Khalid bin Walid Army (KBWA) Attacks on the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Analyzing the Threat of Terrorism and Extremism in Mozambique
The information, data and findings from the below brief was collected by and sourced from TRAC: Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium, in partnership with the Mackenzie Institute. Please click here to visit TRAC.
Khalid bin Walid Army (KBWA) Conducts Attacks on Free Syrian Army (FSA) Positions in Western Daraa, Syria (05/02-06/18)
The first attack occurred on 03 June where KBWA claimed to have killed five FSA soldiers in the town of Hayt, Syria. In the attack, two KBWA fighters infiltrated the FSA position—killing two soldiers and wounding two others before successfully escaping. In response to the attack, the FSA later targeted multiple KBWA positions with guided rockets.
Two days later, KBWA and the Amaq News Agency claimed another attack on an FSA checkpoint where they had claimed to have killed another five FSA soldiers. These attacks have come as a response to increased FSA presence in the Daraa area. Both attacks have appeared to be of small scale and have resulted in limited damage. It is likely that the KBWA does not have the resources to mount a large-scale attack as IS was heavily depleted during the Damascus clashes. These hit-and-run attacks will most likely be the preferred tactic in the near future as to avoid any heavy loss of personnel.
After the end of the intense clashes, reports believed that the next Assad regime offensive would take place in Daraa, Syria where IS has held a small pocket of territory. In response to this, the FSA has escalated its troop presence in the area. Over the weekend, multiple photos and videos have circulated Twitter showing the increase of FSA troops and denouncing the anticipated arrival of Assad forces.
The last Assad regime offensive against IS took place over the span of a month in Damascus. Hundreds of Syrian soldiers were killed in the fighting and eventually the Syrian Army turned to heavy airstrikes, with the help from Russian forces. After nearly 80% of Damascus was destroyed, IS was forced to evacuate. It is possible that the FSA fears the same level of deadly clashes and devastating airstrikes, which would explain their increased number of troops in Daraa.
Amaq News Agency Claim
Agency Depths: “5 members of the opposition factions were killed by an Ingushetian operation of the fighters of the army #Khaled_Ben_Alwaleed in the town of #Daraa al-Gharbi yesterday.
“#Army_Khalid ibn al-Walid – may Allah be pleased with him – the destruction of two elements of apostasy Awakening with an angry attack in the outskirts of the country #Sheikh_Said
Analyzing the Threat of Terrorism and Extremism in Mozambique
During the night of 08/09 June 2018, suspected al-Shabaab fighters attacked a village in Macomia. Ten children and three women were killed, and thirty-two homes were left destroyed. Contacts report that the children were hiding in the local school during the attack. Contacts also added that local residents are leaving the region in “droves” and are stuck between indiscriminate arrests by Mozambique police and military while facing a constant fear of attack.
The attacks remain confined to the Cabo Delgado Province, specifically targeting local residents. For now, reasons for the attacks remain speculative and though there are references to foreign influence, no specific individuals or organizations have been listed. The strength of the “group” however does not seem to exceed more than 250–280 men, and they are armed with AK-47 assault rifles and PKM light machine guns. Latest reports indicate that an unknown number of militants arrived back in the Cabo Delgado Province after receiving training in the Great Lakes Area in the DRC.
Scenario analyses for this group and others, including their possible motivations and drivers to violence, are required to understand the significance of the current (and future) threat environment of terrorism and extremism in Mozambique.
With the lack of a set doctrine, reference to an extremist motive is factually flawed. On 30 May 2018, Islamic State supporters shared a photo of IS fighters in Cabo Delgado, referring to an imminent pledge of allegiance. Since the photos, Mozambique has not featured on Telegram channels, indicating the lack of any communication with IS propaganda media channels. IS will struggle in gaining a footprint in the province as the majority of Muslims in the area adhere to Sufi Islam, rejecting an extremist ideology as propagated by either IS or AQ. A similar trend was seen in the Democratic Republic of Congo when a video was released showing fighters pledging allegiance to IS, though there were no further reports on any activities. In both cases, the nature of discontent and violent response is simply not one of familiarity with extremist ideology, and thus negates attempts at gaining an expanding footprint in the area.
A concerning indicator, however, is the presence of Swahili Sunnah, a group that propagates a more fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. The group functioned from two mosques in Mocímboa da Praia. The Mozambique Government closed the mosques, following initial attacks. The Mozambican Islamic Council previously referred to a Kenyan radical Imam, Sheikh Aboud Rogo Mohammed, who had propaganda videos that appeared to have influenced Swahili Sunnah. This Imam was killed in 2012 in Mombasa (Kenya) by unknown attackers. Links between Swahili Sunnah and international terror groups remain unverified and confined to the influence of propaganda material distributed by individual radical clerics. That a more fundamentalist ideology has taken root is undeniable, but that it serves as primary causation tends to oversimply a far more complex area of grievances.
