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13 people, taken under custody for their suspected links to the terrorist organization Daesh, are sent to court beside an accused, captured in an operation carried out by Turkish National Intelligence and Provincial Security Directorate, in Mersin, Turkey Sezgin Pancar Anadolu Agency via AFP
Report 258 / Europe & Central Asia

Calibrating the Response: Turkey’s ISIS Returnees

Turkey, like many countries, must figure out how to handle thousands of citizens coming home from jihadist battlefields abroad. None has mounted a domestic attack since 2017, but the danger is not gone. Authorities should consider adding enhanced social programs to their law-and-order approach.

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What’s new? Turkey has to deal with thousands of citizens who travelled to join ISIS and have now returned. Of the few convicted, many will soon be released from jail. Others are under surveillance. The fate of the rest is murky.

Why does it matter? ISIS’s diminished stature and measures adopted by the Turkish authorities have spared Turkey from ISIS attacks for more than three years. But while the threat should not be overplayed, it has not necessarily disappeared. That Turkish returnees turn their back on militancy is important for national and regional security.

What should be done? Ankara’s approach toward returnees or others suspected of ties to jihadism relies mostly on surveillance and detention. The government could consider also offering support for returnees’ families, alternatives for youngsters at risk of being drawn into militancy and support for returnees released after serving ISIS-related jail time.

Executive Summary

Turkey, like many countries, faces a challenge in dealing with citizens who travelled to join the Islamic State (ISIS) and have now come home. Thousands of returnees have crossed back into Turkey. Some were involved in ISIS attacks between 2014 and 2017 on Turkish soil that killed nearly 300 civilians. As the authorities stepped up counter-terrorism efforts, some returnees came under tight surveillance. Some were prosecuted and jailed. Those who returned early on are more likely to have remained undetected. The collapse of ISIS’s “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq has sapped its ability to inspire and mobilise. Turkish clampdowns have also helped spare the country from ISIS attacks for more than three years. Still, scant data exists on the diverse trajectories of former ISIS members. Ankara’s reliance on surveillance and detention to disrupt ISIS is resource-intensive and may not be fool-proof. The government could explore supplementary policies that offer help for returnees’ families, alternatives for youths at risk of being drawn into militancy and support for those released after serving time for ISIS-related crimes.

The profiles of Turkish citizens who joined ISIS varied widely and so did their motivations. They included veterans of past wars, some of whom were key recruiters; ultra-conservative Sunni Muslims, drawn by the prospect of life under strict Islamic rule; Islamist Kurds pitted against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which has carried out an insurgency in Turkey for more than 35 years and is designated a “terrorist” group by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union, and its Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG); and youth seeking glory, wealth or “purification” of petty crime or drugs. Some returned to the social circles from which they were recruited. Others, rejected by their old friends and families, blended into Turkey’s big cities.

Ankara’s reliance on surveillance and detention to disrupt ISIS is resource-intensive and may not be fool-proof.

Turkish authorities’ understanding of the ISIS danger has evolved. At first, like counterparts in other countries, they underestimated the threat that returnees could pose and in 2014-2015 remained largely ambivalent toward ISIS recruitment. That perception began to shift over 2016, especially after an ISIS attack in May that year on Gaziantep province’s police headquarters, one in a spate of sixteen attacks between 2014 and 2017 that cost hundreds of civilians their lives, but the first that appeared to target Turkish state institutions. The most recent ISIS attack on Turkish soil was a shooting at a nightclub on 1 January 2017 that killed 39 people. Since then, security agencies have kept ISIS in check, foiling plots through surveillance, detention and tighter border security. But the threat has not entirely disappeared, as Turkish officials themselves admit. Turkish policies may have pushed returnees and what is left of their networks further underground. Even a few individuals slipping through the cracks can be a serious menace if they recruit, finance or plan future attacks.

Turkey faces challenges with prosecuting and incarcerating returnees similar to those faced by other countries, but there are also unique aspects. Turkish officials still view ISIS as less threatening to national security than the PKK insurgency or what they call the “Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation” (“FETÖ”), a transnational movement Ankara accuses of infiltrating the Turkish bureaucracy and carrying out the July 2016 coup attempt. Suspects accused of affiliation with the latter two groups face tougher prosecution and sentencing. Prosecutors and judges largely assume that women who went to Syria or Iraq to live under ISIS’s rule were simply obeying their husbands and had little agency. Lawyers for the victims of some ISIS attacks suggest that with more resources, investigations might have uncovered the masterminds of the strikes, rather than just the foot soldiers who carried them out. If convicted at all, ISIS returnees tend to be jailed for three or four years for membership in a terrorist group. Hundreds are due for release soon. In prisons, some may have accrued connections and possibly also status in militant circles.

At the same time, Turkish state institutions have only recently begun contemplating what they call “de-radicalisation” or “rehabilitation” efforts – broadly speaking, policies designed to move former militants away from jihadist ideology and violence. For the most part, the authorities rely on surveillance – monitoring those they believe may pose a threat – combined with short detentions designed to scare anyone whom they think is poised to join militant circles away from doing so. To the extent that other policies exist, their goals are vague, and the approaches of the ministries involved uncoordinated. Social workers, police, imams, prison wardens and local officials lack specialised training and guidelines on how to deal with returnees and their families. Civil society actors are largely absent and officials reluctant to work with outsiders. Mid-level officials in Ankara express the need for options beyond security measures.

Despite the lull in attacks, the evolution of the Syria and Iraq conflicts could yet present Turkey with new challenges related to returnees, particularly if ISIS resurges in either country or battle-hardened fighters cross back from war zones in Syria’s north.

A number of steps could help. First, Turkey should differentiate between ISIS, PKK, “FETÖ” and ultra-leftist groups, each of which poses a different type of challenge to the Turkish state. Lumping them together muddles policy and hinders efforts to design an approach tailored to the jihadist threat. The government should ensure that overstretched judges, courts and prosecutors have the resources to investigate crimes by ISIS recruiters and returnees. Prison authorities and other agencies might share information on convicts jailed for ISIS-related crimes before their release to ensure they get appropriate support as they adapt to life outside bars. The authorities should consider what help they can offer families who seek aid in deterring youngsters from turning to militancy. They might also offer those young people extracurricular activities or jobs as alternatives. It is true that such programs have a mixed and often contentious record in other countries. But if the authorities are responding to families’ demands and are sensitive to their concerns, policies along these lines might still be valuable.

Despite the lull in attacks, the evolution of the Syria and Iraq conflicts could yet present Turkey with new challenges related to returnees, particularly if ISIS resurges in either country or battle-hardened fighters cross back from war zones in Syria’s north. Turkey has kept the threat at bay for more than three years with an approach based largely on surveillance and detentions. But a strategy toward returnees that combines security measures with social programs helping former ISIS members steer clear of militancy and supporting their families might over time be more sustainable and relieve some of the burden on the security services.

Istanbul/Ankara/Brussels, 29 June 2020

I. Introduction

Since 2013, Turkey has been a leading source of recruits for ISIS and a hub for smuggling weapons, supplies and people across the Turkish-Syrian border.[fn]A 2015 report ranked Turkish nationality among the top five “foreign fighter nationalities” in Syria and Iraq, after Tunisian, Saudi Arabian and Russian. It counted 2,000-2,200 Turks who had already joined ISIS or other jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq by November 2015. The report adds: “Turkish fighters (who joined violent extremist groups in Iraq and Syria) appear to return home in greater numbers than those from elsewhere”. “Foreign Fighters: An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq”, The Soufan Group, December 2015.Hide Footnote  The number of Turkish citizens who left to live in ISIS-held territory is high, with estimates ranging from 5,000-9,000.[fn]Some studies have estimated that between 2013 and 2016, up to 9,000 Turkish citizens, including women, have gone to Syrian or Iraqi ISIS-held territory (some more than once, returning for certain periods). The methodology of such studies is often unclear. See Serhat Erkmen, “Suriye ve Irak’ta savaşan Türkiyeli mücahitler” [Turkey’s mujahidin fighting in Syria and Iraq], Al Jazeera Türk, 25 May 2015. Ahmet S. Yayla, “Turkish ISIS and AQ Foreign Fighters: Reconciling the Numbers and Perception of the Terrorism Threat”, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, vol. 42 (July 2019). Other accounts in Turkish media and from Turkish political parties and officials hint at the number of Turkish citizens who joined. In June 2014, the Turkish daily Milliyet reported that ISIS had 3,000 Turkish members (without specifying whether this number included women). “3 bin Türk savaşıyor” [3,000 Turks are fighting], Milliyet, 13 June 2014. In February 2015, then Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said 1,000 youth of Turkish nationality (without specifying their gender) had joined ISIS. “Arınç: IŞİD’e Türkiye’den 1,000 kişi katıldı” [Arınç: 1,000 individuals from Turkey joined ISIS], Bianet, 23 February 2015; in March 2015, the Turkish daily Hürriyet reported that 2,307 Turkish citizens had joined ISIS (without specifying their gender). “Üç oğlu birden IŞİD’e katıldı” [All three of his sons joined ISIS], Hürriyet, 20 March 2015; a July 2016 field-based report prepared by Professor Ümit Özdağ for the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), of which he used to be a member, concluded that between 5,200-9,000 had joined ISIS or the al-Nusra Front, excluding women and children, whom the report estimated made up around 40 per cent of the Turkish citizens who went. Report covered in “Türkiye’nin detaylı IŞİD raporu” [Turkey’s detailed ISIS report], Cumhuriyet, 1 July 2016.Hide Footnote  Turkey is thus one of the countries with the largest number of recruits in absolute terms, albeit not relative to its population of more than 80 million. In a 2015 nationwide poll, 3.2 per cent of Turkish respondents said they knew someone who had joined ISIS.[fn]“Metropoll IŞİD anketinden şaşırtan sonuçlar” [Striking results in Metropoll’s ISIS survey], Internet Haber, 15 October 2015.Hide Footnote  Still more may have planned to join but were foiled by circumstances and could harbour sympathy for the group while escaping state scrutiny. Thousands of recruits have now returned, many seemingly slipping undetected back across the border.

Turkey initially showed an ambivalent attitude to the flow of fighters across its southern border. In the Syrian civil war’s early stages, the Turkish authorities, like their counterparts in some other countries, adopted a relatively complacent view toward young people going to join rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°178, How the Islamic State Rose, Fell and Could Rise Again in the Maghreb, 24 July 2017.Hide Footnote  In 2013 and 2014, when Turkish families notified officials of sons and daughters tempted to join ISIS, the authorities did little to stop them.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, returnee families, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote  Turkish officials claim they were “caught off guard” in the war’s early years. “Foreign fighters would come in with valid travel documents as ordinary tourists and countries of origin were not sharing information with us”, one official said.[fn]Turkish foreign ministry official, speech at workshop titled “Radicalisation, Terrorism and Foreign Terrorist Fighters: The Current State of Affairs and Future Steps”, Center for Middle Eastern Studies (ORSAM), Ankara, 2 May 2019.Hide Footnote  Western and domestic critics, however, accuse Ankara of turning a blind eye to militants’ movement across the border.[fn]Some Western officials and Turkish government critics argue that some in Ankara did not prioritise tackling ISIS because they viewed it as opposing common enemies, in that it was curbing the advance of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the YPG, and weakening the Assad regime. Crisis Group interviews, academics, lawyers and opposition party affiliates, summer 2019.Hide Footnote  Despite improved border security, illegal entry from Syria still takes place. There is also the risk of still more militants seeking to enter Turkey in the event of an all-out, Russian-backed regime offensive in Idlib.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°213, Silencing the Guns in Syria’s Idlib, 14 May 2020.Hide Footnote

While Turkey has suffered no attack claimed by or attributed to ISIS since January 2017, returnees were involved in earlier plots. The first deaths at ISIS’s hands on Turkish soil took place in March 2014, when foreign militants returning from Syria shot two security force members (also killing one civilian). The security forces had attempted to stop the vehicle carrying the militants at the boundary of the central Anatolian province of Niğde. In 2015 and 2016, Turkish ISIS members who had travelled to Syria and returned targeted pro-Kurdish movement and opposition groups (see Appendix A). From 2014 to 2017, 291 people died in sixteen attacks claimed by or attributed to ISIS.[fn]See the list of ISIS attacks and corresponding court cases in Appendix A.Hide Footnote  Turkish authorities stepped up policing efforts to crack down on ISIS after a suicide bombing at police headquarters in the province of Gaziantep in May 2016 and four strikes on tourist sites in Istanbul between January 2016 and January 2017. Ankara credits such efforts for stopping attacks for over three years, saying it has foiled more than 30 plots.[fn]Senior Turkish police officer, speech at ORSAM workshop, op. cit.
 Hide Footnote

Senior Turkish police officer, speech at ORSAM workshop, op. cit.Hide Footnote

There is insufficient data to judge the risk that Turkish returnees remain connected to ISIS or could return to its ranks, but some social dynamics that enabled past jihadist mobilisation are still present.

The 2017 collapse of ISIS’s territorial “caliphate” significantly weakened the group’s capacity to mobilise but did not make it or global jihadism irrelevant. If new opportunities to join ISIS or a new transnational militant outfit emerge, returnees – including those soon to be released from prisons – arguably could do so.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, lawyers, Turkish officials and returnees, July 2019-May 2020. Europol has also highlighted the potential threat of returnees in relation to the reestablishment of logistical, financial and recruitment cells. “TE-SAT 2014: EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report”, Europol, 2014. Hide Footnote “I still hold onto most of my previous convictions, elhamdulillah (praise be to God)”, a Turkish returnee told Crisis Group.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, May 2020.
 Hide Footnote
 ISIS cells – pushed underground by Turkey’s security clampdown – may also serve as a rear support network for the group, were it to regain strength in Iraq or Syria. ISIS continues to publish videos of Turkish militants pledging allegiance to the group, shows some signs of increasing assertiveness in Iraq and has instructed its affiliates worldwide to exploit potential disorder caused by the COVID-19 crisis (though it remains unclear if those calls have had any concrete impact).[fn]See Crisis Group Commentary, “Contending with ISIS in the Time of Coronavirus”, 31 March 2020; and Sam Heller, “When Measuring ISIS’s ‘Resurgence’, Use the Right Standard”, Crisis Group Commentary, 13 May 2020.
 Hide Footnote

There is insufficient data to judge the risk that Turkish returnees remain connected to ISIS or could return to its ranks, but some social dynamics that enabled past jihadist mobilisation are still present. Veterans of past jihadist wars remain influential.[fn]For an account of influential Turkish jihadists who were active in al-Qaeda before joining ISIS, see Doğu Eroğlu, ISIS Networks: Radicalisation, Organisation and Logistics in Turkey (Istanbul, 2018), pp. 63-69 (Turkish).Hide Footnote  A large number of Turkey’s Salafis bitterly oppose the West, the PKK and the Kurdish movement more broadly, as well as Alevis, heterodox Muslims whom Salafis view as infidels. Such social tensions do not necessarily mean that people will turn to militancy but in the past have helped push some toward violence.[fn]Together, Alevis and Kurdish movement supporters make up around 25 per cent of Turkey’s population. While there are no official statistics, estimates of the number of Alevis range from 15 to 20 per cent of the population. Judging by the electoral support for the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the proportion of Kurdish movement sympathisers ranges from 8 to 12 per cent. See “The Alevis’ fight for recognition in Turkey”, Deutsche Welle, 26 January 2020; and “Turkey elections 2018”, TRT World, 27 June 2018.Hide Footnote  The state offers little in the way of support for troubled youth. Less than 10 per cent, or some 450 Turkish citizens (around 30 of them female), of the estimated thousands who returned are imprisoned on ISIS-related terrorism charges – around half of those under arrest are awaiting trial.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish justice ministry official, July 2019. The pro-government daily Yeni Şafak reported that, of the Turkish citizens imprisoned on ISIS-related charges, 95 were convicted and 138 were convicted by the first instance courts but awaiting their final appeals, while 189 remained under arrest. “Hapiste 40 ülkeden DEAŞ’lı var” [ISIS members from 40 countries are in Turkish prisons], Yeni Şafak, 8 November 2019.Hide Footnote It remains unclear how those who have not been caught and have gone home or hidden elsewhere fare.

As many countries grapple with how to handle returnees, this report focuses on steps Turkey is taking toward its own nationals and offers recommendations for how to deal with returnees to forestall new cycles of recruitment. There is little research on the recruitment into ISIS of Turkish nationals or their return from Iraq and Syria. This report aims to start filling that gap. It focuses on Turkish nationals, rather than on the equally important challenge posed by high numbers of foreign ISIS-affiliated individual members in Turkey, some of whom say they are determined to make the country their home.

The report is based on interviews conducted by Crisis Group between April 2019 and December 2019 in Istanbul and southern and south-eastern provinces of Turkey, as well as remotely in the first half of 2020. Crisis Group spoke with returnees, as well as relatives, friends and a range of others in places where returnees are now living or from where they were recruited. Widespread fear among returnees of prosecution and the stigma attached to ISIS hampered field research, as did travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was difficult to speak to female returnees, so research related to women formerly linked to ISIS relied on interviews with relatives and neighbours, as well as lawyers who know them personally. The report also draws on interviews with Turkish state officials from all relevant ministries as well as diplomats and grassroots actors. It builds on Crisis Group’s prior reporting on Turkey, Syria, surrounding countries and ISIS activities in the region.[fn]For previous coverage of related issues, see Crisis Group Middle East Report N°273, Averting an ISIS Resurgence in Iraq and Syria, 11 October 2019; Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°72, Steadying the New Status Quo in Syria’s North East, 27 November 2019; Crisis Group Middle East Report N°208, Women and Children First: Repatriating the Westerners Affiliated with ISIS, 18 November 2019; Crisis Group Middle East Report N°197, The Best of Bad Options for Syria’s Idlib, 14 March 2019; and Crisis Group Europe Report N°252, mitMitigating Risks for Syrian Refugee Youth in Turkey’s Şanlıurfa, 11 February 2019.Hide Footnote

II. Recruitment and Return

Turkish authorities have been successful in preventing ISIS attacks since January 2017 but lack a full picture of their significant returnee population. A systematic and comprehensive assessment of Turkey’s returnees that accounts for dynamics in different parts of the country would be important to determine what measures may be needed. A one-size-fits-all formula is unlikely to work.

One key determinant of whether former ISIS associates can turn their backs on the movement appears to be the social networks in which they find themselves once back.

The authorities have made some attempts to assess risks that could offer a starting point for further analysis. In one early effort to profile ISIS affiliates in prisons, officials concluded that most were not die-hard. “We tried to gauge how hardline they were by asking questions like whether they could be friends with people who didn’t carry out Islamic requirements”, a Turkish security official said. “They had been moved by the ‘Muslims are being victimised’ line and were excited and adventurous types looking for [a] sense of cause”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish official, October 2019.Hide Footnote  Turkish authorities should build on such assessments. Policymakers might look at factors such as why individuals joined ISIS, how long they stayed with the group, what they experienced under the “caliphate”, whether they returned by choice or necessity, and how connected they remain to past networks.[fn]For factors identified as relevant elsewhere, see Edwin Bakker, Christoph Paulussen and Eva Entenmann, “Returning Jihadist Foreign Fighters: Challenges Pertaining to Threat Assessment and Governance of This Pan-European Problem”, Security and Human Rights, vol. 11 (2014); “Focus on Returnees”, General Intelligence and Security Service (Netherlands), 2017.Hide Footnote “If we could have four or five categories based on likely risks returnees could pose, these individuals can be subjected to different rehabilitation programs, tailor-made for each category”, one Turkish security official told Crisis Group.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish security official, Ankara, October 2019.
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One key determinant of whether former ISIS associates can turn their backs on the movement appears to be the social networks in which they find themselves once back. If ISIS returnees rejoin the circles that enabled their recruitment or simply maintain connections with friends who are involved with militancy, they can more easily resort to violence again.[fn]Evidence from elsewhere supports this conclusion. See Mary Beth Altier, Emma Leonard Boyle and John G. Horgan, “Returning to the Fight: An Empirical Analysis of Terrorist Engagement and Recidivism”, Terrorism and Political Violence, vol. 31 (2019); Badi Hasisi, Tomer Carmel, David Weisburd and Michael Wolfowicz, “Crime and Terror: Examining Criminal Risk Factors for Terrorist Recidivism”, Journal of Quantitative Criminology, vol. 35 (2019).Hide Footnote  Some Turkish ISIS returnees have found different lives once back in Turkey: some rejected by or themselves choosing to turn away from their past contacts, some fearing prosecution and leading hidden lives in Turkey’s big cities. Others have simply folded back into their old social networks, including in areas that in the past were fertile ground for recruiters.

