Africa

OP-ED

Insurgency in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado shifts to mimic tactics that led to al-Shabaab’s revival

Armed insurgents pose with an Islamic State flag outside a municipal building in Quissanga in early April.

Recent attacks by insurgents in towns across northern Mozambique mark a significant new trend in the conflict. Insurgent forces have begun to occupy towns and are attempting to forge a new relationship with civilian populations, escalating their rhetoric against the Mozambican state in an attempt to demonise the government and persuade communities of their own legitimacy.

Insurgents in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province appear to be making a more aggressive bid to control territory in the region, which may significantly shift the balance of the conflict by increasing their control over key transport routes for legal and illegal commodities.

This is the latest phase in the conflict that began with attacks in October 2017, then remained as a low-intensity insurgency until mid-2019, when the frequency and geographical range of attacks expanded significantly. From the beginning of May 2019 to the end of the year, insurgents expanded their attacks to cover nine of the province’s 16 districts, according to reporting from the risk analysis firm Intelyse. In 2020, the insurgents unleashed increasingly sophisticated and daring attacks, including on military sites and key transport routes.

The conflict in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado region stands to have an acute humanitarian impact on the local population. Many fear that it may have a destabilising effect on the wider region, and may deteriorate further than the current outbreak of violence, which has left many dead and an estimated 180,000 displaced.

Mocímboa da Praia – the start of a new era?

Insurgents entered the coastal town of Mocímboa da Praia before dawn on 23 March 2020, some arriving overland and others by sea. They quickly closed the main roads out of the town centre and assaulted the military barracks, which had been the Mozambican security services’ main garrison in the conflict zone. Within hours, security services had fled and the insurgents raised the black-and-white flag of the Islamic State, with whom they seem to have formed an alliance, over the town.

The attack itself was audacious. Mocímboa da Praia is an important logistical hub for northern Cabo Delgado: straddling the main road between the gas projects and the provincial capital, it also boasts both a port and an airfield. That insurgents were so easily able to sweep aside government resistance and control the town is the strongest indicator to date of the Mozambican security services’ inability to contend with the insurgents’ growing strength.

Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi has visited the town multiple times since the conflict began, including as recently as 2019, and national police chief Bernardino Rafael declared that the government was making progress against the insurgency in a Mocímboa da Praia press conference just a week before the attack. The fact that the town was also the site of the insurgency’s initial emergence in October 2017 gives this new attack greater symbolic weight.

More interesting, though, is what the attackers did once they had control of the town. The insurgency’s signature attack profile since the early days of the conflict has been to strike poorly defended towns and villages quickly, often by night, looting merchant stalls and burning homes on a large scale; beheading and otherwise mutilating the people they killed, possibly in relation to those who did not heed their call; and seemingly aiming to terrorise the population into fleeing. This strategy has forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee their homes; they make up a large proportion of the estimated 180,000 people who are now displaced in Cabo Delgado.

In Mocímboa da Praia, however, the insurgents lingered, and their destruction was much more circumscribed. The attackers spent all day in the town, gathering the spoils of their attack and interacting with civilians. They captured a massive weapons cache at the military barracks – enough, one security expert estimated, to supply two battalions – and took much of the medicine from the town’s hospital. They also systematically destroyed infrastructure that connects Mocímboa da Praia to the Mozambican state at large, robbing and vandalising banks and government buildings. One video captured insurgents efficiently crippling haulage vehicles by shooting holes into petrol tankers.

Civilians, however, suffered little. Few if any homes were burned, and no civilians were reported among the dead. Insurgents told civilians to remain in their homes during the occupation and delivered food to children who were stuck inside. Reports emerged of insurgents distributing money looted from the banks to local residents, and one video showed residents – primarily young people – cheering the insurgents as they left the town.

It is dangerous to generalise the complex relationships between local communities and the insurgents. Communities which are perceived as supporting the insurgents may face heavy-handed crackdowns by Mozambican security forces. However, there are suggestions (such as the video from Mocímboa da Praia) that there may be support for the insurgents, particularly among young people. Overall, this was a far cry from the relationship between civilians and insurgents that was observed during previous attacks.

