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The “Central African” Jihad: Islamism and Nation-Building in Mozambique and Uganda
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The “Central African” Jihad: Islamism and Nation-Building in Mozambique and Uganda

James Barnett

The Islamic State (IS) has not scored many propaganda victories in the year since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed by U.S. forces in Idlib, which makes the recent seizure of a Mozambican port by IS-linked jihadists all the more significant. On August 12, 2020, militants seized Mocímboa da Praia in the gas-rich Cabo Delgado province from a demoralized Mozambican army running low on ammunition. This assault on a city of 30,000—the militants’ third and most successful this year 1—marked a notable evolution in an insurgency that began three years ago and was initially characterized by crude and sporadic attacks on villages in the northern province. 2 IS media channels were quick to produce triumphalist statements about the operation, which it attributed to soldiers in its newest affiliate, the Central Africa Province (Wilayat Wasat Ifriqiya or ISCAP).

Since mid-2019, ISCAP has claimed attacks in both eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and northern Mozambique, yet the affiliate remains poorly understood. ISCAP does not represent a single group but rather two independent insurgencies, one waged by a DRC-based Ugandan rebel group, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), and the other by a group of insurgents in Cabo Delgado alternatively known as Ansar Sunnah, al-Shabaab (no formal relation to the Somali group), or Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jama’ah aka ASWJ (meaning “adherents to the Sunnah and the community,” a term sometimes used to refer to all Sunni Muslims). The nature of these two groups’ ties with each other and the wider Islamic State network remains vague, but this need not preclude an interrogation of how Salafi-jihadist insurgencies emerged in two areas without long histories of such radicalization.

While the ADF’s and ASWJ’s stories differ in many ways, they notably both emerged in opposition to regimes that came to power as Pan-African, left-wing liberation movements. For ideological, historical, and ethnopolitical reasons, both the Mozambican and Ugandan regimes were at best suspicious, if not outright hostile, to organized Islam from their first days in power. Both regimes sought to control and coopt Muslim elites in order to neutralize any potential Islamic political project from emerging. In doing so, they alienated segments of their respective Muslim communities in ways that laid the groundwork for an insurgency, more immediately in the case of Uganda than in Mozambique.

This is not to suggest that the left-wing roots of the Mozambican and Ugandan regimes are the sole factor behind the rise of these insurgencies, which are complex and multi-causal phenomena. The liberation movements are not the only African regimes to have sought to coopt Muslim elites, nor, for that matter, are Uganda and Mozambique the first countries to produce Islamist backlash through a secular political program. After all, the Afghan mujahideen first took up arms against Nur Muhammad Taraki’s Marxist-Leninist regime.
This is simply to say that we cannot understand the ideological dimension of jihadism in the cases of the ADF and ASWJ solely by examining the religious beliefs of the militants themselves. We must also consider these groups as tragic byproducts—violent discontents or dissidents of a sort—of bold but faltering attempts at a particular type of post-colonial nation-building.

The Mozambique Liberation Front’s Fraught Relationship with Islam

For centuries Mozambique’s northern coast represented the southern reaches of Muslim Swahili civilization. Swahili slave traders and the migration of the ethnic Yao brought Islam into Mozambique’s interior in the 19th century, but to this day the faith remains strongest in the northern coastal communities. 3 The Portuguese, having established a littoral presence in the early 16th century, formally colonized present-day Mozambique in 1891 but did not govern it as a single administration until 1942, contributing to strong regional divisions and a weak national identity that persist to this day. 4 The Portuguese looked down upon Islam and viewed the local Sufi turuq as part of an Arab anti-colonial conspiracy. A Portuguese official declared in 1937 that Islamism was “as disruptive and prejudicial as bolshevism,” a harsh statement in the context of Antonio Salazar’s right-wing Estado Novo. 5

As it turned out, the Portuguese would soon come to see Islam as far more tolerable than left-wing rebellion, which began in Mozambique with the establishment of the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) in 1962. Playing on regional, ethnic, and ideological divisions, the Portuguese succeeded in coopting many Muslim leaders, including in Cabo Delgado, as a counterweight to FRELIMO (the Portuguese nevertheless persecuted other Muslims viewed as seditious). The colonial authorities funded hajj for certain Muslim elites, repaired mosques, published Portuguese translations of Islamic texts such as Bukhari’s hadith, and helped East African graduates of Wahhabi institutes in the Gulf expand their presence in the country. 6 Some Muslims fought for FRELIMO, but the group never had enthusiastic support in Muslim populations, nor across the wider nation for that matter. In contrast to other African liberation movements, FRELIMO never took power through revolution and mass mobilization. Rather, a 1974 military coup in Lisbon, dubbed the Carnation Revolution, brought an abrupt end to the Estado Novo and Portugal’s empire. FRELIMO had won independence only insofar as the liberal officers behind the revolution felt it was wasteful for a small country to be fighting long wars abroad. A year after the coup, Mozambique was granted independence and FRELIMO assumed power, albeit with a weak popular mandate.