A. Who Joined, and Why?

Crisis Group’s research suggests that while ISIS appealed to diverse Turkish citizens, most men fit one of four profiles, which are not mutually exclusive: veteran jihadists from previous conflicts; marginalised urban youths; ultra-conservative Sunni Muslims; and Islamist Kurds whose primary motivation was fighting the PKK/YPG. Most women, or at least those whose stories Crisis Group learned of, appear to be primarily from conservative Sunni backgrounds and were eager to live under strict Islamist rule; many left with husbands, though often remarried, sometimes more than once, after being widowed.[fn]Assessing the motives of women who left for Syria is hard. The difficulty of talking directly to these women means that any assessment must rely on the views of friends or associates of the women, but more usually of their family members or lawyers, who are often men. According to Onur Güler, a lawyer defending ISIS suspects: “Due to the culture of the pious communities, Turkish women were not prone to joining ISIS without their husbands. Instances of women making their own decisions to go without a husband appear very rare, though in one case in Konya a woman decided to divorce her husband because she began regarding him as an infidel since he was working as a police officer and, in her eyes, serving the tağut [false god] state”. Crisis Group telephone interview, May 2020. A man who said his brother had been “martyred fighting the Nusayris (the Syrian regime) on behalf of ISIS” and who had, after his brother’s death, gone to Syria to bring back his brother’s wife, told Crisis Group: “Turkish women did not join individually like European women. I don’t know of any Turkish woman there whose story was not husband-centred”. Crisis Group telephone interview, 14 June 2020.Hide Footnote  Security officials say recruitment was particularly high in certain suburbs of Istanbul, Ankara, Adıyaman, Bursa, Gaziantep, Adana, Kocaeli and Konya.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish security officials, Istanbul, fall 2019.Hide Footnote  Most recruits were aged between eighteen and 26 and often joined alongside friends and relatives.[fn]Most accounts of Turkish ISIS returnees Crisis Group came across during its field research said the individuals were in the 18-26 age group when they joined the jihadists. Other field-based accounts, Crisis Group interviews with Turkish officials and news reports corroborate this finding.Hide Footnote  Turkish ISIS recruiters, by contrast, were mostly older than 35. According to returnees’ acquaintances, recruiters sought to attract youths with promises of a richer, more pious and purposeful life under ISIS rule.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Adıyaman and Diyarbakır, July 2019.Hide Footnote

Among Turkish nationals who took up recruitment and propaganda roles for ISIS were seasoned fighters from previous conflicts in Turkey’s neighbourhood or linked to al-Qaeda attacks in Turkey in 2003.[fn]Four al-Qaeda attacks in Istanbul in November 2003 targeted two synagogues, the British consulate and HSBC bank. Fifty-eight people were killed and 753 injured. Ely Karmon, “The Synagogue Bombings in Istanbul: Al-Qaeda’s New Front?”, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 18 November 2003.Hide Footnote  Some had fought in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In the 1990s, some mobilised to join the wars in Chechnya, Bosnia and Kosovo. A stream of Turkish pan-Islamist militants travelled from Afghanistan to Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, academics, Ankara, July 2019. Also see Serhat Erkmen, “Suriye ve Irak’ta savaşan Türkiyeli mücahitler”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  ISIS seems to have exploited pre-existing networks in Turkey that had rallied people to join the insurgency against the U.S. occupation in Iraq.[fn]Aaron Stein, “The Islamic State in Turkey: a deep dive into a dark place”, War on the Rocks, 6 April 2016; Aaron Stein, “Islamic State Networks in Turkey”, Atlantic Council, October 2016.Hide Footnote  From 2012-2013, some of these veterans journeyed to Syria to participate in ISIS’ state-building project, while others played key roles as ISIS recruiters in Turkey itself.

The vast majority of Turks joining ISIS were, however, young – under 26 – and not seasoned fighters. Many reportedly hailed from rural families who had migrated to cities in the past two decades or lived in former countryside swallowed up by urban sprawl.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, locals, academics, lawyers, Adıyaman, Diyarbakır and Şanlıurfa, summer 2019. “Most of the families of those who joined ISIS I know had migrated from rural areas to cities in the last two decades. … I would estimate that 70-80 per cent of those who joined from Bursa were children of families who migrated there from the majority-Kurdish east and south east of Turkey, so most were ethnically Kurdish, possibly with sympathies for the Kurdish Hizbullah”. Crisis Group telephone interview, lawyer defending ISIS suspects, 30 May 2020.Hide Footnote  One of the world’s most rapidly urbanising countries, Turkey had one quarter of its population living in cities in 1950, a proportion that rose to three quarters by 2015.[fn]See Stephen Karam et al., “Rise of the Anatolian Tigers: Turkey Urbanization Review”, World Bank, April 2015.Hide Footnote  In the south-eastern province of Adıyaman – a recruitment hub for ISIS in 2014-2015 – much of the majority-urban population has moved to the city from rural villages over the last two decades.[fn]Crisis Group interview, mayor of Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote

While social, economic and psychological grievances do not fully explain why youths joined ISIS – the vast majority of youngsters in deprived areas did not do so – they appear to have been contributing factors that made some young people more susceptible. People who had recently migrated to Adıyaman city felt looked down upon and uprooted, saying they missed their tightly knit villages; youth in particular struggled.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, locals, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote  “When they moved into the cities, families lost the social protection nets of rural life and didn’t have a status in urban life”, one local human rights worker said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote  Unemployment in the majority-Kurdish province is high and wages are low, with yearly per capita income of $4,771, less than half the national average of $9,693 in 2018.[fn]Data compiled by the Turkish Statistical Institute.Hide Footnote  “Some of those we caught returning from Syria at the border had up to $10,000 on them. Some men from the Black Sea region went like ‘seasonal workers’ to make money”, a Turkish security official said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ankara, October 2019.Hide Footnote Officials also voice concern that youths who are abusing drugs – cheap narcotics are readily available across Turkey – are more vulnerable to ISIS recruitment pitches.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Adıyaman, July 2019. A single pill of the synthetic drug referred to as “ecstasy” costs 5 Turkish lira (75 cents) in Şanlıurfa and 20 lira ($3) in Istanbul. It is much cheaper than alcohol, which is heavily taxed. Crisis Group field observations, July 2019.Hide Footnote

In Turkey, ISIS recruiters appear to have appealed to prospective members’ desire to live under strict Islamic rules and escape what they described as state harassment.

Socio-economic ills were certainly part of the narrative spun by recruiters. Adıyaman locals referred to youths turning toward ISIS as “Cumasızlar” (those absent from Friday prayers) after they stopped attending the state imam’s sermons, viewing him as an “infidel” (kafir).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, locals, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote  Male recruits were reportedly lured by promises of payments, polygamy and adventure.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, returnees, May 2020; Crisis Group interview, expert on ISIS recruitment and networks in Turkey, April 2019.Hide Footnote  According to telephone wiretaps of those charged with ISIS-related crimes, youth with criminal records or alcohol and drug problems sometimes saw joining as a second chance, describing it as “purification” (arınma) of past sins.[fn]See Eroğlu, ISIS Networks, op. cit., pp. 32-33. A lawyer defending individuals detained on ISIS-related terrorism charges estimated that 10-15 per cent of them had a history of petty crime or drug abuse. Crisis Group telephone interview, 30 May 2020.Hide Footnote  A local butcher is blamed by relatives for using such appeals to recruit over twenty youths in a few Adıyaman neighbourhoods.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, acquaintances of Turkish returnees, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote  One such youth, Orhan Gönder, was sentenced to life in mid-December 2019 for a bombing in June 2015 at a Diyarbakır People’s Democratic Party (HDP) rally that killed five. Alevi by birth, he told his family at age sixteen that he was joining ISIS to learn the “real Islam”, his mother said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, mother of Orhan Gönder, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote  His cousin, Ercan, who visits him in jail, said recruiters had told Gönder “his feelings of emptiness can only be overcome if they become part of a larger cause”.[fn]Crisis Group field research, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote

ISIS also recruited among Salafis.[fn]Salafi groups in Turkey strive for the restoration of “real Islam” based on a literal reading of the Quran and sunna (sünnet). They object to modern Islamic practice that, in their view, has incorporated novel elements over time that distance it from the Prophet Muhammad’s example. Sometimes that translates into intolerance toward adherents of other strains of Islam, including Sufism and heterodox sects. Salafists differ among themselves over how to demonstrate their beliefs. Some “quietist” Salafists eschew political participation and focus instead on propagating Islam and perfecting their faith. Other “activist” (haraki) Salafists believe in participating in politics to achieve what they see as a more Islamic society and state. And “jihadist” Salafists abhor what they consider un-Islamic, tağut (false god) states and believe it necessary to topple them using violence, in order to eventually establish an Islamic state. See Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°37, Understanding Islamism, 2 March 2005.Hide Footnote  Indeed, many returnees whose stories Crisis Group pieced together came from Salafi circles, sometimes having joined only a short time before leaving for Syria or Iraq. Most Salafis – in Turkey as elsewhere – are law-abiding. Moreover, the diversity of beliefs among those considered Salafis in Turkey is so wide that it would be hard to draw general conclusions about the relationship between Salafism in the country and violent jihad.[fn]More than 100 organisations that can be broadly categorised as Salafi are legally registered in Turkey as “associations” or “foundations”. Crisis Group interview, Turkish presidency official, Ankara, October 2019. An interior ministry official estimated the total membership at well over 60,000. An interior ministry official gave this estimate in 2018 in an interview with a Crisis Group consultant.Hide Footnote  Still, Turkish authorities admit that they keep a close watch on Salafis, some of whom in turn say they feel unjustly targeted.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish presidency official, Ankara, October 2019.Hide Footnote  In a sign of the suspicion with which Ankara views Salafis, a 2016 Turkish police intelligence report estimated that 10,000-20,000 Turkish citizens were, in the report’s words, “radical Salafi/Takfiri”.[fn]“Takfiri” is a pejorative term for Salafi-jihadists, playing up their takfir, or pronouncement of apostasy, upon Muslims whom they accuse of acts that “negate” Islam.Hide Footnote  The report did not define what it meant by that term but noted that these people constituted a “potential threat to our country”.[fn]İsmail Saymaz, “İşte Emniyet’in selefi raporu: Türkiye tabanları 20 bine ulaştı, bu bir tehdit” [The Turkish National Police’s Salafi report: their supporter base has reached 20,000, this is a threat], Hürriyet, 25 April 2016. “I would characterise only a fraction, maybe 3,000-5,000, of Salafis as being close to resorting to violence as a means”, said a lawyer defending ISIS suspects. Crisis Group telephone interview, 30 May 2020.
Hide Footnote

In Turkey, ISIS recruiters appear to have appealed to prospective members’ desire to live under strict Islamic rules and escape what they described as state harassment, including searches of women wearing the ultra-conservative full body and face covers.[fn]“In Syria under ISIS they were more comfortable, as a couple, because all women wore the same attire, the full black khimar and niqab, while in Turkey they would be searched even if the metal detectors gave no signal”, said an investigative journalist who has conducted extensive research on Salafi groups in Turkey. Crisis Group interview, Istanbul, March 2019.Hide Footnote They reportedly sought recruits at gatherings around Salafi “travelling preachers” (gezici vaiz) at teahouses, bookstores and unofficial madrasas. “I went to live the Islam of our Prophet and his companions (sahabe)”, one Turkish ISIS returnee who lived in Raqqa for two years told Crisis Group. “I was literally hypnotised by the great way of life that we had there when I first arrived. I lived the real Islam”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, returnee, Istanbul, September 2019.Hide Footnote Especially in the civil war’s earlier phases, this desire to migrate resonated broadly among a segment of ultra-conservative Turkish citizens, many of whom were slow to react when the caliphate turned out not to be the utopia they had expected.

A last group, Islamist Kurds, joined to fight the YPG/PKK, whom they viewed as atheist. Some supported the Hüda-Par (Free Cause Party), a political offshoot of the Kurdish Hizbullah, a predominantly Kurdish Sunni Islamist militant group.[fn]See Eroğlu, ISIS Networks, op. cit., p. 229.Hide Footnote  The PKK and YPG were the most mentioned issue on Twitter by Turkish-speaking ISIS supporters, according to an analysis of more than 2,500 accounts and 787,400 tweets shared between 2013 and 2015.[fn]“Twitter Social Network Analysis on Turkish-speaking Daesh Supporters”, ORSAM, August 2016. This report’s methodology was based on J.M. Berger and Jonathan Morgan, “The ISIS Twitter Census: Defining and Describing the Population of ISIS Supporters on Twitter”, Brookings Institution, March 2015.Hide Footnote  The ISIS siege of the Syrian town of Kobani in September-October 2014 became a rallying cry. “We saw videos of fellow Muslims slaughtered by ‘the anarchists’ [the YPG/PKK]. This motivated many of us to join to defend our brothers”, one Kurdish male returnee said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Istanbul, September 2019.Hide Footnote  In October 2014, Kurdish Hizbullah sympathisers clashed with pro-PKK Kurds protesting Turkey’s failure at the time to protect Kobani from ISIS; more than 50 people died over three days.[fn]“6-7 Ekim’in acı bilançosu 50 ölü” [Bitter consequence of 6-7 October protests: 50 dead], Hürriyet, 6 November 2014.Hide Footnote A cousin of another returnee from Diyarbakır tried to dissuade him from going, but said his cousin “was convinced that if we did not go fight the PKK they would soon finish off the rest of us [referring to Islamist Kurds]”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Diyarbakır, July 2019.Hide Footnote

B. Returning from the Caliphate

The fate and location of a significant portion of Turkish ISIS militants and their varyingly affiliated wives and children are unknown. Fearing the stigma of being associated with ISIS, some families have kept deaths secret, holding night-time burials.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local human rights lawyer, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote  Some analysts estimate that between 1,000-2,000 Turkish citizens, most of them males, died fighting in ISIS’s ranks.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Diyarbakır and Adıyaman, July 2019. Estimates of the number of Turkish men killed fighting with ISIS vary: in May 2015, Serhat Erkmen estimated – based on his count of funerals in Turkey – that some 900 Turkish citizens had been killed fighting alongside ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Erkmen, “Suriye ve Irak’ta savaşan Türkiyeli mücahitler”, op. cit. In a July 2019 article, Ahmet Yayla said around 2,000 ISIS members of Turkish nationality were likely killed in combat. Yayla, “Turkish ISIS and Al-Qaeda Foreign Fighters”, op. cit. In June 2016, a Turkish foreign ministry representative was cited stating that 500 militants of Turkish nationality fighting in the ranks of ISIS or al-Nusra were killed in Iraq and Syria. Cited in Monica Marks, “ISIS and Nusra in Turkey: Jihadist Recruitment and Ankara’s Response”, Institute for Strategic Dialogue, June 2016.Hide Footnote  A smaller number defected to other insurgent groups, including jihadist militias, while hundreds of others have been detained in Syria or Iraq.[fn]Around 100 Turkish ISIS fighters and a few hundred Turkish women remain in Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-controlled camps. Crisis Group field observations, north-eastern Syria, June and October 2019. Around 400 Turkish women, mostly wives of ISIS fighters, remain imprisoned in Iraq. “Türkiye’ye getirilen IŞİD’lilerin 250 çocuğu travma tedavisine alındı” [250 children of ISIS families brought back to Turkey receive trauma therapy], T24, 14 August 2019. Ankara repatriated around 200 children of ISIS families held in those Iraqi prisons in mid-2019. “‘Her eyes were full of fear’: Turkey repatriates children of ISIS followers”, The New York Times, 27 July 2019.Hide Footnote  Thousands appear to have returned to Turkey from ISIS-controlled territory.[fn]The prominent Turkish daily Hürriyet claimed in May 2015 that of the 2,700 Turkish citizen ISIS members who went to Syria and Iraq, 1,500 had returned to Turkey. The newspaper did not disaggregate male and female returnees. Cited in Erkmen, “Suriye ve Irak’ta savaşan Türkiyeli mücahitler”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Even some potential recruits who did not make it to Syria or Iraq arguably could pose a danger. “We should also worry about those who wanted to go and didn’t make it”, a Turkish official told Crisis Group. “Some of those who came back are still dangerous, but the point is, it is not just them”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ankara, October 2019.Hide Footnote

Turkey experienced three waves of returns by citizens disillusioned, forced out by ISIS military defeats or loss of territory, or readying to take on other roles with ISIS elsewhere.

Part of the uncertainty owes to the once porous 911km border between Turkey and Syria. Turkish officials seem to have only a vague notion of how many people returned prior to 2016 before they tightened security.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish official, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote  Illegal crossing decreased due to stricter policing along the border after 2016, but, with the help of smugglers, people continued to cross back from Syria for a fee of $500-$2,000.[fn]The cost of crossing fluctuates according to smugglers’ success rates. Those with workable arrangements with bribed border guards charge more. As of July 2019, it was most convenient for a Turkish citizen who wanted to come from Syria to cross back around Hatay. Crossing in this area is relatively easy because authority is not clear-cut on the Syrian side of the border: refugees, rebels and aid workers can all blend together. If regime-affiliated people want to cross, they would enter through the westernmost point of Hatay, around Samandağ, because there is a small slice of regime-controlled territory on Turkey’s border with Syria there. Border controls at provinces bordering territory held by the SDF, the armed units dominated by the YPG, were stricter. Crossing through the Turkey-controlled Euphrates Shield area is also harder because Turkish security control is intense on the Syrian side. Also see “IŞİD’lilere 4 bin dolara sınırdan VIP geçiş” [VIP crossing for ISIS members costs $4,000], T24, 24 May 2019.Hide Footnote An investigative journalist said some of the 500 ISIS affiliates on whom he conducted research in 2014 and 2015 “were ‘part-time jihadists’ – they came and went a few times”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Istanbul, March 2018.Hide Footnote  A new wall and beefed-up border security after mid-2018 further restricted movement to varying degrees, depending on where one intended to cross, but smugglers continued to find routes across with ladders, extracting a higher fee.[fn]“Suriye sınırı ‘akıllı’ sistemle daha güvenli” [Syria border more secure with ‘smart’ system], Hürriyet, 5 January 2019.Hide Footnote

Turkey experienced three waves of returns by citizens disillusioned, forced out by ISIS military defeats or loss of territory, or readying to take on other roles with ISIS elsewhere. The first wave came back toward the end of 2014 and early 2015, after short visits to the caliphate; some were in Tal Abyad and escaped YPG-ISIS fighting there. Many militants also appear to have left for other countries around that time. The second surge in returns to Turkey came during the eight-month Operation Euphrates Shield against ISIS in 2016-2017, and the third during the battle for Raqqa in late 2017.[fn]Crisis Group field research, border provinces of Turkey, June 2018 and July 2019.Hide Footnote In smaller numbers, people have continued to return since then. One Turkish returnee from Bursa returned, for example, from Idlib in mid-2018 after joining the former al-Qaeda affiliate Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) for a time there.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Turkish returnee, 4 May 2020.Hide Footnote  Others who had been in Idlib were detained attempting to cross at the western end of the Syria-Turkey border in January 2020.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Western diplomat, January 2020, Istanbul.Hide Footnote The circumstances of return to Turkey are varied, and offer only an incomplete picture of returnees’ motivations, but further study could help authorities understand the phenomenon.

Many ISIS members who returned to Turkey appear to have little contact with state authorities.[fn]A number of Turkish officials Crisis Group interviewed between July and October 2019 confirmed that many returnees, especially in the earlier waves, came back undetected.
Hide Footnote
Unlike some other countries, Turkey did not criminalise travel to designated ISIS-held areas in Syria and Iraq – although individuals can be charged with being members of a terrorist group if the state can prove they joined ISIS. Hundreds of Turks travelled to Syria to support rebel factions, providing cover for people wanting to join ISIS. Of the returnees Crisis Group spoke to directly or learned of through their acquaintances, many were never interrogated on their return.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, returnees or their acquaintances, Adıyaman, Diyarbakır, July 2019; and by telephone, May 2020.Hide Footnote  “A boy from here who went to Syria, came back secretly and is now working in a hotel in Antalya”, a shop owner in Adıyaman who knew the youth said.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Adıyaman, July 2019; Istanbul, September 2019.Hide Footnote  Others were questioned and released. Turkish security officials say they are monitoring returnees, even if police have not interrogated all of them.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Istanbul, fall 2019.Hide Footnote Many women who returned, sometimes with children, live with relatives and have little interaction with the outside world.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, locals, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote  In some cases, widows (including foreigners) are cared for by the families of their late husbands.[fn]“We know of at least seven foreign brides who are here in Adıyaman whose Turkish husbands were killed in Syria and the husband’s families accepted the women into their homes”. Crisis Group interview, cousin of a Turkish citizen returnee, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote

Gauging whether returnees remain committed to ISIS ideology or to violence more broadly is difficult. In media interviews and police interrogations, returnees often express remorse, saying they took no part in violence and left because ISIS failed to live up to their vision of life under Islamic rule.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, high-ranking police officer, Ankara, May 2019; and journalist, Istanbul, July 2019.Hide Footnote Crisis Group’s own interviews with returnees indicate that some still carry positive memories of living in the caliphate and are willing to link back up with ISIS or another similar group, while others returned disillusioned. “If a new caliphate was established, depending on circumstances, … I would consider joining again”, one individual who went to Syria in 2017 and returned nine months later told Crisis Group. Another returnee, who lived in Raqqa for more than two years before making his way back to Turkey in 2016, leaving his Syrian wife and daughter behind, said:

The first year under Dewle in Raqqa was great. We had everything, we were rich and getting very good salaries. In time, the weaker Dewle got, the harsher its methods to punish sinners and infidels in public squares became. I realised this was not what I had hoped for.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Istanbul, September 2019. In Crisis Group interviews, Turkish returnees referred to ISIS as “Dewle”, which means “state” in Arabic.Hide Footnote

Some returnees escaped prosecution by telling officials that while in Syria they fought in Turkey-backed Syrian rebel groups or were engaged in charitable or humanitarian work.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, relatives of returnees, Diyarbakır and Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote  Officials told Crisis Group that ISIS trains people to obscure their links to the group, and they continued monitoring “suspicious individuals”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish officials, Ankara, October 2019; Istanbul, January 2020.Hide Footnote  Women often tell officials or researchers that their husbands coerced them into joining and they had long been seeking a way home.[fn]See Başak Yavcan and Gülriz Şen, “Assessing the Role of Women in Fighting Radicalisation”, Improving Capacity against Radicalization and Extremism for All (icare4all), March 2020.Hide Footnote  It is often hard to assess how genuine such claims are.

