Are Mozambique’s insurgents closing in on illicit trafficking profits?

May 9, 2020 | Commentary

By Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime

Events in recent months raise important questions about whether the insurgents in northern Mozambique may be positioning themselves to reap greater profits from the many trafficking routes that pass through their neck of the woods.

The illicit economy in northern Mozambique helped shape the conditions that led to the current insurgency in Cabo Delgado and may drive instability in the future. Criminal networks have become economically and politically entrenched in the region. In the aftermath of the Mozambican civil war, heroin trafficking flourished in Cabo Delgado; and in the past 10 to 15 years, many other illicit markets – including timber, ivory, rubies, other gemstones, drugs and human smuggling – have boomed in the region. Many of these trades traversed Cabo Delgado en route to Pemba port, which has a reputation for corruption.

Illicit trade in the north of the country has capitalised on and fostered corruption at all levels of government. Since 2010, the links between drug trafficking and high-ranking figures in Frelimo have been well documented. In 2013, an investigation by the Environmental Investigation Agency into timber trafficking in northern Mozambique identified apparent links between the traffickers and a serving Mozambican government minister as well as a former minister.

The exploitation of recent natural resource finds, such as rubies around Montepuez and offshore gas in Palma, has likewise been characterised by corruption among the country’s political and economic elites. The proceeds of legal and illegal markets have primarily been channelled to traffickers, well-connected business people and high-level politicians.

Local communities have suffered the negative repercussions of these developments, such as being forcibly evicted by private and public security forces to make way for projects. This toxic combination of corruption, marginalisation, increasing inequality and insecure land rights has created deep distrust in the Mozambican state and left the region vulnerable to the current outbreak of violent extremism.

The Cabo Delgado insurgent group began as a religious sect in 2007, as young Muslim men – frustrated by the inequality and lack of opportunity afforded by the current status quo and the breakdown in governance – turned to extremist ideology inspired by the teachings of radical Kenyan cleric Aboud Rogo, and argued for a society ruled by a stricter Islamic sharia legal code. It was only in 2017, after coming into conflict with the national Islamic Council and with the state, that they chose the path of a violent insurgency.

The sect first established itself in or near areas where valuable resources were being found, local corruption was high and trafficking was rife:

  •     Mocímboa da Praia has been, and remains, a major hub for illicit trafficking, with the fishing harbour used to land heroin off dhows from the Makran Coast, and illegal migrants, ivory and timber all smuggled in and out by boat.
  •     Macomia has been a centre for the timber trade, in which corruption has played a major part, for more than 20 years.
  •     Montepuez is the site of the biggest ruby deposits in the world, discovered in 2009, where local elites have captured access to the concessions and forcibly displaced farmers and artisanal ruby miners.
  •   Balama has been an important centre for ivory poaching and trafficking since about 2011, and more recently a small market for gemstones and alluvial gold has developed.
Major illicit flows passing through northern Mozambique.

Global Initiative research conducted when the insurgency was in its infancy found that, at the time, the insurgent group was not systematically exploiting illicit economies for funding. Instead, its connections to criminal trafficking markets were ad hoc, reflective of the general importance of illegal and unregulated markets to livelihoods in the north. However, more recent research into the changing dynamics of the north and reports of the growing sophistication of the insurgency mean the time is ripe for reevaluation.

Many of the criminal economies in northern Mozambique are undergoing major changes which will affect the ways the insurgents may exploit or participate in them. The bulk heroin trade – the most lucrative drug flow through Mozambique – is ongoing, as major seizures of dhows carrying heroin off the Mozambican coast in December 2019 demonstrate. On 14 December, a dhow that was reported to be carrying over a tonne of heroin was intercepted, while a second boat was intercepted on 23 December carrying 430kg of heroin and other illicit substances, and the 13 Pakistani crew members arrested.

The Mozambican defence and security forces intercepted a dhow reportedly carrying heroin on 14 December 2019. The crew set the boat on fire to destroy the evidence and drugs and jumped into the sea.

The insurgency has caused some disruption: Some of the old networks appear to have shifted their northernmost landing sites further south. New trafficking networks have emerged in Pemba, possibly in response to improved law-enforcement capacity further north on the East African coast, shifting a larger volume of heroin trafficking further south. Heroin is landed at Mocímboa de Praia, at Quissanga and directly into the fishing harbour in Pemba, then sent south to Nampula. There is also evidence from recent seizures in Pemba that Tanzanian networks may be receiving heroin in Cabo Delgado and shipping it north into Tanzania.

There has been an increase in local heroin availability, on the streets in Pemba and among artisanal miners in Montepuez and in the alluvial gold mines. Heroin arriving in Montepuez is controlled by Tanzanian trafficking networks, who bring it by truck from Dar es Salaam. These trucks bring commercial goods for sale in the local shops, and the heroin is packaged to order for specific retailers, hidden among commodities like biscuits and sugar.

