Terrorism is a global problem affecting many countries. Until 2017, however, southern Africa was largely spared from this phenomenon. The bloody conflict sparked by Ansar al-Sunna in northern Mozambique has since changed the region’s security landscape.
Ansar al-Sunna, also called Al-Shabaab Mozambique, is an Islamic extremist movement which has gained prominence in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province. Despite military intervention by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Rwanda since 2021, the bloody insurgency is far from quelled.
The group’s goals and operations, and the challenges it poses, are similar to those of the most feared terrorist groups in other African countries.
Boko Haram has posed a significant threat to the Nigerian state since 2009. It has also undermined the security of several neighboring states. It preys on state fragility and the resultant socio-economic challenges. Poverty disproportionately affects the rural, northern region, where Boko Haram is most active.
Decades of research on conflict in Africa made me aware of similarities between Ansar al-Sunna and Boko Haram. This prompted me to compare their origins, doctrines and acts of terror.
- the emergence of the two groups
- their ideological linkages and links with regional and international jihadist groups
- the socio-economic conditions that facilitate radicalism and recruitment
- how the two groups source their funds
- the security responses of the Nigerian and Mozambican governments.
The first similarity is that both Ansar al-Sunna (“the youth” in Arabic) and Boko Haram emerged as militant Islamist movements committed to establishing Islamic caliphates in their countries.
In Nigeria, Boko Haram set out to separate from secular society, and draw students from poor Muslim families to an Islamic school in Borno State. Its founder, Mohammad Yusuf, argued that Islam forbade western education. The group eventually went beyond targeting western education to attacking Nigeria’s political system. This included the country’s constitution, national anthem, national flag and other formal symbols.
Ansar al-Sunna, too, was not primarily politically active at first. It started by rejecting Mozambique’s educational, health and legal systems on religious grounds. It demanded that its followers support alternative services offered at its mosques – a counter-society of a kind.
Second, there is no real documented evidence of direct control of either Boko Haram or Ansar Al-Sunna by foreign jihadists. This implies a strong local context and drivers. But there are clear ideological linkages or sentiments. They both communicate with regional or international jihadist groups. The United States alleges the two movements are connected to ISIS. It also links Boko Haram to al-Qaeda.
Third, I argue in my paper that both Boko Haram and Ansar al-Sunna are largely funded by dubious and illegal sources. For Boko Haram, cross-border cattle rustling has been a substantial source of income. So are ransom payments for kidnapping, bank robberies and “tax” collections.
Ansar al-Sunna receives its funding primarily from local businesspeople, as well as cash and goods seized during attacks.
Fragile public institutions and the limitations of state security explain the two movements’ ability to get funding and potent large-caliber weapons.
Fourth, poor and even desperate socio-economic conditions provided opportunities for Boko Haram and Ansar al-Sunna to emerge in the political landscapes of Nigeria and Mozambique. Both operate in the less governed, poverty-stricken parts of their countries – north-eastern Nigeria and northern Mozambique.
Those poor conditions are typical of state fragility and limited statehood. Among the almost 40% of Nigerians living in poverty in 2018–2019, close to 85% lived in rural areas. Almost 77% were in the predominantly Muslim north. In Mozambique, Cabo Delgado has an illiteracy rate of about 60%. Some of the poorest schools and health facilities in the country are in Cabo Delgado. Unemployment is as high as 88%.
There is a striking parallel in the inequality and socio-economic exclusion of the affected regions. In both, the central government and relevant state institutions are simply absent or can’t meet the basic needs of their populations. They don’t provide schools, hospitals, roads, and other public infrastructure. They have massive youth unemployment, corruption, poverty, and underdevelopment.
Fifth, both militant groups sparked heavy-handed security responses from the respective governments. Confrontations between Boko Haram and the Nigerian state eventually led to a state of emergency in 2013 in three north-eastern states. But the group’s violent campaign escalated, taking a heavy toll on lives and property.
Similarly in Mozambique, the emergence of Ansar al-Sunna got a strong response from the security forces in 2020. Foreign private military companies joined later. In both cases, the government adopted a militaristic approach to the insurgency, without any positive outcomes.
In both countries, the insurgency dynamics and problems required political and economic solutions. These are strategies that address the root causes of conflict. Instead, regional military responses were unleashed – by ECOWAS in Nigeria, and the SADC and Rwanda in Mozambique. Both interventions are hampered by inadequate resources and insufficient funding. This clearly rules out a military solution or victory.
State fragility and governance limitations not only provided fertile ground for the rise of Boko Haram and Ansar al-Sunna. They also prevent the relevant state institutions in Nigeria and Mozambique from solving the problem.
Inequality and socio-economic exclusion in north-eastern Nigeria and northern Mozambique continue.
The central governments and state institutions are unable to address the dire socio-economic conditions and related instability.
This is why counterinsurgency efforts have had limited impact. The conflict in northern Mozambique could become a long, low-intensity war, as it has in Nigeria and Somalia. That is unless the authorities adopt counter-insurgency measures that go beyond military operations.