At least some returnees appeared to remain connected to their former ISIS network, referring in interviews to the current circumstances of others whom they had known in Syria and Iraq. One family told Crisis Group of locking up sons and confiscating their mobile phones to prevent them from remaining in contact with former fellow ISIS members or leaving for Syria again. Having joined and fought for ISIS remains a source of pride in some circles. “There were even some who had nothing to do with what was happening in Syria who congratulated me for going”, a man who joined at the age of 20 and returned to his hometown Bursa in 2018 told Crisis Group. “I received only few negative reactions”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, 4 May 2020.Hide Footnote  Among Kurdish Salafis in Turkey’s east and south east, some ISIS returnees reportedly received from their religious circles so-called sayyid [Muslim claiming descent from the Prophet Muhammad] certificates for fighting for ISIS.[fn]Crisis Group interview, researcher who conducted relevant field research in 2015-2016, Ankara, April 2019.Hide Footnote  The reputational gains of those who have fought for ISIS are well documented in other countries, including among imprisoned ISIS members.[fn]Studies find that the prestige and increased credibility of returning fighters mean that they are better able to recruit new members. See B.M. Jenkins, “When Jihadis Come Marching Home”, RAND Corporation, 2014; “Handbook for Prison and Probation Services Regarding Radicalisation and Violent Extremism”, Council of Europe, 1 December 2016.Hide Footnote

III. Turkey’s Strategies Toward Returnees

Many states are struggling to assess the threat ISIS returnees could pose and how to respond. While many obstacles are shared, there are also unique aspects to Turkey’s efforts. Turkey’s focus on short-term detention, criminal investigation and prosecution appears to have disrupted attacks but has its limits: insufficient evidence complicates prosecution while mass surveillance is resource-intensive and far from failsafe. In some cases, “hard” security measures may even have unintended consequences. A closer look at some of the challenges Ankara faces in policing, prosecuting and detaining returnees might help Turkey determine whether and how to build out fledgling measures to help returnees reintegrate into society and deter recidivism, which would ease the burden on the security services.

Other countries have complemented security measures with “softer” policies, usually focused on “de-radicalisation”, ie, efforts to change former militants’ beliefs, “disengagement” – steps to move them away from a violent group or from using violence even if they retain some of those beliefs – or a blend of the two. Programs range from teaching peaceful interpretations of Islam to vocational training. They tend to be complex, costly and hard to evaluate, and have sometimes been controversial as well. They can require coordination among an array of stakeholders including security agencies, prison staff, religious scholars, community leaders, psychologists and specialised NGOs. In some countries, they have come in for criticism, especially for stigmatising communities targeted, tainting public servants, who arouse suspicion for being involved in state surveillance, or for distorting valuable social programs for counter-terrorism ends.[fn]For a comprehensive review of criticisms of de-radicalisation programs in Europe, see Lore Colaert (ed.), De-radicalisation: Scientific Insights for Policy, Flemish Peace Institute (Brussels, 2017).Hide Footnote  Still, some governments see them as a way to guard against jihadist recruitment and engage with returnees such as minors or those who cannot be charged for lack of evidence.

Turkey’s justice ministry, interior ministry and Directorate for Religious Affairs (Diyanet) – the state-run Muslim religious authority – have no fleshed-out policies along these lines for ISIS affiliates. Embryonic initiatives that do exist do not distinguish among affiliates of ISIS, the PKK, “FETÖ” or ultra-leftist militant groups.[fn]“Fethullahçı Terör Örgütü” (Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation), or “FETÖ”, is a moniker used by the Turkish state since 2016 to refer to followers of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamic preacher heading a transnational movement. Ankara accuses “FETÖ” of illicitly infiltrating state institutions and holds it responsible for the 15 July 2016 coup attempt. Followers refer to the movement as the Gülen, or Hizmet, movement, and to Fethullah Gülen as their spiritual leader.Hide Footnote All these groups represent different challenges to the Turkish state; lumping them together can make efforts confused and unfocused. While politicians and top officials seem content with what Ankara is now doing, mid-level officials in the interior and justice ministries and the Diyanet express a desire for greater guidance on dealing with ISIS returnees who have been detained or are being monitored and, indeed, for other Turks who did not join but might want to do so.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, state representatives, Ankara and Şanlıurfa, July 2019.Hide Footnote Clarifying the aims of existing initiatives would be a good start. The Turkish state might also try out modest, additional social policies, such as after-prison release programs and support for families worried about relatives turning to militancy. Ankara should see these policies as a complement to the current approach, not a substitute for it.

A. Threat Perception

ISIS attacks in 2016 on Turkish soil prompted officials to step up efforts to police the group, and they now say they have the threat under control.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish officials, Ankara, July 2019; Istanbul, January 2020.Hide Footnote  ISIS networks are still present, officials say, but with degraded capabilities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish security officials, Ankara, July and October 2019.Hide Footnote  They say the group is organising in smaller cells, with more autonomous structures, geared toward carrying out attacks that require limited means and skills. “Some who crossed back, including foreign nationals, and are hiding have formed two- to three-person dormant cells waiting to be activated”, a Turkish security official said.[fn]Senior Turkish police officer, speech at ORSAM workshop, op. cit.; and statements made by Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu on television in August 2019. “Türkiye’nin Nabzı – 20 Ağustos 2019 (İçişleri Bakanı Süleyman Soylu)” [Turkey’s Pulse – 20 August 2019 (Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu)], Habertürk, 20 August 2019.Hide Footnote  Following an April 2019 video in which ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (who was killed by U.S. special forces in late October 2019) holds a file labelled “Turkey Province”, Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu publicly acknowledged that they assessed ISIS had become more active in Turkey and that Turkish intelligence and security units were “on alarm”.[fn]“In the company of the leader of the faithful”, Al-Furqan Media, 29 April 2019 (Arabic). “İçişleri Bakanı Soylu: Türkiye’de DEAŞ bir hareketlilik içerisinde” [Interior Minister Soylu: ISIS has become more active within Turkey], T24, 17 May 2019.Hide Footnote

Turkey’s involvement in Syria and its support to certain rebel factions could com-plicate its domestic counter-terrorism efforts, particularly given the apparent fluidity among the membership of various jihadist groups.

Nonetheless, Ankara ranks “FETÖ” and the PKK as graver threats.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish officials, Ankara, April, July and October 2019.Hide Footnote  All three groups are designated as “terrorist”. But the designation is applied more broadly for those charged with PKK or “FETÖ” links, including those who would be regarded simply as sympathisers rather than terrorists themselves in countries with narrower definitions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, lawyers of both victims and defendants of ISIS cases, as well as Crisis Group examination of court cases, summer 2019-spring 2020.Hide Footnote  Lawyers for both the victims of attacks and individuals charged with ISIS-related crimes say the state puts higher priority on investigation and prosecution of “terrorism” cases linked to “FETÖ” or PKK than ISIS ones.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, lawyers of both victims and defendants of ISIS cases, Ankara and remotely from Istanbul, July 2019 and April 2020.Hide Footnote  As little as a phone call or social media post can lead to a jail sentence for suspects accused of links to the PKK or “FETÖ”, while ISIS suspects are more often released for lack of evidence. “They dig deep to find some sort of evidence in order to establish a link between suspects of FETÖ or PKK affinity; it’s not the same for ISIS”, a lawyer for one of the five victims of a bombing of an HDP rally in June 2015 said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, lawyer of a victim, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote

Turkey’s involvement in Syria and its support to certain rebel factions could complicate its domestic counter-terrorism efforts, particularly given the apparent fluidity among the membership of various jihadist groups. Turkey does not deem rebel factions opposed to the Syrian regime as a threat. Although it officially designates the former al-Qaeda affiliate HTS as terrorist, this group fights in north-western Syria alongside Turkish-backed forces against the Syrian regime and thus benefits indirectly from Turkish aid.[fn]HTS is the latest iteration of Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front; the group had previously been Syria’s avowed al-Qaeda affiliate, but it has since cut ties with that organisation’s transnational leadership.Hide Footnote  HTS controls Idlib’s main border crossing with Turkey and, in rebel-held areas in that province, coexists with Turkish forces deployed to observation points.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Silencing the Guns in Syria’s Idlib, op. cit.Hide Footnote  While authorities do not view HTS and most other rebel groups as a danger to Turkish domestic security, were relations between Turkey and those groups to sour, militants might turn on Ankara.

Turkish officials tend to view ISIS returnees as less threatening than agencies in other countries do. Authorities say Turkish citizens faced lower barriers to joining ISIS and were driven by the pursuit of adventure and personal gain rather than by ideology. “We found that more ‘ordinary’ people had gone from Turkey compared to the mostly already fundamentalist-thinking people that joined from Europe”, one interior ministry official said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ankara, 1 October 2019.Hide Footnote  “Picking up to go from Turkey was easier”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish official, October 2019.Hide Footnote  By the same logic, Turkish officials believe that the majority of returnees have an easier time returning to their previous life, an assumption that likely explains the lack of systematic effort at assessing the threat posed by returnees and helping them reintegrate.

A wide spectrum of Turkish state actors, from Ankara to front-line practitioners, are sceptical that ISIS members who strongly adhere to its ideology can ever be disabused of their convictions. While some officials think every effort should be made to win over hardline militants, most argue that they are a small minority of returnees and that the only option is monitoring them for life. As a result, and perhaps also due to the widespread view that most returnees are not ideologically committed, Turkish officials have not developed systematic programs to deal with those who might be. Most officials think they should focus on prevention, that is, stopping individuals from turning to militancy in the first place.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, authorities from five state institutions, Ankara, July and October 2019.Hide Footnote  That said, few state policies are actually geared toward prevention – let alone systematic monitoring of the effectiveness of existing efforts.

Foreign militants transiting through or migrating to Turkey are a greater source of concern to authorities. Officials say it is harder to assess the risk they pose.[fn]Crisis Group interview, state official, Istanbul, January 2020.Hide Footnote  Monitoring and translating from foreign languages is a strain on the security services. While Turkish nationals may return to their former lives, officials assume, foreign nationals often lack the families and social circles that could help them leave ISIS and turn over a new leaf.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish officials, Ankara, July and October 2019.Hide Footnote  Crisis Group’s open-source tracking suggests that, as of late 2019, there were at least 446 foreign nationals among the 955 ISIS-linked detainees mentioned in the Turkish media. Of those in prison over ISIS-linked charges, 750 (62.5 per cent) are foreign nationals reportedly from 40 different countries (22 of them female).[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish justice ministry representative, Ankara, July 2019. “Hapiste 40 ülkeden DEAŞ’lı var”, op. cit. This conviction, paired with frustration that EU nations have left Turkey to deal with individuals they deem too dangerous to repatriate, motivated Ankara to step up its efforts to deport foreign ISIS-linked individuals to their countries of origin. Turkey deported a total of 778 foreigners suspected of ISIS affiliation in 2019 alone.Hide Footnote

As Turkey’s perception of the threat posed by ISIS has evolved, so, too, has its approach to policing and prosecution, including online. A two-year state of emergency put in place after the failed military coup in July 2016 allowed law enforcement agencies to step up efforts to combat ISIS “by granting authority for more serious operations”, a high-ranking security official said.[fn]Senior Turkish police officer, speech at ORSAM workshop, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Cyber units within the Turkish police have deleted or blocked thousands of allegedly ISIS-linked social media accounts.[fn]“Turkey’s Fight against Daesh”, Turkish Interior Ministry, July 2017, p. 53.Hide Footnote  They have also blocked access to ISIS’s main Turkish-language propaganda outlets, though content remained accessible through VPN proxies.[fn]ISIS propaganda targeting Turkey and its leadership intensified in July 2015, in particular, with the publication of the second issue of the Turkish-language magazine Konstantiniyye. Six issues of Konstantiniyye appeared between June 2015 and May 2016.Hide Footnote

Turkish officials say cooperation among key state agencies (such as national police, gendarmerie and military intelligence) has improved since the coup attempt. Most Turkish officials claim that “FETÖ”-linked police and prosecutors seeking to destabilise the country turned a blind eye to ISIS activity and that those officials’ dismissal strengthened Turkey’s counter-terrorist fight across the board. Turkish officials say they foiled ten major ISIS attacks in 2018 alone, seizing bomb-making materials, suicide vests, hand grenades and other weapons.[fn]Details shared in a book titled 2018’de Türkiye (Turkey in 2018), published by the pro-government SETA foundation (Istanbul, 2019).Hide Footnote Critics of the governments argue that in reality, Ankara simply did not count ISIS as a major danger before 2016. It was only then that attacks began to take a toll on the Turkish economy and, in the case of the May 2016 attack on a Gaziantep police station, to target state institutions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, analysts, lawyers and opposition party affiliates, Ankara and Istanbul, summer and fall 2019.Hide Footnote

B. Turkey’s Response

1. Policing

Law enforcement officials rely on widespread surveillance of known ISIS operatives and two- to four-day detentions (which can be extended to up to twelve days under certain conditions). Short-term detentions usually target people who come into contact with individuals under surveillance. Turkish security services say short detentions of individuals deemed susceptible to overtures by ISIS deter them from engaging with the group.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish security officials, Ankara and Istanbul, July-October 2019.Hide Footnote  President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced on 10 October 2019 that so far 17,000 people had been detained for suspected links with ISIS (it is unclear if this number includes duplicates, in that the same person is detained more than once in a given time period).[fn]“DEAŞ’a en büyük darbe Türkiye’den” [Turkey country to deal biggest blow to Daesh], TRT Haber, 12 October 2019.Hide Footnote  Officials say the detentions send a clear warning to those contemplating violent acts that they can be caught at any time.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish security official, Ankara, October 2019.Hide Footnote  “It has proven effective to intimidate people who are just making first contact and are not yet entrenched”, an adviser to the interior ministry said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, theologian working closely with interior ministry, Ankara, October 2019.Hide Footnote  Whether this contention is accurate is hard to assess.

Turkey’s heavy focus on surveillance and periodic catch-and-release detentions is resource-intensive. It rarely leads to prosecution, and risks aggravating grievances and feeding persecution narratives among some groups.[fn]“While it is true short-term detentions deter engagement in violence, they also increase grievances among the broad set of groups the Turkish state is targeting. Their anti-state feelings are pent up as a result. It does not seem to be a durable solution”. Crisis Group telephone interview, lawyer defending ISIS suspects, 30 May 2020.Hide Footnote  “The sense of being watched all the time fuels anti-state sentiments and increases anger”, a lawyer representing individuals charged with ISIS-related crimes said.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote  One mid-level official warned that surveillance and short-term detentions also risk pushing some individuals further underground.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish official, Ankara, April 2019.Hide Footnote  Turkey’s interior ministry should review their effectiveness.

2. Prosecution

The number of prosecutions related to ISIS links has increased in recent years but remains a fraction of the estimated returnee population.

A lack of evidence is a challenge in Turkey, as it is elsewhere, though Turkey has some advantages in obtaining evidence due to its forces’ presence in Syria.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, lawyer defending ISIS suspects, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote Evidence gathered by intelligence agencies is only admissible in court for terrorism-related cases and then only if additional, legally obtained evidence exists.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, lawyer based in Istanbul, 22 January 2020; lawyer defending ISIS suspects, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote  A lawyer defending individuals accused of ISIS-related crimes said overstretched cybercrime police units have rarely processed digital evidence against clients in time for trials, particularly in the months after the July 2016 coup attempt.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, 3 April 2020 and 30 May 2020.Hide Footnote  Pictures and video clips on seized telephones that his clients feared would be used against them rarely make it to court, although they have appeared more frequently in the last two years.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, 3 April 2020 and 30 May 2020.Hide Footnote  Prosecutors in Turkey do, however, have an easier time than counterparts in other countries finding witnesses from among returnees to testify against defendants.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote  They can also sometimes gain access to ISIS-issued identification documents seized at the border or in Turkey and draw upon testimony collected at police stations in areas in Turkish-controlled northern Syria.

Lawyers of both defendants and victims in ISIS attack cases claim that prosecutors in the past – particularly during the 2015 attacks – were not diligent in investigations.

Most ISIS returnees who go on trial are sentenced to between five and ten years for membership in a terrorist organisation – although in practice many serve only three or four years behind bars.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote Sentences can be reduced by a year or two during prosecution if the judge believes the defendant shows remorse or for other mitigating factors. Inmates may also be released early for good behaviour after serving three quarters of their sentence.[fn]See Mehmet Gün, “New criminal execution law: for reform or COVID-19?”, Yetkin Report, 14 April 2020Hide Footnote Other returnees receive softer sentences of one to six months in jail or a fine for crossing the border illegally; between one and five years on charges of possessing illegal arms; or between one and eight years for possessing hazardous substances or providing support to or promoting a terrorist group. “Those calling the shots behind the scenes and carrying out recruitment/indoctrination work are usually not targeted because it is difficult to connect their activity to the criminal act committed”, one lawyer said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, one of the lawyers of the victims of the ISIS bombings in Suruç and Ankara, Istanbul, July 2019.Hide Footnote In some cases, ISIS suspects are given reduced sentences under an “active remorse” clause if they agree to share information.[fn]A person accused of terrorism can be acquitted if after being caught, provided there is no evidence of a crime committed, he/she expresses remorse and agrees to share valuable information that helps security services catch other members of the organisation or dismantle it. An acquittal decision can also be made if there is evidence of a crime committed and the individual turns himself/herself in and shares information on the organisation’s structure and its criminal activities. If a person involved in criminal activities agrees to cooperate after being caught by security services, his/her sentence can be reduced by one third to three quarters. See Turkish Penal Code.Hide Footnote

Lawyers of both defendants and victims in ISIS attack cases claim that prosecutors in the past – particularly during the 2015 attacks – were not diligent in investigations, whether due to a lack of resources, a focus on higher-priority cases or a desire to protect informants or glean further intelligence from suspects let loose.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, lawyers, Ankara, July 2019; and by telephone, 3 April and 30 May 2020.Hide Footnote Lawyers for one defendant and for several victims in the trial of Turkish citizens involved in the attacks on the Kurdish movement have accused prosecutors of not using their discretion to investigate the suspects’ links to other alleged ISIS militants.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, lawyers, Ankara, July 2019 and October 2019.Hide Footnote  Both said the attacks’ true masterminds could have been arrested with deeper investigation.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Lawyers for victims in the trial of Orhan Gönder (and four other suspects) for the June 2015 Diyarbakır bombing said prosecutors took years to comply with their request to admit evidence consisting of footage of the bombers’ movements before the attack.[fn]Crisis Group interview, lawyers of victims, Istanbul, September 2019. For details of the case, see “Suruç davası: Mahkeme ‘tanık’ imam hakkında suç duyurusunda bulundu” [The Suruç case: Court files criminal complaint against ‘witness’ imam], Artı Gerçek, 7 August 2019.Hide Footnote They also accuse prosecutors of failing to act on requests to bring charges against a local imam, Abdullah Ömer Aslan, against whom a judge eventually filed a criminal case, after his deposition in court as a witness in the case.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

The relatively low number of prosecutions of ISIS suspects increases the number of individuals under watch by security agencies, but some Turkish officials see this tactic as effective policing – a way to cast a wider net. A Turkish security analyst said releasing ISIS suspects can be an effective way to track ISIS networks, identifying other suspects by monitoring the individual.[fn]Crisis Group interview, analyst with extensive experience studying al-Qaeda and ISIS, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote  Turkish local police keep tabs on suspects if no court ruling requires more extensive surveillance.[fn]Crisis Group interview, interior ministry official, Ankara, October 2019.Hide Footnote A court can authorise stepped-up surveillance, for up to six months, with monthly extensions after the first two months.[fn]See Turkish Criminal Procedures Code.Hide Footnote In practice, however, police can ignore this rule and extend surveillance when it comes to terror suspects, and judges may use discretion in admitting evidence in cases linked to national security.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, lawyer based in Istanbul, 22 January 2020.Hide Footnote

The success of this approach appears mixed. Releasing suspects in the hope that they will reveal ISIS networks may be effective, if suspects can be properly monitored. In the words of the same security analyst: “Flies will come to the sugar”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, analyst with extensive experience studying al-Qaeda and ISIS, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote Other official sources make the same argument.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security officials, Istanbul, fall and winter 2019.Hide Footnote But there have been cases in which key figures were released and fled to Syria. Hasan Aydın, for example, was briefly taken into custody in 2015 while trying to take military equipment, including a drone, from the southern province of Hatay into Syria. He later appeared on the 2016 video in which ISIS militants in Syria burned two Turkish soldiers alive.[fn]“ISIS executioner who burned two Turkish soldiers alive in sick video is killed in a firefight in Syria”, Daily Mail Online, 4 July 2018. “Türkiye’yi tehdit eden IŞİD’li 2 kez gözaltına alınıp serbest bırakıldı” [ISIS member who has threatened Turkey, was detained and released twice], TimeTurk, 21 January 2017.Hide Footnote In another high-profile case, Musa Göktaş, the first person to be convicted for being part of ISIS in Turkey in May 2015, returned to Syria after being released for “good behaviour” after his conviction (which was awaiting appeal). He is suspected of helping plot the October 2015 Ankara railway station bombing.[fn]“‘İyi hal’den tahliye olan o IŞİD’li yeniden örgüte katıldı” [ISIS member released on ‘good conduct’ joined the organisation again], Internet Haber, 19 November 2017. “Türkiye’de tutuklanan ilk IŞİD’li, tahliye edildi, tekrar örgüte katıldı” [The first ISIS member arrested in Turkey, was released and rejoined the organisation], Duvar, 29 November 2017.Hide Footnote Particularly among opposition segments, such cases lowered public confidence in the authorities’ judgment of the threat posed by released ISIS operatives.[fn]In interviews, lawyers representing victims of ISIS attacks expressed how such cases had fuelled the already deep mistrust toward the state among clients and their circles. Crisis Group interviews, lawyers of victims of ISIS attacks, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote

The judiciary has taken a more lenient approach toward ISIS-affiliated returnee women due to a widespread perception that women simply follow men’s orders and have little agency. As of the end of 2019, only around 50 women – including both Turkish nationals and foreigners – were in prison on ISIS-related charges.[fn]“Hapiste 40 ülkeden DEAŞ’lı var”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Most of those detained are subsequently released pending trial, and few are ultimately sentenced. The court’s verdict in the trial of the wife of dead ISIS Gaziantep emir Mehmet Kadir Cabael is emblematic of this thinking. A panel of three judges in the Kayseri 4th Heavy Penal Court acquitted Fadile Cabael on charges of belonging to ISIS in April 2019, saying that “DEAŞ does not accept women as group members. On the contrary, it sees them as goods, the only job of women is housekeeping, raising children and serving their husbands”.[fn]“Turkish court acquits ISIL emir’s wife in Gaziantep attack”, Hürriyet, 19 April 2019. Turkish authorities usually use the acronym “DEAŞ” in referring to ISIS.Hide Footnote Only in a few rare high-profile cases were the wives of ISIS members involved in attacks in Turkey charged with “membership”, “knowingly and wilfully aiding an armed terrorist organisation” or “failure to report crime”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, lawyer defending ISIS suspects, 3 April 2020.
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While women’s roles as prescribed by ISIS were largely domestic, the full picture is more complex. While rare in Turkey, examples of women making their own way to ISIS or playing roles in plotting attacks in Turkey suggest that judicial officials should not assume they are simply foils for their husbands. A former police chief in the Şanlıurfa border province said he had electronically monitored a Turkish woman who was “waiting for her child to reach six years old, and then would carry out a suicide attack”.[fn]Crisis Group Skype interview, September 2019.Hide Footnote In reality, women are not a homogeneous group and have various reasons for joining and diverse roles within ISIS. While it is true that militant circles are male-dominated and patriarchal, women returnees can play supportive roles in propagating the group’s ideology and recruiting upon return. The authorities need not take a more draconian approach to women if they correct the faulty assumptions. But Turkey’s justice ministry could help raise awareness about the diversity of women’s roles among judicial professionals dealing with ISIS cases.

