Mozambique’s apparent Islamist insurgency poses multiple threats

Whatever its causes, recent attacks show that the government is far from getting the crisis under control.

The apparent Islamist insurgency in Mozambique’s northernmost province, Cabo Delgado, had gone quiet – until last Wednesday night’s attack in the village of Nagulué in the Macomia district. The village chief was decapitated and mutilated, several villagers were injured and 18 homes destroyed, according to various sources. It was a brutal reminder that Maputo is far from getting this crisis under control.

Independent security analyst Johann Smith warns that ‘al-Shabaab’ or ‘Ansar al-Sunnah’ or ‘Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamo’ (no one is sure what to call the attackers) is regrouping and that more assaults could occur soon. He suspects that foreigners could for the first time become targets of what has so far been an assault only on local security forces and citizens. 

He also warns that, having failed to respond in a coherent way, including tackling root causes, Mozambique’s government is about to hand over responsibility to a private security company. This could aggravate the problem.

One security source said the L6G security company, owned by Erik Prince, founder of the notorious Blackwater US private security company, is promising to flatten al-Shabaab in three months. This is in exchange for a hefty slice of oil and gas revenues when those large reserves come on stream sometime after 2023. The equally controversial Russian private security company Wagner is bidding against L6G for the contract, the source said.

Is Mozambique’s apparent Islamist insurgency linked to Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia?

This is all happening against the background of a threat whose nature is not yet fully understood. It manifested itself dramatically on 5 October 2017 when 40 gunmen attacked the town of Mocímboa da Praia in Cabo Delgado, storming three police posts, killing two policemen and stealing guns. Fourteen of the attackers also died.

There have been 49 attacks to date involving Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamo, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). Other sources estimate the toll as over 200 deaths, more than half being civilians, and considerable destruction of houses and crops. After initially targeting security forces, the extremists turned on civilians. Several were beheaded.

Jasmine Opperman of the Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium more conservatively counts 47 attacks and 173 deaths but believes the phenomenon is underreported so the number of attacks could be over 50. Opperman is also cautious in describing the Cabo Delgado attacks as an ‘Islamist insurgency’ noting the lack of propaganda or claims of responsibility for attacks.

‘Extremist religious interpretations … remain one of several scenarios at play within an environment where organised crime syndicates have a deep-seated footprint as well as socio-economic frustrations,’ she says.

There does seem to be a growing consensus that this is an Islamist insurgency. Smith, Mozambican researchers Sheik Saide Habibe, Salvador Forquilha and João Pereira, and Simone Haysom writing for the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime among others, characterise it as such.

Even Mozambique’s government may be starting to acknowledge the problem. President Filipe Nyusi told the United Nations General Assembly in September that Mozambique was counting on the collaboration of the international community to fight the menace as these ‘criminals’ were committing ‘crimes of a global character’, and because non-nationals were involved. This seemed to some like an oblique way of saying ‘this is not ordinary crime’.

Even Mozambique’s government may be starting to acknowledge the problem

Last week South Africa’s international relations minister Lindiwe Sisulu indirectly confirmed that Nyusi was worried. ‘We were very concerned when we heard from the president of Mozambique about the possibility that there might be some extremist activity,’ she replied, when asked at a press conference for Pretoria’s take on the Cabo Delgado violence.

She said that at the recent Indian Ocean Rim Association ministerial meeting in Durban, ‘one of the problems we identified was that the Indian Ocean has a great deal of potential for investment and wealth and development and all of those things, but it carries also with it the potential of easy transfer of some of the activities which are going on in other countries which might not be quite in line with our traditions down south’.

This looked like an indirect reference to what other analysts, like David Bax of ALPS Resilience, contend – that the apparent Islamist insurgency in northern Mozambique is linked across the border into Tanzania and thence to Kenya and Somalia.

Few analysts believe that it is part of Somalia’s al-Shabaab, saying locals just call it that for convenience. But some, such as Habibe, Forquilha and Pereira, believe that links exist, not least through the training of the Mozambicans elsewhere up the coast.

The absence so far of attacks on foreigners – including the growing number of expatriates gathering in Cabo Delgado to exploit the huge oil and gas reserves – causes some analysts to doubt that this is an Islamist insurgency. Given the anti-Western ideological disposition of Islamist extremists elsewhere, that might have been expected here too. Smith, an on-the-ground analyst familiar with the territory, warns though that that could be the next phase of the insurgency.

Heroin, timber, wildlife and ruby trafficking through Cabo Delgado helps fuel the Islamist insurgency

And the blurred lines between ideological and criminal violence don’t bother all analysts. Rather the opposite. In her new report for the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, Haysom argues that the extensive heroin, timber, wildlife and ruby trafficking through Cabo Delgado helps fuel what she characterises as the Islamist insurgency. She and her colleagues mapped trafficking routes along Africa’s eastern ‘Heroin Coast’, in a report for the ENACT organised crime project run by the Institute for Security Studies.

She found that the insurgents derived some of their funding from these illicit activities. More fundamentally, she contends that the Frelimo government is complicit in the trafficking, which makes it less likely to counter it. State corruption also means that nothing is being done to develop this most backward of the country’s provinces, increasing the resentment that fuels the insurgency.

Haysom concludes that ‘the militants are still militarily weak and the violence could still be contained. But if it is handled clumsily, the situation could develop in a direction that sees northern Mozambique become a zone for launching assaults and furthering the aims of criminal networks across the region’.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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