Occupations and counter-attacks

Insurgent attacks carried out between 1 January and 17 April 2020 in northern Mozambique

The Mocímboa da Praia attack was not an isolated incident. Insurgents carried out a smaller-scale attack in Quissanga just two days after leaving Mocímboa da Praia. Another series of attacks began on 6 April 2020, as insurgents occupied villages in the Quissanga and Muidumbe districts over the course of two days. Reports have also emerged of insurgents moving from Quissanga to the Quirimbas archipelago by small boats on the evening of 10 April, then launching attacks on civilians the following day.

Like Mocímboa da Praia, both districts are strategically important for flows of goods and people in eastern Cabo Delgado. Like Mocímboa da Praia, Quissanga is a waypoint for heroin trafficking and human smuggling, and a departure point for displaced people seeking refuge on Ibo Island. Muidumbe is one of the ruling Frelimo party’s political bases in Cabo Delgado and borders a key crossroads on the N380, the only paved road connecting the gas projects to the provincial capital.

Two insurgents stand in front of a government building in Quissanga with an ISCAP flag. The insurgent in the red bandana calls on others to join their fight and says that the flag of the governing party is not accepted.

Both the Quissanga and Muidumbe attacks became occupations, with insurgents flying their flag over government buildings. In both towns, attackers targeted state infrastructure and the private businesses that supply it, including destroying the machinery being used to repair a bridge on the N380. Civilian homes were spared (with some exceptions outside Muidumbe), and civilian casualties were low relative to the amount of interaction between insurgents and civilians.

A video emerged from Muidumbe of insurgents addressing civilians (in a mix of Tanzanian coastal kiSwahili and kiMwani, the local language closely related to kiSwahili), claiming to be on the side of Muslims and the lower class and promising not to harm civilians or their property. The situation is evolving quickly, but for now it seems as though these temporary occupations are a new tactic for insurgent operations in Cabo Delgado.

Mozambican authorities have since gone on the counter-offensive, bringing in private military contractors from South Africa to boost their capacity to fight the insurgents. Light helicopter gunships opened fire on an insurgent base in Muede district on 9 April 2020, then attacked bases in Mbau, Awassi district and Muidumbe the following day, according to reporting in South Africa’s Daily Maverick

In responding to the attack on Quirimbas, one of the South African helicopters reportedly sustained damage – possibly from enemy fire – and was forced to make an emergency landing before being destroyed by the operators. The site was later overrun by the insurgents, who released videos of their fighters celebrating around the burnt aircraft. The influx of South African contractors comes after the withdrawal of the Russian Wagner group, which suffered losses after insurgent ambush attacks.

al-Shabaab – a harbinger of Cabo Delgado’s future?

One of the defining features of the Cabo Delgado insurgency has been its elusiveness. Even today, after insurgents have joined ISCAP and their public communications have increased, analysts know little about the group’s makeup, leadership or strategic vision. The new attacks do seem to suggest a shift – and an acceleration – in the group’s approach. The recent history of other insurgencies on the continent offers an instructive example of the role temporary occupations play and what they might indicate for the future of Cabo Delgado.

Analysts have identified similarities between the birth of the Cabo Delgado insurgency and Boko Haram. As in Cabo Delgado, Boko Haram started as a local religious sect that turned into a violent Islamic insurgency, and it has recently developed relationships with an international Islamic terrorist organisation, Islamic State. It started in response to weak governance and rule of law and a desire to be free of a corrupt system that was denying economic opportunity and the right to choose the way of life they believed in. However, the current tactics employed by the Cabo Delgado insurgents are more reminiscent of Somalia’s al-Shabaab.

