Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah’s war in Mozambique, and how it threatens SA
A week ago, a radically violent group Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah – it also calls itself al-Shabaab (The Youth) and is an Islamic State offshoot – gave notice that if the South African military was to aid the Mozambique government in putting down what it termed “a justified rebellion”, it would “open a fighting front” in South Africa. That was proclaimed in Islamic State’s latest newsletter Al-Naba,
Where and how such an insurgency would be launched has been the subject of conjecture, with Cape Town, Port Elizabeth as well as Durban mentioned off the record in this context.
All three cities have large Islamic communities, some of whom have proved militant in the past, ergo: the radical People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD) which has gone strangely inactive in recent years. Intelligence sources maintain that it still has a strong following, but gone underground. Also, it is no longer a secret that al-Qaeda operated five military training bases on farms in the Eastern Cape until they were exposed by foreign intelligence services.
That said, the threat is serious enough to have caused Pretoria to prevaricate on any decision to send troops and aircraft to help its closest neighbour.
What we are aware of is that Mozambique’s Jihadist movement, in recent months, has proved to be the most brutal and violent of all African uprisings. Last week’s explicit videos of murders and dismemberings in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado Province are far worse than anything I saw while covering the war in Sierra Leone two decades ago, and that was horrific enough.
The Islamic sect’s violence is on a scale I have never experienced before: bodies systematically slashed apart and just about every victim beheaded with limbs and body parts spread about over vast stretches of public roads. If those crazy fanatics wished to make a point about their mindlessness, they succeeded.
What we are observing is almost a repeat of what was seen during the past decade with Boko Haram in Nigeria. That also started as a religious sect, as did the Mozambique insurrection three years ago and transformed into a guerrilla group with a viciously radical programme that includes the most extremely version of Sharia Law (cutting off of hands for theft and the banning of music). That does not preclude the sect being heavily involved in the drug trade out of Pakistan to finance its operations.
Al-Sunnah’s numbers are difficult to quantify but there are believed to be something like 2,000 active participants organised in tens of small cells along the coast of Northern Mozambique, with ready access to more fighters should the call goes out.
Exactly that happened when Russia’s Wagner Group entered the fray late last year with Jihadist volunteers streaming south from Kenya, Uganda, Somalia and elsewhere, all having had to traverse Tanzania, whose government made no effort to stop them. Moscow’s cohorts lasted three months and fled the country
Possibly, the Jihadists believe the same would happen if they launched such a campaign in South Africa. Certainly, our own borders are porous enough and nobody is certain how committed the SANDF would be to fight an extremely well-motivated, organised and committed fanatical religious army, especially since there have been almost 2,000 innocents already murdered in northern Mozambique .
The question now raised, and echoed by DA MP Kobus Marais when he called on the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, is whether she would urgently engage her counterparts in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to act. More pointedly, he asked whether the government could continue to ignore the escalating ISIS threat.
For its part, the Maputo government appears to be helpless in the face of an escalating insurgency.
There is powerful rivalry between the police and the military which contributes to a lack of coherence and strategy in Mozambique’s counter-terror campaign, including over which organisation leads ongoing operations and who is in charge of contracts with the various private military corporations (PMCs) that now have a lead role in combating the insurgents.
So too with political influence within Frelimo, the ruling party. Forceful figures from the Makonde ethnic group in Cabo Delgado (who are close to the president, Filipe Nyusi), including the head of the police, Bernardino Rafael, and Frelimo grandees, favour the police. The police, in turn, have managed most of the contracts with PMCs, which include the South African mercenary outfit Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), which is supplying helicopter gunships as well as other assistance in a key frontline combat role.
The military, Forças Armadas de Defesa de Moçambique (FADM), has a more junior role in combat and less access to equipment and resources and as a result, is held in low esteem by the government. As a consequence its morale is shot and any motivation to become the major force countering the Jihadists lacks impetus.
There are also economic issues at stake, highlighted by Jihadists killing employees working on Mozambique’s $23 billion natural gas project, the largest single investment project on the continent of Africa
Obviously, the investors who entered the region after substantial gas deposits were discovered in northern Mozambique a decade ago are not only alarmed, some have put investments on hold. Among them are several European companies and still more from the United States, China, India, Portugal and elsewhere.
America’s ExxonMobil and France’s Total – two major players – met in Paris last November (with French intelligence also in the picture) – the intention being to discuss security plans to protect their interests. They apparently could not find common ground to proceed.
Also in the balance is the 15 million tonne rail project which was to have been backed by Exxon Mobile – a potential $US30 billion investment. With a seemingly impotent Mozambique defence force and the guerrillas gaining ground by the week, none of this seems likely to take off.
Curiously, there are some South Africans already involved in the war, all mercenaries (to the consternation of the SA Government) hired by the Dyck Advisory Group which is owned by the Cape’s Lionel Dyck. So far, DAG has lost two aircraft, the most recent a Bat Hawk Microlight returning from a patrol and brought down by ground fire.
The seriously injured pilot was rescued from the jungle and airlifted to hospital in South Africa.