Violent  extremism  in  Africa

Case study: Mozambique

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has published a series of well-written, innovative research studies that focus on violent extremism Africa. In this effort to present the outlines of the UN research, MARTIN NICOL focuses on northern Mozambique – although the studies on which he draws cover the whole continent.

The long-running security crisis in Cabo Delgado, a province rich in natural gas and gemstones and once one of Mozambique’s major tourist destinations, began in 2017 when a gang of some 30 local youths attacked a police station to steal arms. By 2019, insurgents were declaring allegiance to the Islamic State (IS or ISIL) – but this was as “flag of convenience” for aggrieved local residents, rather than an indication of actual foreign participation (Vines, 2021). The Mozambican state, and the ruling Frelimo party, have been harried by so many issues since independence in 1974 that remote areas of the country have been completely neglected.

As a respected analyst1 has said: “The root causes of this insurgency are all Mozambican: inequality, abject poverty, local elite and ethnic politics, and organized crime” (Vines, 2021).

It is by exploiting localised grievances, and positioning themselves as alternative service providers to the formal state, that local ideological affiliates of global terrorist organisations such as ISIL and Al-Qaida have penetrated new areas. They are “grievance entrepreneurs” (Hamladji & Rizk, 2023).

The UNDP studies (2017, 2022, 2023) cover global violent extremist groups, such as Al-Qaida and Daesh, which have spread into many regions of Africa – Sahel, Lake Chad Basin, DRC, Somalia and Mozambique. Many local extremist groups have pledged their loyalty to one or the other.

Despite persistent and costly national and international efforts, states in most regions seem not to be winning the competition with them for control of their territory. The UNDP (2022) observes that:

  • these groups operate in the complex, shifting conflict ecosystems of these regions;
  • their progress must be viewed in the context of the relationships between populations and their ecosystems as well as between competing political elites; and
  • they seem to be evolving from small bands towards protostate competitors for communities’ allegiance.

Violent extremist groups in these regions are both global and local, both ideological and economic. Reform champions (and the groups themselves) operate within a wider political economy characterised by the “business models” of patrimonial elites.

“As they expand in size and resources, buttressed by a link to a global ideological orientation, some violent extremist groups organize in ways akin to local government structures. They begin to compete with the state not only by monopolizing the threat/use of violence – in this case, instilling terror – but also by promising some of the most essential local services that people are aspiring to, such as a relative sense of security, sources of income and swift adjudication of disputes” (Hamladji & Rizk, 2023).

Insecurity, poverty and violence are no accident of limited capacity. They are a product of elite interests. These elites depend on the persistence of identity group grievances and fears to bolster their positions – grievances they may create as well as manipulate. That context means that agendas of reform, modernisation or countering instability and violence need to be realistic, reflecting the true room for reform within the balance of power among these competing forces. That, in turn, entails an up to date understanding of what enables or impedes the expansion and entrenchment of violent extremist groups.

They prey on local grievances, which cement their foothold within aggrieved communities. Through their local presence, they generate the (usually illicit) revenues required to operate group structures. Those activities bring them into contact with purely criminal groups, with whom they share an interest in weakening state capacity in the areas they control, regardless of their different motivations and ultimate goals.

Common threads running through these conflicts include:

  • remoteness from the capital city (and a resulting sense of marginalisation, exacerbated by a capital-centric allocation of state resources) – Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, is over 1,600km from Cabo Delgado;
  • a sense of unfairness, discrimination or victimisation among communities (which is readily appropriated for recruitment into extremist groups), often related to abuses by state forces or associated militias;
  • perceptions of corruption (in the broadest sense of the word) among a wide spectrum of elites and powerholders;
  • grievances over (perceptions of) unfair land management, which is inextricably linked to water resource access, and associated land degradation (exacerbated by climate change); and
  • slow or ineffective state provision of justice and dispute resolution.

Violent extremist groups may take advantage of environmental degradation and unfair land management to position themselves as righters of wrongs, regulators of access to natural resources and providers of justice and administrative services, as well as livelihood substitutes. Conflict analysis needs to include not only the political dynamics between various identities, livelihoods, political groups and violent mobilisers but also the “political ecology” relationship between human populations and their ecosystems.


Each place is different and each has its own story. This is a critical point to remember when reading general summaries of trends in extremist violence. One has to understand the local, specific conditions. However, the situation seems to be generally evolving towards effective competition with the state.

The strategic threat may be shifting from the radicalisation of individuals – as explored in UNDP’s ground-breaking 2017 research study Journey to Extremism – to include this new dimension. As they get bigger and richer, some of these groups build local structures that are very like a state. Indeed, they begin to compete with governments not only through coercion but also by promising some of the most essential local services that people want, like safety and swift decisions on disputes.

They may do so cruelly and oppressively, but even that may initially be attractive to communities that are weary of lawlessness and insecurity.

This is more evident in longer- standing groups like Al-Shabaab in Somalia than in newer groups like those in Cabo Delgado in Mozambique, while those in the Sahel are developing towards the type of capacity seen in Somalia. None is yet a “caliphate,” as Daesh (unjustifiably) proclaimed itself to be, nor are any yet in power like the Taliban in Afghanistan, but the response to the threat they pose needs a strategy that acknowledges this new state of affairs.

Insurgent groups are often associated with terms such as “warlord”, or “Big Man”. Some local extremist groups carry the name of their central figure but there is also some indication that groups are shifting structurally from being classic “Big Man” patron-client organisations to “Big Idea” formations that derive their cohesion from ideological rather than personal alignment.