The ambivalence if not antipathy of many Muslims towards FRELIMO during the independence struggle would help sour relations between the new Mozambican state and Cabo Delgado’s Muslims, who constitute some 58 percent of the province, 7 for years to come. The shaky foundations of FRELIMO’s rule, meanwhile, contributed to the outbreak of civil war in 1977 pitting the government against a rebel outfit, dubbed RENAMO, that received backing from neighboring South Africa and Rhodesia (which both sought to punish FRELIMO for supporting fellow liberation movements in their respective countries). That same year, FRELIMO adopted Marxism-Leninism as its official ideology, declared a one-party state, and initiated a campaign of secularization. Islam was particularly affected by the party’s antireligious policies to the point that Muslims were forced to build pigsties in their neighborhoods in the name of development. 8

Some of this anti-Islamic program was rooted in ethnic and regional factors, but there was a strong ideological dimension as well. President Samora Machel was committed to modernization and collectivism as both a communal and individual project. Machel’s “New Man” would reject traditional culture and adopt a scientific mindset. 9 “Closely related to the battle for unity is the struggle to wipe out the spirit of individualism and to foster a collective spirit,” Machel noted in one of his speeches. “The struggle against tribalism, racism, false religious and family loyalty… is essential if the barrel of our gun is always to be trained on the correct target.” 10 [emphasis mine]

These anti-religious policies deeply alienated Muslim communities at a time when FRELIMO needed all the allies it could muster in the fight against RENAMO. By the early 1980s, FRELIMO adopted a less repressive stance towards Islam and instead sought to coopt Muslim leaders through national religious organizations, notably the Islamic Council of Mozambique (CISLAMO). By 1989, FRELIMO recognized the need to improve its image in the West, which culminated in a 1992 peace agreement with RENAMO. FRELIMO publicly committed to multiparty democracy and relaxed restrictions on civil society, leading to an influx of Gulf, Libyan, and Sudanese NGOs, some of which promoted Wahhabism. 11

FRELIMO never abandoned its suspicion of politicized Islam, however. It courted Islamic organizations and started bringing more Muslims into its ranks in the mid-1990s, but by 2000 it was expelling activist Muslims from its ranks, keeping only those who would not question a secular party agenda. While FRELIMO now operated in an ostensibly multiparty system (albeit a flawed one that saw many former RENAMO fighters take up arms again in the 2000s), the party still acted in many ways as a Leninist vanguard that brooked no internal dissent. For Muslims to advance within the party—and by extension, within national politics—they would have to subordinate the interests of their religious community to the party’s agenda. FRELIMO did not win any elections in Muslim areas until 2004, and only then with low turnout. 12

FRELIMO not only failed to endear itself to the broader Muslim public; it intentionally exacerbated rising tensions within the Muslim community in order to prevent the emergence of an organized challenge to its rule from some one-fifth of the population. The major fault line was between the Sufi elites—themselves a divided lot—and the newer Wahhabi community that dominated CISLAMO, the FRELIMO-backed “national” organization. There were divisions within the Wahhabi community too, however. The fact that CISLAMO’s leadership was largely South Asian or mixed-race and hailed from the south alienated Black Muslims in the north, many of whom had studied at Wahhabi institutes abroad on CISLAMO scholarships. Frustrated with the cooptation and corruption of CISLAMO leaders, some of these Wahhabi graduates founded a grassroots fundamentalist movement, Ahl al Sunnah, in the late 1990s. Some scholars, such as Liazzat Bonate, have suggested that today’s insurgency may have its roots in this group. 13

Along with this sociopolitical and religious context, it is important to understand the role of economic marginalization, and indeed exploitation, in the rise of ASWJ. Cabo Delgado, Mozambique’s poorest province, has become a flashpoint of the country’s socioeconomic grievances. Thousands of residents have reportedly been displaced due to ruby and graphite mining, port development, and agribusiness projects. 14 The province is home to immense natural gas reserves that has spurred billions of dollars in foreign investment in offshore drilling. But local communities have seen little of this money, as many jobs have gone to foreign workers. 15 The ASWJ insurgents have exploited local grievances over this inequality. A July 2020 editorial in the Islamic State’s al-Naba newsletter accused the “communist” FRELIMO and Western “crusader” states of conspiring to rob the region of its resources. 16

The origins of ASWJ itself are still murky. There is general agreement among observers that the group started out as a non-violent movement that drew support from underemployed men who were dissatisfied with both the government and Cabo Delgado’s Muslim elites. They rejected the state’s legitimacy, encouraging Muslims not to attend state schools, pay taxes, or vote. By 2015 at the latest, the group was known locally as “al Shabaab,” meaning “the youth” in Arabic, and could be seen carrying knives around the street and marching into mosques criticizing “degenerate Islam.” 17 Eric Morier-Genoud has recently proposed the most detailed origin story of ASWJ to date, suggesting that the group emerged as a scripturalist (particularly Quranist) cult from within Cabo Delgado’s Wahhabi community sometime after 2007, that it quickly fell afoul of CISLAMO—who encouraged the authorities to quash it—and that it began to militarize in response to a series of arrests in 2015 and 2016. 18

Since its first attack in October 2017, ASWJ has expanded operations rapidly. Members of the group pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in mid-2019, around the time IS media began claiming attacks in Mozambique under the ISCAP banner. By 2020 ASWJ was staging attacks at twice the rate it had in 2018 and had begun attacking more security forces. The group fundraises by partaking in local smuggling networks, though it does not appear to control the region’s contraband trade wholesale. 19 In the first half of 2020 it appeared to expand its territorial base outside of Mocímboa da Praia district before seizing the district capital and port in August. 20

ASWJ presents fundamentalist Islam as the antidote to decades of political exclusion and economic marginalization in Cabo Delgado. “We occupy [the towns] to show that the government of the day is unfair. It humiliates the poor and gives the profit to the bosses,” says a militant in one of the group’s videos. 21 The insurgency also seems to reflect longstanding ethno-political tensions in the region. The Muslim-majority Mwani of Cabo Delgado’s coast reportedly form the backbone of the group. 22 The Mwani were quite powerful in the pre-colonial era and have historically been skeptical of FRELIMO, generally supporting RENAMO in elections since the 1990s. The Mwani resent that politics and business in Cabo Delgado are dominated by the Christian-majority Makonde who hail from the interior and constitute FRELIMO’s primary constituency in the north (the current president, Filipe Nyusi, is Makonde). 23 The Makua, Mozambique’s largest ethnic group, also appear to be present in ASWJ (according to Genoud, the group was founded by two Makua). While relations between the Makua and Mwani have not always been cordial, the coastal Makua are mostly Muslim (many have intermarried with Mwani) and share many of the same grievances against Cabo Delgado’s Makonde and FRELIMO. 24

