This Ramadan, hundreds and thousands of the members of Tablighi Jamaat are meeting fellow Muslims in most of the countries in the world, including the US, European Union, Britain and India, which law enforcement and intelligence agencies are seeing as innocent religious interactions. But in the reality – such activities of the Tablighi Jamaat is gradually helping jihadist and pro-Caliphate outfits such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State in expanding existence in the respective countries. Tablighi Jamaat’s task in Islamizing and radicalizing the targeted nations, while the next phase of the Islamist blueprint is implemented by militancy groups such as Al Qaeda, Islamic State etcetera.
Let us look into the recent case of Mozambique, where Islamist militants laid siege to the coastal town of Palma in gas-rich northern Mozambique, leaving dozens of people dead, including foreigners. This news got attention of the international media. The Islamist militancy group in Mozambique is being waged by a group that calls itself Al-Shabaab [not the Somali group]. Al-Shabaab in African continent in affiliated with Islamic State in Central Africa Province. Although Al-Shabaab got floods of media coverage following its notoriety in Mozambique – the good is not a new entity. It originates from a local religious group named Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamaa (ASWJ), which had served as a wing of Tablighi Jamaat until 2015, when ASWJ turned towards militancy and renamed itself as Al-Shabaab.
According to counterterrorism experts, the militant group has engaged in insurgent fighting against Mozambique’s government since late 2017. Al-Shabaab has not been particularly outspoken about the goals of its insurgency, but it has articulated a desire to establish rule by a hardline version of Islamic law in Cabo Delgado. The group’s aims appear to center on undermining and degrading the Mozambican government’s military and political authority, gaining local support, and combating foreign interests in Cabo Delgado.
Religious and ethnic tensions, alongside poor regional economic conditions, are also reportedly prominent factors motivating the violence. The militants are believed by local leaders and community members to be primarily “disaffected youth motivated by complex political, economic, and social factors including feelings of marginalization and disagreements with religious authorities in Cabo Delgado,” according to the most recent US Department of State Report on International Religious Freedom.
Islamization of a Christian Mozambique
It should be mentioned here that, Mozambique is a Christian-majority country, while 18 percent of its population are Muslims – primarily residing in the north, including in Cabo Delgado province, where most of the violence has occurred.
Radical Islam has spread in Mozambique over the past several decades – mostly through Tablighi Jamaat. Additionally, Tablighi Jamaat, with the help of Mwani ethnic group – a Muslim majority ethnic group that has a large presence in Cabo Delgado, Tablighi Jamaat succeeded in generating anti-Christian sentiment amongst the Muslims in Mozambique, thus finally succeeding in creating the atmosphere for Islamic State to enter within the Mozambique Muslims – with its notorious Caliphate agenda.
Decades ago, Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamaa was founded by radical Islamic religious leaders in Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya. According to local sources, ASWJ’s early leadership included locals who had studied religious doctrine [including education in madrassas] and received military training in Tanzania, Sudan, and Afghanistan. Most of the early leadership of Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamaa were affiliated to Tablighi Jamaat.
According to researchers, one of ASWJ’s early influences was the teaching of Aboud Rogo Mohammed, extremist cleric from Kenya designated by the United Nations for providing support to Somalia’s Al-Shabaab. Rogo Mohammed was killed in Kenya in 2012, but his influence lives on. In post-Rogo period, leaders of ASWJ continued giving lectures, distributed jihadist videos of Rogo’s speeches along with other militancy group propaganda. Some members of Mozambique’s al-Shabaab were followers of Rogo in Kenya who resettled in Mozambique after his death.
During initial days, ASWJ was recruiting poor or unemployed youth by offering them small loans, after being brainwashed by the Tablighi Jamaat. Recruits of ASWJ were allowed to invest their loans in any sector, including illicit economy, such as drugs, with the target of making maximum profit. Some of those ASWJ recruits were running private brothels mostly housing Christian girls, while they also joined hands with transnational human trafficking rackets. ASWJ leaders were likely able to lure recruits into these business ventures by capitalizing on both “long-standing feelings of marginalization” and “issues of youth unemployment and poverty”.
ASWJ-Tablighi conglomerate of Islamization
Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamaa began using Tablighi Jamaat, as other militancy groups do – as vessel of radicalization and attracting people towards waging jihad against “non-Muslims” by branding them as “enemies of Allah”. This conglomerate even continued criticizing the moderate Muslims for “nor adequately abiding Islamic law. Sermons were pronounced in the local mosques giving instigations of killing those who disobey Islamic rule and denounce shariah. Subsequently around 2015, ASWJ leaders started setting up training camps in northern districts of Cabo Delgado and created a decision-making council that was reportedly responsible for crafting military strategy.
Locals interviewed by the Mozambique-based Instituto de Estudos Sociais e Económicos say that the group began recruiting youth from Tanzania and the Great Lakes region. These foreign recruits trained locals in military techniques.
