Mozambican Insurgency: In a 'Poor Youth Uprising', Many of its Leaders Come from the Elite of Cabo Delgado, like the Bloodthirsty Commander Abu Surakha.
Translated from Portuguese
The young man from Mocimboa da Praia, who used to go by the nickname Patrick Vieira, due to his talent for football, left a trail of death and destruction on his return home last year. Dressed in camouflage, with a black cloth written in Arabic on his head and an AK-47 in his hand, this former soldier took over his city, commanding a group of rebellious young people, indoctrinated or with no other future than taking up arms.
Today, in his thirties or forties, the boy from Mocimboa da Praia goes by many names, in a land where registry offices are scarce. Neighbors speak of one such Nuro Saíde, victims know him as Abu Surakha and his faithful as Sheikh Omar, the 'king of the forest'. The US State Department identifies him as Bonomade Machude Omar, Abu Sulayfa or Ibn Omar, the bloodthirsty military commander of the jihadists who terrorize Cabo Delgado. It is estimated to have between a thousand and three thousand combatants.
Since the start of the uprising in 2017, the group – known as Al-Shabaab, or 'the youth' in Arabic, who would eventually swear loyalty to the Islamic State – has remained shrouded in a veil of secrecy. However, little by little, as people abducted and enslaved to their hands escaped, we learned better who and where these insurgents come from, known for conducting brutal guerrilla attacks, often decapitating victims, before hiding in the forest or among the population.
“That is a revolt of poor young people”, assesses João Feijó, in conversation with Nascer do SOL. “But there are also many there who are not poor. The leaders are extremely greedy individuals, for whom the ends justify all the means, who managed to make a lot of money through the illicit economy», explains the researcher from the Rural Environment Observatory, who has studied the structure of this jihadist organization. "Ibn Omar is the typical individual who was not among the poorest."
The man who would come to be known as Bonomade Omar did not have an easy start in life. He lost his father at the age of five, which would lead his mother to leave her village, on the outskirts of Palma, and start life again in Mocimboa da Praia, together with another man, who introduced his stepson to the study of Islam. evil, at least compared to the misery around him.
“He even finished the 10th grade at the Januário Pedro Secondary School”, explains Feijó. “And by that time, those who finished secondary school and went to Pemba to complete 12th grade were already part of an elite in society”.
Tall, capable, a good student, calm and charismatic, Omar is remembered as a simple and conversational person by his youth friends who spoke with the Carta de Moçambique reporter Omardine Omar.
«He was seen as an exemplary young man in Mocimboa da Praia, Pemba, Macomia, where he always circulated. Mainly because of his early devotion to religious life,” Omardine tells us. "He was seen as a protector, who defended the weakest and most vulnerable."
Who would have thought that, years later, two young women abducted by Omar's men, held captive in their own town of Mocimboa da Praia, would be recounting the horrors they had lived through, before the cameras of the BBC Africa Eye.
“When women are taken to Mocimboa, they are first treated as slaves. They cook, fetch water, are taken to training. Then they marry the Al-Shabaab», they reported, identifying the commander of this group as Abu Surakha. «He kills. He has no mercy," said one of them. "This is the real bloodthirsty," assured the other.
What is certain is that the reputation of benefactor accompanied Omar for years, crossing the time he spent in the Mozambican navy, being placed in Pemba to fulfill his mandatory military service. He was left with the instruction and the contacts he cultivated between the military. Which are certainly very useful to him today, as he launches ambushes against his former companions, many of whom complain that the enemy always seems to be one step ahead.
When he continued his studies, Omar, a talented midfielder, assures the journalist of Carta de Moçambique, never abandoned his passion for football, being a recurrent presence in championships between districts and districts.
Perhaps it was in these struggles that Omar deepened his friendship with Mustafá, another football player from Mocimboa da Praia, appointed by João Feijó as the man in hand of the Al-Shabaab commander. In fact, in the attack on Palma this year, which paralyzed prospecting for the oil company Total, drawing the world's attention, Mustafá was seen selecting the group's captives, choosing them according to how useful they would be. The priority was young people with completed military service, doctors, nurses, mechanics or drivers
Dedicated to selling vegetables and clothing in the Pemba market, young Omar ends up disappearing from Cabo Delgado. He went to Tanzania, like so many other young Mozambicans linked to Africa Muslim, a religious organization that supported the study of the Koran at a higher level abroad. This organization “had many charitable services. They supported many young people,” stresses Omardine. “Today some are great religious leaders. Others took the same path as Bonomade».
Omar returned a different man. Suddenly, he created a mosque in Mocimboa da Praia, set up a knickknack business, was always full of money of mysterious origin, hired many helpless young people, paying them a salary much higher than the normal in the region. He repeatedly sacrificed goats, offering carcasses to the poorest, and preached an extremist version of Islam, common in other countries, but strange in Mozambique, where people of different religions have lived side by side, in peace, for centuries. Local religious leaders began to become increasingly concerned.
However, in a province with a birthrate above five children, where more than half the population is under 16, there was no shortage of desperate young people willing to listen to generous leaders like Omar.
“The north of Mozambique has agricultural potential, but the markets are completely unregulated and unstructured, there are no access roads, there is no support,” explains João Feijó. "There are many young people aged 16, when they are expected to be adults, but they are not adults in what it means to be an adult, in the sense of having an activity that gives them income and dignity, which forms a family."
“At the same time, Cabo Delgado enters the illegal sale routes of wood, ivory, precious stones”, he continues. The solution is obvious. “The only alternative they had was to live off the illegal sector, until 2015, 2016”, stresses the researcher. It was at this time that the Mozambican authorities, chronically absent in the region, launched a series of brutal operations against the illegal trade, repressing illegal hunters, loggers and miners while the police took the opportunity to demand bribes. These are operations that coincide with the beginning of the insurgency, a few years later, infuriating elite people linked to these traffickings, such as Omar. "They faced the opportunism of State agents, they were very angry and saw this as a form of expression of their revolt", concludes Feijó.