Extremist groups seek higher revenues. A detailed understanding of their sources of income might enable disruption of those income streams. Similarly, understanding how extremist groups use the money they acquire could enable further disruption of their “business models”. However, that disruption will only be effective if it avoids undermining the legitimate livelihoods and social fabric of specific communities.


One common finding in the UNDP studies is that “violent extremist groups rarely appear in places well served by stable, predictable governments and governance systems. Instead, they operate where there is already poverty and instability, away from capital cities, in marginalized places where public services are thin or non-existent – all of which are often the product of local powerbrokers’ interests” (Hamladji & Rizk, 2023).

Violent extremist groups’ state-like behaviour poses a fresh challenge to existing authorities to identify strategic options to hold areas under government control and retake areas under extremist control. Where the state has been experienced as abusive or ineffective, however, “the return of the state” presents a challenge. The question is “the return of what kind of state”? Over-militarised responses may indeed exacerbate the problem.

The leadership of these local groups have chosen to affiliate with a sanctioned global group. They may do so for a range of reasons. Undermining the local strategy of global groups requires an understanding of the cost-benefit calculations of local elites who join – or hold back from joining – them. However, a reductionist picture of these groups as purely economic actors – or, indeed as purely grievance entrepreneurs – would lose sight of the ideological aspects of their strategy, objectives and appeal, through which they filter local grievances to give them advantages in the competition with other elites.


The way forward is, first to understand and then develop an inclusive, targeted response. There is a need to frustrate the evolving strategies of extremist groups – beyond immediate responses to the trauma that they inflict.

The co-ordinators of the UNDP research draw the following conclusions:

A new approach is needed – one that first invests in understanding the complex ways in which these violent extremist groups win hearts and minds in different communities, acting as alternatives to state authority. With this knowledge, we can work together with national and local governments to ensure a developmental, preventive, inclusive approach where people have access to the rights, goods and services they need to live prosperous lives, thus removing the power that these groups wield. Rather than helping people to get by; getting ahead, with hope and dignity, should be the goal.

Through this approach, we can improve the lives of citizens and communities across the region and turn back the tide of violence and despair. The challenge remains complex and urgent, and our collective responses must overcome by being more informed, adaptive, innovative and inclusive to promote and sustain development and peace. (Hamladji and Rizk, 2023)


Bofin, P. 2022. The conflict in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique – a five-year summary, Daily Maverick, 20 December. Available at https://  conflict-in-cabo-delgado-mozambique-a-five-  year-summary/

Business Day. 2023. Gemfields evacuates another mine in troubled Cabo Delgado province: Insurgents linked to Islamic State attacked a nearby village in the north of Mozambique on Sunday evening, 14 February.

Davey, D. 2023. Cabo Delgado, Mozambique: Reflections on the state of conflict after five years. (Internet) 9 February. Available at /za/special-reports/2023-02-09-cabo-delgado- mozambique-reflections-on-the-state-of-conflict-  after-five-years/

Economist. 2020. Why African governments still hire mercenaries: Professional gunmen are cheap, efficient and deniable. 30 May.

Economist. 2022. Mozambique’s resilient jihadist – An insurgency in northern Mozambique is still going strong. 1 September.

Hamladji, N. and Rizk, S. 2023. The Dynamics of Violent Extremism in sub-Saharan Africa. 3 March. (Internet) IPS Inter Press Service. Available at dynamics-violent-extremism-sub-saharan-africa/

UNDP. 2017. Journey to Extremism: drivers, incentives and the tipping point for recruitment. Available at https:// UNDP. 2022. Dynamics of Violent Extremism in Africa: Conflict Ecosystems, Political Ecology and the Spread of the Proto-State. Research Paper. Available at extremism/publications/dynamics-violent- extremism-africa-conflict-ecosystems-political-ecology-and-spread-proto-state UNDP2023. Journey to Extremism in Africa: Pathways to Recruitment and Disengagement. Available at https:// publications/journey-extremism-africa-pathways-   recruitment-and-disengagement (Note that this fascinating report on interviews with former young jihadists does not include Mozambique, but the findings are suggestive.)

Vines, A. 2021. Responding to Mozambique’s Islamic Insurgency: Will Foreign Military Assistance Make a Difference? Georgetown Journal of International Affairs. Available at https://gjia.georgetown. edu/2021/09/15/responding-to-mozambiques- islamic-insurgency-will-foreign-military-  assistance-make-a-difference/


  1. Dr Alex Vines has a long experience with Mozambique, working mainly for Chatham House, a 100-year-old, independent, international relations think-tank based in the UK..
  2. Cabo Ligado – or ‘connected cape’ – is an internet-based “conflict observatory” launched by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), Zitamar News, and MediaFax to monitor political violence in Mozambique. The project supports real-time data collection on the insurgency in the country’s northern Cabo Delgado province and provides analysis of the latest conflict trends. Data are updated weekly..
  3. “Violent extremism is a diverse phenomenon, without clear definition. It is neither new nor exclusive to any region, nationality or system of belief. Nevertheless, in recent years, terrorist groups such as ISIS, Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram have shaped our image of violent extremism and the debate on how to address this threat. These groups’ message of intolerance – religious, cultural, social – has had drastic consequences for many regions of the world.” – United Nations. The UN’s Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism (2016: 1/22).

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