The Mozambican response to the insurgency has been heavy-handed. Mozambican security forces have been accused of numerous human rights violations including torture and extrajudicial killings. The authorities have shuttered mosques suspected of ASWJ connections, fueling local narratives of a “war on Islam” by a distant central government. Many analysts have drawn comparisons between the Mozambican authorities’ response to ASWJ with the Nigerian government’s brutal crackdown on Boko Haram beginning in 2009. 25 The parallels are notable—and disconcerting, given Boko Haram’s subsequent ascent from a small sect to one of the world’s deadliest militant groups.

President Nyusi has begun seeking the help of private military contractors from South Africa and the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group to bolster his struggling security forces. 26 The Tanzanian military announced in August 2020 that it would conduct operations along the Mozambican border and South Africa is considering ways to support counterinsurgency efforts. 27 Unfortunately, no foreign military force is sufficient to address the underlying causes of the conflict. Such an intervention could indeed catalyze an expansion of the insurgency across borders, much as Kenya’s 2011 intervention in Somalia did. Tanzania, which has produced many jihadists but has so far avoided a full-blown insurgency, 28 is particularly vulnerable given its porous border with Cabo Delgado. Considering these factors, ASWJ poses the greater threat of expansion of the two ISCAP/Islamic State-branded insurgencies.

The Struggle for Africa’s Great Lakes

When Yoweri Museveni came to power in 1986, he did so with bold plans to transform Uganda and the wider region. He and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) were of a later generation of African liberation movements that had taken to the bush to fight independent, ostensibly neocolonial African regimes rather than foreign or minority-rule governments. Museveni had been influenced by the earlier liberation movements, including FRELIMO, whose frontlines he had visited as a student in the 1960s and in whose camps he later trained. 29

Museveni’s government never repressed Islam as FRELIMO did, but he and his comrades were certainly suspicious of organized religion. As the NRM’s Ten Point Programme for a post-liberation society claimed, “sectarianism has enabled dictators and idiots to emerge, take power illegally and perpetuate their stay in power with greater ease.” 30 These critiques were well-founded. Previous Ugandan dictators such as Milton Obote and Idi Amin had exploited religious fissures to their advantage. The latter had politicized his Islamic faith as a means of shoring-up his regime domestically and soliciting support from Arab and Islamist states such as Libya. Amin’s regime was vulnerable since his own ethnic group, the Kakwa, was small. But Islam—which arrived in Uganda in the 1840s and was marginalized under British colonialism—offered some promise as a political base. 31 While still a minority at roughly 14 percent of the population, Muslims were numerous enough that they could staff the upper echelons of Amin’s security services. Amin’s regime fell to a Tanzanian invasion in 1979, unleashing a series of attacks against Muslim communities.

When Museveni took power by force seven years later, he was concerned that the Muslim community would advance an overtly political agenda as it had under Amin. Uganda’s Muslims, for their part, felt stigmatized due to their association with that regime, which facilitated the entrance of new actors onto the religious scene: The Tablighi Jammaat, a revivalist missionary movement originating in 1920s India, arrived in Uganda in the late 1970s and became a vehicle for Muslim organization. 32 Taking a page from several other East African governments—FRELIMO included—Museveni began using the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council (UMSC) created by Amin to bring the country’s Muslim leadership under control. 33 This practice was both in line with the NRM’s liberationist vision, in which a tightly controlled civil society works in support of the vanguard party’s nation-building project, and was a practical way for the new regime to consolidate its authority.

In contrast to its generally “quietist” practices in Asia, the Tablighi movement in Uganda was politically outspoken and quickly became the harshest opponent of the UMSC. Tensions emerged in 1989 when a pro-government leader was elected to the body, which led to increasingly anti-government rhetoric in Tablighi sermons. In 1991, a Christian convert who had studied in Saudi Arabia, Jamil Mukulu, led hundreds of Tablighi youths in an assault on the UMSC’s headquarters in Kampala, killing several policemen. Mukulu and his associates were imprisoned, during which time they established the radical Uganda Muslim Freedom Fighters (UMFF). Once out of prison, they established a training camp in western Uganda before fleeing under military pressure to Bunia in present-day Congo in 1995. 34 At this point, another group entered the picture: The National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU), a militant organization comprised of ethnic Bakonjo and Baamba that was fighting for the recognition of their kingdom in the Rwenzori mountains along the Uganda-Congo border. NALU formed in the late 1980s as a hardline faction of the Rwenzururu, a Bakonjo-Baamba protest movement that sought to redress the marginalization of their communities that had begun under Britain’s indirect colonial rule. 35

Surprisingly enough, the Islamist UMFF and secular NALU merged in the mid-1990s. The two groups would have never joined forces were it not for the work Sudan’s intelligence services, which were looking to support any and all opponents of Museveni’s regime. The Sudanese interest in Uganda was rooted in the complexities of Sudan’s then-raging second civil war. Sudan had been battling an insurgency in its south led by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) since 1983. Religious divisions had long contributed to Sudan’s North-South tension, but the conflict took on greater sectarian overtones after 1989 when Col. Omar al-Bashir came to power with the support of Hassan al-Turabi’s National Islamic Front. 36 Turabi, inspired by the thinking of Islamic revivalists such as Sayyid Qutb and Abul Ala Mawdudi, sought to refashion Sudan as an Islamist state. (Turabi is best known today for his association with Osama bin Laden, who moved his base of operations to Khartoum from 1992 to 1996 at Turabi’s invitation.) 37 The Sudanese had long been suspicious of Museveni—perhaps overly so 38—as he had run in the same left-wing circles as SPLA founder John Garang during their time as students at the University of Dar es Salaam. Once Museveni came to power, Khartoum was convinced that the former guerilla leader would transform Uganda into the rear base of the SPLA insurgency.

