Countering Islamist Insurgency in Northern Mozambique Requires New Approach

19 August 2020 Leighton G. Luke, Research Manager, Indo-Pacific Research Programme


The capture of the northern port town of Mocímboa da Praia by the ISIS-affiliated militant group Islamic State Central Africa Province, on 12 August in an attack that began on 5 August, represents a considerable extension of the group’s capacity to challenge the Mozambican state. The government has pledged to restore order, but the military is yet to retake the town.


The northernmost province of Mozambique, Cabo Delgado and its offshore gas fields are the centre to both a three-year long Islamist insurgency and a developing liquefied natural gas industry that has the potential to generate significant wealth.

Once operational, the gas fields and their onshore and floating processing facilities that are being developed by ExxonMobil, Total and Eni, are worth US$60 billion and, with exports of 31 million metric tonnes per annum, are predicted to equate to about ten per cent of the current global LNG market.

Unfortunately for its residents, the majority of whom are Muslim, Cabo Delgado is among the poorest provinces of Mozambique and has among the worst rates of unemployment, poverty and illiteracy in the country. Until the discovery of the gas fields, the province was largely neglected by the government, after which, decisions such as the forced removal of people from their land, fed into a degree of initial support for the insurgents among some locals.

Although it is often referred to as al-Shabaab by locals, the Islamic State Central Africa Province has no connection to the al-Shabaab militants of Somalia. Thought to have been in existence since 2007, the group adopted an explicitly jihadist ideology in 2016 and have launched numerous attacks against Mocímboa da Praia itself and towns in the region, sometimes up to 200 kilometres away.

In addition to Islamic State Central Africa Province, Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama is one of the largest of a number of militant groups that are active in Cabo Delgado. Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama has carried numerous attacks and ambushes in the area since October 2017. While the various cells do not appear to be co-ordinating their efforts in any way, and are essentially rivals, taken together, their actions are having a destabilising effect that has killed more than 1,500 people and left more than 250,000 displaced. More have reportedly left the northernmost areas for the safety of the provincial capital, Pemba, over 300 kilometres to the south by road.

The militant groups’ primary victims have been local civilians, but police and government officials and defence force personnel, together with small numbers of expatriates working in the region’s developing energy sector, have also been killed. Infrastructure, schools, hospitals and government and religious buildings are frequently damaged in such attacks. The current attack is the third assault on Mocímboa da Praia, home to around 30,000 inhabitants, this year.

As the latest attack demonstrates, the situation in Cabo Delgado has again escalated. If it is to be stopped, a concerted and holistic approach is called for. The Mozambican Government and its partners will need to combine security measures, while also working with Tanzania to improve security along the shared border, with development initiatives that improve the quality of governance in the area and increase, among other factors, educational and employment opportunities – particularly for marginalised youth – and child and maternal health standards.

One way of ensuring that the people of Cabo Delgado actually benefit from the income generated by the gas fields could be the establishment of a development fund, which is properly regulated to prevent the wealth from simply disappearing into the national accounts or being siphoned off into the pockets of individuals. But the development needs across all of Mozambique are so great that finding the right balance of regional and national allocations will be vital.

Assistance from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) may yet be forthcoming, as Article 6 (1) of the SADC Mutual Defence Pact specifies that ‘an armed attack against a state party shall be considered a threat to regional peace and security and such an attack shall be met with immediate collective action.’ Article 9 authorises greater defence co-operation, including training and intelligence sharing, all of which will also be needed.

An SADC intervention is possible, but according to the organisation’s own rules regarding defence and security, it can only come after ‘concrete data’ is submitted by an affected government, which also specifies the nature of the assistance required and that is then approved by the SADC. Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi asked his fellow SADC leaders in May 2020 for their assistance, but the lack of assistance has been damning and contributes to both the ongoing violence and the continued use by the Mozambican Government of private Russian and South African defence contractors in Cabo Delgado.

While several SADC states do have capabilities that would be appropriately deployed to Cabo Delgado, in this case, the two most likely candidates would be regional powerhouse South Africa and neighbouring Tanzania, which has also experienced militant attacks in areas bordering Cabo Delgado.

Assuming, on 17 August, the rotating annual presidency of the SADC from Tanzania, may aid Mozambique in securing assistance [in Portuguese] from regional partners, particularly South Africa. While South Africa will absolutely not want to see the insurgency worsen in intensity or spread any further, the appetite in Pretoria for a troop deployment is by no means clear. A primary concern is likely to be that the situation could easily descend into something similar to other anti-insurgency campaigns underway elsewhere across Africa, from Somalia to the Sahel, with depressingly similar success rates. The time available, however, in which to effectively address the violence in Cabo Delgado is likely to get closer to running out with each newer, larger attack.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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