This article assesses the evolution of the Islamic insurgency in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province since 2017 and the government’s response. It concludes that despite ramped up international military support in 2021, longer-term solutions are developmental.
A worsening insurgency in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province since October 2017 became international news after the March attack on the district center of Palma and TotalEnergies’s suspension of the construction of its nearby $20 billion Afungi gas complex, the largest foreign investment in Africa. Operations on the site will only resume once TotalEnergies is confident that its Afungi facilities and its hinterland are secure. In July, Rwanda deployed one thousand troops and police to assist the Defence and Security Forces (FDS) of Mozambique and there has also been a military deployment from the regional grouping, the Southern African Development Community (SADC). This foreign military support of the FDS has put the insurgents onto the back-foot, but rebuilding to avoid a resurgence of this insurgency is a long-term project.
This conflict has displaced some 820,000 and killed over 3,000 and has spilled over into neighboring Tanzania. Over the last three years, these armed militants known locally as al-Shabab (which means “youth” in Arabic and Swahili) have captured district centers, destroyed infrastructure, pillaged businesses and homes, and have abducted and killed.
Islamic State (IS) Affiliation: A Flag of Convenience
Although there is debate over whether this violence is aimed at creating a new Islamic caliphate, this insurgency is still in its infancy and is mostly fueled by local issues. The coastal regions of Cabo Delgado have historically been much neglected by the distant capital, Maputo (the provincial capital, Pemba is the same distance as Houston is to New York). Poverty levels are stubbornly high as is preliteracy. The longer-term solutions to this crisis are developmental, particularly regarding the need to provide jobs, better government and public goods.
Islamic State (IS) affiliation by the insurgents since 2019 is therefore mostly as a flag of convenience for the aggrieved but, but if it develops deeper roots it could draw in more foreign fighters, which in turn will make dynamics increasingly complex.
IS propaganda magazine al Naba this year emphasized that the insurgency in Mozambique is part of its so-called ‘IS Central Africa Province (ISCAP)’. However, the U.S. State Department rejects any unified structure of ISCAP link between jihadist factions in the eastern DR Congo (DRC) and in Mozambique and regards them as distinct entities. Although no longer vibrant, links between the DRC, Somalia (Puntland), and Mozambique exist.
There may have been a handful of IS-affiliated militants attracted to Cabo Delgado from further afield, but the largest cohort of foreign fighters are Tanzanians. According to the U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO) designation, a commander of “IS-Mozambique,” is Tanzanian Abu Yasir Hasan. Most of the foreign fighters are drawn from a network of the Ansar Muslim Youth Council (AMYC), a Tanzanian “charity” linked to the deceased radical Kenyan cleric Aboud Rogo— once linked to Al-Shabaab in Somalia, according to the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia in its 2012 report. Smuggling networks linked to the AMYC are still active in southern Tanzania and are also linked to the narcotics trade on the Swahili coast, as well as human trafficking and people smuggling. Escapees from key insurgent bases report that some of the commanders are Tanzanians but also report that Comorans, Congolese, Kenyans, Ugandans, Somalis, Burundians have been drawn to the insurgency. The key leader is Mozambican Bonomade Machude Omar, also known as Abu Sulayfa Muhammad and Ibn Omar, who leads the Military and External Affairs Departments for ISIS-Mozambique and serves, “as the senior commander and lead coordinator for all attacks conducted by the group in northern Mozambique, as well as the lead facilitator and communications conduit for the group,” according to U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
Local Drivers of Conflict
This Cabo Delgado crisis is clearly a result of a weakly governed space exploited by radicalized individuals from East Africa. Cabo Delgado’s districts that are most impacted by the conflict are also located along the coast and represent the tail end of the East African Swahili corridor that extends to Somalia – Swahili is often used as the preferred language of communication by the militants. They are a mixed group, comprising of coastal Mwani youth and Makwa men from the west and southern hinterlands of Cabo Delgado, and a few Makonde youths from the same ethnic group. The initial armed attack in October 2017 was by thirty youths armed with machetes, attacking police stations in Mocimboa da Praia for firearms. Local communities had been raising their concerns about local radicalization from foreign preachers for some years, and recent academic research shows that a religious sect built around a preacher called Sualehe Rafayel (who returned to Mozambique from Tanzania in 2007) was part of this. Mozambican intelligence also indicates that a Tanzanian preacher, Abdul Shakulu, began radicalizing youth through his preaching from 2012. This was fertile radicalization terrain, as young men were already listening to radical preaching in Wahhabi mosques and madrassas that started springing up in Cabo Delgado during the mid- 1990s.
The root causes of this insurgency are all Mozambican: inequality, abject poverty, local elite and ethnic politics, and organized crime. Most of the insurgents are also Mozambican youth who were recruited (or abducted) from the pockets of grievance that have intensified over the last decade as Cabo Delgado’s natural resources industry booms. Key stimuli are decades of neglect by a state building project of post-colonial Mozambique where Frelimo, the party of government since independence in 1975, has failed to deliver public goods or significantly reduce poverty.
