Mozambique: The Cabo Delgado Insurgency Internationalizes

In a dramatic and deadly development, insurgents in Cabo Delgado have attacked Palma in northern Mozambique, causing a mass evacuation from the town. It is the most publicised attack yet and has comes about shortly after the US designated the insurgents as a terrorist group. The dynamics of the conflict may have changed and foreign intervention could prove to be critical in preventing it worsening. It could also fuel the insurgency.

In a previous blog posted in January the Ansar al-Sunna insurgency in Cabo Delgado was discussed but the situation has changed substantially since then with two events occurring that may alter the course of the conflict. The first was the designation of the insurgents as a terrorist organisation by the United States and the deployment of a special forces training team. The second was the Ansar al-Sunna attack on Palma. This blog can be read separately or in conjunction with the previous blog, which goes into more detail on the origins of the conflict and the government’s response. Here we are focused on the potential impact of recent changes and what this means in the context of conflict resolution. We start with the attack on Palma, which began on the 24th of March.

Mozambique’s rainy season had come to an end and this meant that an increase in violence was expected. The coastal town of Palma was already isolated due to insurgent activity and its population, estimated at 111,000, included 43,600 people already displaced by fighting. When it came, the attack was well organised and came from three directions and a frantic evacuation effort began to evacuate residents and foreign workers. Those that were unable to get out by helicopter or boat either tried to run or joined a convoy escaping the town, which was subsequently ambushed. Eyewitness accounts tell a lurid tale of beheadings, the targeting of civil servants and of much of Palma being put to the torch. The French oil and gas company Total had announced the full resumption of its operations barely hours before the attack began and has since announced its withdrawal. As of the 30th March ACLED has reported 2689 fatalities since the insurgency began and Reliefweb reports over 670,000 people have been displaced. The insurgents control Mocímboa da Praia, having occupied it late in 2020, and had threatened the provincial capital, Pemba.

It is the most serious attack this year and it has drawn an unprecedented amount of media attention. This means that more people are talking about it than before, but they are running through the same arguments as before. The difference between the assault on Palma and other brutalities that have marked the insurgency is that it involved foreign workers and an undetermined number have been killed. The government had targeted the media previously in order to control reporting on the conflict. It had recently proposed a draconian new media law that would ban foreign broadcast media and expelled the founder of Zitamar News from the country. The restrictions were undoubtably aimed at hiding the scale of the problem and what the security forces were doing, but this had already failed: the media were reporting, human rights organisations were documenting insurgent atrocities and abuses by the security forces, and academics were asking questions. The picture that emerged was one of a violent Salafi-jihadist insurgency, one which was gaining strength, ambushing the security forces, and robbing, burning and beheading almost at will. The government reacted clumsily and employed private military contractors but has not been able to provide security for the people in the affected areas and its forces have also been accused of human rights abuses.

There has been a long running debate over the involvement of ISIS in the insurgency, which has local origins and regional influences, but regardless of whether ISIS are involved in influencing or organising the insurgents it is unmistakable that they are Salafi-Jihadists and ISIS has claimed them as an affiliate. How deep this actually runs is another matter, but the appearances of the ubiquitous black flags, multiple cases of beheadings, and the surge in capability since the middle of 2019 indicates that if it isn’t ISIS then it’s a Mozambican version not dissimilar to the real thing. Little is known of the group’s inner workings or demands as they are generally secretive and uncommunicative but when the pronouncements do come, they call for Islamic teaching and rejection of the government. The tactics used and the increase in capability indicate foreign training, which may have come about through links with other organisations in Africa.

The United States is convinced, naming Ahlu Sunna Wal Jammah (ASWJ)* as an ISIS franchise, designating it as an overseas Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) and a Specially Designated Terrorist Group (SDTG). The US is the only state to designate the insurgents as part of ISIS, which is a boon to a Mozambican leadership that had claimed they were ISIS prior to the escalation and patchy claims by ISIS of responsibility for attacks. This conveniently deflects responsibility from the government, which according to critics, had neglected the region, failed to listen to reports from local Islamic leaders of an emerging militant sect, treated the 2017 attacks as banditry, and then oversaw a confused military response riven with human rights abuses.

The rampage through Palma and the FTO designation by the US are two developments that may affect the course of the conflict in Mozambique’s north. To be clear, the Mozambican government has responsibility for the security of its citizens, the question is not whether it should but how, and it should be given the support it needs to restore order. There are caveats to this and top of the list is that coercive element of the response needs to be open and accountable and target the insurgents only. The government has been resistant to foreign intervention in the form of ‘boots on the ground’ but it has utilised private military contractors (Dyck Advisory Services (DAG) helicopters were involved in the Palma rescue) and accepted training support from South Africa. Portugal and the US have also sent training teams (or special forces). The training is crucial and reform of how the Police and Army work needs dealing with, but this will take time to have an effect and will be a reformation of how they are organised.

The SDTG designation by the US risks changing the context and dynamics of the conflict as from the perspective of the US, the insurgents are IS-Mozambique and they have added Mozambique to the Partnership for Regional East African Terrorism. This hints at an increased involvement and rolls the insurgency into the narrative of the terror wars, risking an escalation and a misreading of the roots of the conflict. The arrival of the US comes alongside the Portuguese deployment and a promise to lobby for Mozambique within the EU, the British have noted a ‘strategic concern’, and the French navy has been active in the area. While no one doubts the need for the need for action, or the counter-insurgency capabilities available to the US, foreign interventions in local wars have a tendency to escalate them and turn local grievances into an unambiguous affiliation to the ‘Islamic State’, as was the case in the Sahel and Nigeria. The insurgency in Cabo Delgado is firmly rooted in the conditions there and its recruits are Mozambican for the most part. It is linked to ISIS but is not definitively a part of it. This can change. For example, the presence of Western soldiers, however small the number, gives fuel to the cause and attracts foreign fighters. The STDG designation has another impact as it runs the risk of inhibiting the humanitarian response and the US should endeavour to reassure humanitarian organisations that they will not run foul of sanctions during their operations.

