February 24, 2021
Combating the Islamic State’s Spread in Africa: Assessment and Recommendations for Mozambique
• The global Salafi-jihadi movement, which includes al Qaeda and the Islamic State, is spreading in Africa. An Islamic State–linked group in northern Mozambique is the latest case of a Salafi-jihadi group co-opting and expanding a local conflict.
• The Salafi-jihadi insurgency in Mozambique, like those in Mali and Somalia, promises to spread into neighboring countries and deliver an enduring haven to extremist militants with regional and global ambitions while exacting a steep humanitarian toll.
• The US, with allies and partners, should help the Mozambican government defeat the insurgency and resolve underlying grievances. This effort should include security assistance, humanitarian action, diplomatic engagement, and countering violent extremism programming.
The global Salafi-jihadi movement, which includes al Qaeda and the Islamic State, is spreading in Africa. An Islamic State–linked group in northern Mozambique is the latest case of a Salafi-jihadi group co-opting and expanding a local conflict. This insurgency, like those in Mali and Somalia, promises to spread into neighboring countries and deliver an enduring haven to extremist militants with regional and global ambitions while exacting a steep humanitarian toll.
Salafi-jihadi threats embedded in local conflicts are already plaguing several of Africa’s largest populations and economies. Algeria, Egypt, Kenya, and Nigeria face insurgencies within or across their borders. The Salafi-jihadi insurgency in northern Mozambique risks adding two significant economies—South Africa and Tanzania—to this list of vulnerable countries.
This report identifies several implications should the Islamic State in Mozambique (IS-M) continue its current trajectory.
• IS-M Will Establish a Lasting Foothold in Cabo Delgado Province. The Mozambican government is unlikely to sustain a military presence in Cabo Delgado due to security-sector deficiencies and competing priorities. Cabo Delgado will likely become a no-man’s-land with some pockets of IS-M control over populations.
• Poor Responses to the IS-M Insurgency Will Make It Worse. Reports of Mozambican soldiers engaged in human rights abuses demonstrate the risk that an extended military response will add fuel to the fire by generating legitimate grievances against the government.
• The IS-M Insurgency Will Worsen Political Instability in Mozambique. The interplay between the IS-M insurgency and the country’s political and security dynamics could reignite simmering conflict among rival factions from the country’s 15-year civil war. Failure to deal with the IS-M problem will also cripple the Mozambican economy in the future.
• IS-M May Target Other Countries in Eastern and Southern Africa. Terrorist attacks in South Africa or deeper in Tanzanian territory could further internationalize what is now a geographically contained insurgency.
• How the Worsening Humanitarian and Displacement Crisis Is Handled Matters for Preventing Further Radicalization. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) who face violence or discrimination could opt to return under IS-M control, which will further entrench the insurgency and risk greater retaliatory violence against vulnerable IDP populations.
Preventing the formation of a permanent Salafi-jihadi enclave on the Mozambican coast requires an international effort. The Mozambican government lacks the resources and capability to address the immediate security and humanitarian challenges. It must also pursue a long-term resolution to the underlying grievances in the remote northern province where Salafi-jihadi militants are active. Solving these challenges requires international support beyond the government’s current reliance on private military contractors and armed vigilante groups.
The IS-M insurgency is a solvable problem for the international community. It will become more difficult and more expensive, however, if IS-M becomes deeply entrenched and this conflict draws in external players pursuing their own interests. This report proposes steps that a range of international actors can take to help the Mozambican government effectively resolve the Cabo Delgado crisis.
• Security Response. Multilateral or bilateral security-sector support is needed to recapture and hold terrain from IS-M and ensure the accountability of security personnel. The international response should include limited military support for naval, counterinsurgency, and border security operations, focusing on ensuring the accountability of security personnel. The key challenge for the Mozambican government and its partners is defeating the IS-M insurgency without creating the conditions for renewed violence in the future. Any lasting solution will require effectively transitioning insurgents back to civilian life by providing exit pathways for reconcilable IS-M combatants and affiliated individuals.