Squeezing the Insurgency with International Support
Reducing the insurgency effectively is a long-term prospect and will require a close working relationship with neighboring Tanzania and other East African states to squeeze out the radicalized foreign fighters and their internal supporters to provide livelihood alternatives to insurrection. Some efforts have been made in the meantime. In 2019, for instance, the government launched its Northern Integrated Development Agency (ADIN), aimed at bringing additional development to its northern provinces. The World Bank is also providing basket funds in support of this developmental effort. To its credit, Maputo has also gradually become more accepting of international military training and advice beyond listening to private military advisers and, in early March, replaced senior military and security leadership. In Maputo, a foreign assistance partner working group to coordinate their COVID-19 support with the government has been replicated to also focus on Cabo Delgado’s humanitarian security needs but broadened to include key regional stakeholders such as South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and former colonial power Portugal.
The Mozambican government has accepted that it is unable to end this asymmetric low-intensity conflict on its own. Even prior to the attack on Palma in March, Maputo had agreed to a Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) of its marines by the U.S. government and has accepted a sixty-strong Portuguese military training package. Portugal has also signaled that it would contribute up to 50 percent of a military two- to three-hundred strong EU Training Mission (EUTM) to Mozambique to which at least three other EU members (including France) are considering troop contribution. The EU Council in July agreed to mandate a two-year EUTM, led on the ground by Portuguese Brigadier General Nuno Lemos Pires. The UK will also provide military training this Fall.
President Filipe Nyusi travelled to Paris in mid-May to attend an international investment summit and held discussions with President Macron and TotalEnergies on how to improve Cabo Delgado security, which included asking TotalEnergies to support a Rwandan military intervention is support of the FDS. Prior to this Paris summit, Nyusi had travelled to Kigali to ask President Kagame for military assistance. This resulted in the Rwandans quickly sending several assessment military missions and on July 9 Rwanda deployed a one thousand person contingent of the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) and Rwanda National Police (RNP). The Rwandan support of the FDS in military action has already shown results, such as the recapture of the key district center of Mocimboa da Praia on August 8 (which had been under insurgent control since last August).
Reaching out to Rwanda was a tactical move by President Nyusi, signaling to the regional blocks, SADC and especially South Africa, that Maputo will not be dependent on its support. It was also aimed at encouraging new Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan to become more co-operative (as Mozambique has good relations with Kenya and Rwanda).
Mozambique’s immediate neighbors were alarmed at the deteriorating security situation in Cabo Delgado. Already in early 2021 Tanzania shared some intelligence, while South Africa and Zimbabwe had provided some discreet security support on a bilateral basis– despite their public statements at the time about poor cooperation by Maputo.
A SADC assessment mission in April proposed to deploy an up to three thousand military force to support the Mozambican government but the regional body is divided. Some of its members are reluctant to become deeply embroiled in what they see as a long-running, intractable conflict. At a SADC summit in June, regional leaders agreed in principle for a deployment for a three month “rapid deployment force” – South Africa is sending 1,495 members of its military to Mozambique; and as of August, Tanzania had deployed 274 soldiers, South Africa 270, Botswana 108, Lesotho 70, and Angola 16 with small numbers of experts coming from other SADC members. Zimbabwe will provide 303 soldiers but only for training the FDS. . The initial deployment is to run from July 15 to October 15 and each SADC member state that sends troops will pay for its own costs, apart from a contribution from SADC funds. This mission is likely to be extended.
The shape, size, and location of the SADC deployment is determined by Maputo. Mozambican officials are aware of SADC’s military limitations. The efforts against the IS-affiliated militants of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) by Tanzania, Malawi and South Africa as members of the United Nations Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) in Eastern Congo have not impressed. A challenge going forward for Maputo will be to ensure effective coordination among this lengthening list of security actors.
Changing the Conflict Dynamics
Increased foreign military training and deployments came at a time when the conflict’s dynamics are changing. The Mozambican presidency had accepted that its initial heavy-handed security response to the militants worsened the situation and that it FDS needed to be restructured, better trained, and supported by local militias, private military contractors, and targeted international support. The result is that the militants are under increasing military pressure, withdrawing into the forests, towards and across the Tanzanian border and becoming even more abusive to civilians they encounter, impacting their support networks.
This means the ferocity of this insurgency will be reduced but that increased and better disciplined military pressure will not end this conflict anytime soon. Eduardo Mondlane, Frelimo’s first president, wrote a book about fighting Portuguese colonialism, The Struggle for Mozambique. Mondlane reminds us that insurgency succeeds when there is an acute governance and developmental deficit. The Portuguese counter-insurgency efforts against Frelimo nationalists quickly failed because they had neglected the far north and responded solely with violence. Relearning the science of liberation and learning from the mistakes of the Portuguese and others could help Frelimo (which has governed Mozambique since independence in 1975) to stabilize the conflict of Cabo Delgado.
As argued above, the root causes of this insurgency are all Mozambican: inequality, abject poverty, local elite and ethnic politics, and organized crime. The longer-term solutions to this crisis are therefore mostly developmental, firstly to provide jobs to quickly demonstrate that non-violence can provide a viable alternative livelihood for ex-militants and secondly, that the government needs to become better at service delivery of public goods for all Mozambicans – not just those who support Frelimo.
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Dr Alex Vines OBE is Director of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, serves as the institute’s managing director for risk, ethics and resilience and is an assistant professor for African politics and security studies at Coventry University. His engagement with Mozambique started in 1984 and has frequently briefed lawmakers, government officials and the private sector on Mozambique’s political economy. He was a member of the Commonwealth Observer Group to Mozambique for its 2019 national elections.
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