A caveat is that IS has taken note of the development in Mozambique and attempts to exploit such discontent to further an expansion tactic cannot be completely ignored. Furthermore, Mozambique government responses, perceived as targeting Muslim communities, runs the risk of youths seeking refuge in extremist ideology. For instance, in March and April 2017, the Mocímboa da Praia District Police arrested a group of religious leaders who were accused of inciting civil disobedience. They allegedly urged people not to pay taxes, not to seek medical care in public health units, and to exclusively send their children to Qur’anic schools. These actions created anxiety among some who viewed it as Muslim-specific targeting by the government.
Current information at hand directs towards a simmering discontent with the Government that has crossed a threshold into violence. The area has been neglected in terms of socio-economic development, and with current indication of a revival in economic activities due to gas explorations, a fear that local communities will lose out on benefits could have accelerated violence. In this scenario, violence is more functional than ideological. Dissatisfaction with government relates to expropriation of land for development without perceived fair compensation, infrastructure development projects using foreigners, and accusations of human rights abuses by Mozambique security forces.
Several driving forces are present for continued attacks that could culminate in an organized threat:
- Cabo Delgado Province has the highest illiteracy rate in Mozambique with an average of 64.8%. In towns like Palma, the rate is close to 90%. The high rate of unemployment, particularly among the youth, creates an ideal recruitment environment for any militant organization.
- The presence of organized crime networks (drugs, illegal mining, and weapons) allowing collaboration with extremist groups in accessing weapons cannot be excluded. Reports already refer to involvement in poaching activities in the game reserves of the neighbouring Niassa province and subsequent selling of ivory and, in some cases, rhino horn, to fund its campaign. Militants are also raising funds through the selling of illegally mined minerals such as rubies and other precious stones.
- Complicating this situation is cultural unrest and tensions between the Makonde, Makua and Mwani ethnic groups. The Makua is the largest ethnic group in Mozambique (15%) and historically was the leading group in the Cabo Delgado Province. This dominance was reflected by the Makuas employing Makondes as domestic workers and being perceived as inferior. This dynamic evolved into the opposite as the Makua and Mwani groups became steadily marginalized by the Makonde, which took control of most of the business opportunities in the province. Consequently, resentment became prominent between the Mwani and Makonde peoples. The Mwani tribe is located along the coastal areas of the Cabo Delgado province and they are predominantly Muslim.
- Unregulated presence of foreigners imparts a concern of direct foreign influence. By January 2018 alone, the Mozambican authorities claimed to have deported over 4,000 foreign nationals in an initiative against illegal immigration. Of these numbers, there were approximately 871 Malawian deportations, 744 Zimbabweans, and 322 Tanzanians. A large percentage who were caught claimed to have been travelling to South Africa through Mozambique. This may be true as there is a large influx of illegal foreigners attempting to find work and liveable conditions in South Africa. However, due to Mozambique’s rich, natural, and marketable resources in its northern provinces, the possibility that these groups may be involved in illegal trade routes is highly plausible. Such trades include illegal logging, ruby and graphite mining, drug and people smuggling, and poaching.
In this scenario, a long-term simmering dissatisfaction with government and extremist ideologies find a common pathway by means of attacks. In a UNDP report titled “Journey to Extremism,” one of the findings specifically applies to the current Mozambique situation. The report argues that “71 percent of those involved in extremism identified ‘government action,’ including ‘killing of a family member or friend’ and ‘arrest of a family member or friend.’ This large percentage illustrates that in a majority of cases, paradoxically, state action appears to be the primary factor finally pushing individuals into violent extremism in Africa.” Due to the area known for foreigner movements, the influence of such foreigners on the area’s youth does indeed provide an opportunity for ideological influences to take hold. Yet, there is simply no evidence of any specific extremist influence. The likelihood of foreigners protecting their involvement in illegal smuggling networks could be an overriding factor, however.
Whatever scenario is to take hold in Northern Mozambique, the current situation is of grave concern, and with a Mozambique government clamping down in an indiscriminate manner, the divide is ever increasing. An environment of instability and fear favors both illicit smuggling networks and those spreading an extremist ideology. Considering that approximately 70 civilians, 16 assailants, and three soldiers have been killed since August 2017, the intent to prevent any form of government control speaks for itself. Africa shares many examples of where local grievances, discontent with development, mistrust in government, as well as an over-militarized response gave way to the formation of an organized extremist footprint, i.e., Boko Haram. Mozambique’s current pathway is one of increased attacks targeting civilians. Whether the local environment will be vulnerable, and acceptable, to the spread of extremist ideologies will ironically rest on how the Mozambique government responds to a threat they are struggling to define. However, apprehending nearly 470 people accused of violence and not approving a community voice via peaceful demonstrations does not bode well for the immediate future.
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The above has been compiled by Ryan J. Anderson, an MA student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University, specializing in Intelligence and International Affairs. He is a Junior Research Affiliate with the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security, and Society (TSAS), a research analyst at the International Counter-Terrorism Youth Network (ICTYN), and was previously a Research Fellow at the Centre for International and Defence Policy (CIDP), Queen’s University. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanandrson.