As Mozambique enters the third month of its lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19, fighting between government troops and a shadowy Islamist militia has escalated significantly in the northernmost province of Cabo Delgado. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a global monitoring group, insurgents have stepped up attacks in 2020, with more than 100 “violent events” this year, the precise term ACLED uses based on its methodology—an increase of 300 percent over the same period last year. In roughly 90 of those incidents, militants attacked civilians, resulting in more than 200 reported fatalities, including one particularly deadly attack in April that killed 52 civilians. In some instances, those who refused to join the militia were reportedly beheaded.
Fighting between soldiers and Islamist insurgents over the past two-and-a-half years has left over 1,000 people dead and displaced up to 200,000 in northern Mozambique, stymying the government’s attempts to exploit the vast natural gas resources in the region. But the insurgency seems to have accelerated since last June, when the Islamist militia in Cabo Delgado pledged bayat, or allegiance, to the local faction of the Islamic State, its self-described Central African Province. Since then, ISCAP, as the Islamic State’s affiliate is known, has claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks in Mozambique. While Southern Africa has largely remained immune from violent extremism, the situation in northern Mozambique threatens to destabilize the country and could potentially spread to other parts of the region.
Understanding the insurgency requires parsing through propaganda on many sides and disentangling the local drivers of the conflict from the dynamics of external involvement by groups like ISCAP. While Mozambican militants continue to target civilians, some reports suggest that the insurgents in the north of the country may be shifting from indiscriminate violence toward forms of governance aimed at winning hearts and minds. Such tactics include giving advance warning of attacks to civilians and providing medical services and other forms of assistance. In another shift, the insurgents have begun occupying territory in Cabo Delgado, temporarily taking over two towns in March. Though these occupations only lasted a day, the sophistication of the attacks alluded to their strength.
The origins, aims and even name of the shadowy militia operating in Cabo Delgado remain difficult to pin down. When attacks were first reported in 2017, locals referred to the militants as “al-Shabab,” despite a lack of direct ties to the al-Qaida affiliate in East Africa of the same name. The rebels initially referred to themselves as “Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamo,” but then took on the name “Ansar al-Sunna” before aligning themselves with ISCAP. According to a report in the online news outlet Africa Confidential, “the insurgents have studiously avoided adopting a unique label and all these titles may be flags of convenience.” A pledge of allegiance to ISCAP is a particularly tenuous connection to the Islamic State, as the strength of the link between the extremist group and its Central African affiliate remains unclear.
As President Filipe Nyusi’s government seeks greater international support to respond to the crisis, it has emphasized the link between the insurgency in Mozambique and transnational jihadist networks, describing the violence as “external aggression” in official statements. Despite these purported international links, the existing evidence suggests that the insurgency should be considered primarily an outgrowth of local economic and political conditions. Compared to other provinces, Cabo Delgado is impoverished and its residents lack access to health and education services. The Islamists’ propaganda has capitalized on these disparities, emphasizing the insurgents’ local connections. In one video, a representative proclaims: “We occupy [the towns] to show that the government of the day is unfair. It humiliates the poor and gives the profit to the bosses.”
Mozambique’s security forces have been credibly accused of serious human rights abuses, including torture and illegal detentions, in their counterinsurgency operations.
The government initially played down the risk from the insurgency, calling it “banditry.” But once the threat became too great to ignore, it implemented a repressive, militarized campaign that relies heavily on private military contractors. Security forces have been credibly accused of serious human rights abuses, including torture and illegal detentions, in their counterinsurgency operations. So far in 2020, ACLED has reported that authorities targeted civilians at least eight times, resulting in more than 20 fatalities. That repression has been paired with restrictions on media access to the region and the detention of journalists. The inability to get reliable and responsibly reported information about the insurgency has fueled the spread of misinformation on social media.
In recent months, the government has employed more foreign mercenaries to wage its campaign in the north, reportedly hiring private military contractors from countries including Russia and South Africa. ACLED has tracked more than a dozen violent incidents this year involving private foreign military contractors, a number of which involved the aerial bombardment of insurgents’ camps. Yet despite their technical advantage, contractors have struggled with the complexity of the situation on the ground in Cabo Delgado. Last fall, reports emerged in local and Russian media outlets suggesting that around 10 Russian contractors had been killed in ambushes by the insurgents.
Quelling the insurgency in the north is not only a security imperative—there is also a strong economic dimension. The three largest liquified natural gas projects in Africa, worth a combined $55 billion, are in Cabo Delgado. In February, foreign firms that have invested in those projects requested Mozambique’s government send an additional 300 troops to join the soldiers already tasked with maintaining security in the region. Now, the rising insecurity there, coupled with the global collapse of oil prices amid the coronavirus pandemic, have caused those foreign firms to rethink their investment plans.
To effectively counter this growing insurgency, the government could devise a less heavy-handed approach. Last September, we warned in an article for Lawfare that a repressive response by the government was likely to be counterproductive and could stoke tensions, potentially creating a transnational terrorist threat on par with Boko Haram. That group, which mainly operates in Nigeria, has capitalized on local grievances and become a serious challenge to regional security following a harsh government crackdown. Despite some ostensible recent gains on the battlefield in Mozambique, including the reported killing of insurgent leaders, and rhetorical pledges from the government to adopt a more inclusive approach, there is little evidence yet of any concrete changes. The insurgency demands a better response to avoid a worst-case scenario.
The government could tackle the local causes of the conflict by emphasizing economic and social development, while taking more care to avoid loss of civilian life during its military operations and holding human rights abusers to account. A lack of reliable information contributes to misinformation and misunderstanding; allowing the media unfettered access to report on the crisis would help.
The onset of COVID-19, in particular, underlines the need to address issues like the lack of access to health care and other social services in northern Mozambique. As noted in a recent report in Africa Renewal, a magazine published by the United Nations, the high rate of HIV infection in Cabo Delgado makes it “especially vulnerable to contagion.” In addition to addressing the immediate security challenges in the province, Mozambique must prioritize addressing the socioeconomic grievances that facilitated the insurgent group’s rise in the first place.
Hilary Matfess (@HilaryMatfess) is a doctoral candidate at Yale University and the author of “Women and the War on Boko Haram.”
Alexander Noyes (@alexhnoyes) is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.