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The New African Marcher Lords

Borderland warlords fly the ISIS banner, but their power is their own


The whole of Africa appears at times to be what scientists and strategists like to call a “known unknown.” It is something that the West is aware of but does not understand. Nowhere in Africa is this clearer than along the Swahili coast, amid the borderlands between Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, and Somalia. It is here, in these in-between places, that a new generation of African warlords is coming of age.


It is here that the West cannot, or will not, understand. Resentment and violence over mass poverty, climate catastrophes, and government abuses in regions such as Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province began simmering more than a decade and a half ago. In 2017, that simmering enmity boiled over into the full-blown insurgency that has wracked the nation’s northernmost province with horrific, headline-catching brutalism ever since. In 2019, the so-called Islamic State began claiming responsibility for some of the worse atrocities in the area that it now considers to be its Central African Province (ISCAP). Last month, the US designated the insurgents in Mozambique “ISIS affiliates.”


Such is an adequate summation of the Western perspective concerning recent events in eastern Africa. But The reality of the situation is much more complex and horrifying than all that.


ISCAP is growing and improving thanks to the support of ISIS trainers and tacticians, to be sure. It is all but guaranteed that the insurgency in Cabo Delgado will grow in strides over the course of the coming year, as will the myriad other insurgencies along the coast. But violent insurgents are just one piece of a terrifying puzzle, and those who champion purely military solutions to these ongoing tragedies fail to understand even the basic structure of the crisis at hand.


What is now spoken of as ISCAP was until very recently a large collection of disparate gangs such as Ansar al-Sunna, simply referred to by locals as Al-Shabaab, meaning “The Youth.” Too often lost in the discussions of Western media is how apropos the title The Youth is, and why it matters.


The eldest national population along the Swahili coast is in Kenya, where the median age is 20. In Tanzania it is 18, in Mozambique it is 17, and in Somalia it is 16. For comparison, the median ages of the US, UK, and France are 38, 40, and 42, respectively. It is from vast swathes of homeless or otherwise dispossessed young men that groups such as ISCAP are able to recruit and radicalize new troops.


The problem of east African insurgency then, now also an international terrorism problem, is also a child soldier problem. This creates an intergenerational dilemma in which the future leaders of the region are increasingly bound up in terroristic violence. Put simply, one of the gravest threats facing the region is the reality that the tyrants of tomorrow are marching with ISCAP today, and that they will be capable of contending for command of borderland regions in eastern Africa for decades to come.


Another key factor contributing to this situation is the nature of the three major groups currently on the ground in Cabo Delgado: ISCAP, Mozambican government security forces, and the South African private military company Dyck Advisory Group.

All three groups stand accused of war crimes by Amnesty International. The insurgents, whose campaign of kidnappings and beheadings is well known, stand accused of torture, rape, murder, and mutilation. Government forces too, however, stand accused of torture, rape, murder, and mutilation, stemming from their own campaign of terror against suspected insurgents and assaults on the women left behind by the violence. The Dyck Advisory Group, meanwhile, is accused of using indiscriminate fires by targeting crowds and civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, to strike insurgents that were attempting to use civilians for cover.


All of this combines to create a crisis of legitimacy that can only result in a power vacuum.

It is this crisis of legitimacy that is the single greatest threat facing the Swahili coast. Of the 189 nations listed in the Human Development Index, Mozambique is ranked 181st. Some 72 percent of Mozambicans live in poverty, HIV and malaria are endemic, and about half of the country live without regular access to clean water. Despite being home to the largest liquified natural gas project in Africa, many related jobs go to foreign contractors and related wealth is either exported or remains in the hands of government officials as Mozambique ownership of the project is limited to a state-owned company. Indeed, as poverty has slightly gone down over the last several years, inequality has gone up.

It is largely by aligning themselves against this state of affairs that the insurgent groups now called ISCAP have drawn so many followers and garnered so much material support. Indeed, though the rebels of Cabo Delgado now wear the black uniform and wave the black flag, they are not at all driven by the philosophy of global jihad, but of local grievance.


Herein the crisis of legitimacy is laid bare: Are the insurgents of the Swahili coast mere terrorists? Or are they political partisans? Is the violence in Cabo Delgado mere terrorism? Or is it rebellion, and a prelude to civil war?

The lack of moral, economic, and political legitimacy in the region creates innumerable problems for understanding and combating the ongoing insurgency. How does one counter these soldiers, many of whom are children, trained by international terrorists to mete out fear and anguish to their own oppressors, and who have become oppressors in turn?

That such a disparate group, marked by a predilection for wanton violence, could achieve legitimacy no doubt seems far-fetched to many Westerners. But the people of the Swahili coast know all too well the old truth that success brings legitimacy. It is this possibility for legitimacy among the insurgents, and lack of legitimacy among the government, that must be combated.

International military support is needed to curb the violence, yes, but such an action will prove fruitless without a concerted international effort to promote stability and prosperity among the people. Military aid without rigorous humanitarian aid and economic development is tantamount to recent Russian efforts to merely coup-proof tyrannical regimes.

Like the medieval lords of the Welsh Marches whose power and influence outmatched that of the monarch they served, the burgeoning warlords of the east African borderlands may wave the ISIS banner, but their power and their vision is local. So local, in fact, that the destruction of their ISIS affiliation is unlikely to stymie their pursuit of conquest or the potential of their appeal among the dispossessed young men of northern Mozambique. Regardless of the existence of ISIS banners, the Youth will remain a force to be reckoned with until the circumstances that created them are eradicated.

Truly, the border regions of the Swahili coast may be at risk of new leadership unless an alternative legitimacy is offered. To only provide military support against ISCAP is to turn a snake into a hydra. To cut off the serpent’s head for good, legitimacy must be found or, barring that, it must be created.


The international community has a choice: Accept the temporary horror of insurgency while investing and building a more stable and prosperous eastern Africa, or prepare for the arduous collapse of one or more states.

It is likely true that ISCAP will never rule an African state outright. Without broad regional support, however, the young men who have been trained by ISIS and fought under its banner, may.


Writenn by Andrew Thornebrooke


Andrew Thornebrooke is a journalist covering issues pertaining to international defense and security. He is the executive editor of The Rearguard and a columnist at DecipherGrey. He is currently an MA candidate in military history at Norwich University where his research focuses on the history of Anglo-American military involvement in southern Africa and the philosophy of war.