Sudanese intelligence operated freely in eastern Congo in the 1990s as Bashir was aligned with Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko, the kleptocratic “dinosaur” of African politics whom Museveni and his fellow travelers saw as a neocolonial relic and a threat to Pan-African liberation. Multiple anti-Museveni rebels, including the UMFF, NALU, and the now-infamous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), operated from eastern Congo at this time. Bashir armed each of these groups, and even invited Jamil Mukulu and other UMFF militants to Sudan to train with bin Laden’s al-Qaeda (Mukulu may have also trained in Afghanistan). 39 In a fit of pragmatism, Bashir merged UMFF and NALU along with several smaller outfits, creating the awkward rebel coalition of ADF-NALU. 40

This geopolitical angle is critical for understanding the future trajectory of the ADF and the role it finds itself in today in eastern Congo. Neither ADF-NALU nor the LRA ever posed anything like an existential threat to Museveni’s regime, and yet the Ugandans twice invaded the Congo, first in 1996 and then in 1998, to pursue these groups. 41 Museveni did so because he believed that these groups were, above all, Sudanese proxies. These invasions were part of a larger regional conflagration, the Congo Wars of 1996 to 2003, that began as an extension of the Rwandan civil war and genocide. The first war ended with Museveni and his Rwandan allies overthrowing Zaire’s “dinosaur.” The second war involved roughly a dozen African nations at one point or another, killed up to five million people, and continues to simmer today in many ways. “Africa’s World War” would fundamentally alter the regional balance of power as well as the ADF’s position in the militant landscape of Africa’s Great Lakes region.

Museveni saw Sudan’s support for the ADF-NALU and LRA as part of a wider effort orchestrated by Omar al-Bashir and Hassan al-Turabi to “Islamize” and “Arabize” the Great Lakes region, hence the imperative of dislodging the groups from eastern Congo. 42 The contest between Khartoum and Kampala in the mid-1990s thus assumed highly ideological stakes as Uganda supported a left-wing, secular and “African” SPLA against an Islamist, “Arab” regime that was seeking to weaponize religion across Africa. In Museveni’s mind, ADF-NALU did not simply undermine the integrity of Uganda’s perennially insecure borders—it threatened the ethno-religious balance of the region. In other words, African identity itself was at stake. 43

The ADF-NALU was severely weakened over the course of the Congo Wars, falling to a strength of a couple hundred men by 1999, although it managed to stage notable cross-border attacks nonetheless. 44 Uganda withdrew its forces in 2003 as the war wound down, granting ADF-NALU some respite as the newly rebuilt DRC armed forces (FARDC) did not prove to be of equal caliber. The group became embedded in eastern Congo, strengthening ties through intermarriage and recruitment with the Vuba and Nande minorities of the region (the latter being closely related to the Bakonjo-Baamba in NALU), and intermittently collaborated with other rebels (and the occasional FARDC officer). 45 Its perceived threat to Museveni’s regime diminished in 2006 when Sudan, having recently signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the SPLA, ceased its support for Ugandan rebels. 46

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, ADF-NALU appeared to have a more conventional political agenda (although Mukulu and his followers maintained certain Islamist practices 47) and hardly stood out among the myriad militant groups operating in eastern Congo. The group underwent a notable ideological shift beginning in the late 2000s, however. In 2007, Museveni’s government agreed to the Bakonjo-Baamba’s demands to recognize Rwenzururu as an independent, semi-autonomous kingdom. As a result, the NALU leadership demobilized and returned home. 48 Shedding the secular wing of the rebellion allowed the more hardline Islamists with ADF to chart the group’s course moving forward. The arrest in 2015 of ADF emir Jamil Mukulu in Tanzania, may have also contributed to a hardline shift. When Mukulu’s successor, Musa Baluku, took control of the group, it had been badly fragmented by a recent FARDC-UN operation. Placing an emphasis on jihadist ideology may have been a tactic for Baluku to assert control over the divided group. 49 Baluku might have also seen such a pivot as a way to solicit funds, recruits, and other support from transnational jihadist networks.

By 2012, ADF was using the name Madinat at Tawheed wal Mujahideen (“the city of monotheism and mujahideen”) in its internal documents, although it is not clear if this referred to the group as a whole or simply one camp. 50 In a series of videos filmed in 2016 and 2017, the group spoke of a caliphate and the imperative of killing infidels while adopting jihadist aesthetics such as the black flag of Khorasan and the use of _anasheed _(Islamic acapella songs) commonly featured in Islamic State and al-Qaeda propaganda. 51 The videos featured militants speaking in Swahili, French, Arabic, Luganda, and Kinyarwanda, indicating a desire to reach a wider East African audience. 52 The first serious evidence of ADF connections with the Islamic State came in 2018 when FARDC soldiers found Islamic State material during a raid on an ADF camp near Beni, including a hardcover book published by IS’s Maktabah al Himma. 53 In July 2018, Kenyan police arrested Waleed Ahmed Zein, a Mombasa native who served as a financial facilitator for ISIS and reportedly used hawala systems to transfer funds to the ADF. 54 Then in November 2018 the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa shut down for several days in response to a terror threat that was alternately reported as emanating from a Tanzanian cell within a Ugandan Islamist group (a clear reference to the ADF) or an Islamic State-linked group (presaging the announcement of ISCAP). 55