• Diplomatic Response. International organizations and foreign governments with an interest in Mozambique’s stability should focus on managing the regional tensions exacerbated by the IS-M insurgency, to prevent the conflict from becoming transnational.
• Humanitarian Response. A strong and effective humanitarian response is crucial to support broader security objectives, including mitigating IS-M radicalization and recruitment. The human toll of the current conflict greatly exceeds the Mozambican government’s ability to respond. International actors, ranging from UN agencies to donor governments to nongovernmental organizations, are needed to fill the gap by providing humanitarian relief to the hundreds of thousands of individuals displaced by IS-M’s attacks. The humanitarian response must identify and meet both individual and community needs, to facilitate IDPs’ return to their homes and productive economic activity as soon as the security situation permits.
The security and humanitarian responses will require challenging the extremist ideology that has been grafted onto local grievances in Cabo Delgado province. This will require building support for locally recognized and valued religious leadership in the Muslim and Christian communities. A disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration program should include a countering violent extremism component and be embedded in a broader strategy dealing with Cabo Delgado’s IDPs.
The rapid growth of an Islamic State affiliate in northern Mozambique is the latest iteration of a frightening trend. Salafi-jihadi insurgencies, led by groups affiliated with al Qaeda and the Islamic State, are maturing across much of Africa. Several of Africa’s largest populations and economies face a Salafi-jihadi threat, either in their own territory or across borders in unstable neighbors’ territory. In North Africa, Egypt is fighting an Islamic State insurgency in its Sinai Peninsula, and Algeria is managing terrorism threats across its borders with Libya, Mali, and Tunisia. In West Africa, Nigeria faces an increasingly lethal insurgency in the northeast and a growing threat from the Sahel region to the northwest.
East Africa is destabilizing on several fronts, placing key states at great risk. Somalia is a chronically failed state whose own Salafi-jihadi insurgency has spilled into Kenya and now poses a growing threat to Ethiopia, which recently descended into internal conflict. A burgeoning insurgency in Mozambique risks creating a new permanent Salafi-jihadi foothold on the East African coast and generating new threats to two more African economic powerhouses: South Africa and Tanzania.
The Salafi-jihadi insurgency in Mozambique, like others in Africa, is co-opting and stoking local conflicts by translating historical narratives of grievance into extremist ideological terms. This insurgency, located in the remote province of Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique (see Figure 1), is rooted in long-standing social and economic conditions. But the insurgent group—referred to here as the Islamic State in Mozambique (IS-M)—formed and expanded due to more direct drivers, including recent economic changes, the Mozambican state’s handling of governance challenges, and the influence of regional and global Salafi-jihadi organizations.
The effects of the IS-M insurgency are serious and growing. The group is challenging the Mozambican government’s control over Cabo Delgado and threatening liquefied natural gas (LNG) production that is the cornerstone of Mozambique’s future economic growth. IS-M has also created a humanitarian crisis, displacing more than 424,000 people and undermining the country’s COVID-19 response. The insurgency risks worsening political instability in Mozambique and neighboring countries.
IS-M is on track to establish a permanent base for future attacks inside Mozambique and beyond. IS-M also benefits the global Islamic State organization, which increasingly relies on its African affiliates to demonstrate success. The Mozambican government’s current response will not defeat IS-M and may make the insurgency worse.
Part I of this report provides an assessment of the IS-M insurgency, including its development and capabilities. Part II provides policy implications and recommendations.
This report includes an interactive graphic, available on the Critical Threats Project’s website.
 Jessica Kocan, “Ethiopia Crisis Update: Salafi-Jihadi Militants Attempt to Exploit Ethiopia Crisis,” Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, November 16, 2020, https://www.criticalthreats.org/briefs/africa-file/ethiopia-crisis-update-salafijihadi-militants-attempt-to-exploit-ethiopia-crisis.
 The figure was created using data from Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, website, www.acleddata.com; and Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, website, https://www.criticalthreats.org/. The graphic was produced using Ntrepid Timestream software. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project’s curated Mozambique dataset is available at Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, “Cabo Ligado: Mozambique Conflict Observatory,” https://acleddata.com/cabo-ligado-mozambique-conflict-observatory/.