Cabo Delgado Province (CDP) Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP)
The greatest security concern in Mozambique is the growing Islamic insurgency in the country’s northern Cabo Delgado Province (CDP). By mid-2021 Nearly 3,000 people had been killed and almost 800,000 – half of whom were children – had been forced from their homes in gas-rich Cabo Delgado province since the conflict began in 2017. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) stated in November 2020 that there has been a four-fold increase of displaced people in Cabo Delgado to more than 355,000 from some 88,000 earlier in 2020. By the end of 2020, more than 2,200 people had been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.
What started as a homegrown threat in October 2017, likely emboldened by Tanzania-based extremist leaders, has evolved into a more organized insurgency, and was officially recognized by the Islamic State (IS) as an affiliate organization in June 2019. IS now provides support to the combatants in northern Mozambique and frequently claims credit for their attacks. The violence has resulted in an estimated 930 deaths and led to more than 150,000 internally displaced persons in Cabo Delgado Province (CDP). The IS-affiliate has carried out hundreds of deliberate attacks against unarmed civilians, creating a high risk for atrocities committed by the violent extremist organization.
The Islamic State-affiliate primarily operates in CDP, which is also the site of the major LNG investments being led by Total and the ENI/ExxonMobil consortium, but maintains networks in neighboring Niassa and Nampula provinces, and has proven capable of attacking villages in southern Tanzania. In early 2019, the insurgents killed a contractor associated with the LNG project and there have since been several other victims among LNG company staff. However, to date, the insurgents’ target remains villages and government forces and institutions. While the violence has not directly impacted the LNG project site, it has raised costs and put a damper on follow-on investments in CDP that could provide services to the projects in a more permissive security environment. Mozambique’s military and police forces have often proved ineffective in defending many communities in CDP. While the GRM is in need of outside military assistance, the continued use of private military companies risks further aggravating local grievances.
Cabo Delgado province has been in the grips of a rebellion fueled by perceived neglect of the region by the national government. Islamist rebels linked to the "Islamic State" group have been exploiting the unrest, carrying out brutal attacks and recruiting disillusioned youth as they try to establish an Islamic caliphate in the region. Mozambique’s army struggled to contain the fighters, who have regularly beaten back the country’s security forces and air support from a private military group to capture and hold key locations during violent raids. Emboldened, the fighters have recently expanded their sphere of operation north into Tanzania, crossing the Rovuma River that marks the border between the two countries to carry out raids on villages in Tanzania’s Mtwara region.
The violence in gas-rich Cabo Delgado began in October 2017 when members of an armed group, which later pledged allegiance to ISIL, attacked police stations in the key port town of Mocimboa da Praia. The attacks in Cabo Delgado spread to seven districts, or about a third of the province's territory.
Mozambique and Tanzania signed a memorandum of understanding 23 Nov 2020 to join efforts in the battle against an escalating armed campaign by ISIL-linked fighters in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique’s northernmost province. The agreement, sealed by the two countries’ police forces during the weekend, includes the extradition of 516 fighters from Tanzania to its southern neighbour. Islamist militants attacked several villages in Cabo Delgado province in northern Mozambique, allegedly beheading more than 50 people, state media and police said on 09 November 2020. "They set the houses on fire and then hunted down people who had fled into the woods and began their macabre action," a police officer told a press conference. Witnesses told local media that the militants had driven residents of one village onto a football pitch before murdering them there. The militants also reportedly abducted women and children.
In late March 2020, Mocimboa da Praia and Quissanga, two small towns in the province of Cabo Delgado, were assaulted and besieged by militants reportedly affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) terror group. The militants briefly took control of government buildings within 48 hours and raised their flag in both towns before retreating. Despite leaving Quissanga, the insurgents still control small nearby villages and say they will not leave [as long as] state military forces aren’t present.
Several radical militant groups have been active in Cabo Delgado in recent years, including Ansar al-Sunna, which has been responsible for terror attacks against civilians and government forces in northern Mozambique. The group is known locally as al-Shabab, although they have no known links to the armed group of that name operating in Somalia, and it also goes by Ahlu al-Sunna and Swahili Sunna.Since 2017, militants affiliated with the group have carried out attacks in the Muslim-majority gas-rich region.
Mozambique admitted on 24 April 2020 for the first time the presence of ISIL-affiliated fighters in the country amid escalating attacks in the gas-rich Cabo Delgado northern province, according to a statement. The public acknowledgement came just days after police reported a "massacre" of 52 villagers who had refused to be recruited into the ranks of the shadowy group that has terrorised the region's villages and towns for more than two years.
Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP), affiliated with ISIL, had claimed some of the attacks in the region since June 2019 posting images of killed soldiers and seized weapons. In recent weeks, the fighters unmasked themselves, openly declaring their campaign to establish an "Islamist caliphate" in the gas-rich region. They have been scaling up their attacks, seizing government buildings, blocking roads and temporarily hoisting their black-and-white flag over towns and villages across the province.
While Mozambican authorities insisted the security situation in northern Mozambique remained under control, observers believed that government armed forces had failed to provide adequate security. In April 2020, the militants shot dead and beheaded more than 50 youths when they allegedly refused to join them. Islamist insurgents captured a strategic port in the restive province of Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique. The insurgents reportedly took control of the port after a Mozambican naval force defending the vicinity ran out of ammunition. The takeover of the port of Mocimboa da Praia on 12 August 2020 came after five days of fierce clashes between the insurgents and Mozambican security forces. The private South African military unit of the Dyck Advisory Group, which provides air support to the Mozambican government in combating insurgents, tried to join the battle. But its involvement was minimal, due to a helicopter refueling stop in Pemba, Cabo Delgado’s provincial capital.
The government has deployed thousands of soldiers to Cabo Delgado to combat the fighters, but analysts have long cautioned that Mozambique’s army has historically been weak, poorly trained and underequipped.
On 23 June 2021 the Southern African Development Community (SADC) said it had agreed to deploy troops to Mozambique to help it tackle escalating violence in the country’s north – but offered little specific operational details. SADC Executive Secretary Stergomena Tax said at the end of a one-day summit in Maputo the 16-member bloc of southern African countries had “approved” the deployment of a “Standby Force in support of Mozambique to combat terrorism and acts of violent extremism in Cabo Delgado”.
The standby force is part of a regional defence pact that allows military intervention to prevent the spread of conflict. The communique after the meeting of the bloc’s leaders provided no further details on how many troops would be involved, when they would be deployed or what their role would be, adding only that humanitarian aid must be channelled to those most in need.
While some members, like South Africa, have pushed for military action, others were reportedly more reticent. Mozambique President Filipe Nyusi himself has historically been resistant to foreign boots on the ground. The countries that will be involved will most likely be those with the capability to do so, such as regional economic powerhouse South Africa or countries such as Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola that have participated in other deployments in the past. Whatever troops go in, they will help Mozambique by perhaps patrolling the Indian Ocean coastline and the border areas with Tanzania – where some of these insurgents are thought to be coming from.
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