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Maritime Malice: Ahlu-Sunna Wa-Jama and Lessons Learned from Combatting Abu Sayyaf


By: Kenneth Yeo and Bob Rehorst

The Ahlu-Sunna Wa-Jama (ASWJ) insurgency beheaded more than 50 people at Cabo-Delgado, Mozambique between November 6 and 8, 2020. Militants from ASWJ stormed Muatide village and dismembered the villagers at their local soccer field. ASWJ ( أهل السنة والجماعة‎), meant “adherents to the practices of the prophet”, has pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS) and has been terrorising Mozambique, East Africa, since 2017. While the Islamic Council of Mozambique claims that the conflict is not motivated by religious or ethnocultural issues, various private media sources have attributed an Islamist drive behind the ASWJ movement.

Since early 2020, ASWJ has moved from attacking isolated villages towards launching simultaneous attacks against district capitals. On 11 August, after several days of clashes with the Mozambiquan’s military, the ASWJ commandeered the port city, Mocímboa da Praia. ASWJ has since been expanding its naval capacity, indicating that the coastal area will serve as its primary base of operations. Throughout their operations, ASWJ preyed on grievances due to the marginalisation of the Muslims at Mozambique’s northern provinces to increase their support base.

Similarities between Ahlu-Suna Wa-Jama and Abu Sayyaf

This article will draw lessons from Philippine’s management of the Abu Sayyaf insurgency to confront the case of ASWJ. Abu Sayyaf shares many similarities with ASWJ. Firstly, both ASWJ and Abu Sayyaf are among the few terrorist groups with asymmetric maritime capabilities (another being al-Shabaab in Somalia). The sea is traditionally associated with trade and economy. As such, access to the seas is a force multiplier as they could engage in the illicit maritime economy like piracy, seajackings, drug smuggling and other illicit trade.

Today, ASWJ continues to commandeer the port city of Moçimboa da Praia. Control over the port allows ASWJ to enhance its maritime footprint in the Quirmbas Archipelago into the Indian Ocean. Through their control of Moçimboa da Praia, the militants have access to a shadow economy through which an estimated 10 – 40 tonnes of heroin pass each year. The port city and its adjacent archipelago provide an ideal landing area for dhows carrying illicit goods, originating from South Asia. ASWJ profits from the lucrative heroin trade due to its strategic position, which grants them access to the Indian Ocean. While the government has launched numerous offensives against the group, none have retaken the port city.

The Abu Sayyaf insurgency had also leveraged their asymmetric maritime capability to diversify its fundraising avenues. US$ 40 billion worth of cargo is shipped pass the Sulu-Celebes Seas annually, making it one of the region’s major transport routes. Abu Sayyaf has exploited the maritime economy by conducting maritime and coastal kidnap-for-ransom (KFR) operations and hijacking cargo ships to raise funds for terror.

Secondly, the archipelagic terrain had improved the survivability of terrorist groups with maritime capabilities. Through the Quirimbas and the Sulu Archipelagos, ASWJ and Abu Sayyaf have exploited the shallow waters and island chain to island-hop and outmanoeuvre security forces. As such, enforcement agencies must invest in- and synergise- both land and naval capabilities to pursue the terrorist groups.

However, these countries face constraints in their military budget. The Philippines has allocated a Ph₱ 4.1 trillion (US$ 85 billion) budget for their military in 2020, equivalent to 19.5% of their gross domestic product (GDP) forecast. Despite the high proportion of GDP allocated to defence, the Philippines is still lagging in military expenditure compared to other Southeast Asian Countries. Mozambique, too, faces similar constraints as it only has a maximum of US$ 130 million to spend on defense. With little military capabilities from the state, Maputo depended on private military contractors to combat the threat of ASWJ.

Military Lessons from the Philippines

Despite the similarities between the ASWJ and Abu Sayyaf, terrorism has declined in the Philippines but not in Mozambique. Over years of relentless military campaigns, Armed Forces of Philippines (AFP) has severely weakened Abu Sayyaf militia. As a result, the opportunity for leadership decapitation arose as the AFP killed the de facto leader of Islamic State (ISIS) in Southeast Asia, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, in July 2020.

While some analysts claim that a “military-first approach” is likely to fail, the complete disregard of military force in conflict de-escalation might be disastrous for counterterrorism efforts. Only with a superior military force can the authorities retake lost territory, defend its population, and provide public services. Without which, the authorities would neither have means of providing the local population with both the sense of security nor public services.

Most importantly, military force gives the authorities the negotiating power against rank-and-file terrorist members. Taking a page from the AFP’s efforts to de-escalate the conflict in Sulu, their military efforts had compelled 128 Abu Sayyaf members to surrender in 2020 alone. Surrendered Abu Sayyaf members have cited starvation as a motivator for their surrender. After the AFP drove Abu Sayyaf members out of their strongholds, terrorists have no means of meeting their basic living necessities for survival.

The relative success against Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines can be attributed to the authorities strategic deployment of force. The Philippines authorities recognise the land-sea nexus; how the denial of territorial sanctuaries on land impacts the terrorist’s illicit activities at sea. Military strikes targeted at Abu Sayyaf’s stronghold at Patikul since 2016 have severely weakened the Abu Sayyaf and driven maritime crime down. The AFP also supplemented its land-based military force by deploying brown water vessels to intercept fleeing Abu Sayyaf members.

The inability of the Forças Armadas de Defesa de Moçambique (FADM – Mozambique Defence Armed Force) to rally a sufficient local military force against the ASWJ is concerning. While neighbouring countries like Zimbabwe and South Africa have offered military assistance, the Maputo administration preferred hiring private military companies (PMCs). Today, they engaged South African PMCs – Dyck Advisory Group and Paramount – to address the threat in Cabo Delgado, but with little success.

