By Donnelly McCleland

The US military has reportedly joined the growing fight against jihadist insurgents in northern Mozambique. A dozen US Army Green Beret special forces began training Mozambican marines this week [17 March] in a two-month programme, the New York Times reported. The move indicates a greater commitment by the new Biden administration to the fight against the Islamic State-linked insurgency than that of the previous Trump administration. Last week Washington formally designated the insurgency — which it named ISIS-Mozambique — as a global terrorist organisation and imposed sanctions on it and its leader, whom it named as Abu Yasir Hassan. (Daily Maverick)

The significance of the US terror designation and military involvement

The US State Department announced on 10 March that it had designated ISIS-Mozambique as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation and a Specially Designated Terrorist Group (SDTG), and acknowledged that the man they called the leader of ISIS-Mozambique – Abu Yasir Hassan – had also been added to the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists. In practice, this means that it is now a crime under US law to have any financial dealings with either ISIS-Mozambique or Hassan and any US holdings they have are now frozen. There are, however, currently no indications that either has any such assets and thus the designation remains largely symbolic as a counterterrorism measure.

According to the conflict observatory group, Cabo Ligado, one of the most noteworthy aspects of the designation is that the US becomes the first country – ahead of the Mozambique government – to name a leader of ISIS-Mozambique, though it remains unclear whether being the Islamic State (IS) leader in Cabo Delgado is the same as being the leader of the Cabo Delgado insurgency. Very little is known about Hassan, beyond what is revealed in the designation – “he is a Tanzanian national, born between 1981 and 1983, and also goes by the names Yaseer Hassan and Abu Qasim.” According to Cabo Ligado: “Researchers who have worked on the insurgency’s origins believe that Hassan is not the single leader of IS in Mozambique, but does play a prominent role on the council that leads the group.”

Details about the insurgents, and even whether they form part of one umbrella group, remain patchy at best. What is known is that members of this shadowy armed group – known as Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama, or “followers of the prophetic tradition” – have been responsible for killing hundreds of people (possibly more than 2,000) and displacing thousands more since it launched its first attacks in October 2017. Locals refer to the group as “al-Shabaab”, which means “youth” in Arabic, but despite the name being the same as the terror group in Somalia, no formal links to them have been demonstrated.

What the US terror designation has clarified is the framework through which the Biden administration sees the conflict in Cabo Delgado, not as a local conflict in need of local solutions but as a theatre in the US-led struggle against the Islamic State group. It was quickly followed by the deployment of a Special Forces mission in the country to train Mozambican marines. The designation of only Hassan – a foreigner – has been a ‘gift’ for Mozambique President Filipe Nyusi who has steadfastly maintained that the Cabo Delgado insurgency is “primarily a foreign creation, led by non-Mozambicans and funded by unnamed outside actors.”

Some analysts believe the designation is ill-advised, misplaced or premature – it internationalises the group, providing the Islamic State group with the ‘legitimacy’ it seeks, acknowledging a ‘victory’ since it confirms an extension of their reach and impact on US ‘assets’ in the region. Aid agencies have also raised concerns over the designation. Analysts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) explain: “Some humanitarian groups – often the ones serving the most vulnerable civilians – rely on dialogue with insurgents to ensure the safety of their staff as they operate in dangerous areas. If such dialogue can open an organisation up to heavy consequences from the US, it can severely limit the work that organisation can accomplish. With organisations serving the nearly 670,000 civilians displaced in Cabo Delgado already so thinly stretched, the added stress of sanctions could be a significant impediment to improved aid delivery.”

Guilty parties on all sides

The US government did, however, level some criticism at the Mozambique government, saying their use of private military contractors was “counterproductive”. They also called on the government to investigate the allegations of human rights abuses by government forces and contractors, made in the recently published Amnesty International report [2 March] on the Cabo Delgado conflict. The report, “’What I Saw Is Death’: War Crimes in Mozambique’s Forgotten Cape,” documents serious violations of international humanitarian law by all parties, resulting in “widespread death, destruction, and a humanitarian crisis” that has displaced over half a million people. It contains detailed accounts of violence against civilians perpetrated by the group known as ‘Al-Shabaab’, of extrajudicial executions and other human rights violations by government security forces, and indiscriminate attacks by South African private military company Dyck Advisory Group (DAG). The report, based on interviews with 79 internally displaced persons from 15 communities, focuses primarily on the impact of the increased fighting in Cabo Delgado since a major attack by ‘Al-Shabaab’ on Mocímboa da Praia in March 2020. According to the report, “Amnesty International also reviewed satellite imagery, photographs, and medical and ballistics information. The organisation’s Crisis Evidence Lab completed an open-source investigation of available social media material. Amnesty International also interviewed analysts from international organisations, journalists, humanitarian workers, and local human rights monitors.”