That overstretched courts and difficulties collecting evidence hamper prosecution of ISIS suspects could mean that militants who slip through the cracks of the justice system subsequently commit attacks. As described, that has happened in the past. In 2014-2015, ISIS operatives who were released by courts pending trial – rather than being tried while remanded – later joined ISIS in Syria and played key roles for the group in Turkey.

When, after 2016, the security services took a tougher approach to ISIS, prosecutors followed suit with more detailed investigations and more caution regarding releases pending trial. While longer sentencing is not necessarily the answer, case-by-case risk assessments from police and prison officials on the threat level ISIS affiliates pose could help inform criminal justice decisions. An April 2020 amendment to Turkey’s penal execution law requires that more detailed assessments be made to evaluate the “good behaviour” of inmates, including through interviews with other inmates and prison wardens, before granting early release. It also affords more authority to enforcement judges (infaz hakimi) to gauge inmates’ attitudes and behaviours in deciding on early release.[fn]“İnfaz kanunu: İyi hal de yeniden düzenleniyor” [Criminal execution law: Changes will also apply to clauses on good behaviour], Duvar, 25 March 2020.Hide Footnote

This change mirrors efforts in other countries that have put in place new models for prison authorities to communicate with probation officers and law enforcement when people they regard as dangerous are released on probation. Italy’s prison agency, for example, provides such reports to judges, law enforcement and other authorities in advance of a militant’s release, which helps inform decisions about allocating additional police resources or potentially, if the person is a foreigner, deportation on national security grounds.[fn]See Lorenzo Vidino et al., “Il carcere e il suo paradosso: bacino di reclutamento per aspiranti mujaheddin e garanzia di riabilitazione per i detenuti” in De-Radicalizzazione” [“Prisons and their Paradox: Recruitment Ground for Aspiring Mujahidin and Rehabilitation of Prisoners”], Journal of the Italian Intelligence Community (June 2018).Hide Footnote

3. Prisons

Halting the spread of ISIS networks in prisons, where around 1,150 men and 50 women are being held for ISIS-related crimes, is a major concern for Turkish officials, as it is for counterparts abroad. Inmates may form relationships, even during short detentions, and accrue status in prison. “People from different parts of the country whose chance of knowing each other was otherwise low are thrown together in the same cell”, said a lawyer who regularly visits ISIS-affiliated clients in prison.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, lawyer defending individuals charged with ISIS-related crimes in Turkey, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote  Many ISIS members cast time behind bars as medrese-i Yusufiye, a school for learning the virtues born of trials that may improve one’s prospects in the afterlife, referring to the prophet Yusuf, whose tale of unjust imprisonment appears in the Quran.[fn]Crisis Group interview, justice ministry official, Ankara, July 2019. A source close to Salafis said “the concept of gaining religious credibility with time served in prison is common among Takfiri Salafi circles”. Crisis Group telephone interview, June 2020.
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 (This conceptualisation of time in prison is not particular to ISIS or other militant groups, but is also adopted by peaceful Islamic movements.) ISIS inmates see any state attempt “to get them to do social activities or rehabilitation in prison as [an] effort to detach them from DEAŞ and diminish their positive afterlife prospects”, a Turkish justice ministry official said, alluding to the difficulty of meaningful state interventions in prison.[fn]Crisis Group interview, justice ministry official, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote

There are dangers both in isolating ISIS-linked convicts and in not doing so.

Over the last decade, Turkey has isolated suspects or offenders entering prison on charges of terrorism from other prisoners. They are placed in separate wings of high-security prisons, to the extent that capacity allows, in one- to ten-person cells with other inmates linked to groups that share the same ideology. Members of organisations with different ideologies (mainly PKK, “FETÖ” and ISIS) are separated to “prevent contagion and avert potential physical violence between them”, according to a Turkish justice ministry official.[fn]These cells usually have a kitchen upstairs and a small courtyard accessible during certain hours of the day. Crisis Group interview, justice ministry officials, Ankara, July 2019. As of the end of 2019, out of a total prison population of around 300,000, some 41,000 inmates charged with terrorism-related crimes (convicts or arrestees pending trial) were imprisoned in Turkey. This number included some 1,150 Turkish men and 50 women jailed for alleged ISIS-related crimes, some 28,000-30,000 for alleged “FETÖ”-linked activities and 8,000-10,000 for alleged PKK involvement.Hide Footnote Where possible, inmates are also grouped according to their seniority in their respective organisations.[fn]This decision is taken either by respective courts or by prison managers after observations in the prison (through cameras or intelligence officers in prisons). Crisis Group interview, justice ministry officials, Ankara, September 2019.Hide Footnote In prisons with limited space, ISIS inmates are placed in larger cells of 20-25 people.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, returnees, May 2020.Hide Footnote Due to overcrowding, officials say, this containment policy is not always possible.[fn]Crisis Group interview, justice ministry official, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote Women’s prisons often have only twenty-person cells, and women held for ISIS-related crimes are often mixed in with others.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, justice ministry official, Ankara, July 2019; lawyer, Istanbul, September 2019.Hide Footnote That said, the release of around 90,000 prisoners (out of a total of 300,000) in mid-March 2020 due to COVID-19 risks may have created more space. No one charged with terrorism was let go.[fn]“Turkish dissidents remain jailed as thousands of inmates are released to avoid prison epidemic”, Washington Post, 22 April 2020.Hide Footnote

There are dangers both in isolating ISIS-linked convicts and in not doing so. Separating them from the larger prison population might help prevent the propagation of their ideology. “Many regular inmates turn to Islam for consolation when they are incarcerated. Being exposed to extremist interpretations at that stage could lead to bigger problems”, the above-mentioned justice ministry official said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote Isolating ISIS inmates in small-group cells carries its own risks, however. Jailing like-minded individuals together can foster bonds, lead to more ideologically committed members influencing less devoted ones, and make it more difficult for inmates to resocialise upon release.[fn]Of the incarcerated perpetrators of the Suruç attack, a few of the young men were merely fixers, arranging transport and accommodation for the bomber. But because the indictment notes them as charged with an ISIS-related crime, they are placed with the ISIS militants in prison. Crisis Group interview, lawyer of convicted perpetrator Orhan Gönder, October 2019, Ankara. One NGO network outlines the following disadvantages of the containment approach: new and stronger bonds forged among prisoners; eroded trust between staff and prisoners; entrenched oppositional mindset; perceptions of unfairness reinforced; labelling effects/stigmatisation; status associated with being in a special unit; all violent extremists assumed to be of equal risk; difficulties finding staff; high financial cost. “Preventing Radicalisation to Terrorism and Violent Extremism – Prison and Probation Interventions”, Radicalisation Awareness Network, 2018. Also see “Handbook for Prison and Probation Services Regarding Radicalisation and Violent Extremism”, Council of Europe, 1 December 2016.
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Either option can harden the beliefs of either the ISIS convict or his or her fellow cellmates.

Beyond containment measures, imams are made available to inmates but only on a voluntary basis. Diyanet has 600 imams, 70 of them women, on duty at prisons to teach, lead prayer and officiate at funerals.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, justice ministry and Diyanet officials, Ankara, July-September 2019.Hide Footnote Their effectiveness at countering narratives that promote violence is limited by a lack of specialised training and because in ISIS inmates’ eyes they are extensions of the tağut state.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Turkish returnees who were imprisoned for a period of time, May 2020.Hide Footnote Most militants reject any form of religious counselling.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Turkish returnees who were imprisoned for a period of time, May 2020; lawyer of ISIS suspects, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote For those who are open to discussion of religion, the state could design programs involving specialised psychosocial workers alongside vetted Islamic scholars, perhaps with support from former militants, whom evidence from elsewhere suggests can more easily build trust with ISIS inmates.[fn]In Indonesia, for instance, the prison program is run by former inmates who may not have much religious knowledge but are nevertheless regarded as “credible”, if not “charismatic”, by many of the prisoners, in particular those they had personally recruited or trained. See, for instance, Cameron Sumpter, “Countering Violent Extremism in Indonesia: Priorities, Practice and the Role of Civil Society”, Journal for Deradicalization, vol. 11 (Summer 2017) pp. 112-147.Hide Footnote Authorities might also look into programs that can help inmates acquire new professional skills. Investing in day-to-day staff-inmate relationships has proven to be key in dealing with jailed jihadists in other places.[fn]See “Preventing Radicalisation to Terrorism and Violent Extremism – Prison and Probation Interventions”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The justice ministry should coordinate with the family ministry to explore whether and how to design programs aimed at preventing former militants from returning to ISIS after their release.

Turkish authorities have taken other initiatives to ensure that inmates convicted for terrorist offenses are held in conditions that mitigate rather than exacerbate the danger they pose. A two-year EU-funded Twinning project brings together Spanish and Turkish officials to develop systematic rehabilitation services for inmates under arrest for or convicted of terror-related crimes.[fn]The two-year Twinning project’s aim is to develop counter-radicalisation measures in Turkish prisons. An adviser to the project said: “The project has four components: alignment of Turkey’s legal framework (which is already quite good); dissemination of a concept called ‘dynamic security’; a treatment program and risk assessment tool; and training for correctional officers and prison managers”. Crisis Group interview, Ankara, July 2019. The project was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.Hide Footnote The project includes a needs analysis phase during which participants review legislation and develop risk assessment tools for training correctional officers and prison managers. Turkish officials involved welcomed the project but were sceptical that foreigners were sufficiently versed in local realities to offer recommendations. The different demographics of inmates and the different ways diverse militant groups recruit make it hard to transplant policies from one context to another. The Turkish government should, however, continue dialogue with European capitals, who have an interest in improving conditions in jails where many of their own citizens who joined ISIS are held, to exchange best practices.

The justice ministry should coordinate with the family ministry to explore whether and how to design programs aimed at preventing former militants from returning to ISIS after their release.[fn]Justice ministry representatives themselves told Crisis Group that they felt the need for such collaboration. Crisis Group interview, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote How incarceration influences the risk of recidivism for offenders remains an area of debate and is understudied in Turkey. Where appropriate, the family ministry could carry out visits to families to help evaluate whether they can be helpful, on a voluntary basis, in reintegration. It could also offer guidance on how to best communicate with relatives behind bars during regular visitations and after their release. If such programs do take place, they should rely on baseline studies and be piloted.

4. Social policy

Outside the prison system, different ministries say they lack clarity about which should take the lead on efforts to help returnees reintegrate and prevent them, or indeed others, from turning or returning to militancy.

Overseeing the work of all legally registered mosques and imams in the country, the Directorate for Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, promotes Islam as a religion of peace, which it says is important for countering jihadist narratives. It also publishes anti-ISIS messages in books, pamphlets, seminars and Friday sermons. In the words of one Diyanet official: “Our mandate is enlightening society about Islam; therefore, everything we do shields against terror organisations that exploit religion”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Diyanet representatives, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote Diyanet officials add that their advocacy of family values is in itself a prevention mechanism, in that strong family bonds can provide some protection from militant recruitment. They have no defined policy intervention for returnees or their families. The Diyanet also groups “FETÖ” and ISIS together in one basket as “terrorist organisations exploiting religion”.[fn]See, for instance, “Dini İstismar Eden Terör Örgütleriyle Mücadele Seminerleri” [Seminars on Fighting Terrorist Organisations That Exploit Religion], video, Diyanet TV, n.d.Hide Footnote Conflating the two would hinder efforts to devise more targeted policies, were the ministry to undertake them.

The Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Services (FLSS) is tasked with dealing with women and children returnees, but by law has no mandate to extend support to adult men. Even with women and children it gets involved only when security agencies invite it to do so. “We are not there yet”, said one high-level ministry official. “We are at the security response stage”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, deputy FLSS minister, Ankara, October 2019.
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The ministry is charged with mental health support and other initiatives for some 200 children of ISIS-affiliated adults repatriated from prisons in Iraq in mid-2019.[fn]The Maya Foundation partners with the FLSS ministry to work with Syrian children to this end, but no such arrangement has been possible for Turkish citizens. Crisis Group interview, Maya Foundation representatives, Istanbul, September 2019. While some NGOs have been developing know-how in dealing with war trauma and extremist indoctrination working with Syrian refugee children in Turkey, they need significant capacity building in this respect. Crisis Group interviews, Turkish NGO representatives of professional psychosocial services who have witnessed FLSS ministry social workers in action, September 2019, Istanbul.Hide Footnote It does not divulge details of those programs.

In the absence of official guidance, families of returnees of all ages have found ways of coping. Children have often ended up with extended families. Some families have kept relatives’ involvement a secret; others rejected those who had joined ISIS.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local authority, Istanbul, November 2016. This official said he personally knew a few families who had spurned children returning from ISIS-held territory. The youths had to move to other cities. “These people are going to be trouble for the country in the future, because their family did not take them back”, he added.Hide Footnote “We took away his cell phone and web access”, said the cousin of a Diyarbakır-based returnee, who had worked as a state imam before going to Syria. “We are watching him but don’t really see any signs of him becoming less radical”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Diyarbakır, July 2019.
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The Diyanet and the FLSS ministry could consider some of the “soft measures” other countries have developed to deal with returnees. In particular, they might test whether imams and social workers, who often have better access to returnee families than other state authorities, could play more of a role. To be sure, there are potential pitfalls in their doing so. State imams may not be the best placed to pull young people away from militancy. If they and social workers do get involved, they would have to guard against being suspected of surveillance on the state’s behalf: Turkish officials across ministries appear to recognise that the interior ministry would likely have to coordinate any additional policies toward returnees both locally and at the national level.[fn]Belgium provides one example of how central and local coordination could be structured: Belgian authorities work through the Coordination Unit for Threat Assessment (CUTA), which deals with the evaluation and coordination of a threat. The line ministry in charge of CUTA is the interior ministry. CUTA has about 80 staff members from different ministries and works with local task forces that include social workers. When authorities identify people who leave Belgium to fight in jihadist wars, they inform CUTA. When the fighters come back, CUTA decides on a case-by-case basis which measures to take. For each returnee, CUTA determines whether the police, justice or intelligence are in charge. Local mayors and social workers are consulted in decisions on case-by-case approaches. For more information, see “What is the Coordination Unit for Threat Assessment?” on CUTA’s website.Hide Footnote Still, in some instances, families have sought imams’ or other local religious leaders’ support. Diyanet and interior ministry officials argue that imams should develop expertise in engaging people who reference the Quran to justify violence.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Diyanet and interior ministry officials, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote

Outside the prison system, different ministries say they lack clarity about which should take the lead on efforts to help returnees reintegrate and prevent them.

The ministry already has a program, called Informing and Preventing Activities (abbreviated as BÖF in Turkish), focused on stopping youth from joining groups the Turkish state designates as terrorist. Under this program, Turkish officials say, police work with social workers and psychologists to offer “off-ramps” to youths reported by their families or flagged by security services. In other words, they provide opportunities for extracurricular activities, jobs or psychosocial support that might help prevent them from joining militant groups.[fn]Crisis Group Skype interview, former interior ministry official, September 2019.Hide Footnote The program has, however, primarily been geared toward preventing PKK recruitment. Overall, its success appears to have been limited.

Whether such programs could be applied to those vulnerable to ISIS recruitment is an open question. Some families, who in 2014 saw their sons and daughters being drawn into ISIS-linked circles, told Crisis Group they had reported their children to police but received no support. They said police had told them that unless a crime is committed, they had no role. The interior ministry could consider what programs designed to provide vulnerable youth alternatives to militancy might look like and whether they would give families who approach the authorities worried about kin being recruited by jihadists the support they need. Efforts along those lines might be more effective than locking people up for a few days in the hope that jail deters them. They would need to thoroughly assess the effectiveness of the BÖF program and identify neighbourhood-level actors who might have the necessary influence and could usefully be involved.

IV. Conclusion

Thousands of Turkish citizens have returned from ISIS-held territories in Syria and Iraq. Intensive Turkish policing over the past few years appears to have disrupted potential attacks and helped keep in check those still committed to militancy. But maintaining that so-far successful effort will require the Turkish state’s sustained attention and investment. The jihadist landscape’s evolution outside Turkey’s borders could affect militancy inside the country. If ISIS gains ground in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, for example, or other jihadist groups fighting in Syria, such as HTS, turn against Turkey, returnees are among the most likely to mobilise against the state. The risk could grow further if a regime offensive in Syria’s last rebel-held bastion in Idlib prompts many more militants to cross into Turkey, stretching the capacity of security services monitoring domestic and foreign ISIS returnees. Those in Turkey who were thwarted in their plans to join ISIS may also pose a lingering threat. Authorities should develop policies across the board aimed at ensuring that returnees refrain from violence and reintegrate safely into society.

Appendix A: List of ISIS Attacks in Turkey and Corresponding Court Cases

The list is available here.

Women carry their belongings off a boat as they arrive at Paquitequete beach in Pemba on 22 May 2021, after fleeing Palma by boat with forty nine other people. JOHN WESSELS / AFP
Report 303 / Africa

Stemming the Insurrection in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado

Deadly conflict in Mozambique’s ruby- and natural gas-rich northernmost coastal province feeds on a mix of colonial-era tensions, inequality and Islamist militancy. To tame the insurrection, Maputo needs to use force, with bespoke assistance from outside partners, and to carefully address underlying grievances.

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What’s new? Militant attacks and security force operations in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province have claimed nearly 3,000 lives, while displacing hundreds of thousands of people. Insecurity has prompted the suspension of a massive gas project. The Islamic State (ISIS) claims ties to the insurrection. Southern African governments are lobbying to send troops.

Why did it happen? Mozambican militants have been motivated by grievances against a state that they see as delivering little for them, despite the development of major mineral and hydrocarbon deposits. Tanzanians and other foreigners have joined up, fuelling the insurrection. The country’s historically weak security forces have been unable to stem the onslaught.

Why does it matter? Unaddressed, the insurrection could spread further, threatening national stability just as Mozambique is fulfilling a peace deal with the country’s main opposition group and heading into national elections in 2024. It could worsen instability along East Africa’s coast and present ISIS with a new front to exploit.

What should be done? Maputo should accept targeted assistance for security operations to contain the insurrection, and avoid a heavy external deployment that could lead to a quagmire. Authorities should deploy aid to build trust with locals and open dialogue with militants. Regional governments should redouble law enforcement efforts to block transnational jihadist involvement.

Executive Summary

Fears are mounting that Mozambique’s Muslim-dominated province of Cabo Delgado could become the next frontier for prolonged jihadist rebellion on the continent. Since 2017, Mozambican militants backed by Tanzanians and other foreigners have thwarted the weak security forces’ efforts to defeat them and perpetrated atrocities against civilians. Thousands have died and hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced. The Islamic State (ISIS) global core claims it is behind the insurrection. While keen to respond militarily, Maputo also needs to deal with the set of local factors that have spurred Mozambican rank-and-file militants into battle. The government should take military assistance from external partners but use force wisely to contain the militants’ expansion while it ramps up efforts to persuade as many of them as possible to demobilise. To that end, it should channel aid to communities and use them and other influencers to open dialogue with Mozambican militants and tackle their grievances. Regional countries should step up efforts to interdict foreign support for the insurrection.

Cabo Delgado is a province that has long been ripe for conflict. In 2007, frustrated youth in the province’s southern districts dominated by ethnic Makua began denouncing the authority of local religious leaders, especially those close to the country’s official Muslim council. By the mid-2010s, ethnic Mwani militants in the coastal district of Mocímboa da Praia had joined the fray. Their activism had an Islamist tinge: they pushed for alcohol bans while opposing the enrolment of children in state schools and the right of women to work. But it was also fuelled by their economic exclusion amid the discovery of rubies and natural gas. They resented, too, the influence of liberation-era generals who have business interests in the province and are drawn from President Filipe Nyusi’s Makonde ethnic group. Amid this boiling resentment, authorities expelled artisanal miners from commercial mining concessions in early 2017, further feeding local discontent. Militants, known to locals as al-Shabab (not to be confused with Al-Shabaab, the jihadist group in Somalia) moved to armed revolt in October 2017.

At first dismissing the militants as criminals, officials now refer to them as “terrorists”. In so doing, they admit the problem is greater than initially thought, but the rhetoric also fuels a perception that global jihadism is the only reason for the threat. Fighters from neighbouring Tanzania, many of whom are part of Islamist networks that have proliferated on the Swahili coast of East Africa are, indeed, among the militants’ leaders. But the bulk of the group’s rank and file are Mozambicans, including poor fishermen, frustrated petty traders, former farmers and unemployed youth. Their motivations for joining and staying with the group are diverse but less shaped by ideology than by desire to assert power locally and to obtain the material benefits that accrue to them via the barrel of a gun. If the group is still growing, it is because it is managing to draw on recruits who see joining and staying with al-Shabab as a good career move. That said, some of the Mozambican militant core may well, by now, be committed jihadists.