Since the discovery of ruby deposits in Montepuez in 2009, the most lucrative mining site has been concessioned to a company controlled by the Mozambican elite, which then entered into partnership with an international mining company. Local artisanal miners have been forcibly removed from the concessioned areas. The displaced artisanal miners illegally mine areas around the concessions and have attacked the mining concessions, sometimes overwhelming local security staff and police.

Before 2017, Thai buyers based in Montepuez bought rubies directly from the artisanal miners for sale in Bangkok, a centre of the global gemstone market. The Mozambican police undertook a large-scale operation in February 2017 to clamp down on illegal miners and buyers around Montepuez, and 3,600 people were arrested. Illegal miners who were not Mozambican, around two-thirds of those arrested, were deported. Several hundred foreign buyers were also deported, and with the 2016 criminalisation of mining without a licence, many did not return and these established flows were disrupted.

However, the flow of “rough” rubies (uncut gems sold by artisanal miners) continues. Recent Global Initiative fieldwork in Bangkok found that Mozambique-sourced rubies were available from Guinean networks, who were reportedly buying direct from Mozambique. Gemstone buyers in Bangkok reported that West African networks have become increasingly important intermediaries for African gemstones sold in Bangkok.

Artisanal gold-mining in northern Mozambique has accelerated in Niassa and Cabo Delgado provinces, in particular in sites within the Niassa National Reserve. Some miners cross from Tanzania to exploit this resource. There are reports of district police being bribed to let these operations continue. Some of the raw gold is bought at the mines by foreign buyers, while some of it is moved across the border to the gold market in Dar es Salaam. There are also local markets for the gold in Montepuez and Nampula.

Illegal alluvial gold mining site in the Niassa National Reserve.

Mozambique has historically been an epicentre of illegal wildlife trade. In 2008–2018, Niassa National Reserve lost approximately 72% of its elephants (which had numbered at least 13,000) to poaching. The ivory store in Lichinga, the capital of Niassa province, was raided, and 867 pieces of ivory weighing just over 1 tonne were stolen, some later seized in Maputo and Cambodia.

Pemba is no longer a major trafficking route for ivory, reportedly because of a combination of international law-enforcement operations targeting key trafficking networks and a major push on ivory trafficking by individuals perceived to be incorruptible within key Mozambican law-enforcement units. However, other animal products – such as lion teeth and claws, and pangolins and pangolin scales – are available in Pemba.

Other illicit markets exist in Pemba and Cabo Delgado. The trade in high-value hardwoods from Cabo Delgado has long been extremely lucrative. Concessions and quotas have typically been acquired in corrupt deals – initially by South Africans in the late 1990s and more recently by Chinese companies, some members of which were found to be involved in ivory trafficking. All commercial logging of valuable hardwoods was stopped in late 2015 in an attempt to buy time to reform the sector. However, the trade continues as commercial traders have circumvented the ban by setting up local community logging operations which are allowed to continue exploiting this resource, and investing in protection systems and other forms of corruption to allow the trade to continue.

The northern Mozambique coast is also a major site for human smuggling on the migrant route from the Horn of Africa to South Africa. Local dhows move down the coast from Zanzibar bringing people and other illicit products, including heroin. Landings are made in Mocímboa da Praia and Quissanga and on the beaches near Pemba, typically on full-moon nights.

How the insurgents are linked to the illicit economy

When the religious sect that preceded the insurgency was founded in 2007, it offered youth who joined opportunities for personal development, such as training at international Islamic universities or small business loans. Members became involved in the formal and informal economies – trading goods from Tanzania, supplying timber to traders operating in Macomia, and participating in the ivory trade by poaching elephants in Quirimbas National Park. Poaching there was at its height in 2009–2013.

Since mid-2019, the group has increased both the sophistication of its strategy and the frequency of its attacks. It appears that the group is better armed, has improved training and has grown in size. While it may have acquired arms from its operations against the FDS, there are reports that FDS deserters and possibly foreigners are being paid to provide training and that recruits are being attracted by salary offers. This suggests that their funding has grown.

The illicit economy may be playing an increasing role in this. Verifying reports of insurgent involvement in illegal markets is, however, a challenging task. Below, we discuss – based on our own recent fieldwork in the region and sources in both Cabo Delgado and Niassa – the potential for the trade in timber, ivory (and other wildlife products), gold, rubies, and heroin to provide the insurgents with income. These are discussed in order from the least to most likely.

