A Hop, Skip, and a Jump: Ansar al-Sunna’s Island-Hopping

islands Mozambique Ansar al-Sunna
In Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, the fishing village of Pangane juts into the Indian ocean. Small islands, sandbars, and mangrove forests dot the province’s tropical coastline. Photo: Planet Labs, Inc.

Since April 2020, Ansar al-Sunna (ASWJ) has increasingly targeted islands off the coast of Cabo Delgado, Mozambique’s northernmost province. An April 9th attack on Quirimba Island, in which 60 individuals were taken hostage and two others were killed, appears to have kicked off this influx of attacks. Since then, numerous islands have been targeted, including Ilha Vamize and Ilha Metundo, Ilha Mechanga (Mwishanga), and Ilha Mionge. These attacks comprise part of ASWJ’s broader maritime strategy, which as of now includes controlling significant maritime infrastructure for operational support (e.g., Mocímboa da Praia port) with the potential to leverage this control to tap into pre-existing transnational illicit trades for financial longevity.

Taken together, these island attacks constitute a campaign of island-hopping; ASWJ has methodically moved from island to island within the Quirimbas Archipelago, occasionally carrying out short-term occupations. This has left many individuals rightfully wondering what the group stands to gain through lower-intensity attacks on smaller islands, and whether these attacks are primarily opportunistic. While opportunism is likely a motivator for isolated incidents, when these incidents are combined, it becomes apparent that island hopping offers three strategic advantages for ASWJ: tactical support for long-term group survival, freedom of movement, and power projection. 

Benefit 1: Tactical Support and Sustainability 

Island hopping enhances ASWJ’s tactical capabilities, contributing to group longevity. The reliance of the local population on the agricultural and fishing industries for both livelihoods and physical sustenance, particularly in the Quirimbas Archipelago and Quirimbas National Park, provide ASWJ with benefits. First, the proliferation of fishing boats provides the group with a large pool of available assets. ASWJ has consistently sought to acquire these assets, particularly small dhows, to facilitate attacks and move fighters. Second, island hopping expands the group’s access to food, namely fish and livestock. ASWJ’s status as an insurgency does not exempt it from the broader “crisis-level” food insecurity that northern Mozambique is facing, per the Famine Early Warning Systems Network. By inconsistently targeting undefended islands, the group has a high probability of procuring at least some kind of food for its fighters in each raid, even if just for the short term. If ASWJ’s most recent push to clear out civilians in northern Mozambique is successful and the group is able to occupy the islands for longer periods of time, then we could potentially see the establishment of pseudo-sea–bases that support logistics resupply and serve as launching points for attacks on the mainland. Whether this is plausible remains to be seen, as this is one of many “best case scenarios” for the group, it is an appealing strategy for ASWJ given the ease of defending smaller islands compared to strategically significant and high-profile mainland targets. 

Benefit 2: Freedom of Movement 

Island hopping grants ASWJ greater freedom of movement, in part due to weak domestic maritime enforcement capacity. Mozambique’s inability to effectively patrol its territorial waters, due to a lack of serviceable assets and naval personnel coupled with a disproportionate focus on land-based counterinsurgency operations, has left northern islands vulnerable to attack. ASWJ has capitalized on this dual capacity/political will problem, moving from island to island with impunity except for the occasional skirmish with government officials. Not only does this provide the insurgents with protection and allow them to evade detection in real-time, but it expands their geographic area of operation, further straining the FADM’s already limited monitoring and response capabilities. Taken together, this makes the islands fairly low-risk with the potential for high reward, contributing to recurrent attacks.  

Benefit 3: Power Projection 

Island hopping allows ASWJ to demonstrate its capability for multi-domain command and control, both directly and indirectly. Amidst an almost two-month–long ongoing occupation of Mocímboa da Praia, ASWJ’s ability to simultaneously expand its mainland operations north and south while carrying out attacks in the maritime domain directly showcases its growing capabilities and capacity to engage on multiple battlefronts. In true terrorist fashion, these actions aim to instill fear in the local population and create an environment of uncertainty, one in which the security services are perceived as incapable of restoring order and stability. As with other insurgent groups, this tactic has the potential to boost recruitment and human intelligence, both voluntary and through perceived necessity. This strategic messaging also extends to external actors, particularly in tourism-laden spots in the Quirimbas Archipelago. By attacking globally renowned islands like Vamize and Metundo, ASWJ can target areas of domestic and international significance without provoking an overwhelming military response, as would likely ensue if the liquefied natural gas corridor were attacked in Palma. Thus, island attacks grant ASWJ flexibility in its strategic targets with less fear of reprisal.

Concluding Concerns 

Understanding the strategic benefits of ASWJ’s island-hopping is imperative to crafting an effective counterinsurgency campaign against the group, one that adequately protects civilians both on and off the mainland. Maritime-oriented actions must be incorporated into this campaign, including but not limited to leveraging intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities to track where stolen vessels are being stored and identify any patterns to these island attacks, as well as conducting some sort of naval patrols in the Quirimbas Archipelago. This would support a proactive posture towards ASWJ while providing civilians with enhanced protection from the insurgents.