Maputo is meanwhile struggling to contain a group that is growing in strength on land and which can also operate in waters off the coast. The army, which significantly shrank after the 1992 peace deal ending the country’s civil war, is in disrepair, a soft target for militants who have overrun many of its positions and plundered its weapons stockpiles. It is also stretched, having to guarantee security in the centre of the country while it tries to achieve the final surrender of a residual armed faction of the Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (Renamo) opposition group. The navy, meanwhile, is barely functioning. Under pressure to respond to the Cabo Delgado crisis, Nyusi dispatched elite paramilitary police units with air support from a South African private military company. This joint force stopped the militants’ advance toward the provincial capital Pemba and destroyed some of their camps but was unable to neutralise them. In March, militants stormed Palma, the gateway to major gas fields, prompting the French multinational Total to halt development.

Mozambique’s government has thus been pressing its foreign partners to provide the resources, including lethal assistance, that it says it needs to build up its military, which Nyusi now wants to be the primary force tasked with fighting militants. Mozambique’s Western partners say they want to help but their diplomats say their capitals will be reluctant to supply materiel to the military without the institution going through significant training and reforms. Those partners are concerned, too, about reports of abuses committed against the population by security forces and potential leaks of government weapons into militants’ hands as a result of alleged graft and indiscipline.

Southern African Development Community (SADC) states, which see Cabo Delgado’s conflict as endangering their own security, are meanwhile seeking to build international support to deploy their own troops into Mozambique. Nyusi has been nervous about that happening. His critics say he wants to keep prying eyes out of the province, a zone for illicit activity including heroin trafficking that benefits elites. His supporters emphasise rather that he is just being careful about what kind of intervention he allows, wary that a heavy presence of foreign troops could become difficult to control and could end up in a quagmire. After the Palma attack, Nyusi, who is currently SADC chairman, has come under further pressure from the regional bloc. He is, however, courting other security partners, including Rwanda, whose troops could be used to provide Mozambican security forces combat support.

Whichever partners he chooses, any external intervention should be measured in how it uses force, so that it can both respond to the very real security threat posed by the militants but also eventually allocate enough resources to protect civilians when they return to their native districts. A heavy deployment of regional troops unfamiliar with the local terrain may not be necessary. Instead, Maputo should welcome bespoke African and international assistance to support its own special forces, who are receiving training primarily from a few Western partners. It should task these special forces to spearhead restricted military operations to contain and then degrade al-Shabab. Patrolling territorial waters could also deny militants opportunities to move fighters and supplies via coastal waters. If residents can be persuaded to return to areas they vacated, Mozambique’s other forces should focus on providing security around these population centres to benefit civilians and humanitarian actors.

A security plan like this would pressure al-Shabab militarily but also leave space for authorities to seek a negotiated end to the conflict. Besides needing to win back aggrieved locals’ loyalty, they also need to induce militants lured by weapons, money and abducted women used as sex slaves to give up violence. Maputo should use its new development agency for the north to start dialogues with civilians in areas where security permits and to work out with them how best to spend donor aid, soothe local tensions and rebuild trust with communities who feel let down by the state. Such dialogue might also help authorities open lines of communication with Mozambican militants, given how deeply al-Shabab’s own recruitment network is embedded in society. If they can reach back this way, authorities could seek ways to encourage the militants’ demobilisation and possible participation in local security arrangements. Maputo may need to offer them security guarantees, and in some cases amnesties, after they exit.

In the meantime, East and Southern African countries should, via their regional blocs, also start exploring how they can conduct joint law enforcement operations to stymie any support to al-Shabab from transnational militants, including ISIS, whose influence over the group appears weak for now. Such operations should focus on stopping attempts by individuals to finance, train or provide new technologies to al-Shabab. Their success will require Mozambique and Tanzania in particular to share information with their international partners about al-Shabab networks that have been operating across their borders.

After more than three years of violence in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique and its regional partners are gearing up to respond together to the threat. They are right to put their heads together. Cabo Delgado’s population craves safety and wants the security forces to act, petrified that otherwise they could end up abducted or killed. A security response is necessary. The government and its allies also need to think carefully, however, about how they can address the grievances underpinning a rapidly expanding challenge that in essence started as a local revolt.

Maputo/Nairobi/Brussels, 11 June 2021

I. Introduction

Once the cradle of Mozambique’s war of liberation from colonial occupation, the resource-rich but impoverished northern province of Cabo Delgado is today home to another conflict critical to the country’s destiny. Since 2017, groups of fighters, often carrying black Islamic State (ISIS) flags and denouncing the state and the Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (Frelimo) ruling party, have grown from small units targeting remote security posts into heavily equipped companies whose attacks threaten not only national stability but also international peace and security. In the last eighteen months, fighters have stepped up raids, including on some of the province’s main towns, resulting in more civilian casualties. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes. Insecurity has also prompted the French multinational Total to suspend a multi-billion-dollar liquefied gas project on which the government hangs its hopes for the country’s future development. Neighbouring capitals now fear the crisis could become a magnet for transnational jihadists who might conduct terrorist attacks in the region.

Member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) are pushing to make some kind of intervention in Cabo Delgado.

Following the brazen March 2021 attack on the northern town of Palma, gateway to giant gas fields, President Filipe Nyusi is under pressure from regional allies to counter the militants, whom the U.S. now labels part of the Islamic State.[fn]A Mozambican special police unit fighting in conjunction with South African mercenaries was unable to defeat the group. The president is now increasingly looking to Mozambique’s military to do the job. This institution is in a state of disrepair, however, and requires a serious upgrade that will take time. Member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) are thus pushing to make some kind of intervention in Cabo Delgado. But Mozambican authorities are wary of allowing in a heavy regional deployment they fear could lead to a messy quagmire. In the meantime, the president has opened a new conversation with President Paul Kagame to assess whether Rwanda’s security forces can provide targeted support.

This report looks at how the Cabo Delgado conflict is unfolding as the country also implements its peace process with the Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (Renamo) opposition group and heads toward the 2024 election, when, as the constitution requires, President Nyusi must step down after two terms in office.[fn]War between Frelimo and Renamo ended with the 1992 General Peace Accords, supervised by the UN Operation in Mozambique until 1994. In mid-2013, Renamo resumed its insurgency, resulting in a series of stop-start negotiations that culminated in an accord signed on 6 August 2019 giving birth to a new disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration process that is now under way. A breakaway faction, known as the Renamo Military Junta, under the leadership of Mariano Nhongo, does not recognise the peace deal and fights on from a base in central Mozambique.Hide Footnote It offers ideas about what foreign military intervention should look like and concentrate on if it does go ahead. It also proposes other ideas about how to reverse militants’ gains and defang the insurrection. Research involved interviews in February and March 2021 in Maputo and Cabo Delgado with government officials, diplomats, humanitarian workers, security sources, businesspeople, religious and community leaders, politicians and victims of violence. Additional research took place in South Africa, and via remote interviews with sources in Tanzania, East and Southern African countries between December 2020 and May 2021.

II. From Grievance to Insurrection

A. A Province Ripe for Conflict

Separated from Maputo by some 2,000km of coastline, Cabo Delgado is a province whose political economy has been shaped by the war of independence and its aftermath. Following the end of Portuguese rule in Mozambique in 1975, senior Frelimo liberation-era figures drawn from the Makonde tribe prevalent in the province’s northern plateau claimed top positions for themselves, including provincial governorships, while placing their allies in national administrative and military posts as a reward for their central role in the struggle against colonial occupation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Mozambican academic, Maputo, February 2020; Frelimo central committee member, Maputo, March 2021. The Makonde were the backbone of the Frelimo force fighting the Portuguese. Two of the top liberation-era Makonde, Raimundo Pachinuapa and Alberto Chipande, served respectively as governor of Cabo Delgado and national defence minister under Mozambique’s first post-independence president, Samora Machel. Chipande would later serve as governor of Cabo Delgado, also under Machel. Both men are still in Frelimo’s political commission, the highest body within the ruling party’s structure. See also João Cabrita, Mozambique: The Tortuous Road to Democracy (London, 2001); and “Mozambique: A Political Economy Analysis,” Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, October 2017.Hide Footnote The fifteen years from 1977 to 1992 saw illicit trade proliferate in Cabo Delgado, as local elites enriched themselves by smuggling timber, precious stones and ivory, without being encumbered by the government in Maputo or affected by Frelimo’s war with Renamo, which barely touched the province.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Mozambican academic, Maputo, February 2021; top Frelimo official, Maputo, March 2021.Hide Footnote

Since the 1990s, the province’s economy has only become further characterised by forms of monopoly and illicit activity, much of which ties back to senior Frelimo figures and their business allies. As the civil war receded into memory, senior Makonde continued to dominate Cabo Delgado’s politics and economy. Over the next years, top Makonde generals who had been key figures in the liberation war, including those who went on to serve as governors, began focusing on expanding their business interests in the province. These included forestry, mining and transport operations that were often backed by state loans.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Frelimo-linked businessperson, December 2021; Mozambican investigative journalist, February 2021. See also “President Filipe Nyusi’s northern allies on the lookout for good deals”, Africa Intelligence, 16 February 2017; and “The Quionga network”, Africa Confidential, 12 April 2013.Hide Footnote In the same period, Cabo Delgado’s remote coastline also became a documented hotspot for the import and transhipment of heroin and other narcotics via cartels run by Mozambicans of South Asian descent who received protection from Frelimo’s uppermost echelons at both the provincial and national levels.[fn]Crisis Group interview, counter-narcotics source, February 2021. See also “The Heroin Coast: A Political Economy along the Eastern African Seaboard”, Enact Research Paper, June 2018.Hide Footnote The proceeds from such illicit trade washed through the political system, keeping Maputo content with the status quo in Cabo Delgado.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Mozambican anti-corruption researcher, Maputo, February 2021; counter-narcotics law enforcement source, March 2021. For an exposé of drug smuggling in Mozambique, see “A Triangle of Vulnerability: Changing Patterns of Illicit Trafficking off the Swahili Coast”, Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, June 2020, pp. 22-24.Hide Footnote

Praça dos Heróis. Pemba, Cabo Delgado, 23 February 2021. CRISISGROUP/Meron Elias

Senior Frelimo officials acknowledge that the ruling party and the post-liberation governments in Mozambique did not transform Cabo Delgado’s war economy. They admit being preoccupied with areas nearer the capital. “We paid a lot of attention to the development of the regions of the south and the central part of the country where the war with Renamo took place, but in so doing we also have to take the blame for having neglected Cabo Delgado”, said a top Frelimo official in Maputo.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Maputo, March 2021.Hide Footnote

While poverty certainly aggravated local tensions, some socio-economic indicators are worse in other northern provinces. Other factors helped make the province ripe for conflict.[fn]See the World Bank’s Mozambique Poverty Assessment (April 2018) for detailed, province-by-province comparisons of socio-economic indicators.Hide Footnote Mozambican social scientists suggest that colonial-era tensions between the Mwani and Makua peoples, on one side, and the Makonde, on the other, have grown since liberation and now shape conflict dynamics. They say, however, that these tensions are political rather than inherently tribal.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Mozambican academic, Maputo, February 2021. See Ana Margarida Sousa Santos, “History, Memory and Violence: Changing Patterns of Group Relationship in Mocímboa da Praia, Mozambique”, PhD thesis, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, 2010, for descriptions of how Portugal’s relationship to the Mwani coastal community up to the 20th century, as well as the mass conversion to Christianity of the Makonde in the 20th century, played a role in setting the two communities apart from each other. See also “Asymmetries in Access to the State: A Fertile Land for the Prevention of Islamic Jihadism”, Observatório do Meio Rural, June 2020; and Eric Morier-Genoud, “The Jihadi Insurgency in Mozambique: Origins, Nature and Beginning”, Journal of East African Studies, vol. 14, no. 3 (July 2020). “Identifying Resiliencies in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique”, ALPS Resilience in association with Joaquim Chissano University, December 2020, details current tensions between the Makonde and Mwani.Hide Footnote Many Mwani, alienated by the dominance of the Makonde elites after independence, have remained sympathetic to Renamo and, with a large number of Makua, have become a major source of recruits for the insurrection.[fn]See Ana Margarida Santos, “The Past in the Present: Memories of the Liberation Struggle in Northern Mozambique”, St. Antony’s College, Oxford, 2011, for a description of how Mwani and Makonde tended to be Renamo and Frelimo supporters, respectively, as well as for an account of 2005 riots in Mocímboa da Praia when Renamo mobilised protests of local election results partly along ethnic Mwani lines.Hide Footnote In the words of one senior government official working in Cabo Delgado: “What has happened is essentially a protest against socio-economic asymmetries and inequalities”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, government official, Pemba, February 2021.Hide Footnote

B. Religion as a Conflict Vector

Young people’s anger at inequality and their political exclusion bloomed in the post-war period, which was also marked by a period of change for Islamic denominations active in Muslim-dominated Cabo Delgado. On this front, two trends were visible.

First, in the late 1990s, came the return of Mozambican students who had been sent abroad to study by the Islamic Council of Mozambique (Cislamo), a Salafi denomination that had allied with Frelimo in the 1980s, when the party was looking to co-opt segments of the Muslim community and broaden its connections to Arab states.[fn]Cislamo was created in 1981 and has a predominantly Wahhabist leadership. It grew close to the Frelimo leadership under President Machel, who had earlier seen Islam as anathema to his development ideology. Cislamo became an important ally of the ruling party, which began looking to cement ties with Muslims for political reasons. Frelimo leaders warmed to the Council also because they saw it as representing a modernising vein of Islam, based on Arabic literacy. Crisis Group interview, Frelimo central committee member, Maputo, March 2021. See also Liazzat J.K. Bonate, “Muslim Religious Leadership in Post-Colonial Mozambique”, South African Historical Journal, vol. 60, no. 4 (2008).Hide Footnote The return of these young men, who had studied in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Sudan and Saudi Arabia, was part of a pattern of growing Salafi influence in Mozambique and financed by foreign states and charities. With the influx of devotees and cash over the next decade came a new circuit of mosques and madrasas built across the Muslim-majority north, including Cabo Delgado. This trend challenged traditional Sufi orders that had long dominated coastal enclaves, and areas deep in northern Mozambique’s interior, and whose practices had adapted to local customs over centuries.[fn]Bonate, “Muslim Religious Leadership in Post-Colonial Mozambique”, op. cit. See also Eric Morier-Genoud, “L’Islam au Mozambique après l’independence: Histoire d’une montée en puissance”, in Christian Coulon (ed.), L’Afrique politique 2002 (Paris, 2002), pp. 123-146.Hide Footnote

Even as newer religious establishments in Cabo Delgado propagated more doctrinaire Islamic practices, youth in the province’s coastal areas were consuming other religious teachings prevalent on the Swahili coast of East Africa, where Islamist and jihadist networks had proliferated since the 1990s.

Secondly, even as newer religious establishments in Cabo Delgado propagated more doctrinaire Islamic practices, youth in the province’s coastal areas were consuming other religious teachings prevalent on the Swahili coast of East Africa, where Islamist and jihadist networks had proliferated since the 1990s.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, communal leader, Pemba, February 2021; Cislamo cleric, Maputo, March 2021. See also Saide Habibe, Salvador Forquilha and João Pereira, “Islamic Radicalization in Northern Mozambique: The Case of Mocimboa da Praia”, Institute for Social and Economic Studies, 2019.Hide Footnote Some of these young men, including petty traders, had established commercial and other ties up the coast via the small caucus of smugglers and merchants from Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia in Cabo Delgado’s port of Mocímboa da Praia with whom they together formed both business and religious associations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, businessperson with interests in Mocímboa da Praia, Maputo, February 2021; businessperson from Mocímboa da Praia, Pemba, February 2021.Hide Footnote These groups in turn helped disseminate pamphlets espousing the propaganda of Aboud Rogo, a Kenyan cleric who before his assassination in 2012 was associated with al-Qaeda’s East African networks and Somalia’s Al-Shabaab movement.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former Mocímboa da Praia resident, Pemba, February 2021; regional intelligence source, Nairobi, March 2021. See also Ngala Chome, “Eastern Africa’s Regional Extremist Threat: Origins, Nature and Policy Options”, Centre for Human Rights and Policy, September 2020.Hide Footnote Rogo had become something of a cult hero in Kenya after his arrest in 2002 and acquittal in 2005.[fn]Crisis Group interview, regional intelligence source, Nairobi, March 2021. See also Chome, “Eastern Africa’s Regional Extremist Threat”, op. cit.; and Hassan Ndzovu, “Struggle against Secular Power: The Prospects of Islamism in Kenya as Epitomized by Sheikh Aboud Rogo’s Sermons”, Annual Review of Islam in Africa, vol. 12, no. 2 (2015). It is noteworthy that Rogo also held fundamentalist positions on women and girls’ rights and social roles.Hide Footnote

By early 2007, early signs of local militancy appeared in Cabo Delgado, particularly in the Makua-dominated areas of the province’s south and south west. Religious and communal leaders from Cabo Delgado describe aggressive behaviour by youths who began challenging the established Sufi religious orders and Cislamo in these districts, accusing both of acquiescence with the authorities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leader, Pemba, February 2021; retired Frelimo official and community elder, Pemba, February 2021. These and other sources say the first signs of militancy showed up in Balama district in Cabo Delgado’s far south west, before migrating east to Chiuri and on to Mocímboa da Praia via Macomia. See also Morier-Genoud, “The Jihadi Insurgency in Mozambique”, op. cit.Hide Footnote They also began trying to block the enrolment of children in secular schools and accusing local religious leaders, including those from Cislamo, of hypocrisy and apostasy. Dressed in shortened trousers, in fashion among their East African brethren, and occasionally brandishing knives, they began setting up their own prayer houses or informal mosques in private residences in different villages.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Muslim leader, Pemba, February 2021. Said Habibe, Salvador Forquilha and João Pereira, “Radicalização Islâmica no Norte de Moçambique: O Caso de Mocímboa da Praia”, Insituto de Estudos Sociais Economicos (Maputo), 17 September 2019.Hide Footnote Local authorities often confronted these youths, arresting them before releasing them for lack of formal charges.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leader, Pemba, February 2021; senior legal official, Maputo, March 2021.Hide Footnote

Frelimo officials, local religious and communal leaders and scholars of Cabo Delgado explain that despite their many attempts to flag these developments within the party and to local officials, the government never developed a strategy to deal with this emerging problem, besides the mass arrests.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim religious leader, Frelimo elder, Pemba, February 2021; Frelimo central committee member, Maputo, March 2021.Hide Footnote While on one level, the crisis appeared to be a sign of Islamist militancy on the rise, it was also a rebellion of primarily Mwani and Makua youth in a province with a Muslim majority against local Sufi religious leaders and an organisation, Cislamo, which they saw as one of the Frelimo state’s closest allies.

C. A Resource Boom Lights a Fire

A rich deposit of rubies was discovered in the western district of Montepuez in 2009, followed by giant reserves of natural gas in the seabed off Palma.

