A shadowy Islamic insurgency in northern Mozambique exploded into the light last month when a group of around 150 armed men launched a daytime attack on Palma, an impoverished seaside town and burgeoning base for offshore gas projects worth £44bn.
Attacks in the Muslim-majority Cabo Delgado province have been increasing since 2017, but the scale and ambition of the Palma assault, the threat to international investments, the identities of those in peril – foreign and white gas workers, as well as Mozambican residents – and Islamic State (IS)’s swift claim of responsibility made this an unusual attack that attracted uncommon attention.
The militant group, known locally as al-Shabaab (a common term meaning “The Youth” that is also applied to Somalia’s al-Qaeda-aligned Islamist militants), pledged allegiance to IS in 2019. Two weeks before the Palma attack the US designated “Isis-Mozambique” a terrorist organisation and said it was deploying a dozen Special Forces soldiers to help train Mozambican troops.
But while this might appear to be the opening of yet another front in IS’s global jihad, the conflict’s internationalist trappings risk obscuring the local political context that has defined the group’s ambitions and shaped the brutal nature of recent clashes.
Mozambique unfurls along 1,600 miles of Indian Ocean coastline between Tanzania and South Africa. Between 1977 and 1992 it was engulfed in civil war, another casualty of the proxy Cold War battles that convulsed post-independence Africa. Yet it has failed to make much of the peace that followed.
Well-connected politicians have hoarded power and wealth, ensuring the state works for them, not the people. Since gas fields were discovered off Mozambique’s northern coast a decade ago, the opportunity to provide jobs and basic services has been squandered, creating anger and resentment. Drug trafficking has also contributed to corruption and the steady undermining of the state.
“You have an economy characterised by forms of monopoly and illicit trafficking, which isn’t directly causing the insurgency, but makes the province ripe for problems to emerge,” says Dino Mahtani, deputy director of the Africa programme at the International Crisis Group think tank.
It all creates “fertile ground” for the emergence of al-Shabaab, says Eric Morier-Genoud, reader in African history at Queen’s University, Belfast, who has traced the group’s origins to fringe mosques in Cabo Delgado, set up by Mozambican imams around 2007.
At first, al-Shabaab was an Islamist sect, Morier-Genoud explains, seeking “to live under Sharia law by withdrawing from society”. But during the 2010s the group sought to impose its puritanical will upon the province’s population: blocking alcohol sales, opposing secular education, and preventing women from leaving their homes. Confrontations with mainstream Muslim leaders, local government and the police followed, and were eventually met with armed force from al-Shabaab.
By October 2017, the group had shifted from withdrawal to outright confrontation, announcing itself with a raid on police posts 50 miles south of Palma. The government responded with round-ups and human rights abuses, and al-Shabaab’s attacks have since, in turn, grown in number, sophistication and brutality. At least 780 civilians were killed in Cabo Delgado last year, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Database, which tracks violence – the vast majority by the Islamists.
Today, the group’s violence is performative as well as tactical: civilians are not simply killed, they are beheaded and their corpses desecrated. But insurgents do not have a monopoly on savagery, says Mozambique-based anthropologist Bernhard Weimer, and this context of local political violence arguably better explains the current conflict’s barbarism than inspiration from jihadists abroad.
According to a recent report by rights group Amnesty International, government troops engaged in fighting al-Shabaab have summarily executed suspected sympathisers, filled mass graves and raped women. The Amnesty report alleges that operatives of Dyck Advisory Group, a South African private military company hired by the Mozambican government, have fired into crowds from aircraft. When insurgents took cover in a hospital, the mercenaries attacked the facility from their helicopters, Amnesty claims.
“The people of Cabo Delgado are caught between the Mozambican security forces, the private militia fighting alongside the government and the armed opposition group locally known as ‘al-Shabaab’ – none of which respect their right to life, or the rules of war,” says Deprose Muchena, Amnesty’s regional director for east and southern Africa. “All three have committed war crimes.”
The true role of IS in Mozambique remains murky, as do any aspirations to global jihad emanating from rural Cabo Delgado. Last year’s Global Terrorism Index, compiled by the Sydney-based Institute for Economic and Peace, identified a “shift to sub-Saharan Africa” by the Islamic State and a resulting “surge in terrorism”. Yet according to Mahtani, the conflict in northern Mozambique remains, for now, more “significantly influenced” by the specific conditions of the Swahili coast, where a long history of links to Arab trade and jihadi preaching, alongside an illicit economy, have created their own conditions for unrest.
Perhaps the strongest evidence to emerge so far of direct IS engagement with al-Shabaab comes from United Nations investigators who last year said Mohamed Ahmed “Qahiye”, an IS commander from northern Somalia described as a “veteran military operator”, had travelled to Mozambique in early 2020.
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What is clear, however, is that al-Shabaab is growing in size, power and ambition. Estimated to number at least several hundred fighters, its members have graduated from machetes to machine guns and mortars, likely stolen from government caches. Its aim of establishing an Islamist government in Mozambique has also grown more defined. Morier-Genoud says a useful comparison is with Boko Haram in Nigeria, which also began as a religious sect before morphing into a militant force that attracted the attention of both IS and al-Qaeda.
The homegrown Islamic protest movement in northern Mozambique is now metastasizing, along with the crisis it caused. As international pressure and influence continue to mount, its insurgency is threatening to slip its local moorings for good. Whether or not it develops into a still greater threat to both the country and region will depend on how the Mozambican government and the wider world choose to respond.
Tristan McConnell is a writer and foreign correspondent living in Nairobi, Kenya.