The ADF has proven itself resilient, but its room for further growth is limited. Only some three percent of the population in North Kivu province, its base of operations, is Muslim. 56 The group must also contend with numerous other militias. It has its turf and shows no sign of weakening, but it is highly unlikely that it could unify the majority of fighters, let alone civilians, in North Kivu, to say nothing of the wider region. Over the past two-and-a-half decades, only those Congolese rebels backed by neighboring states have succeeded in seizing and holding population centers. A group that operates under the Islamic State flag is unlikely to receive such support from the regions’ strongmen. Needless to say, these constraints on the ADF are no consolation to those communities that will continue to suffer the group’s brutality.

Transnational Connections

There remains much speculation and disagreement among analysts regarding the nature of the ADF’s and ASWJ’s ties with each other and, more importantly, with the Islamic State. With regards to the former, there is certainly a degree of overlap in networks, which is unsurprising given the porousness of borders in the region and the historical interconnectedness of East Africa’s Islamic networks. Additionally, Mocímboa da Praia has long been a transit point for migrants from Somalia and the Great Lakes region headed to South Africa. Both ADF and ASWJ are connected to jihadist networks in Kenya and Tanzania. When Jamil Mukulu’s son was arrested in 2011, al-Hijra, a Salafi organization that evolved into al-Shabaab’s Kenyan affiliate, paid his bail. 57 Many al-Hijra members fled Mombasa around 2014 amid a police crackdown and settled in Tanzania, where they joined local jihadists in places like the coastal Tanga region and Rufiji district. By 2015, some of these Kenyan and Tanzanian militants had reportedly fled into Mozambique and joined the group in Cabo Delgado. 58

Tanzanians appear to constitute a sizeable presence in both ADF and ASWJ. At least one Tanzanian cell based in Tanga reportedly split under police pressure in 2017 and sent some fighters to join the ADF and others to Cabo Delgado. 59 ASWJ fighters have reportedly received training from militants in Tanzania and, according to one detainee, ADF camps in DRC (the group also reportedly sent members to Kenya and Somalia for military and/or religious training). 60 For their part, several Congolese and Ugandans, including a fugitive imam from Kampala’s Usafi mosque, have been arrested in Cabo Delgado, along with at least one Somali suspect. 61 The group’s leadership may also include a Gambian. 62

The nature of the two groups’ ties to the Islamic State—in other words, what ISCAP really constitutes—is vague. Suffice it to say, we can confidently assess that IS communicates with members of ASWJ and ADF, as evidenced by the numerous IS claims and other media related to operations in DRC and Mozambique since mid-2019. 63 According to a UN report, based on information provided by member states, the Islamic State’s branch in Somalia (ISS) acts as the “command centre” for ISCAP and its loose network of affiliates (a separate UN panel on the DRC found no evidence of a direct ISIS-ADF link). “The ultimate goal,” according to the report, “is to consolidate a triad connection of the operations of ISIL affiliates in Eastern, Southern and Central Africa.” 64

This may well be the case, but it is worth questioning what type of “command” ISS would exercise over ISCAP. ISS consists of only a few hundred fighters, primarily based in a remote corner of northeastern Somalia. The group faces pressure from local security forces, U.S. airstrikes, and al-Shabaab and its membership is primarily Somali and presumably not well attuned to the social and political realities of eastern Congo or Cabo Delgado. 65 None of this precludes a relationship between ISS and ISCAP, but it does suggest that any “command and control” that ISS exercises over ISCAP is loose. Similarly, there are no indicators of a transfer of technology, tactics, or techniques. Both ADF and ASWJ are waging relatively low-tech insurgencies by the standards of the Middle East. In Mocímboa da Praia at least, the insurgents introduce themselves as “al-Shabaab” rather than ISCAP and insist they are locals. 66

While we should not prematurely draw conclusions about the groups’ ties to the Islamic State, it is possible that the groups will develop a stronger transnational element at some point in the future. Eastern Congo and Cabo Delgado in particular could increasingly become destinations for aspiring jihadists around southern and eastern Africa who lack the means to reach other wilayat (provinces of the caliphate) in Iraq, Syria, Libya, or even Somalia.


A tremendous amount of literature over the past two decades has examined the role of authoritarian repression, weak governance, and socioeconomic inequality in fueling radicalization. All of these factors contributed to the rise of ADF and ASWJ, but there is another element at play in these two cases: That of a guerilla movement-turned government struggling to reconcile its lofty dreams of modernization and Pan-Africanism with the aspirations of Muslim activists and the complexities of postcolonial politics.