Targeted Foreign Aid

Both the Philippines and Mozambique do not have the economic engine to shoulder counterterrorism efforts alone. Neighbouring countries and the international community can contribute to localised counterterrorism efforts in a targeted fashion as well. Governments in the region showed interests in offering assistance to Mozambique to combat the threat in Cabo-Delgado. However, foreign intervention, such as ones in Afghanistan, can backfire. Hence, foreign aid and intervention must be executed in a calibrated manner. Therefore, despite PMCs’ ineffectiveness in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi has opposed foreign boots in Cabo Delgado’s soil.

Nonetheless, foreign aid does not need to be in the form of soldiers fighting on the battlefield. The Philippines has received such foreign aid from neighbouring countries and international governmental organisations (IGOs). United States, Japan, Interpol, and ASEAN have supported the Philippines in capacity building in law enforcement and military front. These foreign actors respected the sovereignty of the Philippines and have never intervened with boots on the ground.

This is best exemplified during the 2017 Marawi Siege; the deadliest urban conflict in Southeast Asian history. Then, Indonesia supported the Philippines by deploying its naval assets at its northern borders to prevent intercept foreign fighters travelling into the Philippines. Singapore has supported local efforts by offering drones, urban warfare training grounds, and humanitarian aid to the Philippines. While countries banded together to support the Philippines, skirmishes at ground zero were conducted solely by the AFP despite the severity of the conflict.

Therefore, countries and organisations interested in supporting Mozambique’s efforts to combat ASWJ in Moçimboa da Praia should consider emulating the Philippines’ model. Fundamentally, assistance can manifest as capacity building programmes or the practice of defence diplomacy to improve the Mozambiquan’s military and law enforcement capabilities. Thus, improving the chances of retaking Cabo-Delgado and protecting its citizens.

The Bread and Butter Issues

While military means are necessary for counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, a holistic approach is required to avoid jiujitsu politics. Jiujitsu politics is often used by terrorist groups when governments react with overwhelming military force. Terrorist groups would then exploit grievances from collateral damage caused to radicalise previously unsympathetic individuals. Hence, it is essential to fight a limited war, warfare with the aim of changing behaviour, instead of attempting a war of annihilation, warfare with the aim to completely destroy the adversary.

The AFP attempted to overcome jiujitsu politics by encouraging voluntary surrender. The AFP recognises the harsh living conditions of Abu Sayyaf members and offers social assistance, housing, and education if they surrender. With the constant military pressure on the groups and an attractive surrender offer, the AFP reduced the militant strength of Abu Sayyaf both through kinetic and diplomatic means.

Besides targeting terrorists, the Philippines government has countering violent extremism initiatives. Through the Payapa at Masaganang Pamayanan (PAMANA), which translates as “Resilient Communities in Conflict-Affected Communities,” the government adopted a multi-agency approach to minimise radicalisation in the community. The PAMANA is involved in poverty reduction and enhancing the delivery of public service. PAMANA is also involved in social cohesion and conflict mediation. Such programmes are non-existent in Mozambique, mainly due to its inability to create safe spaces in Moçimboa da Praia.


Despite the similarities in threat between the ASWJ and Abu Sayyaf, and government capacity between Mozambique and the Philippines, the Philippines has performed better in its counterterrorism efforts against Abu Sayyaf. This difference is primarily attributed to the military effectiveness of the Armed Forces of Philippines compared to the Mozambique Defence Armed Force.

Mozambique can take a page from the Philippines to manage the threat in Moçimboa da Praia and the larger Cabo Delgado region. Firstly, the government must improve its military capacity to retake and secure its territory from the insurgents. Today, Mozambique’s military appears to lack the capacity to retake the territory from ASWJ. The administration can upgrade its military capability through capacity building programmes for the military and law enforcement agencies with the international community’s support.

Military operations should aim specifically on inhibiting maritime access of ASWJ as it will block their main source of income. This can be achieved by focusing its military efforts on the ASWJ’s coastal and archipelagic territorial sanctuaries. Additionally, neighbouring countries could support local efforts through defence diplomacy; providing Mozambique’s military with training facilities and peripheral services such as logistics, border hardening, and medical aid to support their fight against the ASWJ.

Secondly, Mozambique must fight a limited war to avoid the perils of jiujitsu politics. The government should consider a surrender package to encourage militias to lay down their arms. The surrender package does not need to be as attractive as ones offered by the Filipino government, but the option must be granted to the rank-and-file members from the ASWJ. Nevertheless, such negotiations can only be achieved with a superior coercive force.

Finally, after retaking the territory, the government must address the socioeconomic issues and improve their delivery of public services, particularly at Moçimboa da Praia. Principally, the government should focus on regaining its legitimacy of its northern province by addressing underlying grievances, possibly through vocational education and job creation. Additionally, programmes to encourage social cohesion and facilitate conflict mediation should be developed to improve inter-religious and inter-ethnic relations.

This article was originally published by Africa Nexus, an independent organisation seeking to provide focussed informational and strategic insights into extremism and conflict in Africa.


About the Authors:

Kenneth Yeo Yaoren is a Research Analyst in the International Centre of Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a specialist unit within the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) based in Singapore.

Bob Rehorst is a Global Security Analyst at Dyami and program manager at the Dyami Early Warning for International Security (DEWIS) Working group, a Netherlands-based think tank. He holds a Graduate Degree in Conflict Studies and Human Rights, and an Undergraduate Degree in Cultural Anthropology, both from Utrecht University.

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