October 2017 marked ASWJ’s transition to being an overtly militant group. It launched a series of attacks against police posts, killing two officers and briefly overrunning the strategic port of Mocimboa da Praia. In the following months, the militants carried out arson attacks on villages in Cabo Delgado that killed and wounded several civilians. Locals reported that some members of the group sold off their stock and businesses around this time (much of which had been built using loans from ASWJ leaders) and left their homes to travel to Mocimboa da Praia. The group likely began referring to itself as al-Shabaab at this point. There are no indications that Mozambique’s al-Shabaab is affiliated with Somali militant group of the same name, but there have been some suggestions of a connection between militants in Mozambique and Somalia. For example, some locals reported that children who were members of the Mozambican group disappeared for several months leading up to the October 2017 attacks, traveling to Somalia during this period to “participate in jihad” and study the Islamic faith.
Since its turn to overt militancy in 2017, al-Shabaab has grown into an established insurgency, in some places openly controlling territory.
Nascent Insurgency. The group operated as a nascent insurgency in Cabo Delgado through 2018. It carried out intermittent small-scale operations, an estimated 120 incidents that killed 38 people between January and November 2018. This initial phase of insurgency represented a building period.
The following year, al-Shabaab intensified the scale and scope of its operations, carrying out more than 150 attacks that killed over 450 people during the same reporting period. The reasons for the escalation in 2019 are not clear, but there are indications that the group began organizing with ISIS-linked militants from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) around this time.
At the beginning of 2019, news reports began to suggest that al-Shabaab was organizing training and operations with the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a militant group that has been waging a decades-long insurgency in eastern DRC and Uganda. Mozambican authorities arrested several Ugandan militants (likely associated with ADF) who were suspected of involvement in attacks in Cabo Delgado. A few months later, in March 2019, regional news outlets reported that an ADF offshoot, Madinat Tawhid-wa-l-Muwahidin (MTM), had opened a cell in northern Mozambique.
Clear indications of Al Shabaab and ADF’s affiliation with ISIS emerged around this time, though murkier indications of a connection between the two groups and ISIS had already surfaced in 2017-18, primarily in online forums and jihadist propaganda. In April 2019, ISIS announced the formation of the Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP) after claiming responsibility for an attack launched by ADF militants in the DRC. Not long after, in June 2019, ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack perpetrated by Al Shabaab in Mozambique, thus formally incorporating al-Shabaab into ISCAP.
There remains a fair amount of uncertainty about the role being played by foreign ISIS actors in Mozambique and the DRC. However, it is clear that since becoming integrated into ISCAP, Al Shabaab has significantly stepped up its operations and has begun to overtake and control territory. In August 2020, it captured Mocimboa da Praia, where it has continued to exert control. Al-Shabaab’s attacks have also become increasingly frequent and brutal, often displaying trademark ISIS tactics like beheadings. Between January and November 2020, the group was responsible for over 400 violent incidents that left more than 1,300 people dead. This is a substantial increase compared to the same reporting period in previous years. Al-Shabaab’s assault against the city of Palma in March/April 2021 shows that the militant threat is enduring, and it seems, growing more dire by the week.
Al Shabaab also has likely grown in size since becoming affiliated with ISIS. Though many members are local Mozambicans and Tanzanians, the group also includes foreign elements, which likely include foreigners who traveled to fight with the group, as well as those who resettled in Mozambique looking for work. For the most part, the group’s foreign members come from Somalia and the Great Lakes region. Some reports have claimed that individuals from the Middle East and South Asia are present as well, but local sources have mainly reported that the fighters speak local languages.
Whether al-Shabaab in Mozambique will sustain its operational tempo remains to be seen, but several factors suggest that the conditions in Mozambique are favorable to a prolonged insurgency, including geography and terrain and weak security forces.
Tablighi Jamaat and radical Islamic militancy
There is no doubt about Tablighi Jamaat’s direct affiliations with notorious Islamist militancy groups, such as Al Qaeda, Islamic State, Boko Haram, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Hizbul Mujahideen, Jamaatul Mujahedin Bangladesh [or Neo JMB] etcetera. In most of the countries, Tablighi Jamaat helps several so-called non-political groups in getting organized and recruiting members, until those groups finally come up as Islamist militancy outfits or local franchise of global jihadist outfits. In Bangladesh, for example, Hefzat-e-Islam, which has been deceiving people with the false pretention of being a “non-political” entity now has started exposing its face as the most notorious radical Islamic militancy outfit. Hefazat’s activities are similar to that of Africa’s Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamaa. Bangladeshi counterterrorism organizations need to take appropriate measures urgently against Hefazat-e-Isla, before it gains further strength of terrorizing the country and the region. Similarly, Indian counterterrorism organizations should bring Tablighi Jamaat activities under stricter monitoring.