Portugal to Deploy Special Forces after Mozambique Attack

1 April 2021 Leighton G. Luke, Research Manager, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Sixty Portuguese Special Forces personnel will be deployed to Mozambique to help train their local counterparts in the wake of the largest and deadliest attack yet in the jihadist insurgency that is ravaging the LNG-rich province of Cabo Delgado.



The Portuguese Government has announced that it will deploy 60 Special Forces personnel [in Portuguese] to Mozambique in the wake of the largest and deadliest attack yet in the jihadist insurgency that is ravaging the northernmost province of Cabo Delgado. The troops will arrive in Mozambique during the first fortnight in April and will help to train their Mozambican counterparts.



The northern town of Palma, normally home to around 75,000 residents is now deserted, following the 24 March attack and subsequent three-day battle between the insurgents and security forces. The Palma attack left dozens of people dead and added thousands more to the nearly 700,000 people who have fled to safety in the swelling refugee camps in and around the province, particularly the provincial capital, Pemba, some 425 kilometres to the south. Prior to the attack, Palma had been a safe haven for people fleeing attacks elsewhere in Cabo Delgado province. Over 2,600 people have been killed since the violence began in October 2017.

The insurgents have evidently abandoned their earlier tactic of leaving local civilians relatively unharmed, choosing instead to largely focus their attacks on government officials, police officers and military personnel, as well as schools, hospitals, churches and government infrastructure. Now, however, the violence has escalated to the point where men, women and children alike are murdered, victims are frequently beheaded and entire villages destroyed.

The lengthy and co-ordinated attacks point to a growing sophistication, and sense of impunity, on the part of the insurgents. Going by the name of Islamic State Central Africa Province (IS-CAP), the insurgents are also known as “al-Shabaab”, although they are not believed to be linked to the Somali jihadists of the same name.

The choice of Palma as the site of the attack will have been a strategic decision on the part of the insurgents, as the town is located only ten kilometres from the base of onshore operations for the offshore Rovuma Basin liquefied natural gas development project. The project, which has French energy major Total as operator, is estimated to be worth as much as US$23 billion. If properly managed – and able to begin production in 2024, as planned – the revenue from the project has the ability to transform Mozambique. Unfortunately, corruption is endemic and the high poverty levels, limited opportunities and longstanding government neglect in Cabo Delgado have contributed to a deep sense of injustice in the province, which has fed into and drawn recruits to the ranks of the insurgency. It is for that reason that the insurgency is still generally considered to be more about local grievances and far less about establishing an Islamist caliphate. The ability to publicise such IS-CAP “successes” as the Palma and Mocímboa da Praia attacks, and that on Quirimba Island by the Ansar al-Sunna group, could see their numbers boosted by the arrival of foreign fighters who may be more committed to the notion of a caliphate.

The announcement from Lisbon – described as an ‘intensification of co-operation’ – follows the similar 15 March commitment from Washington, under which US marines will provide training to their Mozambican counterparts. Given the increasing attractiveness of energy infrastructure as a target, not to mention the apparent willingness of the insurgents to kill both foreigners and locals, France may be the next country to offer assistance.

While the Mozambican military will certainly benefit from the training provided by the US and Portuguese deployments, if a lasting solution to the violence is to be found, the local authorities will need to prioritise development as well as security.

The windfall from LNG exports presents just such an opportunity, but whether the Mozambican Government is comfortable with such an approach, particularly with production not due to begin for another three years, is very much unclear. In the meantime, with the end of the wet season and the success of the Palma attack, there seems little likelihood that the violence will soon ease.

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