Museveni’s efforts to bring Islam under state control sparked violent backlash that produced the ADF in short order. The group would not have evolved as it subsequently did, merging with NALU and becoming embedded in eastern Congo, were it not for the regional competition between the liberationist Museveni and the “neo-colonial” (i.e. reactionary) regimes in Khartoum and Kinshasa. The eventual splintering of ADF-NALU was also indicative of an un-bridgeable ideological divide between NRM and the ADF. Museveni could eventually accede to the Bakonjo’s demands for a semi-autonomous kingdom (although the relationship has been fraught) 67 as he had long tolerated a role for such “traditional” authorities in the modern Ugandan state. Accommodating Islamism, on the other hand, proved harder, as evidenced by the reported failure of several attempts at negotiation with the ADF. It may well have been the case that the ADF’s demands were too extreme for any reasonable regime to accept, but it is worth noting that many Ugandan Muslims feel they have not reaped the benefits of “liberation.” The 1995 constitution promised the establishment of Sharia courts for civil affairs, but these have not materialized, leaving Muslims to privately adjudicate such matters. 68 Museveni’s regime continues to seek to coopt and divide the Muslim community, and the government’s relationship with the Tablighi Jamaat is particularly hostile. 69

FRELIMO repressed organized Islam from the outset far more than NRM ever did. The fact that many Muslim communities were at best unenthusiastic about FRELIMO during the independence struggle reinforced the ideological tensions between Marxism-Leninism and Islam. The party never abandoned its suspicion of Islamic civil society even as it switched from repression to cooptation. There is less of a direct link between a specific government policy and the rise of an Islamist insurgency than in Uganda. Nonetheless, we can conclude that FRELIMO’s alliance with Islamic leaders in the 1990s was short-lived, resulting in a political system in which activist Muslims could not meaningfully advance; that FRELIMO consciously exacerbated intra-Muslim tensions by coopting Muslim leaders, thus helping undermine trust in religious elites; and that FRELIMO never endeared itself to the Muslim population at large.

The rise of these insurgencies is reflective of a larger challenge facing many African states: that of creating a compelling notion of nationhood that could serve as the basis for effective state-building. As Gérard Prunier has written, the Congo Wars showed that African nationalism is generally reactive, a force that comes out during periods of foreign intrusion but does not otherwise serve as a cohering identity. 70

The liberation movements shrewdly diagnosed many of the impediments to Africa’s political and economic development. But few of them have succeeded in forging the inclusive national identities—to say nothing of a Pan-African one—that they once promised. The emergence of the Islamic State’s Central African Province is, in part, a result of these failures.