The tensions in Cabo Delgado appeared to heighten after 2009, as the state earmarked the province as a future source of mining and hydrocarbon revenue. A rich deposit of rubies was discovered in the western district of Montepuez in 2009, followed by giant reserves of natural gas in the seabed off Palma. Beginning in 2010, the state cleared residents off the land it eventually allocated to the mining and hydrocarbon concession holders.[fn]Estacio Valoi, “The blood rubies of Montepuez”, Foreign Policy, 3 May 2016. See also “Oil and Gas Investments in Palma District, Mozambique”, Shared Value Foundation and LANDac, February 2019. Crisis Group interview, Frelimo-linked businessman, Maputo, March 2021.Hide Footnote A top Makonde general who says he had previously acquired rights to the land around the deposit entered a partnership with an industrial miner, generating feelings of exclusion among mainly Makua communities living near the new concession.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former ruby miner, Pemba, February 2021; Frelimo businessman with operations in Cabo Delgado, Maputo, March 2021. See also Valoi, “The blood rubies of Montepuez”, op. cit.Hide Footnote While locals around the gas development near Palma secured relocation packages from the multinational companies, many complained about those deals’ lack of transparency, the loss of their livelihoods as they were displaced, and lack of access to job opportunities with the oil and gas operations.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former community liaison officer for oil and gas multinational, Pemba, February 2021.Hide Footnote

Frelimo’s choice of Filipe Nyusi as its candidate for the 2014 presidential election was meanwhile a sign that the old Makonde heavyweights were calling in claims to have the top position in government allocated to them. Some senior party members say an unwritten rule always stipulated that power would eventually rotate into the hands of this caucus, which has waited in line behind a succession of southern presidents since independence.[fn]All the post-independence presidents, Machel, Joaquim Chissano and Armando Guebuza, are southerners, although Guebuza was born in northern Nampula province, where his father was working at the time.Hide Footnote They also note, however, that the Makonde cohort was particularly keen to take control of the presidency at this moment, as Cabo Delgado was emerging as the epicentre of Mozambique’s resource bonanza.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Frelimo sources, Maputo, March 2021.Hide Footnote In the end, the choice of Nyusi, a younger Makonde, represented a tense compromise between the caucuses loyal to the Makonde generals and the outgoing president Armando Guebuza, who had been seeking a third term of office, and under whom Nyusi had served as defence minister.[fn]See Adriano Nuvunga, “Mozambique’s 2014 Elections: A Repeat of Misconduct, Political Tension and Frelimo Dominance”, Journal of African Elections, vol. 16, no. 2 (2017), for descriptions of Guebuza’s attempts to run for a third term and Nyusi’s emergence as a compromise candidate.Hide Footnote

The 2014 election, which took place amid a ceasefire between the state and Renamo, was not the cakewalk for the ruling party that previous elections had been.[fn]See “Mozambique election: Will Frelimo retain power”, BBC, 14 October 2014.Hide Footnote Nyusi scored only 57 per cent of the vote, much lower than Guebuza’s margin of victory in 2009. The drop-off reflected Renamo’s resurgence at that time but also the divisions within Frelimo that had come to the fore.[fn]Nuvunga, “Mozambique’s 2014 Elections”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Nyusi still won in a landslide in Cabo Delgado itself, however.[fn]Nyusi’s share of the Cabo Delgado vote was close to 78 per cent in the 2014 election. Comissão Nacional de Eleições Moçambique.Hide Footnote Some Frelimo officials say that even though Nyusi has a strong political following in the north, the party achieved its sizeable victory in the province in part due to its distribution of patronage.[fn]Frelimo central committee member, Maputo, March 2021.Hide Footnote

After the elections, Makonde business elites began to show greater bullishness in acquiring economic power in Cabo Delgado. They spread their money around among district Makonde party stalwarts and local chiefs, entrenching the community’s power base down to the grassroots.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Frelimo official with business interests in Cabo Delgado, Maputo, March 2021; Mozambican anti-corruption researcher, Maputo, February 2021.Hide Footnote State allocations of war veteran pensions in Cabo Delgado also became more heavily skewed to favour Makonde recipients.[fn]Ibid. See also “Asymmetries in Access to the State”, op. cit.Hide Footnote As a result, working-class Makonde were also able to buy up land in parts of the province, including along the Mwani-dominated coast.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, foreign intelligence source, Maputo, February 2021; Mozambican researcher on Cabo Delgado, Maputo, February 2021; senior Frelimo official with business interests in Cabo Delgado, Maputo, March 2021.Hide Footnote Frustration among Mwani youth reignited, particularly as they were also enduring extortion by local officials interfering with their small businesses and fishing operations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Mozambican researcher on Cabo Delgado, Maputo, February 2021; civil society leader, Pemba, February 2021; former resident of Mocímboa da Praia district, Metuge, February 2021. Sources describe widespread shakedowns of small traders and fishermen by local security service officers and officials, in contrast to many larger business operators who receive the state’s protection.Hide Footnote

Sources from Mocímboa da Praia report that as these local tensions heated up around the end of 2014, Mwani youth who were known among traders began mysteriously vanishing from the port town. Locals reported that some of them had in fact travelled to countries up the Swahili coast of East Africa and even farther afield. This trend was matched by a wave of migrants landing at Mocímboa da Praia, a mix of other Mozambicans and foreigners.[fn]Crisis Group interview, businessperson from Mocímboa da Praia, Pemba, February 2021.Hide Footnote Sources working in the town’s banks at that time report that substantial amounts of money flowed into Mocímboa da Praia from Somalia and elsewhere.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, source with relative working in a bank in Mocímboa da Praia at the time, Maputo, February 2021; Mozambican investigative journalist, Maputo, February 2021; Mozambican intelligence source, Pemba, February 2021.Hide Footnote

By 2015, reports were proliferating about increasingly aggressive behaviour by the same youth gangs clashing with religious authorities in several Cabo Delgado districts. In the first instance, scuffles broke out between them and local leaders, as they became even pushier, for example by attempting to impose bans on alcohol, disrupting prayers at mosques, forcing women to wear the niqab or burqa and preventing women from working outside the home.[fn]Morier-Genoud, “The Jihadi Insurgency in Mozambique”, op. cit.Hide Footnote As they clashed with local government and religious officials, the state began to fight back. Security forces arrested groups of youths and closed their prayer houses.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Frelimo elder, Pemba, February 2021.Hide Footnote By 2016, sources in Cabo Delgado were reporting armed elements establishing a presence in remote parts of Mocímboa da Praia district.[fn]Crisis Group interview, communal elder, February 2021. By 2016, the group was active in Palma, Nangade, Mocímboa da Praia and Montepuez, and also had a presence in Macmoia and Quissanga. Morier-Genoud, “The Jihadi Insurgency in Mozambique”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Since the discovery of the ruby deposits in 2009, thousands of prospectors from elsewhere in Mozambique or Tanzania and other parts of Africa had arrived in the area to search for gems.

The authorities stoked further discontent in early 2017, when they expelled thousands of artisanal miners digging in the ruby fields under the commercial concession near Montepuez. Since the discovery of the ruby deposits in 2009, thousands of prospectors from elsewhere in Mozambique or Tanzania and other parts of Africa had arrived in the area to search for gems, often coming into confrontation with police and mining security guards patrolling the concession on behalf of the industrial operation.[fn]Valoi, “The blood rubies of Montepuez”, op. cit. Crisis Group interview, former miner near Montepuez, Pemba, February 2021. In 2019, the mining firm Gemfields, which runs one of the biggest ruby concessions in Montepuez, agreed to pay $8.3 million to settle 273 claims of killings and human rights abuses that occurred between 2011 and 2018. See “Ruby miner Gemfields to pay $8.3mn to settle Montepuez torture and murder claims”, Club of Mozambique, 29 January 2019.Hide Footnote Those lucky enough to evade the guards and find rubies sold them to Tanzanian, Thai and Sri Lankan buyers in Montepuez but also, in smaller quantities, to traders in Mocímboa da Praia. The authorities however eventually kicked out thousands of miners and traders, both foreigners and Mozambicans. The expulsions, which were violent, also thus deprived some of the Mwani and foreign traders in Mocímboa da Praia of an income stream. Several former miners joined the militants.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Mozambican intelligence source, former miner, Pemba, February 2021.Hide Footnote “This was now war against the Makonde top dogs behind the concession”, says one former miner.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former artisanal miner, Pemba, February 2021.Hide Footnote

By now, militant youths across the province were trying to come up with a name for themselves. Some referred to themselves as members of Ahlu Sunna Wal Jammah, which literally translates as the “adherents of the Prophet’s words and deeds and the community of his followers”. This name never gained traction, however.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local researcher, community worker in Cabo Delgado, Pemba, February 2021.Hide Footnote Both militants and locals instead began using the label al-Shabab, Arabic for “the youth”, although not in any way to suggest that the group in Mozambique was linked to the separate Al-Shabaab insurgency in Somalia.[fn]Civilians also refer to fighters locally as machababos. This report uses the term al-Shabab when referring to Cabo Delgado’s militants and Al-Shabaab when referring to the separate movement in Somalia.Hide Footnote

III. Local Insurrection to International Crisis

An armed phase of the insurrection soon started. It would accelerate into a humanitarian catastrophe and threat to regional stability. Almost 3,000 people would lose their lives and hundreds of thousands flee their homes and native districts in the next three and a half years of conflict.[fn]The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) estimates that 33 people were killed in violence in 2017, 209 in 2018, 689 in 2019 and 1,510 in 2020.Hide Footnote

A. The Early Phase: Moving Inland from the Coast

The violence in Cabo Delgado started in the port town of Mocímboa da Praia and quickly spread. On 5 October 2017, around 30 fighters stormed the town’s police stations, raided their armouries and battled security forces for more than a day, leaving more than a dozen dead, including several of their own number.[fn]Some researchers point to a 17 August 2017 raid on a police station in neighbouring Nampula province as the first case of an al-Shabab attack. See “Desconhecidos atacam posto da polícia e matam um agente”, VOA, 28 August 2017.Hide Footnote Residents who encountered the fighters just prior to the assault said they wanted only to attack the state and not to pay taxes.[fn]See Eric Morier-Genoud, “Why Islamist attack demands a careful response from Mozambique”, The Conversation, 18 October 2017. Crisis Group interview, Mozambican researcher who covered the attack, Pemba, February 2021.Hide Footnote Three days later, security forces had retaken the town. Over the rest of the month, however, militants mounted additional attacks on security forces nearby. They also raided the coastal town of Olumbi, some 70km north toward the town of Palma, the gateway to the major gas project on the Afungi peninsula, then run by the U.S. multinational Anadarko.[fn]See “Mozambique’s first Islamist attacks shock the region”, Institute for Security Studies, 27 October 2017. “Islamist raids continuing in Mocímboa da Praia – AIM Report”, Club of Mozambique, 4 December 2017. Database of attack data produced by Mozambique-based diplomat, reviewed by Crisis Group.Hide Footnote

Security forces hit back with mass arrests and counterattacks, but in so doing stoked local grievances further. They first began arresting suspected militants and collaborators, eventually detaining hundreds.[fn]“Mozambique: Mocímboa da Praia – 52 people arrested”, All Africa, 11 October 2017. By July 2018, according to ACLED’s estimate, over 400 people had been arrested. See Gregory Pirio, Robert Pittelli and Yussuf Adam, “The Emergence of Violent Extremism in Northern Mozambique”, Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, 25 March 2018; “Mozambique 2019 International Religious Freedom Report”, U.S. Department of State, 2019. While they eventually prosecuted hundreds, authorities had no case against many of them and so set them free. Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leader, Pemba, February 2021; senior legal official, Maputo, March 2021.Hide Footnote In December, they mounted an air, land and sea attack on the village of Mitumbate, near Mocímboa da Praia town, understood to be a militant stronghold at the time. The attack reportedly killed a substantial number of al-Shabab fighters, but also sparked anger from residents who claimed that women and children had been caught in the crossfire.[fn]See “Police launch ‘manhunt’ in Mocímboa da Praia”, Club of Mozambique, 28 December 2017. Crisis Group interview, local Mozambican researcher, Pemba, February 2021.Hide Footnote As the militants regrouped, they spent the first few months of 2018 attacking security forces and raiding villages for supplies.

From the middle of May, militants spread farther south into coastal districts of Macomia and Quissanga, and faced little resistance from security forces, leaving civilians to suffer dreadful abuses.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Pemba, February 2021. Security sources refer to al-Shabab’s Siri base, in Macomia territory, as one of its centres of gravity.Hide Footnote Al-Shabab fighters reportedly beheaded ten civilians in Palma district in late May.[fn]See “At least 10 beheaded in Mozambique attack: State radio”, Reuters, 29 May 2018.Hide Footnote During the course of June, militants also raided villages in districts already under their influence where they burned homes and hacked people to death, forcing thousands to flee.[fn]Database of attack data produced by Mozambique-based diplomat, reviewed by Crisis Group. “Mozambique: Armed Groups Burn Villages”, Human Rights Watch, 19 June 2018. See also “Attackers hack seven to death in Mozambique”, Al Jazeera, 5 June 2018, for details of one of the many attacks in Macomia in this period.Hide Footnote In July, they also made bold raids against security force posts in Mocímboa da Praia and Palma districts, capturing their weapons.[fn]Database of attack data produced by Mozambique-based diplomat, reviewed by Crisis Group.Hide Footnote

By late 2018, al-Shabab fighters had come to dominate the four main districts accounting for most of Cabo Delgado’s coastline but also begun moving inland. Between November and the end of December, militants stepped up raids on remote villages across the districts under their sway, particularly Palma and Macomia, but also farther inland in Nangade and Muidumbe, both of which have significant Makonde populations.[fn]In two separate incidents in the first half of December, residents of Nangade launched retaliatory attacks against suspected militants. Database of attack data produced by Mozambique-based diplomat, reviewed by Crisis Group. Crisis Group interview, security source, Pemba, February 2021.Hide Footnote

As the crisis entered 2019, militants began to show more confidence in engaging state security forces and ambushing transport routes in the coastal districts. On 21 February, they attacked separate Anadarko convoys in Palma district, killing a company contractor and sending alarm through the gas industry.[fn]“U.S. energy company Anadarko says worker killed in Mozambique attack”, Reuters, 22 February 2019.Hide Footnote In April, fighters raided a military base in Mocímboa da Praia district, reportedly making off with a significant quantity of weapons.[fn]President Nyusi announced a few days later that Mozambican special forces had captured a militant base in Macomia district in response. See “Cabo Delgado: Special forces take militant bases, capture those inside – PR”, Club of Mozambique, 9 April 2019.Hide Footnote With the province reeling from Cyclone Kenneth, militants continued to resist security forces’ attacks.[fn]“Cyclone Kenneth: UN says Mozambique may need another huge aid effort”, The Guardian, 26 April 2019.Hide Footnote In early June, they beat off an operation in Mocímboa da Praia. ISIS propaganda channels celebrated the counterattack, saying the fighters were “soldiers of the caliphate”.[fn]“Isis claims sub-Saharan attacks in a sign of African ambitions”, The Guardian, 6 June 2019.Hide Footnote After security forces reportedly killed 26 fighters in Nangade district in mid-June, the militants rebounded with attacks on police and killings of civilians, including more beheadings, in several districts.[fn]“Cabo Delgado: Government forces kill 26 insurgents – AIM report”, Club of Mozambique, 18 June 2019; “Seven killed in Mozambique jihadist attack claimed by IS”, eNCA, 6 July 2019. See also “Cabo Delgado war continues”, AllAfrica, 12 July 2019.Hide Footnote

B. Security Forces Turn to Military Contractors

Following battles between al-Shabab fighters and security forces in Macomia and Palma districts in July and August, militants started moving again into the Makonde heartland of Muidumbe district. Alarmed, authorities contracted the Russian Wagner Group to support operations through October, diverting the mercenaries from their original duties of providing security for the presidential election, which Nyusi won in a contested vote criticised by international observers and marked by a dip in his popularity in Cabo Delgado.[fn]Wagner is widely reported to be a Kremlin-backed company run by businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. Security sources say Wagner was in Mozambique to handle presidential security around the October 2019 election but was instead drawn into taking on the insurrection. Crisis Group interview, private security source, Maputo, February 2021. The deployment came after Nyusi visited Russia between 20 and 24 August 2019. Details of Nyusi’s trip to Russia were published in the September 2019 issue of the presidential newsletter, O Presidente. See also “Russian mercenaries pour into Africa and suffer more losses”, Jamestown Foundation, 28 January 2020. The EU faulted Nyusi’s 2019 election victory for Frelimo’s use of state resources during its campaign. See “Missão de Observação Eleitoral da UE – Relatorio Final: Moçambique Eleições Gerais e das Assembleias Provinciais 2019”, European Union Election Observation Mission, 15 October 2019. Annex IV of the report shows that Cabo Delgado was the only province where Frelimo lost ground between 2014 and 2019. Nyusi took 75 per cent of all votes in Cabo Delgado, a slight decline from his numbers in the 2014 election. See the report by Centro de Integridade Publica, 15 October 2019, which shows that voting patterns swung from Frelimo toward Renamo in Cabo Delgado’s coastal and southern districts.Hide Footnote While killing several militants, the Russians sustained losses of their own and wound down operations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, private security sources, near Cape Town, December 2020; Maputo, March 2021.Hide Footnote For the rest of 2019, militants thus had more room to operate. They made incursions into Tanzania in November before stepping up raids again in Muidumbe district in December.[fn]“Six killed in Tanzania attack near border with Mozambique”, AFP, 13 November 2019.Hide Footnote By the end of December, 85,000 civilians in Cabo Delgado had fled their homes.[fn]Data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Displacement Tracking Matrix.Hide Footnote

With the onset of 2020, the militants became better organised and equipped, forming at least three geographically separate attack groups, in the north, centre and south of Cabo Delgado.[fn]Private security consultant report dated August 2020.Hide Footnote They could now mount multiple operations in different areas on security services and state infrastructure. In late January, al-Shabab fighters first attacked Mbau in Mocímboa da Praia district, reportedly killing more than twenty soldiers. They then raided the town of Bilibiza, in Quissanga district, a few days later, vandalising government buildings including a health centre.[fn]Database of attack data produced by Mozambique-based diplomat, reviewed by Crisis Group.Hide Footnote Thousands of people began fleeing southward amid sporadic cholera outbreaks.[fn]See also “Mozambique: Cholera in three Cabo Delgado districts”, AllAfrica, 24 February 2020.Hide Footnote Humanitarian and other sources report that during this time, al-Shabab fighters who came across civilians during the course of attacks began ordering people to vacate land or be killed.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, community activists and field-based humanitarian workers, Pemba, February 2021.Hide Footnote

Militants then launched bold raids on district capitals as the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. In March, in the first attack against Mocímboa da Praia town, they battled security forces, overrunning a military base, before raising the ISIS flag and handing out food to civilians applauding them.[fn]“Mozambique jihadists ‘capture strategic port in major victory’”, Daily Maverick, 24 March 2020. Crisis Group interview, source from Mocímboa da Praia, Pemba, February 2021.Hide Footnote The militants left town a day later, having kidnapped a large number of women and children. A separate group of fighters then attacked Quissanga town, destroying the police headquarters, burning the military barracks and beheading the statue of Eduardo Mondlane, Frelimo’s founder.[fn]“Cabo Delgado: Homens armados atacam Quissanga”, VOA, 26 March 2020. Database of attack data produced by Mozambique-based diplomat, reviewed by Crisis Group. For reference to the kidnappings, see “Caracterização e organização social dos Machababos”, Observador Rural, 6 April 2021.Hide Footnote In early April, al-Shabab also mounted sustained attacks on Muidumbe town, otherwise known as Namacande, decapitating or shooting dead dozens of nearby villagers before retreating from helicopter gunfire from the Dyck Advisory Group, a South African private military company brought in to support Mozambican forces.[fn]Database of attack data produced by Mozambique-based diplomat, reviewed by Crisis Group. Crisis Group interview, counter-insurgency security source, Maputo, February 2021. The Dyck Advisory Group is run by Lionel Dyck, a former Rhodesian colonel who subsequently served at the same rank in the Zimbabwean Defence Force. He won accolades in Mozambique for leading the attack that captured Renamo’s headquarters at Gorongosa in 1985. See “Islamist group kills 52 in ‘cruel and diabolical’ massacre”, The Guardian, 22 April 2020, for details of the alleged killings in Xitaxi, near Muidumbe.Hide Footnote

Maputo’s decision to use the mercenaries arguably dented al-Shabab’s momentum.

Maputo’s decision to use the mercenaries arguably dented al-Shabab’s momentum, but even when pushed onto the back foot, militants quickly regrouped.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Johannesburg, Maputo and Pemba, December 2020-March 2021.Hide Footnote A few days after their retreat from Muidumbe, they raided the island of Quirimba, in Ibo district, where they destroyed a school, a health centre and an administrator’s residence. Security forces and Dyck men counterattacked in April and May, reportedly killing dozens of al-Shabab fighters.[fn]Database of attack data produced by Mozambique-based diplomat, reviewed by Crisis Group. During the operation, a Dyck helicopter had to make an emergency landing. See “South African chopper in Mozambique operation makes emergency landing”, SA People News, 10 April 2020. Interior Minister Amade Miquidade claimed that security forces killed 50 militants during this period. See “Insurgência em Moçambique: Governo obrigadoa adaptir estratégia e meios”, Deutsche Welle, 15 May 2020.Hide Footnote Militants still managed to mount a bold attack on Macomia town, storming into the district capital carrying rocket-propelled grenades and wearing government army uniforms.[fn]“Insurgents clash with govt forces following dawn raids in Macomia”, Zitamar News, 28 May 2020.Hide Footnote Humanitarian workers and many civilians abandoned the town.[fn]“MSF pulls out of Macomia and Mocímboa da Praia following attacks”, Zitamar News, 5 June 2020.Hide Footnote Government security forces attacked al-Shabab positions days later and again in mid-June, with officials reporting dozens of militants killed.[fn]See “Mozambique: Armed forces responding ‘firmly and courageously’ – Nyusi”, AllAfrica, 1 June 2020, for details of the late May attack on al-Shabab. Government attacks on al-Shabab positions took place on 14 and 20 June, according to a database of attack data produced by a Mozambique-based diplomat, reviewed by Crisis Group.Hide Footnote The militants would, however, rebound again.

