative religious leaders in Mocimboa da Praia on allegations that they were inciting civil disobedience by discouraging people from paying taxes. There were also accused of issuing advice to dispatch children to conservative madrassas alone and encouraging people to refrain from seeking health care at public clinics. The arrests agitated the leaders' followers, who accused authorities of oppressing them. It is, therefore, no coincidence that Mocimboa da Praia's police stations were the first targets attacked.
Between October 2017 and May 27, the group conducted 16 other assaults in the region, killing 28, looting villages and burning down scores of homes and small businesses. And on Jan. 31, six Portuguese-speaking jihadists claiming to be in Cabo Delgado — and presumably with Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Hamo — pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in a video posted on Telegram. Meanwhile, reports emerged last month that former police officers are now providing training to members of the group.
Although repeated attacks failed to grab headlines, the May 27 assault on Monjane in Palma district succeeded in attracting international attention. The 10 people murdered included a village leader who had become a target for the group because he had provided information about the extremists' activities to authorities.
Since May 27, the group has conducted at least eight attacks, slaying at least 21 more people. As in Monjane, the group has beheaded many of its victims, which suggests increased Islamic State influence on the militants — decapitation features prominently in that particular transnational group's propaganda videos.
The wave of attacks prompted the U.S. Embassy in Maputo to issue a security alert on June 8 warning of additional attacks and advising American citizens to leave Cabo Delgado. The U.K. Foreign Office followed suit on June 13.
Assessing the Threat
So, using the criteria outlined last week, how can one assess the threat posed by Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Hamo? The recently released study downplayed the group's desire to create an area under Sharia, concluding that the group was essentially a cover for illicit mining, timber extraction and smuggling in the region — all activities that have purportedly made the group millions of dollars a year.
However, that explanation rings false in light of many of the group's attacks, in which it has stolen food and looted shops, robbed banks and seized weapons from police stations. If criminal activity had truly enriched the group, members would have no need to engage in theft to sustain themselves. They could more easily buy foodstuff and weapons. It is quite likely that Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Hamo does engage in various types of smuggling but that the proceeds from such activity is not sufficient to sustain the group.
Given the group's initial activities in northern Mozambique, in which it clashed with traditional Muslim leaders and enjoined residents to eschew the secular state, it seems plausible that it is not only fighting against the perceived oppression of beliefs (and perhaps the Kimwani ethnic group) but also to create an Islamic polity as jihadists the world over have done. The seizure of Mocimboa da Praia appeared to be part of a strategy to spark a wider uprising, but a lack of public support ultimately forced the group to retreat to the jungle once police reinforcements arrived.
Northern Mozambique's remote, thick jungle is ideal terrain for insurgents because it grants the group the ability to melt away and hide after attacks. The thick canopy makes it very difficult for authorities to monitor the movement of militants in the jungle — a challenge made even greater by Maputo's limited intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. The area also abuts the Tanzanian border, meaning members might cross international borders, as many groups do, to escape from pursuing security forces. Both factors combine to make the area an ideal militant hideout.
Aside from the brief seizure of Mocimboa da Praia, Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Hamo has shown little ability to hold and govern territory, resorting instead to hit-and-run insurgent attacks.
The lack of public support in Mocimboa da Praia notwithstanding, Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Hamo has conducted operations to shape the human terrain of the area. They have done this by targeting competing ethnic groups, as well as Muslims who disagree with their version of Islam, so as to eliminate them from the area or cow them into submission. In killing the opposing village leader, Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Hamo emulated an age-old insurgent tactic that jihadist groups in Somalia, Nigeria, Pakistan and elsewhere have previously employed. Moreover, Mozambican authorities have reportedly conducted mass arrests and even abducted or murdered supporters of the group. Such activity is only likely to reinforce the group's narrative about oppression, however, fueling further recruitment, particularly as many lack jobs in the area.
But aside from the brief seizure of Mocimboa da Praia, Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Hamo has shown little ability to hold and govern territory, resorting instead to hit-and-run insurgent attacks. The group has staged at least two rudimentary ambushes against mobile police units and even attacked police stations, but such outposts hardly constitute hard targets. Furthermore, the militants have not even succeeded in quickly capturing the stations after besieging them, indicating that their operational capabilities remain low.
The group does possess some assault rifles but lacks enough weapons to arm every fighter, leaving some to brandish only machetes. As for explosives, Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Hamo has yet to utilize bombs in any attack.
And even if some of the group's members have received training in militant camps abroad, they appear to have received little more than basic infantry skills, rather than leadership, planning or terrorist tradecraft skills. Similarly, the police in Cabo Delgado lack effective training and equipment, meaning they would be extremely vulnerable to militants trained by more professional groups such as the Somali al Shabaab. The Mozambique-based group, however, has shown no indication that it is capable of executing complex military operations or attacks. In fact, their shortage of weapons, lack of explosives and rudimentary tactical ability are clear indications that the group does not receive support from outside jihadists such as the Somali al Shabaab or the Islamic State, even if some of Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Hamo members aspire to emulate these organizations.
Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Hamo's lack of sophistication suggests that energy businesses operating in the area can protect their assets in the region if they enact effective security measures similar to those used in other hotspots like Algeria.
Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Hamo has displayed brutality, but its lack of sophistication means that businesses operating in the area, especially in the energy industry, will be able to protect their assets in the region if they enact effective security measures similar to those used in other hotspots like Algeria. However, softer targets like nongovernmental organizations and aid workers — or energy personnel as they travel on roads in the region — will likely be more vulnerable, mainly because they are unlikely to enjoy the same level of security as energy facilities. Local government targets and the nearby population will likewise present an easier target for the group.
In the face of an emerging group like Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Hamo that feeds off a sense of oppression, Mozambique's authorities will be obliged to choose whether to help mitigate the threat by addressing grievances or worsen matters by inflaming them. At present, the abilities of the group pale in comparison to those of the Islamic State or, closer to home, even al Shabaab. That said, the upstart organization could hone its capabilities over time and acquire more weapons, eventually transforming it from an outfit that conducts hit-and-run attacks from jungle hideouts into one capable of holding territory. Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Hamo's development — as well as Maputo's reaction — warrants close attention in the months and years to come.