Cabo Delgado province in northern Mozambique has experienced Islamist violence since at least 2017. There have been a series of attacks in the province of increasing complexity in recent months, including the occupation of the town of Macomia for three days in late May by an Islamist group of around 90 men.
Although government forces regained control of the town overnight on 31 May/1 June, killing an unconfirmed number of the militants, and have since expanded their presence across the province, militant attacks have continued into June, including several episodes in which civilians, believed to have links to the government, have been beheaded.
The occupation of Macomia follows a similar operation in the fishing town of Mocimboa da Praia in March. A large force of militants entered the town, possibly supported by an element landing from the sea. The group sealed off roads into the town to prevent government counter-moves, while others vandalised buildings and cars, and distributed food to the locals before withdrawing. They also reportedly captured significant amounts of uniforms, weapons and ammunition from looted police and military sites. Later that month, they briefly captured Quissanga, further south on the coast.
These operations, and others like them, suggest a new phase in the Islamist activity in northern Mozambique is emerging.
Cabo Delgado was a stronghold of the FRELIMO movement against Portuguese rule and traditionally socialist in sympathy. Despite the discovery of large LNG reserves in 2010, the province has struggled economically since independence, and was hit hard by flooding in 2019 and 2020.
It has also been home to a small but growing Islamist influence. What appears to have begun as a small hardline movement around six years ago, when clerics from around the East Africa region began proselytising among youth disaffected by the decline of the local economy, has in the last three years developed into a violent and capable insurgency.
The main group is an entity known variously as Ahlu Sunnah Wa Jama (ASWJ), ‘Swahili sunna, Ansar al Sharia, Ansar al Sunna or al Sunnah. (ASWJ is also known locally as ‘al Shabab’: although this is a generic term meaning ‘the youths,’ there are unconfirmed rumours that they have low-level connections with the namesake grouping based in Kenya and Somalia.) Typically for a local movement in need of funding, ASWJ has been involved in organised crime, including drugs, timber and gem smuggling. Its organisation has traditionally been fairly loose and ad hoc, with small cells operating independently. Recent activity suggests it is growing in scope and sophistication, however, with groups forming larger structures for specific operations. Additionally, ASWJ is developing a network of supporters willing to provide information and logistics. The group claimed allegiance to Islamic State in late 2019, though it is not clear whether this has led to active or material support from the latter’s other groupings.
Both IS and its regional offshoot Islamic State Central African Province, or ISCAP, have claimed responsibility for some of the recent attacks in Cabo Delgado. The Mozambiquan government said in late April that IS is involved in the insurgency, although the basis for this confirmation is not clear. As is common in other theatres, the practical extent of the connection or overlap between ASWJ and IS is unclear: ASWJ could be playing on the IS links for credibility, and IS on the ASWJ to magnify its presence.
The stated long-term aim of ASWJ and its affiliates is the introduction of a sharia-based government in the province; this could in turn be a step exploited by international Islamist groups as a means of overturning the Maputo government.
In the near term ASWJ appears to be pursuing a mutually-reinforcing twin-track approach: to build a reputation for providing legitimate governance, justice and service provision among inhabitants in the towns of Cabo Delgado, and to undermine state control by attacking government interests and security forces in rural areas. It also continues to use beheadings of civilians accused of links to the government as a terror tactic.
Mozambique government has stepped up operations
The Mozambique government has stepped up operations against the insurgency in recent weeks, reportedly supported by US, South African and Russian contractors, but is hampered by a lack of reliable intelligence on the large areas it needs to dominate, as well as a lack of legitimacy among the population. Security forces appear sufficiently capable to retake lost physical territory, but these tactical successes are likely to be short-lived unless they are integrated into a wider government campaign to address underlying issues such as unemployment and poor governance.
Some analysts have suggested al Sunnah’s growing capabilities could pose an increasing threat to the province’s LNG sites. Mozambique’s LNG reserves are forecast to generate up to USD1.5Bn per year for the government: threatening that would undermine any investment plans for the region, and could be a spur to increased international cooperation to defeat the insurgency.
However, with doubts about the government’s willingness to invest in Cabo Delgado other than for infrastructure related to the gas sector, LNG sites could well be seen as a ‘legitimate’ target – not least as attacks could provoke government reprisals, further alienating the populace and driving support for the insurgency.
Increasing armed violence
Whether this is the case or not, a period of increasing armed violence seems almost certain. Even if ASWJ and other groups are not capable of attacking facilities directly, they could easily disrupt movement to and from LNG sites from other parts of Mozambique, attack infrastructure such as power lines. Additionally, the recent beheadings show that ASWJ is still more than prepared to use terror and coercion alongside ‘softer’ influence activities. threaten or murder key workers living in the local areas. Periods of further natural disaster could also result in increased activity as groups exploit the loss of critical services and the absence of security forces.
This highlights the need for good journey management drills for any journeys into and around Cabo Delgado, supported by a local security escort and supervised by a 24-7 operations centre. Given the recent flooding and the outbreak of Covid-19, most companies operating in the province will already have well-practiced crisis response plans: if you don’t have one, you should develop them, including re-location and evacuation options. The generally poor state of medical infrastructure in the region highlights the importance of support from an assistance company who can refer you to suitable facilities in the event of any healthcare problems.
Physical security of sites and access control remain vital, and close liaison with the security services and police can help with understanding any current out of bounds areas, and other threat information. Additionally, membership of local warden networks will also help with the collection, analysis and corroboration of scant information.
If you would like further information about Mozambique or the services including journey management, evacuation and 24/7 emergency assistance Securewest offer, please contact our team.