In early 2007, al-Shabaab was nearly a broken organisation, staggering from battlefield defeat by Ethiopian forces and hunted by American counter-terrorism forces. By 2009, the al-Qaeda affiliate was the preeminent armed group in much of southern Somalia. In the intervening time, as the group grew in strength, one of its signature techniques was to attack weak government forces in strategically important cities and towns, hold the area for a short time, and then withdraw. Al-Shabaab called the practice koormeer (visit). As the International Crisis Group described at the time:

“The Islamist fighters used these town ‘visits’… to canvass public support and win greater legitimacy and credibility… A ‘visit’ was normally well-choreographed, with clerics addressing public rallies and holding talks with local clan elders. Food and money was distributed to the poor. Attempts were made to settle local inter-clan disputes and tensions. Petty criminals and bandits were apprehended. Every Islamist insurgent unit travels with a ‘mobile Sharia [Islamic law] court’ so that criminals can be given quick trials, thus filling a void left by the [government].”

The operation in Cabo Delgado is not nearly that advanced, yet the principle remains the same. The Cabo Delgado insurgency is growing, and these temporary occupations are efforts toward the goal al-Shabaab had in 2008: territorial control. 

For a small insurgent force that is vulnerable to drawn-out stationary battles, but faces a fragmented and incapable state military, the occupations are a low-risk way to demonstrate how much control insurgents can exert over civilians in a town without having to hold the ground indefinitely. Insurgents frequently threaten to punish civilians who collaborate with the government, and the occupations show how easily they can follow through on those threats.

At the same time, the occupations provide a stage on which the insurgents can present their case to the people. The Cabo Delgado insurgents previously preferred to propagandise indirectly, by word of mouth, but now they are taking their arguments directly to civilian populations. As demonstrated in the Muidumbe video, insurgents are making religious and political arguments to civilian audiences that they have greater legitimacy to rule than the Mozambican state, saying “we want to remove the soldiers because, for us, they are pigs”.

This rhetoric may play into an existing and widespread lack of trust which communities in northern Mozambique may have in the state, and the sense that the government has done little to address communities’ economic grievances. This includes the lack of local benefits from the province’s vast oil and gas reserves, and the widespread knowledge that state actors have been profiteering from trafficking heroin and other illicit goods in the region. Government failure to combat corruption and crime and to improve the wellbeing of Cabo Delgado residents may have created a more receptive audience for the insurgents.

For al-Shabaab in Somalia, the success of those arguments was crucial while the group’s power was growing, but it was still militarily vulnerable. Communities that accept the legitimacy of insurgent rule are easier to control and more likely to provide the recruits and resources insurgent groups need in order to grow. 

In addition to demonstrating a desire to control territory, the location of the occupations point to the desire to control Cabo Delgado’s most valuable resource for anyone who lacks the technology to extract offshore natural gas: trade routes. Cabo Delgado’s rugged landscape and underdeveloped infrastructure mean that there are few roads and fewer non-road methods to transport goods. Control of the N380 and other key transit routes would give the insurgents a lucrative stake in the trade, both legal and illegal, that drives the Cabo Delgado economy.

Again, this holds parallels to al-Shabaab. Recent research has shown that the long-standing resilience of the Somali organisation is in part thanks to its considerable ability to diversify its income streams to include revenue from illicit markets such as guns, illegal charcoal, smuggled sugar and ivory trafficking.

In all, the insurgents’ new approach shows that the Mozambican government’s counter-insurgency effort has reached another low ebb. The temporary occupations make it difficult for Cabo Delgado civilians to know who they can trust to provide security and services. That uncertainty will likely drive further displacement and, at the margins, increase numbers of civilians willingly submitting to insurgent control. The short-term prognosis for the Mozambican state to retain control in coastal Cabo Delgado is grim. DM

This article appears in the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime’s monthly Eastern and Southern Africa Risk Bulletin. The Global Initiative is a network of more than 500 experts on organised crime drawn from law enforcement, academia, conservation, technology, media, the private sector and development agencies. It publishes research and analysis on emerging criminal threats and works to develop innovative strategies to counter organised crime globally.

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