Which brings us to what else can be done aside from attempting to defeat the insurgency through military force.  The coercive approach is clearly going to be at the forefront of the government response, but an effective strategy also needs to incorporate conciliation and reform. Part of this is gaining the trust of a population that has been neglected, does not trust the elite at all, and has been infiltrated by radicals espousing Salafi-jihadism. This took time and is hard to unravel, even with the insurgents delegitimizing themselves through their own brutality. To be fair, the government appears to have seen the merit in this, it has done little, but this is a start. Conciliation is directed at the insurgents and their supporters and offers a way out of the group. The government appeared to be leaning towards this when it made an offer of amnesty to militants, but this has not been taken up. Such measures are controversial as they can mean that people with blood on their hands are not brought to account, but they have been applied to other conflict situations. Nothing has been heard yet of three fighters who surrendered and said that their communities would not accept them back because of their crimes. Amnesty is not the only measure and can be partial, conditional, or even part of a wider disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration program. There are inevitable and fully justifiable questions over justice and accountability, but they have the advantage of removing fighters from the insurgent ranks, saving lives in the future.

Reform, which is directed at the population at large, is a long-term mission that requires significant investment and any future assistance from organisations such as the European Union (EU) and South African Development Community (SADC) will be conditional on it. Any gains made through coercive measures will also be undermined if socio-economic issues are not addressed. To take economic marginalisation as an example, a population in which the young have few opportunities, are poorer in contrast to other regions, and experiences corruption, is one where the young are downtrodden and the elders have lost their authority. This is open to exploitation to radicals offering status and money and receiving a wage and being able to send money back to one’s family is a strong motivator to join a group (which may not have become violent yet). We should note that this is not a predetermined trajectory: not everyone responds to socio-economic grievances by being radicalised as there are other ways to respond (including doing nothing). The point is that there are enough that do to cause a problem. As a measure, reform is targeting the conditions from which the minority that are violent emerge, but it also has the much wider benefit of improving the lives of the population at large.

This is one example of a wider program of reform that is required in order to counter the insurgency, prevent further escalation, and stop a re-emergence in future years. The size of the task cannot be underestimated, or the complexity of the coercive approach that targets the insurgents directly. It will also take time to take effect. The government has made a start with its Northern Integrated Development Agency (ADIN), but this has made little progress since its inception and has a wide brief, including the reconstruction of areas pillaged and destroyed by the insurgents. One hurdle the government faces is gaining peoples trust and this will require investment and results, people will want to see that their lives will be measurably better. If, and when, the natural gas and oil is exploited, they will want to see tangible benefits in their lives in the form of jobs and infrastructure, instead of the money flowing to the elite and abroad.

The two organisations that should be at the forefront of a collective response to the situation in Cabo Delgado are the African Union (AU) and SADC, but they have generally been absent. The AU has a lot on its plate elsewhere and limited resources, but it does have an authority to speak for Africans in a way that the UN and EU does not. As a rule, the AU gives primacy to regional organisations such as the SADC, although it does have a Peace and Security Council and has authorised peace support missions in the past. Thus far, it has barely acted at all. The sixteen member SADC is due to hold a special meeting on the situation in Cabo Delgado but has also been lacklustre in its response. The Palma attack has drawn its attention as the insurgency is increasingly seen as a regional problem as opposed to a local issue that everyone had hoped would simply go away. When the SADC does meet, its members may want to treat the recent Amnesty International report as required reading. Two things near the top of the agenda would be the logistics of dealing with the consequences of the insurgency (and the response thus far) and the porous Tanzanian border, which allows refugees to escape the fighting but also allows the movement of fighters and the idealogues who helped to fuel radicalism in the first place. There has been some coordination between Tanzania and Mozambique, who seem to recognise that the problem is one that transcends borders and affects them both.

The Cabo Delgado insurgency is at a critical point in its trajectory and, shocking as it may seem, it has the potential to worsen as opposed to getting better. It is not the first Islamist insurgency to emerge in sub-Saharan Africa, happen close to a lucrative oil or gas development project, attract the attention of an actor such as the United States, or the first to have its roots in local socio-economic and political grievances that are then exploited. Having all four together does not mean a predetermined path to further escalation but the risks are there, and the Cabo Delgado insurgency has escalated quickly, tipping over from terrorism within two years of the first attack in 2017. The government needs to acknowledge that it needs help. The AU and SADC need to be at the forefront of this.

*This is also the name of a Somalian group and Ansar al-Sunna (Supporters of the Tradition), as used here and by Human Rights Watch, is the sect that emerged in Mozambique and preceded the insurgency. Locals refer to the group as ‘al-Shabaab’ (youth). This is unrelated to the Somalian organisation of the same name. The US also named the group’s leader as Abu Yasir Hassan (a Tanzanian), although he may be an influential member of the Ansar al-Sunna leadership only.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (#ACLED) provides data for the Cabo Ligado Mozambique Conflict Observatory. This is updated weekly and can be accessed at: . This blog has been written using open-source news sites, which include Zitamar News, Club of Mozambique, The Daily Maverick, All Africa, DW, BBC News, and The Guardian. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International articles and reports were also used. The January blog can be accessed at:

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