C. The Onset of an International Crisis

In late June, al-Shabab fighters launched a multi-pronged raid on the port town of Mocímboa da Praia, attacking government and police buildings and killing civilians and security force personnel.[fn]See “Top officer killed in insurgent attack in Mocímboa da Praia”, Zitamar News, 29 June 2020.Hide Footnote Days later, the joint government and mercenary force struck an al-Shabab base in Quissanga district, with officials claiming they killed a large number of al-Shabab fighters.[fn]Government officials claimed that security forces killed more than 100 militants in these attacks, although many analysts dispute this claim. See “Mozambique forces in disputed attack on insurgent base”, Zitamar News, 2 July 2020.Hide Footnote Still, the militants bounced back again. After a spree of raiding and looting in Macomia district, they made another assault on Mocímboa da Praia town, driving out security forces and almost the entire population in more than a week of fighting in early August that left dozens dead.[fn]For a blow-by-blow account of the attack, see “Cabo Ligado Weekly: 10-16 August”, Zitamar News, 19 August 2020. ISIS claimed that two Mozambican army barracks were attacked, 50 soldiers killed and quantities of government weapons taken.Hide Footnote By the end of the month, the total number of displaced people had risen to 330,000.[fn]Data from the International Organization for Migration Displacement Tracking Matrix. 306,000 civilians were displaced in Cabo Delgado, with the rest within neighbouring provinces.Hide Footnote

Regional capitals and oil and gas multinationals began to fear that the situation was getting out of hand. In August, during the assault on Mocímboa da Praia, neighbouring Tanzania had announced that it would step up border security operations. The French oil and gas multinational Total, which had purchased Anadarko’s assets in Africa in 2019, pressed the government to enter into a new memorandum of understanding that obliged the government to reinforce its security force presence around the Afungi perimeter.[fn]“Total signs new MoU with Mozambique government for LNG project security”, Zitamar News, 24 August 2020. Under the memorandum, Mozambique provided up to 1,000 security personnel as part of a Joint Task Force with a defensive, rather than offensive mandate. Crisis Group telephone interview, Total representative, March 2021. See also “TPDF to launch manhunt along the border with Mozambique”, The Citizen, 11 August 2020.Hide Footnote The company’s chief executive officer, Patrick Pouyanné, travelled to Maputo to meet Nyusi, to whom he relayed that the risk posed to the company’s multi-billion-dollar operational plan was becoming critical.[fn]Security sources say the encounter between Pouyanné and Nyusi was tense, with the Total CEO suggesting that the company would have to withdraw if the government could not guarantee security. Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Maputo, March 2021.Hide Footnote Still, the militants continued to sustain the momentum. Weeks later, in October, a group of al-Shabab fighters numbering as many as 300 crossed into Tanzania and raided security, reportedly capturing military equipment in an attack again celebrated by ISIS.[fn]“Militants from Mozambique staged deadly attack in Tanzania, police say”, Reuters, 23 October 2020.Hide Footnote

The conflict started to draw world leaders’ attention and prompted Total to start reducing its operational footprint. In late October, Dyck helicopters struck two boats carrying militants off the coast of Ibo district.[fn]For details of the strike on the boats, see “Cabo Ligado Weekly: 19-25 October 2020”.Hide Footnote Days later, security forces struck militants again, this time in Palma district.[fn]“Mozambique: Dozens of terrorists killed in Punhandar”, AllAfrica, 6 November 2009.Hide Footnote At the same time, al-Shabab massacred up to 50 civilians in Muidumbe district before eventually storming Namacande.[fn]See “Militant Islamists ‘behead more than 50’ in Mozambique”, BBC, 9 November 2020. Many people were indeed killed, though accounts vary as to how many were actually beheaded. Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian workers, Maputo and Pemba, February-March 2021.Hide Footnote UN Secretary-General António Guterres and French President Emmanuel Macron strongly condemned the killings.[fn]See also “Press Release of the UN Secretary General”, 10 November 2020; and “Macron calls for global response after the jihadist massacre in Mozambique”, Pan African Visions, 12 November 2020.Hide Footnote The then-outgoing U.S. coordinator for counter-terrorism, Nathan Sales, visited Maputo, where he insisted to journalists that the militants were part of a “committed ISIS affiliate that embraces the ISIS ideology”.[fn]Press briefing with Ambassador-at-Large Nathan Sales, U.S. coordinator for counter-terrorism, U.S. Department of State, 8 December 2020.Hide Footnote In December, al-Shabab fighters attacked security forces close to Afungi. Although these strikes did not target Total, they still prompted the multinational to withdraw non-essential and non-security personnel the following month and press the government to provide more troops to secure the Afungi perimeter.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Total representative, March 2021.Hide Footnote

After security forces and Dyck hit a militant base in Mocímboa da Praia district in February 2021, many in the private security industry speculated that the militants would struggle to recover.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, private security analysts, Maputo, February 2021. Crisis Group telephone interviews, regional intelligence analysts, February 2021.Hide Footnote But the militants geared up operations in the north, drawing from their bases on the Tanzanian border. They began raiding the environs north of Palma town. The raids sent waves of terror through the civilian population, thousands of whom fled the district as food supplies reached critically low levels due to lack of secure road access.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Maputo and Pemba, February-March 2021.Hide Footnote

A dirt road in Chuiba, Cabo Delgado. Residents say that flooding makes it hard to use roads in the province because of the state they are in. 25 February 2021. CRISISGROUP/Meron Elias

On 24 March, militants numbering around 120 and heavily armed with machine guns and grenade launchers attacked Palma town, destroying government buildings, robbing a bank, raiding arsenals and forcing tens of thousands of people to flee. As fighting with security forces spilled into a second day, a second group of attackers moved in from the north.[fn]Crisis Group reviews of two separate private security reports, April 2021.Hide Footnote They razed large parts of the town, killing civilians, and ambushed a convoy including expatriate contractors who were trying to flee.[fn]In a panic, some of the hotel guests crammed into seventeen vehicles to make a dash for the beach, where they hoped to embark on boats evacuating people to Pemba. They were ambushed on their way off the hotel grounds. Some were killed, amid reports that militants had also targeted other foreigners. A civilian who fled Palma for Pemba after the attacks said he had seen 87 dead civilians – 80 Mozambicans and seven he believed to be foreigners. See “Cabo Ligado Weekly: 5-11 April”, Zitamar News, 13 April 2021. See also “Twelve people, possibly foreigners, beheaded in Mozambique attack – police,” Reuters, 8 April 2021.Hide Footnote Rescue operations shipped thousands of civilians by boat to Pemba, as security forces battled the militants. On 27 March, Total announced it was halting operations.[fn]Information gathered by Crisis Group over several days from numerous government and private security sources, eyewitnesses and security reports, as the situation unfolded.Hide Footnote ISIS then celebrated the attack on its media channel.[fn]The ISIS claim was later disputed as its footage of al-Shabab fighters was taken in a location other than Palma. See Joseph Hanlon, “IS Palma claims are fake news”, Mozambique: News Reports and Clippings (blog), 31 March 2021.Hide Footnote

In the days ahead, government forces continued to fight militants, amid sporadic attacks on security forces around the perimeter of Afungi. Authorities declared they had taken back control of Palma on 4 April. By then, however, Total had decided to withdraw all its staff from Afungi.[fn]“Total withdraws completely from Afungi, leaving LNG site in government hands,” Zitamar News, 2 April 2021.Hide Footnote On 26 April, the company invoked force majeure, saying it would no longer be able to guarantee its contractual obligations to the state.[fn]“Total Declares Force Majeure on Mozambique LNG Project”, press release, Total, 26 April 2021.Hide Footnote By the end of the month, the total number of displaced people from Cabo Delgado had risen to 732,000.[fn]Data provided by the International Organization for Migration Displacement Tracking Matrix. The IOM estimated that at the end of April 2021, 662,828 civilians were displaced in Cabo Delgado, while an additional 69,399 had fled to neighbouring provinces.Hide Footnote

Since late April 2021, al-Shabab’s activity has been relatively muted while government and allied forces put them under pressure in continued cat-and-mouse operations. Militants continued to raid neighbourhoods of Palma, forcing civilians to flee during the course of early May, before moving their attention south and west toward Muidumbe, Mueda and Nangade districts where they once again began to mount attacks. Government forces, however, have been able to take back some strategic locations, notably Diaca, an important gateway to Mocímboa da Praia, as well as Namacande, which had been dominated by militants since November 2020.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, private security sources, May 2021. See “Cabo Ligado Weekly: 10-23 May 2021”, 26 May 2021.Hide Footnote They have also attacked militant positions in Macomia district.[fn]Cabo Ligado Weekly: 31 May-6 June 2021”, 8 June 2021.Hide Footnote

IV. Al-Shabab’s Evolving Shape, Strength and Behaviour

Cabo Delgado’s al-Shabab is a composite movement. Lower-level militants are mostly Mozambicans, primarily young Mwani and Makua who tend to be former fishermen and farmers, coastal smugglers and traders, or unemployed youth.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Mozambican intelligence source, Pemba, February 2021. Crisis Group interviews, eyewitnesses and victims of militant attacks, Metuge, February 2021. In December 2020, President Nyusi said in his state of the nation speech that “most of the recruits are Mozambicans”. Crisis Group review of English translation of state of the nation speech provided by diplomat in Maputo. See also “Mozambique police name ‘ringleaders’ behind Islamist threat”, Reuters, 13 August 2018, for references to names of leaders identified by the Mozambican authorities as far back as 2018.Hide Footnote There are a small number of Makonde al-Shabab fighters, for example some who were swept out of ruby mines in 2017.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former miner, Pemba, February 2021.Hide Footnote But the leadership of the movement is different. While there are a number of known Mozambican leaders of al-Shabab, eyewitnesses and Mozambican officials say Tanzanian Islamists, many of whom fled into Mozambique after security crackdowns in their home country in recent years, represent an important part of the group’s leadership.[fn]In 2020, Mozambican journalists named two al-Shabab leaders as Bonomado Machude Omar and Abdala Likonga. See “Bonomado Machude Omar ou Ibn Omar: The Mozambican face of terrorism in Cabo Delgado”, Centro de Jornalismo Investigativo, 22 September 2020; and “Lifting the fog reveals ringleaders behind Cabo Delgado terrorism”, Centro de Jornalismo Investigativo, 29 September 2020. In his state of the nation speech, President Nyusi also singled out several Tanzanians in al-Shabab’s leadership. Eyewitnesses have corroborated some of this information. See “Caracterização e organização social dos Machababos”, op. cit. Crisis Group interviews, Tanzanian source close to jihadist circles, May 2021; survivors of militant attacks, Metuge, February 2021. Survivors described hearing orders being given in Tanzanian Swahili during one attack.Hide Footnote These men appear to be more ideological than the Mozambican rank and file, many of whom are abducted and forced to sign up, or who join al-Shabab out of frustration with their socio-economic status, lured in by recruiters either offering cash or promising future wealth, and staying loyal to the group so long as they are paid.[fn]Two former al-Shabab fighters from Nampula said they were lured into the group by promises of money in November 2020. They said they left the following February because they did not receive payments promised to them. Crisis Group review of transcripts provided by local Mozambican community researcher. See also “Ataques Terroristas em Cabo Delgado (2017-2021): as causas do fenómeno pelo boca da população de Mocímboa da Praia”, Universidade Rovuma, 2021, for civilian testimonies on how Mozambican recruits to al-Shabab are lured by money. A Mozambican intelligence source in contact with militants also described the Tanzanians as “jihadists who will stay for a long time” and the Mozambicans as “just aggrieved that all the land and wealth has gone to Frelimo”. Crisis Group interview, Pemba, February 2021. See “Caracterização e organização social dos Machababos”, op. cit., a study based on interviews with 23 women who were once al-Shabab captives. The study concluded that Mozambican militants became frustrated and considered deserting when their payments were delayed. Religious leaders do not believe that the Mozambicans are ideologues. “They are materialists, not religious”, said one Muslim religious leader. Crisis Group interview, Pemba, February 2021. A Christian leader also said: “It’s money they want”. See “Priest insists insurgency in Mozambique is based on economics, not religion”, Club of Mozambique, 20 April 2020.Hide Footnote

The movement seems to be growing in strength even after sustaining many casualties. It has reoccupied some of the main bases previously attacked by security forces. Independent security sources say the group comprises up to 1,500 fighters, but some government officials think there could be as many as 4,000 members, including in non-combatant roles.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, counter-insurgency sources, private security analysts and government officials, December to March 2021.Hide Footnote Eyewitnesses describe the group’s logistical crew, which include local mechanics, nurses and communications specialists.[fn]“Caracterização e organização social dos Machababos”, op. cit.Hide Footnote The group recruits those it can entice with money, or the promise of it, as well as by kidnapping men in raids.[fn]Private security company briefing, August 2020. See also “Historian warns of ‘terrible situation’ of missing women in Cabo Delgado conflict”, Lusa, 2 September 2020.Hide Footnote Ever more evidence suggests that al-Shabab cells are recruiting in neighbouring Niassa province to the west and Nampula and Zambezia provinces to the south.[fn]Crisis Group interview, government security official, Maputo, March 2021. Crisis Group interviews, survivors of attacks in Quissanga district, February 2021. All survivors recounted that many attackers spoke a local Nampula dialect. See also Salvador Forquilha and João Pereira, “After all, it is not just Cabo Delgado! Insurgency dynamics in Nampula and Niassa”, IESE Boletim, 11 March 2021. Nyusi also mentioned Zambezia as a recruiting ground in his December 2020 state of the nation address.Hide Footnote When attacking major population centres, the group is thus now able to amass relatively large units. Hundreds of fighters were involved in the August 2020 battle in Mocímboa da Praia town and in the March 2021 attack on Palma town, for example.[fn]Estimates given by security and counter-insurgency sources, August 2020 and April 2021.Hide Footnote

Since 2017, the group’s weaponry and operational tactics have also improved significantly. According to a range of security sources, militants have significantly built up their armouries, including from stockpiles they have grabbed directly from government armouries.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, counter-insurgency sources and private security analysts, December 2020-March 2021.Hide Footnote Dependent at first on AK-47 rifles and the occasional PKM machine gun, they have now acquired racks of RPG-7 rocket launchers and several 60mm and 82mm mortar firing systems, as well as the occasional government vehicle, mostly from looting security forces.[fn]Confidential private security briefing, August 2020. Crisis Group interviews, private security sources, December 2020-March 2021. Crisis Group review of videos and pictures of militants with weapons stockpiles.Hide Footnote On land, the fighters have become adept at coordinating simultaneous attacks in different districts and have got markedly better at battlefield tactics. In addition, they are mobile in littoral waters, using small canoes and sailboats to move up and down the coast or to mount attacks on shore or nearby islands.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, private security source, March 2021. See also “Cabo Delgado insurgents kill again in attack on coastal Macomia”, Zitamar News, 30 March 2021. During the attack on Palma, militants hijacked a multi-purpose vessel from its mooring near Afungi. Crisis Group telephone interviews and correspondence, maritime and other security sources, April 2021.Hide Footnote

Al-Shabab’s militants have developed cells not just among the civilian population but also within armed force units.

They also appear to have built up an effective intelligence system. Security sources report that the militants have developed cells not just among the civilian population but also within armed force units.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security experts and counter-insurgency sources, December 2020-March 2021.Hide Footnote They have caught security forces flatfooted in ambushes and prepared raids on military bases from nearby hidden locations as well as infiltrated towns before launching attacks, as they did in Palma. Fighters often attack areas soon after security forces depart, suggesting that they have advance knowledge of their foes’ movements. When they attack, they sometimes wear security force uniforms, obtained illegally, confusing civilians and soldiers who are unable to tell whether they are in fact al-Shabab until it is too late.[fn]Confidential private security briefing note dated August 2020.Hide Footnote The group has also attracted defectors from the security forces. One Mozambican source told Crisis Group that former security force personnel he hires for his security company say they know out-of-work former colleagues who have joined al-Shabab.[fn]Crisis Group interview, owner of private security company, Maputo, March 2021.Hide Footnote

The militants also appear able to generate considerable revenue and deploy funds to expand their operational footprint and recruitment base. Some businesses in Cabo Delgado pay protection money; other enterprises have been started up through cash loans from militants, who then tax profits.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Militants also raise revenues from ransom payments.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, private security source, May 2021.Hide Footnote Intelligence sources suspect significant funds may be channelled in from abroad.[fn]Crisis Group interview, private security source, Maputo, March 2021.Hide Footnote The funds of al-Shabab are hard to trace, however. The movement often uses civilians to launder money, including via mobile phone transfer services. Eyewitnesses, however, have seen militants handle large amounts of Mozambican meticais and foreign currency.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources in South Africa and Mozambique, December 2020-March 2021. Crisis Group review of confidential study published in January 2021 based on testimony of several groups of internally displaced people. Eyewitnesses claim they have seen al-Shabab fighters being paid the equivalent of $2,000 for their role in combat operations. See “Houve aumento salarial por combate no seio de insurgentes”, Pinnacle News, 13 May 2021.Hide Footnote Some experts fear that the movement could start taking a slice of contraband profits, including via bankrolling networks of gold and gemstone miners and smugglers operating in the province.[fn]See Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, “Are Mozambique’s insurgents closing in on illicit trafficking profits?”, Daily Maverick, 8 May 2020.Hide Footnote There are fears militants may also start taxing drug cargoes in transit through waters and coastal land under their control, although there is no visible evidence to suggest that is happening yet.[fn]Illicit narcotics come to Cabo Delgado from the Makran coast of Iran and Pakistan. See “Heavy traffic: The increasing movement of drugs to East Africa”, Jane’s Intelligence Review, April 2014. Today, most of the drugs coming into Mozambique are either heroin or methamphetamines. Mwani fishermen and smugglers allied with al-Shabab offload the drugs from oceangoing wooden dhows onto their land-bound skiffs. Counter-narcotics sources say the conflict has driven many drug deliveries either up the coast into Tanzania or down the coast south of Cabo Delgado, although quantities are still getting through in the province itself. Crisis Group interviews, counter-narcotics sources, Cape Town and Maputo, February and March 2021.Hide Footnote

While invoking Islam, and presenting themselves as jihadists, the militants seem to have specific local motives for killing. They sometimes stress their hatred for the ruling party and target specific local administrative and security officials, or those they consider government collaborators.[fn]Crisis Group interview, human rights researcher, May 2021.Hide Footnote In one video, reportedly of the Quissanga town attack, militants wave an ISIS banner, but also make clear that they are rejecting the Frelimo flag.[fn]Video of al-Shabab militants claiming to be in Quissanga, reviewed by Crisis Group.Hide Footnote A Mozambican militant in another video says they are fighting “leeches and corrupt people” from “Maputo”.[fn]See Thomas Heyen-Dubé and Richard Rands, “A Salafi-Jihadi Insurgency in Cabo Delgado?”, University of Oxford, 2021, p. 26.Hide Footnote One eyewitness told Crisis Group that when al-Shabab fighters stormed Mocímboa da Praia in August 2020, they killed only civilians who presented government-issued or Frelimo identification cards, sparing others who carried no official documents.[fn]Crisis Group interview, witness of August attack, Metuge, February 2021.Hide Footnote

The relationship between al-Shabab and civilians is fraught.

The relationship between al-Shabab and civilians is fraught. The militant group behaves like a roving predator, often seemingly appearing out of nowhere to conduct indiscriminate attacks before vanishing again. In the process of targeting security forces and government buildings, its fighters have inflicted terrible casualties on locals, often mutilating and decapitating them.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, civilian victims of al-Shabab attacks, Metuge, February 2021.Hide Footnote Militant attacks on the Makonde, who are mainly Frelimo supporters and Catholics, are reportedly often severe.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian workers, Maputo and Pemba, February 2021.Hide Footnote Mwani and Makua civilians, however, have also borne the brunt of terrible attacks, for example during al-Shabab’s gradual sweep through the coastal districts in 2018, or in the group’s assaults on various district capitals. During these attacks, militants often explicitly order civilians to leave their homes and never come back. They kill those they believe are resisting the orders.[fn]Several humanitarian workers, eyewitnesses and local researchers have described to Crisis Group situations where militants, while killing some civilians, have ordered others to simply leave the land.Hide Footnote As a result, vast areas in some of the conflict-affected districts of Cabo Delgado are now significantly depopulated.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian workers, security and government sources, Maputo and Pemba, February-March 2021.Hide Footnote

That said, militants can, from time to time, show mercy, providing residents occasional food handouts and even safe passages out of the line of fire, and frequently telling civilians whom they come across that their real enemy is the state and not the population.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian workers, Maputo and Pemba, February 2021. In some cases, militants have even given civilians money for transport to flee. Mozambican human rights researcher in call with Cabo Delgado expert group, May 2021. Crisis Group review of confidential testimony of individual released from al-Shabab captivity.Hide Footnote Despite the group’s elusive nature and its tendency to force many civilians to flee districts in which it operates, al-Shabab recruiters still maintain contacts with communities that chose to remain in the conflict-affected areas, and also among civilians and in displacement camps much farther afield.[fn]Mozambican human rights researcher in call with Cabo Delgado expert group, May 2021. Crisis Group interviews, intelligence source, Pemba, February 2021; civil society leader, Pemba, February 2021. Confidential private security briefing, August 2020. See also “Caracterização e organização social dos Machababos”, op. cit.; and “Identifying Resiliencies in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

V. Transnational Links and the Threat to the Region

As the al-Shabab group in Cabo Delgado has grown, Mozambican and foreign security officials have become increasingly concerned that it could draw in more fighters from overseas, and also become a platform from which ISIS or other foreign militants could embed themselves and sow more insecurity in the region. While the link between Tanzanian jihadists and Mozambican militants is well established, the extent of other reported relationships between al-Shabab and other regional networks, including ISIS, is less clear. That said, Mozambique is right to be concerned about the possibility of transnational support for al-Shabab.