Humanitarian concerns

On Monday 22 March, senior leaders with the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, warned of the urgent need to address the escalating humanitarian crisis in Cabo Delgado. They had just returned from a trip to the area, where they heard shocking accounts from survivors of beheadings, killings, rape, and other atrocities. They reported that the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) has increased from around 70,000 roughly a year ago, to close to 700,000 today, and is expected to reach one million by June. More than half of those displaced are children. About 90% of IDPs have found shelter with family and friends in urban areas, or with host communities in other villages. The Mozambican Government is developing sites for the remaining displaced people. Assistant UN High Commissioner Gillian Triggs said: “While the authorities distributed food there in December, no further distributions have occurred since, either by the Government or the UN World Food Programme.” A $254 million humanitarian appeal is reportedly only around five per cent funded. Humanitarian assistance has been hampered by delays in visa processing, logistical challenges, and security concerns.


Mozambique is one of the poorest nations in the world, but it does not lack God-given treasures and resources. In fact, some communities in the province of Cabo Delgado have witnessed how their local resources have become a curse, rather than a blessing, as illicit trade in rubies, lumber, narcotics, ivory, etc. has flourished. The escalation in extremist attacks over the past three years does seem to be connected in various ways to these criminal activities as well. The lawlessness of the province makes it a deeply challenging prospect for Christian outreach but has also resulted in a softening of hearts among the local inhabitants.

Historically, a number of people groups in the area have resisted the Gospel, embracing Islam as a “better fit” due to decades of commerce with Arab traders through the East Africa region, and as a form of resistance to European colonisation (with which Christianity was often closely associated). In addition, according to a study by Fernando Caldeira da Silva, there is evidence that the province of Cabo Delgado is also steeped in witchcraft, with a related “blood lust”. In Julio Machele’s book, Religion, Law and Security in Africa, reference is also made to the high rate of suicide: “Mozambique had by 2016 an average of 17.3 suicides per 100,000 inhabitants, the highest rate in the continent.”

So, although the recent surge in violence has recently been designated as Islamic terrorism, there does seem to be a variety of spiritual aspects to the growing crisis in Northern Mozambique. Christians and mission workers in the area have relayed some horrific accounts of attacks – against Christians and Muslims – but have also testified of a growing interest in the Gospel, not previously seen. Some Christians have been killed, and some have fled the violence, but others have remained, and some have returned as they see the “fields ripe unto harvest”. One missionary couple shared: “The positive side [to the crisis] is that the believers among the IDPs and from local, host communities are reaching out to the IDPs and those who are suffering. People groups that have been previously totally against/not open to the gospel are now more open for the good news of Jesus, and there are reports trickling in of people choosing to follow Jesus because of the situation and questions and needs it has brought up. The locals feel there is hope and that solutions can be found in the foreseeable future.”

Another couple, whose village suffered greatly, have the vision to return to a more stable region, as close as possible to where they were, and to “prepare the local church for persecution and resilience.”

Although humans have the capacity to destroy one another, believers, through the power of Jesus Christ, have the capacity to bring healing. There are indeed opportunities, amid the anguish and darkness, to make a huge impact for the Lord’s Kingdom. Many more labourers are needed, and faithful intercessors within the larger Body of Christ.


Please pray with us:

  • For the establishment of righteous governance in the region and that key grievances will be effectively addressed
  • For a spiritual breakthrough in the region, and the protection of all vulnerable civilians, including believers
  • For the Mozambican Church see the immense role they have to play in the healing of precious lives which were destroyed by the forces of darkness



Image: UNHCR/Martim Gray Pereira