A violent insurgency in Mozambique’s northernmost province, Cabo Delgado, has raised fears that the region will become the next frontier for global jihadism in Africa. In recent years, young men, sometimes wearing the black Islamic State flag, have swept hundreds of thousands of people from their lands in the gas-rich province. Attacks by activists have often been marked by beheadings and mutilations, including of children.
In all, more than 3,000 people have been killed in the violence. Mozambican security forces struggled to contain the insurgents, who in late March stormed the northern city of Palma, the gateway to multibillion-dollar natural gas projects that were under construction with the investment of large multinational oil companies such as the French Total. The attack occurred just weeks after the The US State Department officially designated “ISIS-Mozambique”– also known as Ansar al-Sunna or Ahlu Sunna Wa-Jama, although many locals call it al-Shabab, an Arabic term meaning “youth” – as a terrorist organization.
The ISIS threat on the continent is real. Already, the group’s local franchises in Nigeria and the Sahel have grown rapidly in recent years, foreshadowing what could happen in Cabo Delgado. International pressure is mounting on the Mozambican government to deal with an insurgency which, according to many analysts, could have repercussions on the security of neighboring states, including South Africa. Officials fear Cabo Delgado will become a platform for South African extremists to gain experience before coming back to trigger attacks in big cities like Johannesburg.
However, to consider this crisis only from the angle of the fight against terrorism is insufficient, because it could lead the partners of Mozambique to concentrate too much of their resources on military operations. The militants will only be defeated by a combination of military and non-military means, and developing such a strategy requires understanding the local dynamics behind the Cabo Delgado insurgency.
It is true that many of the leaders of the militants appear to be hardened jihadists. These include fighters from neighboring Tanzania, who are part of Islamist networks that have sprung up on the Swahili coast of East Africa. In designating ISIS-Mozambique as a terrorist organization, Washington also named a Tanzanian national, Abu Yasir Hassan, as its leader. But if the “brain” of the group includes foreigners, the “muscle” is above all Mozambican. The base of the group is made up of locals, mostly poor fishermen, frustrated small traders, former farmers and unemployed youth. While some of them may have become committed jihadists, the majority of them have local motivations for joining the group.
Indeed, the genesis of the insurgency in Cabo Delgado stems from a crisis that was visible in 2007, when frustrated young people, mainly from the Makua ethnic group, began to denounce the authority of local religious leaders. Their activism had an Islamist tinge, as they lobbied for a ban on alcohol while opposing the enrollment of children in public schools and women’s right to work. But they also denounced their perceived economic exclusion amid the discovery of vast offshore ruby and natural gas deposits at Cabo Delgado. Many of them shied away from the influence of Mozambican generals who have commercial interests in the province and who are from the Makonde ethnic group of President Filipe Nyusi. It is no coincidence that activists switched to armed revolt in October 2017, months after authorities expelled artisanal miners, including Mozambicans and Tanzanians, from mining concessions.
The militants will only be defeated by a mixture of military and non-military means, and developing such a strategy requires understanding the local dynamics of the insurgency.
Without a strategy to address these grievances, Maputo responded by sending security forces to Cabo Delgado, even as the militants grew stronger and more influential in the province. Their ranks continued to grow, with current estimates ranging from 1,500 to 4,000 combatants. The group also appears to generate substantial income and has built an intelligence and recruiting network that spans neighboring provinces.
Executives elsewhere in the region have also focused primarily on security-focused solutions for Cabo Delgado. Southern African Development Community, or SADC, member states have even authorized the sending of troops to the province, with technical experts from the regional bloc drawing up a plan to a deployment of up to 3,000 soldiers. Privately, however, Mozambican officials balk at the idea of a heavy foreign deployment, fearing they would lose control.
Government critics say Maputo is reluctant to accept SADC troops because it doesn’t want outsiders to see the full extent of Cabo Delgado’s illicit economy, which includes drug trafficking networks allegedly linked to businessmen allied with the ruling Frelimo party. The government rejects this claim and argues that a major deployment could turn into a quagmire, much like the 2014 deployment of SADC troops to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to fight a local armed group, the Allied Democratic Forces. Stuck in a long conflict in northern Mozambique, SADC troops could become a magnet for more foreign fighters eager to confront international forces and turn the province into a battleground between supposedly backed forces. the West to transnational jihadists seeking to open a new frontier.
It is still unclear whether SADC will be able to break its deadlock. In the meantime, Rwanda has started to deploy up to 1,000 troops and police. In an important step, the European Union announced on July 12 that he will set up a military training mission in Mozambique. Such an approach is consistent with Crisis Group appeal to western and international partners continue to support the formation of new units of elite Mozambican forces, which have already started to deploy to Cabo Delgado in recent weeks. Mozambican officials and security experts agree that it will be next to impossible to defeat the insurgency entirely, but providing tailored assistance to Mozambican forces could still allow them to put pressure on militants and slow the pace of attacks .
At the same time, if they are truly concerned about the growth of terrorist networks, Mozambique and its regional partners, starting with Tanzania, must look beyond their military options. They will need to step up intelligence and law enforcement cooperation to tighten the net around any transnational jihadists who may attempt to fight their way into a crisis that ultimately began as a local revolt.
Finally, resolving the crisis will require responding to the very grievances that triggered it. The Mozambican government should start with invest the various grants from the World Bank which amount to hundreds of millions of dollars to regain the trust of the local communities of Cabo Delgado. This goodwill gesture could allow the government to open channels of communication with the activists who are the sons of these communities. Without such a dialogue, the conflict is unlikely to end.
Comfort Ero is Acting Vice President and Director of the Africa Program at the International crisis group, the independent conflict prevention organization.
This article is one in a series of regular briefings by analysts from the International Crisis Group.