2 The group’s first recognized attack, an October 5, 2017 assault on several police stations and government offices in Mocímboa da Praia, was relatively ambitious in nature. However, the group’s subsequent campaign consisted of sporadic and crude attacks on soft targets until mid-2018, when the group gradually began increasing its operational tempo and attacking some hard targets. For more see Bulama Bukarti and Sandun Munasinghe, “The Mozambique Conflict and Deteriorating Security Situation,” Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, June 2020,
3 Marilyn Newitt, A Short History of Mozambique (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 22.
4 Ibid., 147-148.
5 Edward A. Alpers, “Islam in the Service of Colonialism? Portuguese Strategy during the Armed Liberation Struggle in Mozambique,” Lusotopie (1999): 165-184.
6 Ibid.; and Eric Morier-Genoud, “Why Islamist attack demands a careful response from Mozambique,” The Conversation, October 18, 2017,
7 Liazzat Bonate, “Islamic Insurgency in Cabo Delgado: Extractive Industry, Youth Revolt and Global Terrorism in Northern Mozambique,” August 2018,
8 Eric Morier-Genoud, “A Prospect of Secularization? Muslims and Political Power in Mozambique Today,” Journal for Islamic Studies 27 (2007): 240-275.
9 See, for example, Machel’s speech, “Educar o Homem para Vencer Guerra Criar uma Sociedade Nova e Desenvolver a Pátria,” November 1973, available at
10 Newitt, History of Mozambique, 156.
11 Genoud, “Prospect of Secularization.”
12 Ibid.
13 Liazzat Bonate, “Muslim Religious Leadership in Post-Colonial Mozambique,” South African Historical Journal 60 (2008): 637-654; and Liazzat Bonate, “Why the Mozambican Government’s alliance with the Islamic Council of Mozambique might not end the insurgency in Cabo Delgado,” Zitamar News, June 14, 2019,
14 Joseph Hanlon, “ISIS is not driving the Cabo Delgado war,” New Frame, August 24, 2020,; “Population complains of land expropriations in Pemba: 7.50 meticais per square metre – report,” Club of Mozambique, October 25, 2018,; “The land grabbers of the Nacala Corridor,” Grain, February 19, 2015,; and Eric Morier-Genoud, “Tracing the history of Mozambique’s mysterious and deadly insurgency,” The Conversation, February 18, 2019,
15 “Minister of Labour visits Cabo Delgado, the Mozambican province about to host 2,000 foreign workers,” Club of Mozambique,
16 “Islamic State Editorial on Mozambique,” translation by Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi available at Pundicity, July 3, 2020,
17 See for example, Bukarti and Munasinghe, “The Mozambique Conflict”; Joseph Hanlon, “Islamic attacks: marginalized youth with wide networks,” Club of Mozambique, May 29, 2018,; and Joseph Hanlon, “How Mozambique’s smuggling barons nurtured jihadists,” BBC, June 1, 2018,
18 According to Genoud, ASWJ can be traced to a man in Balama district in the interior of Cabo Delgado, Sualehe Rafayel. An ethnic Makua, Rafayel had studied in Tanzania in the 2000s and joined a local Wahhabi mosque upon his return in 2007. He soon dropped out, however, in opposition to its ostensibly impure practices, subsequently ending up in jail after CISLAMO his nascent movement. By 2014, a sect had been established, either by Sualehe or one of his associates, another Makua by the name of Abdul Carimo. The sect practiced a scripturalist form of Islam, particularly Quranist (i.e. it rejected the hadith), and established compounds and multiple mosques, including one in Mocímboa da Praia. Genoud is careful to note that this movement was a sect insofar as it sought to withdraw from society rather than overthrow the state. As the movement attracted more followers it came into conflict with local Muslims and Sufi and CISLAMO officials alike. 2015-16 marked a turning point for the group as it began to militarize in response to pressure from the authorities, particularly after a deadly confrontation with locals in Ancuabe district in November 2016. See Eric Morier-Genoud, “The jihadi insurgency in Mozambique: origins, nature and beginning,” Journal of Eastern African Studies 14, no. 3 (2020): 396-412.
19 “Where crime compounds conflict: Understanding northern Mozambique’s vulnerabilities,” Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, October 25, 2018,
20 Bukarti and Munasinghe, “The Mozambique Conflict.”
21 “Mozambique: Is Cabo Delgado the latest Islamic State outpost?” BBC, May 4, 2020,
22 Eric Morier-Genoud, “Mozambique’s own version of Boko Haram is tightening its deadly grip,” Quartz Africa, June 6, 2018,
23 Francisco Almeida dos Santos, “War in resource-rich northern Mozambique—Six scenarios,” Chr. Michelsen Institute, May 2020,
24 Bonate, “Islamic Insurgency.”
25 See for example Hilary Matfess and Alexander Noyes, “Counterproductive Counterinsurgency: Is Mozambique Creating the Next Boko Haram?” Lawfare, September 1, 2019,
26 Peter Fabricius, “’SA private military contractors’ and Mozambican airforce conduct major air attacks on Islamist extremists,” April 9, 2020,; and Tim Lister and Sebastian Shukla, “Russian mercenaries fight shadowy battle in gas-rich Mozambique,” CNN, November 29, 2019,
27 “TPDF to launch a manhunt along border with Mozambique,” The Citizen, August 11, 2020,; and “South Africa ready to help insurgency-hit Mozambique, if asked,” Reuters, September 2, 2020,
28 Tanzania has so far avoided a full-scale jihadist insurgency despite signs of growing radicalization over the past decade, with numerous Tanzanian fighters joining al Shabaab and more recently the ADF and ASWJ. There are multiple possible explanations for this. For one, sectarian and ethnic polarization is much lower in Tanzania than most East African countries, a product of both the nature of its initial colonization and, more importantly, the relatively successful nation-building project of Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere (himself a mentor to many African liberation movements). Similarly, Tanzania consciously avoided intervening in Somalia for fear of inciting backlash from al Shabaab and/or nascent jihadist networks within the country. The insurgency in Cabo Delgado is too close to ignore, however, and Tanzanians reportedly constitute a sizeable portion of the group’s fighters. Suspected ASWJ militants have already once crossed the Rovuma river and conducted an attack on Tanzanian soil. See James Barnett, “A Salafi-jihadi insurgency could spread to Tanzania,” Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, November 19, 2019,
29 In 1968, Museveni led a delegation from the Students’ African Revolutionary Front at the University of Dar es Salaam, then an intellectual hub of the African Left, to visit FRELIMO-held territory in Mozambique. Museveni credited the experience with influencing his decision to wage a struggle against the Ugandan government. He also trained in FRELIMO camps for two years in the late 1970s. See Philip Roessler and Harry Verhoeven, Why Comrades Go to War: Liberation Politics and the Outbreak of Africa’s Deadliest Conflict (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 38-39; Jonathan Fisher, East Africa After Liberation: Conflict, Security and the State Since the 1980s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 40; and “Museveni salutes FRELIMO for role in birth of UPDF,” The Independent, May 19, 2018,
30 Fisher, East Africa After Liberation, 44-45. This is not to suggest that Museveni is anti-clerical or avowedly opposed to religion. He is himself Christian and has at times spoken favorably of religion’s role in society and has awarded religious leaders sympathetic to the government with positions. In its insurgent days and first years in power, however, the NRM was highly critical of the ways in which Uganda’s religious elites had historically bred division and inserted themselves into politics.