The conflict in Cabo Delgado has already been significantly affected by the proliferation of jihadist networks in Tanzania. Over the last decade, Islamist militants in Mozambique’s neighbour have come into confrontation with security forces there.[fn]See “Tanzania: Extremism and Terrorism”, Counter Extremism Project, n.d.; and André LeSage, “The Rising Terrorist Threat in Tanzania: Domestic Islamist Militancy and Regional Threats”, Institute for National Strategic Studies, September 2014.Hide Footnote In 2013, Tanzanian authorities dismantled a training camp which was linked to Somalia’s Al-Shabaab movement and located near the northern city of Tanga. In 2015, security forces began cracking down on Islamist youth in the Kibiti district, 140km by road south of Dar es Salaam.[fn]For background on this incident, and more on militant activity in Tanzania, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°265, Al-Shabaab Five Years after Westgate: Still a Menace in East Africa, 21 September 2018, Section V.Hide Footnote The youth fought back in 2017, targeting public and security officials in the district only to be met with heavy security crackdowns, accompanied by hundreds of reported disappearances. Many of these youth fled to Mozambique, where they eventually joined al-Shabab, including as leaders of the group.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, regional intelligence source and East African academic following these developments, April 2021; Tanzanian source close to jihadist circles, May 2021. See also “Magafuli’s Reign and Tanzania’s Creeping Radicalization Issue”, Jamestown Foundation, 28 January 2020.Hide Footnote Some of these individuals are connected to gem traders and maritime traffickers who have worked for smuggling rings still operating today between Tanzania and Mozambique, and which have also been previously used to move recruits from Tanzania to Somalia.[fn]Previous research by UN investigators working on Somalia had already identified groups in Tanga that were close to a religious charity, the Ansar Muslim Youth Council, which runs a network of madrasas. No one suggests that the charity itself is involved in sponsoring acts of violence now, but in the early 2010s the Council’s madrasas were a hotbed for disciples of the Kenyan cleric Aboud Rogo, who had links to Al-Shabaab in Somalia. Investigators found connections between members of these groups and criminals smuggling recruits for Al-Shabaab in Somalia and moving drugs shipments in Tanzanian and Mozambican shallow waters. See “Somalia Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea Submitted in Accordance with Resolution 2002 (2011)”, UN S/2012/544, 13 July 2012. Some of these networks are still in business today. Crisis Group telephone interview, former drug trafficker in Tanzania, March 2021. Crisis Group interview, counter-trafficking source, Maputo, February 2021.Hide Footnote

Mozambican officials claim that some al-Shabab militants have also gone to fight alongside the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan militant group that has been involved in killing thousands of civilians and attacking security forces in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They also say several Ugandans and Congolese have come to fight in Mozambique, travelling via Tanzania, though they offer no precise numbers or any explanation about why these exchanges, which appear to have taken place mostly between 2016 and 2018, might be valuable for either the ADF or al-Shabab in Cabo Delgado.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, interior ministry official, Maputo, March 2021. Nyusi also mentioned in his December 2020 state of the nation speech that a number of Congolese and Ugandans have joined al-Shabab’s ranks in Cabo Delgado.Hide Footnote

Information collected outside Mozambique only partially corroborates some of their allegations. A former ADF fighter whose testimony while in custody has been reviewed by Crisis Group says ADF leader Musa Baluku has long been in contact with al-Shabab leaders in Mozambique.[fn]Crisis Group review of defector testimony; and Crisis Group telephone interview, source who interviewed the defector, April 2021. The Ugandan cleric in detention is Abdul Rahman Faisal, who was linked to the Usafi mosque in Kampala, where he is reported to have been a focal point for ADF factions. See “Uganda police want Usafi mosque imam, five others extradited from Mozambique”, Club of Mozambique, 30 January 2019.Hide Footnote In addition, the former fighter stated that in 2017, a militant Ugandan cleric now in Mozambican custody was involved in recruiting Mozambicans to join the ADF, moving them from Cabo Delgado through Tanzania and Burundi, after which they crossed into the DRC’s South Kivu province and headed to the ADF’s base in North Kivu.[fn]Crisis Group review of defector testimony; and Crisis Group telephone interview, source who interviewed the defector, April 2021. Crisis Group has also seen the documented testimonies of four other Mozambicans arrested by the DRC’s military taking the same migratory route via Tanzania and Burundi to eastern Congo. All four say they travelled this route in late 2016 and 2017, although they deny being part of any armed group. Crisis Group review of documented testimonies; and Crisis Group telephone interview, source who interviewed the four detainees, February 2021. The four detainees comprised three Makua and one Mwani.Hide Footnote In 2018, a group of Mozambicans arrested in the DRC claimed to the media that they were on the way to join “jihad” and had also travelled via Burundi.[fn]See “Watch: Men trained in DR Congo to destabilise are captured – Mocímboa da Praia”, Club of Mozambique, 22 March 2018.Hide Footnote

Whether recruits are still moving between the eastern DRC and Mozambique is unclear. While Congolese military sources say they suspect more Mozambicans have been training with the ADF in previous years, they cannot confirm the precise numbers in the ADF’s ranks at present, and say they have no other Mozambicans in custody.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, DRC military intelligence source, April 2021.Hide Footnote Regional security sources therefore believe that even if there was a significant movement of recruits between the DRC and Mozambique, it has now wound up.[fn]Crisis Group interview, regional intelligence source, Nairobi, April 2021.Hide Footnote That said, an organisation working with the Congolese military says it has identified at least one Tanzanian currently in the ADF who has fighting experience in Cabo Delgado. It is investigating the possibility that other Tanzanian jihadists are rotating through eastern Congo and Mozambique.[fn]Crisis Group WhatsApp interview, source working with DRC authorities, April 2021.Hide Footnote

Mozambican and foreign security officials are also concerned about Somali jihadists who may also be getting involved with al-Shabab.

In addition to these links, Mozambican and foreign security officials are also concerned about Somali jihadists who may also be getting involved with al-Shabab. UN investigators have reported to the Security Council that a senior figure from an ISIS-affiliated splinter of Somalia’s Al-Shabaab movement operating in the north of that country’s semi-autonomous region of Puntland has travelled to Mozambique. The team reported in September 2020 that Mohamed Ahmed “Qahiye”, known by regional intelligence sources in East Africa as a military trainer, had passed through Ethiopia on his way to Cabo Delgado.[fn]“Report of the UN Panel of Experts on Somalia”, S/2020/949, 28 September 2020. Crisis Group interviews, Kenyan and Ethiopian intelligence sources, Nairobi, November 2020.Hide Footnote While the UN investigators did not provide further details, regional intelligence and diplomatic sources suspect that Qahiye went to train fighters in Mozambique.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, regional intelligence sources, Nairobi, April 2021. Those sources point to this Puntland ISIS affiliate’s role in trafficking weapons between Yemen and Puntland on the same oceangoing dhows plying the waters down the East African coast as a reason to suspect that it could have a role in logistical support for militants in Cabo Delgado. See Annexes 1.7, 3.1 and 6.1 of the “Somalia Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea Submitted in Accordance with Resolution 2060 (2012)”, S/2013/413, 12 July 2013. See also “Snapping Back Against Iran: The Case of the Al Bari 2 and the UN Arms Embargo”, Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, December 2020.Hide Footnote

Meanwhile, fighters of several other nationalities are known to be embedded in Cabo Delgado’s militant ranks. Eyewitnesses who have escaped or been released from militant bases in Cabo Delgado report seeing other foreigners in camp, including fighters with fair skin, and in one case, blue eyes.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources who have debriefed civilians released from militant camps, December 2020 and March 2021. Crisis Group interview, person in contact with militant cells in South Africa, Pretoria, February 2021.Hide Footnote Security sources are divided over whether these men could be from Arabic-speaking countries or from the Caucasus, but establishing who and how numerous they are has not been possible. South African law enforcement officers say they are pursuing several leads relating to South African nationals, and other Africans passing through South Africa, who may have established links with al-Shabab in Cabo Delgado.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, South African criminal intelligence investigator, Pretoria, December 2020 and February 2021.Hide Footnote

Counter-terrorism experts and policymakers claim that it is through these foreign links that ISIS is most likely to exert influence. The UN team monitoring the global evolution of ISIS and al-Qaeda reported in 2020 that the Puntland ISIS-affiliated group acts as an important logistical lead for support directed to both the ADF and al-Shabab in Cabo Delgado.[fn]See the 25th (S/2020/53) and 27th (S/2021/68) reports of the Analytical and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to Resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities.Hide Footnote The U.S. State Department which has now classified al-Shabab in Cabo Delgado and the ADF as ISIS-affiliated groups, has meanwhile named the leader of what it calls “ISIS-Mozambique” as a Tanzanian national, Abu Yasir Hassan.[fn]“State Department Terrorist Designations of ISIS Affiliates and Leaders in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique”, media note, U.S. State Department, 10 March 2021.Hide Footnote He is known to have been involved in the Kibiti violence and is also suspected to have spent time in the DRC, although some security sources suggest he may be dead.[fn]Some security sources in Tanzania say Hassan may be dead. Crisis Group telephone interview, Tanzania-based contact in touch with security services, March 2021.Hide Footnote But while ISIS now claims joint ownership of the ADF faction run by Baluku as well as the al-Shabab of Mozambique, under the banner of Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP), the U.S. State Department considers the DRC and Mozambican franchises “distinct entities”.[fn]See “Understanding the New U.S. Terrorism Designations in Africa”, op. cit. For a timeline of ISCAP’s involvement in the DRC, see “The Islamic State in Congo”, George Washington Program on Extremism, October 2020.Hide Footnote

If there is a relationship between ISIS and al-Shabab, it appears to be more tenuous than official accounts suggest.

If there is a relationship between ISIS and al-Shabab, it appears to be more tenuous than official accounts suggest. Crisis Group research elsewhere shows that ISIS tends to exploit pre-existing conflicts and mostly provides only limited resources to strengthen the performance of allied factions on the ground, but that these affiliates retain their own command and control and local priorities.[fn]See Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 January 2016. See also Vincent Foucher, “The Islamic State Franchises in Africa: Lessons from Lake Chad”, Crisis Group Commentary, 29 October 2020.Hide Footnote An important indicator of the strength of any link between ISIS and any given affiliate is the speed and accuracy with which ISIS issues media releases glorifying the attacks of the affiliate. Rapid press releases would indicate smooth communication between the groups. In the case of Cabo Delgado, the link appears to be weak. While ISIS has claimed or commented on over 40 separate attacks by al-Shabab between June 2019 and the present, it stopped claiming them at the end of October 2020, resuming only in the aftermath of the Palma attack in March. By contrast, ISIS claims of ADF attacks continued throughout this period.[fn]Information of ISIS claims in Mozambique tabulated by EXTRAC, a conflict tracking system, and compared to database of ISIS claims in the DRC managed by the Bridgeway Foundation.Hide Footnote

Regional governments are nonetheless understandably concerned that the longer the conflict rages in Cabo Delgado, the more likely it is that southern Africa becomes a new frontier for jihadist attacks.[fn]A confidential South African intelligence report obtained by Crisis Group states that “there are concerns that South Africa is being used as a base and safe haven for logistics and planning by terrorist groups”.Hide Footnote In January 2020, South Africa’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor stated: “We should be worried, given that the attacks in Mozambique point to the presence of IS in the … region”.[fn]Welcome Remarks by Minister of International Relations and Commerce, Dr. Naledi Pandor, at the DIRCO-hosted Africa Heads of Mission Conference”, Pretoria, 28 January 2020.Hide Footnote South African intelligence and law enforcement officials are also amassing evidence that while homegrown criminal gangs and jihadists in cities like Durban and Johannesburg are mingling with suspected jihadists coming from Tanzania and ADF operatives coming from as far away as the eastern DRC, South African nationals connected to these militant circles have also attempted to travel to Mozambique for combat experience.[fn]Crisis Group interview, South African criminal intelligence officer, February 2021.Hide Footnote Authorities are also investigating several suspected ISIS-affiliated money launderers allegedly operating in South Africa.[fn]Ibid. See also “Islamic State’s South African Fighters in Mozambique: The Thulsie Twins Case”, Jamestown Foundation, 5 November 2020.Hide Footnote

VI. Government and Regional Responses

A. The Role of the Police and Military

Mozambique’s military, stunted by decades of under-investment, has faced serious challenges when countering al-Shabab and has become a near constant target for militant attacks. The army is also stretched given its responsibilities in trying to achieve the surrender of a dissident residual armed faction of Renamo in the centre of the country.[fn]Mirko Manzoni, personal envoy of the UN Secretary General to Mozambique, states: “to complete the implementation of the peace agreement, the last Renamo rebels … must be disarmed and demobilized. The Mozambican army cannot therefore mobilize all its forces to put an end to the conflict that is developing in the north of the country”. See “Un Suisse au chevet d’un Mozambique en crise”, SwissInfo, 27 May 2021.Hide Footnote A special rapid reaction unit of the national police, the Unidade Intervenção Rapida (UIR), supported for several months by Dyck mercenaries until they recently wound down their operation, has served until recently as the primary force taking the fight to al-Shabab.[fn]Dyck’s contract was due for renewal in April 2021, but it did not come through.Hide Footnote

Mozambique’s national military, Forças Armadas de Defensa de Moçambique (FADM), is in a parlous state after decades of under-investment following the 1992 peace accords that ended the country’s civil war. Much of the FADM’s Soviet-era stock is in disrepair.[fn]Crisis Group interview, military figure who has inspected FADM stockpiles, March 2021.Hide Footnote Originally slated to be a force of 30,000 men, split 50:50 between government and Renamo appointees, the FADM fell way short in its recruitment efforts, leaving it with just over 12,000 members by 1995, just 30 per cent of them Renamo.[fn]By 1995, the FADM comprised 12,195 members, with 8,533 former government soldiers and 3,662 from Renamo. Part of the reason for the low numbers was that Renamo could not mobilise enough of its own base to participate in integration. See Anicia Lalá, “Defence Reform Challenges and Democratisation in Post-conflict Mozambique”, EU Working Paper, 2009.Hide Footnote Under foreign pressure to prioritise development and loath to trust an institution composed partly of its former battlefield enemies, Maputo continued to slow-roll military spending over the next decades.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Frelimo central committee member, foreign diplomat, Maputo, March 2021. Between 1990 and 2000, Mozambique’s military spending as a proportion of GDP plummeted from 10.1 per cent to 2.5 per cent. See “Budgeting for the Military Sector in Africa: The Processes and Mechanisms of Control”, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2006.Hide Footnote A government procurement scandal during Guebuza’s term as president and Nyusi’s as defence minister, in which state-backed companies took on more than $2 billion in questionable debt guaranteed by the state to finance the purchase of maritime assets, also rendered the country bankrupt and without a navy fit for purpose.[fn]See “Mozambique and the ‘Tuna Bond’ Scandal”, Spotlight on Corruption, n.d. The navy has an estimated eight patrol ships and 30 boats for interception, but many vessels are not functional due to lack of maintenance. Crisis Group interview, military expert, April 2021.Hide Footnote

The UIR has fared differently, however. Spending on the UIR was privileged during and after the Guebuza presidency. This force is better paid and equipped than the FADM and other police units, which also generally suffer from under-investment.[fn]Mozambique’s police force is made up of three separate units: Public Order and Security Police; Criminal Investigative Police; and Special Forces Police. The Special Forces is subdivided into other units, including the UIR, Forces Responsible for Protection and Border Guards, as well as special task forces. The police force faces challenges of low manpower, low salaries and limited resources, especially in rural areas. See “Mozambique to 2018: Managers, Mediators and Magnates”, Chatham House Report, June 2015. Between 2015 and 2020, the interior ministry, which manages the police, saw its budget rise from 7.6 billion to 15.5 billion Mozambican meticais ($123 million to $251 million), in comparison to an increase from 5.1 billion to 8.1 billion ($83 million to $131 million) at the defence ministry. Defence ministry consultant calculations shown to Crisis Group, Maputo, March 2021.Hide Footnote As the crisis erupted, the UIR thus became the main security organ fighting militants. Under Police Commander Bernardino Rafael, the force kept al-Shabab from expanding even further. But Nyusi’s reliance on Bernardino, a Makonde career officer, antagonised those who see him as yet another expression of Makonde dominance in political and security decisions related to Cabo Delgado.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Frelimo central committee member, Maputo, March 2021.Hide Footnote Amid these tensions, the UIR had trouble securing ammunition and logistical support from the FADM, hampering its operations in 2020.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source working with Bernadino, February 2021.Hide Footnote Meanwhile, Nyusi attempted to involve the FADM further in counter-insurgency efforts by appointing Eugénio Mussa, a prominent military commander stationed in Cabo Delgado, as chief of army staff. This effort stalled when Mussa died in February 2021.[fn]See “Mozambique: General Eugénio Mussa, FADM chief of staff, dies after illness”, Club of Mozambique, 8 February 2021. Mussa was an ethnic Makua.Hide Footnote

The president has pressed on with his priority of placing the FADM at the heart of the country’s security response.[fn]On 11 March 2021, Nyusi reshuffled the military in a sign that he was consolidating his grip on the FADM. Joaquim Rivas Mangrasse, promoted to admiral, succeeded Mussa. Prior to his promotion, he was head of the Military House of the Presidency.Hide Footnote Maputo has been pushing for more direct bilateral support from its foreign partners, asking them for training and materiel including for the urgent creation of specialised combat units comprised of marines and commandos.[fn]See “Mozambique asks EU for help in tackling insurgency”, Reuters, 23 September 2020. Defence Minister Jaime Neto told Crisis Group in Maputo in March 2021 that the ministry was considering a plan to deploy two 1,000-troop units, each made up of marines and commandos, to operate in Cabo Delgado. But he said: “We will not have enough resources to finance this ourselves”. A European External Action Service memo seen by Crisis Group states that Maputo has subdivided the two units into six companies each and has also requested assistance to purchase a squadron of attack helicopters as well as naval patrol and speedboats.Hide Footnote After the Palma attack, former colonial power Portugal is expediting the provision of Mozambique’s security forces with an array of specialised training.[fn]“Mozambique: Portugal to send special forces military trainers ‘from early April’ – Lusa”, Club of Mozambique, 30 March 2021; and “Mozambique will take ‘all possible advantages’ from military cooperation with Portugal”, AllAfrica, 11 May 2021. See also “Portugal to send another 60 troops to Mozambique on training mission”, Reuters, 10 May 2021. Portugal will deploy 60 trainers in addition to 21 already present in the country, as well as intelligence gathering and monitoring drone capacities.Hide Footnote The U.S., keen to develop a relationship with gas-rich Mozambique, has also reactivated a training program for Mozambican forces.[fn]“American soldiers help Mozambique battle an expanding ISIS affiliate”, The New York Times, 7 April 2021. In 2020, the International Development Finance Corporation, a U.S. government development bank, approved a $1.5 billion political risk insurance deal to support the Romuva natural gas project under development by ExxonMobil and Italian oil giant Eni. See “USA’s DFC approves transactions to Mozambique totalling $1.7 billion”, The Africa Report, 17 September 2020.Hide Footnote The European Union (EU) is also proposing deploying a long-term training mission of perhaps up to 300 personnel to Mozambique.[fn]“Foreign Affairs Council (Defence): Remarks by High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell at the press conference”, EEAS press release, 6 May 2021. Borrell reportedly referred to a personnel figure of between 200 and 300 in an interview with Portugal’s radio network Renascença.Hide Footnote In terms of equipment, the government has recently acquired armoured vehicles and helicopters from a South African defence and aerospace company, which also has a subsidiary training unit present in Mozambique.[fn]Security sources say Mozambique has imported Gazelle, Mi-17 and Mi-24 helicopters, as well as a number of Marauder vehicles, supplied by Paramount, a South African defence company. Paramount recently purchased Burnham Global, a Dubai-based firm advised by Sir Graeme Lamb, who served as deputy commanding general of multinational forces in Iraq. Crisis Group interviews, security and military sources, December 2020-March 2021. Crisis Group interview, adviser for Mozambican defence ministry, Maputo, March 2021. Burnham is understood to be training some Mozambican forces. Crisis Group interview, diplomat, May 2021. See also “Mozambique looks to private sector in war against Islamists”, Financial Times, 15 March 2021.Hide Footnote Mozambican officials say they would still need more equipment for units to be deployed effectively against al-Shabab.

Some European and other Western governments are wary of providing Mozambique military hardware to FADM units until they have at least completed their training, citing the allegations of abuses by security forces and government contractors during past campaigns to combat al-Shabab.[fn]Rights groups have alleged that security forces have been involved in arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, wrongful force against civilians and extrajudicial investigations. “EU Counterinsurgency Aid to Mozambique Should Help Protect Rights”, Human Rights Watch, 14 October 2020. See “‘What I Saw is Death’: War Crimes in Mozambique’s Forgotten Cape”, Amnesty International, 2 March 2021. Authorities have already dismissed some of the allegations based on video evidence of alleged security force abuses as the work of al-Shabab fighters in government uniform. Amnesty also accused Dyck of firing on civilians. “South African company to investigate after Amnesty says it shot at civilians in Mozambique”, Reuters, 2 March 2021. Shop owners in Mocímboa da Praia and Palma have told Crisis Group that security forces looted their businesses after the August 2020 and March 2021 attacks. Crisis Group interviews, Pemba and by telephone, February and April 2021. President Nyusi has meanwhile promised investigations into alleged government abuses. See “Moçambique: Nyusi anuncia investigação a alegadas violações do exército em Cabo Delgado”, VOA, 7 April 2021.Hide Footnote External partners also want to ensure Mozambique’s military can maintain such materiel and avoid defectors running off with equipment, or personnel selling it.[fn]Views expressed in confidential diplomatic working paper, dated March 2021.Hide Footnote They also worry about how security forces will manage local militias whom they have relied on to combat al-Shabab, and whether the use of these forces and the distribution of weapons among them by the UIR, FADM or anyone else could constitute another security risk going forward, even if the militias have been useful allies of the security forces until now.[fn]Security and Frelimo sources say the three or four groups of militias, often referred to generically as antigos combatentes and comprised of some war veterans, are based around Mueda/Muidumbe (Makonde), Palma/Nangade (Makonde and other minorities) and Macomia (Makua). During the conflict, a number of reported clashes have also taken place between the militias and the FADM. Crisis Group interviews, security source, Maputo, February 2021; senior Frelimo figure, Pemba, March 2012.Hide Footnote Even were the EU inclined to finance the provision of lethal assistance, the European Peace Facility, which is where any financing would come from, is not expected to be functional until July 2021.[fn]For details on the European Peace Facility, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°297, How to Spend It: New EU Funding for African Peace and Security, 14 January 2021.Hide Footnote

B. Promises of Development and Humanitarian Aid

The humanitarian situation in Cabo Delgado is dire. Thousands of people fleeing violence have crammed into Pemba and other towns, stretching public services in the capital and draining the resources of host families.[fn]“Mozambique city overwhelmed by people fleeing Islamist violence”, Reuters, 5 April 2021.Hide Footnote Thousands more sit in displacement camps in the province’s south and in neighbouring provinces. The government has started to offer many displaced families access to land and services in about 100 new villages in the south, which remains untroubled by violence. It is unclear, however, whether the people installed there can adapt to new livelihoods. Until security improves in their places of origin, there is little alternative, officials say, other than to relocate them to these villages.[fn]Conflict mitigation assessment drafted by donor entity, March 2021.Hide Footnote These villages, however, can only absorb a fraction of the displaced. Aid organisations, meanwhile, complain that government delays in issuing visas and clearing items at customs have stymied their operations across various districts.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian workers and officials, Maputo and Pemba, February 2021.Hide Footnote

Meron Elias with a group of women who had been displaced from Quissanga District in September 2020. Metuge, Mozambique, 25 February 2021. CRISISGROUP

As the crisis has unfolded, Maputo has developed plans to draw in hundreds of millions of donor dollars for aid and development projects in Cabo Delgado and the north.[fn]Mozambique is eligible for up to $700 million from the Prevention and Resilience Allocation under the Bank’s International Development Association. This allocation is additional to the regular $1.3 billion allocation for Mozambique. Subject to confirmation by the end of April 2021, Mozambique should have a total allocation of $2 billion, or the equivalent, of which significant funds can be allocated to the north.Hide Footnote In March 2020, the government created the Northern Integrated Development Agency, an institution mandated to coordinate humanitarian assistance and support economic growth and youth employment in the provinces of Cabo Delgado, Niassa and Nampula.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Northern Integrated Development Agency representative, Pemba, February 2021. See Boletime da República, 18 March 2020.Hide Footnote The Agency comes under the management of the minister for agricultural and rural development