Timber and ivory

Early reports on the group suggested they were involved in the local timber and ivory trades. While this may have been true in their core areas of influence just inland from the Cabo Delgado coast, there has never been confirmation of their involvement in either poaching or ivory trafficking from Niassa Reserve, which underwent massive elephant poaching from 2009–2014 in particular. As mentioned above, poaching rates and the transport of ivory eastwards have since plummeted.

However, the insurgency does appear to be attempting to expand its activities into Niassa. Since at least 2011–2012, there have been verifiable reports of recruitment to a fundamentalist Islamic sect within remote communities in Niassa Reserve. In February 2020, a sect member originally from Niassa was back in the reserve actively recruiting poachers to join the insurgency.


There are also reports that insurgent groups pass through remote artisanal gold mining camps in Niassa Reserve. The regular buyers of Niassa gold are all known traffickers with no known links to the insurgency. However, the recent imposition of Covid-19 restrictions in Mozambique has reduced the number of gold buyers in the reserve. 

There have been recent sightings from the air of new artisanal mining villages in Cabo Delgado on the western boundary of Quirimbas National Park, which is on the western edge of the insurgents’ area of influence. While it was not possible to confirm any current connections between the insurgents and the gold market, this may be a risk to monitor in the future.


Since at least 2011–2012, the group has recruited youth in and around Montepuez and has maintained a mosque and madrassa outside the town. After the February 2017 operations to break up illegal mining and smuggling gangs, the Thai and other foreign networks that had previously dominated this market did not return, at least not in large numbers. 

There have been reports that some of the insurgents have filled the vacuum left by these traders and are buying rough rubies locally and selling them to traders who can sell them internationally, particularly traders with links to Pakistan (which has a small ruby market) and Thailand (which is the central ruby market). There are also reports that some of the foreign miners expelled from the Montepuez area may have joined the insurgents. This would provide a connection between the insurgents and the illegal ruby market.

Cross-border trade with Tanzania creates opportunities for insurgents to dispose of this contraband in international markets, as Dar es Salaam is a regional trading hub for both gemstones and gold. Monitoring gold and gem markets to verify these reports further will be important in the coming months.


The most reliable reports of the insurgents developing an illicit income stream are linked to the heroin trade. There is a significant range in street-level heroin prices across East and Southern Africa. The range in prices in northern Mozambique – far greater than found in any other research site – reflects the variance in heroin quality available in Cabo Delgado that we also found during qualitative fieldwork in the region. 

We believe this spread suggests there are two distinct heroin markets: one of low-grade (and low-price) heroin smuggled from Tanzania to supply the local mining population, and another of offcuts from purer, large-scale heroin shipments smuggled through Cabo Delgado.

Law-enforcement sources report that the insurgents are establishing connections to the drug-trafficking networks that use the northern Cabo Delgado coast to land shipments from dhows. Since it is unlikely that they have the connections to procure heroin from suppliers in Afghanistan, they are most likely reaching agreement with existing trafficking networks to “tax” the trade (take payment for allowing it to operate). 

This requires influence over key landing sites (such as Mocímboa de Praia and Quissanga), and key transport routes (such as the N380 north–south road inland from the coast, which is the only surfaced road in the region). There are anecdotal reports that known heroin traffickers in Mocímboa de Praia have not had any of their business infrastructure damaged in attacks and may have been making “donations” to the insurgents from early on.

Changing tactics

There has been a significant recent shift in the rhetoric and style of attacks committed by the Cabo Delgado insurgents. Rather than terrorising communities as in previous months, they are instead attacking state infrastructure and military bases. They have used their increasingly vocal media campaign to declare their intentions to create a caliphate. Analysts we interviewed suggest that part of the insurgents’ aim is to re-establish control over areas historically controlled by Muslim sultanates along the Swahili coast. This historical claim would play into the caliphate narrative and the group’s claim of legitimacy.

If this territorial control were achieved – along the coast from Quissanga to Palma as well as on the key inland transport corridor along the N380 road and the town of Macomia – this could vastly change the dynamics of the insurgency. 

Control over key sea and land routes would allow the insurgents to “tax” legal and illicit economies in the region more systematically. While there may already be some protection of heroin trafficking and involvement in the gold and ruby trade, this could expand to include human smuggling, timber trafficking and possibly a share of the illegal wildlife trade.

The locations of recent attacks – which include coastal landing sites, transport hubs and the sites of natural resources – suggest that the insurgents may be targeting the illicit economy as a more substantial source of future revenue. Over time, control over the illicit economy may begin to shape the actions of the group more clearly. 

This article appears in the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime’s monthly Eastern and Southern Africa Risk Bulletin. The Global Initiative is a network of more than 500 experts on organised crime drawn from law enforcement, academia, conservation, technology, media, the private sector and development agencies. It publishes research and analysis on emerging criminal threats and works to develop innovative strategies to counter organised crime globally.

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