Insurgency in Cabo Delgado: How radical Islamist ASWJ can disrupt established ‘drug peace’ in Mozambique
By: Alessia Cappelletti
In the 1990s, drug traffickers started to prefer East African corridors over the more usual Balkan route, as the eyes of the world pointed at post-conflict Yugoslavia. The countries along the Indian Ocean coastline, especially Kenya and Tanzania, became the protagonists of this trafficking scheme. Despite being often overlooked, Mozambique has also been playing a pivotal role in drug trafficking to Europe and South Africa.
The drug economy is widely integrated into the social and political fabric of Mozambique. In 2018, extensive research carried out from ENACT Africa shed light on the intricate yet highly regulated trafficking scheme put in place in Mozambique. The illicit ring is led by Mohamed Bachir Suleman (MBS) and families of Asian descent with ties to the political elites. The ring smuggles heroin and hashish easily in and out of the country, passing through Dubai or the Indian Ocean, with complete political protection.
MBS is still thought to have a substantial influence over the Mozambican drug trade, despite his bad health and a US blacklisting for drug trafficking. His second man is Momade Rassul Abdul Rahim, who has ties with the presidential party and he is FRELIMO’s economic agent. Despite his involvement in illegal activities and his arrest for money laundering in 2017, Rassul is still referred to in Mozambican media as a ‘businessman.’
The second and third families tied to MBS are run by Gulam Rassul Moti and Faruk Ayoob, respectively. Moti is based in the city of Nacala and manages the port. According to a leaked US report, Moti mostly introduces heroin in the country through the port of Nacala using dhow boats, whereas MBS imports drugs from Pakistan through Dubai, hidden in containers. The network would hide the drugs among goods imported for the political elites, and therefore tax and control free.
Given the high-level corruption present in the country, it is rumored that there is some level of informal state regulation of the drug trade. Mozambique served as a transit country for heroin since the 1990s. Yet, in this period, there has been no drug war, no high-level conviction, and no significant quantity of heroin seizures registered.
This means that either (1) no heroin passes through Mozambique, or (2) the trafficking network has been working very smoothly for the past 30 years and enjoys protection at high political levels. Given that foreign bodies do identify MBS as a drug trafficker; there are proven connections between the political elites and businesspeople linked to the drug trade; and local level police and customs officers report incongruencies and malpractice in law enforcement, option (2) is more likely to be true. These mechanisms create a 'drug peace' in which the flow of illicit goods runs without encountering problems or rivalries, and the roles of who manages such flow are clearly assigned.
However, three events signal that a shift in the power dynamics of the Mozambican drug trade is likely to happen soon. The first event was the newly elected president Nyusi in 2015. Since his presidency, ties to the illegal drug trade and the presidential office appear less strong, since the president does not seem to have relations with the underworld. Second, there is evidence of grassroots 'freelancer' drug mules organizing themselves independently through social media and driving heroin around the country. This practice functions quite effortlessly since bribery is a common and effective practice throughout the country. Third, and perhaps most importantly, there is a new powerful player in the field who may have the tools needed to take away the drug business from elite families; Islamist insurgency in Cabo Delgado, Al-Sunnah Wa Jamo.
A new player in the field
Al-Sunnah Wa Jamo (ASWJ) is a militia of Islamist imprint born in 2007 in the northern region of Cabo Delgado. Initially, the ASWJ was created in collaboration with the Islamic State Central African Republic (ISCAP). The government and other stakeholders have widely underestimated ASWJ until in 2017 they attacked the city of Mocimboa da Praia and repeatedly stormed nearby villages. More so, in August 2020, they commandeered Mocimboa da Praia as their ‘new capital’, which they still occupy to date.
The group has been increasing the lethality and frequency of the attacks. On November 9, ASWJ beheaded 50 people in the Muidumbe area, making clear to the eyes of the world that they are a threat to be taken seriously. The UN calls for a thorough investigation of the attack, whilst the Mozambican government asks for foreign aid to combat the militant forces, as their strategic sophistication is improving dramatically.
There is no documentation to date that proves ASWJ is involved in heroin trafficking; however, the group has demonstrated to be a militarily competent player. It conquered a significant port city and has also increased its maritime capabilities to the extent that in mid-September it overran four Islands of the Quirimbas Archipelago, known to be used for drug transshipments. ASWJ also took hold of the main road going north to south, which gives them quite some power over import and export activities.
ASWJ has all the cards in place to start profiting from the Mozambican transit corridor as active players or as ‘tax authorities’ of the illegal trade, giving them access to a 600 million dollar market. If they decide to do so, ASWJ and political elites would need to find an agreement on how to manage the trade that has been so far peacefully carried out. This could be a somewhat complex arrangement to make, as the rule of ‘no dialogue with terrorists’ may hold true for corrupt governments as well.
In addition to the war against radical Islam, then, Mozambique may be on the verge of witnessing its very first drug war. If ASWJ is to get directly involved with drug trafficking, ruling families who have been making a profit from it since the 1990s may be quite discontent. In that case, the options are two. First, an open war between the families and ASWJ could consolidate the ties between drug traffickers and the government further, making sanctioning a semi-formal alliance possible. Or second, the inclusion of a branch of the Islamic State into the country's institutionalized drug peace, reducing the chances of defeating ASWJ to zero. Whatever the outcome, sustainable peace is not an option for the foreseeable future of the country.
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About the author:
Alessia Cappelletti is a Global Security Analyst and Program Manager of DEWIS. She has field experience in South America, Colombia especially, which makes her largely acquainted with the security challenges of the Latin American context. Her expertise includes conflict analysis and investigation, human rights protection, and criminality.