31 Richard J. Reid, A History of Modern Uganda (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 334; and Abdin Chande, “Muslim-State Relations in East Africa Under Conditions of Military and Civilian or One-Party Dictatorships,” Historia Actual Online 17 (Autumn 2008): 97-111.
32 Gérard Prunier, Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 86-87; and “Inside the ADF Rebellion: A Glimpse into the Life and Operations of a Secretive Jihadi Armed Group,” Congo Research Group, November 2018,
33 Stig Jarle Hansen, Horn, Sahel and Rift: Fault-Lines of the African Jihadi (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 130.
34 Ibid., 130-131.
35 For more see Arthur Syahuka-Muhindo and Kristof Titeca, “The Rwenzururu Movement and the Struggle for the Rwenzururu Kingdom in Uganda,” Institute of Development Policy and Management at the University of Antwerp, March 2016.
36 President Jaafar Nimeiry’s decision to declare Sudan an Islamic republic and implement nationwide Shariah law in 1983 served as the immediate catalyst of Sudan’s second civil war. However, the conflict was not simply the result of Muslim-Christian tensions. Rather, it was rooted in longstanding political and ethnoregional tensions that had been left unresolved following Sudan’s first civil war (1955-1972). For more see Richard Cockett, Sudan: The Failure and Division of an African State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016); and Zach Vertin, A Rope from the Sky: The Making and Unmaking of the World’s Newest State (New York: Pegasus Books, 2019).
37 For more, see James Barnett, “The Evolution of East African Salafi-Jihadism,” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology 26 (2020): 20-48.
38 According to Gérard Prunier, Museveni and John Garang had only briefly overlapped at the University of Dar es Salaam and had not been close associates, suggesting a paranoid miscalculation on the part of Khartoum that in fact drove the two guerrilla leaders closer together in opposition to Khartoum. See Prunier, Africa’s World War, 80.
39 Andrew McGregor, “Oil and Jihad in Central Africa: The Rise and Fall of Uganda’s ADF,” Jamestown Terrorism Monitor, December 20, 2007,; and “Who is Jamil Mukulu?” The Independent, May 17, 2015,
40 Hansen, Horn, Sahel and Rift, 131.
41 Prunier, Africa’s World War, 120-121, 196.
42 Ibid, 196; and Roessler and Verhoeven, Why Comrades Go to War, 144-145.
43 Roessler and Verhoeven, Why Comrades Go to War, 165-166; and Fisher, East Africa After Liberation, 163.
44 Hansen, Horn, Sahel and Rift, 135.
45 “Inside the ADF.”
46 McGregor, “Oil and Jihad”; and Hansen, Horn, Sahel and Rift, 136.
47 In 2001, the US government designated the ADF under its “Terrorist Exclusion List.” According to US officials, the group was using more Islamist rhetoric at this time to try and attract funds from the Middle East. According to one defector, the group began to implement Sharia law in its camps more seriously around 2003. However, there was no evidence that the group was particularly jihadist or linked to other Islamist groups in the region at this time. Rumors abounded in the 2000s that the group was collaborating with jihadists across Africa and the Middle East, but no compelling evidence was ever offered. Museveni in particular had incentive to play up the group’s transnational jihadist nature in the aftermath of 9/11 as he sought to position Uganda as the African counterterrorism partner of choice on the continent. For more see “Inside the ADF”; McGregor, “Oil and Jihad”; and “Uganda: LRA, ADF on American terrorist list,” IRIN, December 7, 2001,
48 “Inside the ADF.”
49 Robert Postings, “The tentative ties between the Allied Democratic Forces and ISIS,” Defense Post, December 4, 2018,; and “Inside the ADF.”
50 “Letter dated 12 December 2013 from the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo addressed to the Chair of the Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution 1533 (2004) concerning the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” United Nations Security Council, January 23, 2014, 119; and “Inside the ADF.”
51 Caleb Weiss, “ISCAP Ambushes UN Peacekeepers in the DRC, Exploits Coronavirus,” Long War Journal, July 1, 2020,
52 “Inside the ADF.”
53 Rukmini Callimachi, “ISIS, After Laying Groundwork, Gains Toehold in Congo,” The New York Times, August 20, 2019,
54 “Treasury Sanctions East African Facilitator of Intricate ISIS Financial Network,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, September 7, 2018,
55 “U.S. to reopen Congo embassy after ‘terrorist threat’,” Reuters, December 3, 2018,; and Carla Babb, “Threat from Islamic State-Affiliated Group Reason DRC Embassy Closed,” VOA, December 3, 2018,
56 “Inside the ADF.”
57 Hansen, Horn, Sahel and Rift, 138-139.
58 Millard Ayo, “IGP SIRRO: Wahalifu wa Kibiti baadhi yao wamekimbilia Msumbiji,” YouTube video, 4:01, January 5, 2018,; “Al-Shabaab Five Years after Westgate: Still a Menace in East Africa,” International Crisis Group, September 21, 2018,; and Hanlon, “smuggling barons.”
59 “The Islamic State in East Africa,” Hiraal Institute, July 2018, 40.
60 Almeida dos Santos, “Six scenarios.”
61 “Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) opens cell in Mozambique, says security expert,” Club of Mozambique, April 2, 2019,; “Homens armados entregam-se às autoridades em Mocímboa da Praia,” March 21, 2018,; and Brian M. Perkins, “Evaluating the Expansion of Global Jihadist Movements in Mozambique,” Jamestown Terrorism Monitor, May 17, 2019,
62 Gregory Pirio, Robert Pittelli and Yussuf Adam, “The Emergence of Violent Extremism in Northern Mozambique,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies,” March 25, 2018,
63 Whether it is merely a faction within ADF and ASWJ that fly the IS banner is another question and an important one to ask given the frequency or insurgent fragmentation, especially in the DRC, and especially in light of al Qaeda’s first (and to date only) claim in Mozambique in May 2020. We cannot be certain, but there are no indicators that either ADF or ASWJ has fractured in a major way. While many observers speculated at the beginning of the Cabo Delgado insurgency that multiple groups might be behind the violence, testimonies from residents suggest that the recent attacks on Mocímboa da Praia were carried out by the same men who conducted the first assault in October 2017.
64 “Tenth report of the Secretary-General on the threat posed by ISIL (Da’esh) to international peace and security and the range of United Nations efforts in support of Member States in countering the threat,” United Nations Security Council, February 4, 2020, 5.
65 For more on the Islamic State in Somalia see Barnett, “Evolution of East African Salafi-Jihadism.”
66 Genoud, “jihadi insurgency.”
67 The relationship between NRM and the Rwenzururu kingdom was rocky from the start, and its future is uncertain. In 2016, Ugandan soldiers besieged the king’s palaces and arrested him on charges of treason. See Eleanor Beevor and Kristof Titeca. “Troubling times for the Rwenzururu Kingdom in western Uganda,” Africa at LSE, London School of Economics, August 29, 2018,
68 Sadab Kitatta Kaaya, “Muslims renew demand for Qadhi courts,” The Observer, December 2, 2014,; and Muwanga Ronald, “Muslims want own law for divorce, succession,” Ugandanz, June 29, 2019,
69 Tablighi leaders have repeatedly complained of persecution and arbitrary arrests at the hands of Museveni’s government. See “Uganda’s Muslims accuse Museveni of persecution,” ENCA, December 19, 2016,
70 Prunier, Africa’s World War, 361-364.

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