Terrorism and war ravaged Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado since 2017, killing thousands and displacing near a million people. Bands of young insurgents armed with hand weapons attacked first state institutions, then villages, and by 2020 they occupied large strategic towns for months. They have avowed their jihadist agenda, but much remains unclear about their exact aims, organisation, and backers. Locals refer to them as al shabab, meaning ‘the youth’ in Arab, or in an adaptation of the same word, as the machababos. From the outset the state response to the insurgency was mainly militaristic, as if it was a matter of foreign-sponsored terrorism only. Later, in tacit acknowledgement of the conflict’s local roots, the government drew up plans for development programmes and employment schemes in the northern provinces – and called on its long-standing donor community to finance it. If or when they do materialise, it will likely be perceived as too little, too late. We argue that this conflict is as a symptom of the severely strained relations between the southern-based Frelimo regime and the populations of northern Mozambique. Much research has shown the conflictual relations between the north and the regimes in Maputo: since independence that of Frelimo’s party-state elite, and that of the colonialists before them. On that background, recent years of upheavals – a boom in extractive industries and illicit trade, centralised and authoritarian governance, widespread poverty in a rapidly growing population, increasing social and regional inequality – produced a youth generation mistrustful of state promises and actions. Among the frustrated youth in the north the insurgent leaders found listeners for its faith-based problem description and recruits for its jihadist revolt. The paper draws on data from long-standing field work in the three northern provinces of Mozambique on local governance and state-citizen relations in general, and youth-support schemes in particular. The article shows the particularities of the north that help explain the outbreak of conflict, while drawing on an analysis of the country-wide structures and processes that now trouble the regime-youth relationship throughout Mozambique