In October 2017, a hitherto unknown group of insurgents occupied the dusty port town of Mocímboa da Praia in Northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province and held it for two days, until chased away by police. They stole weapons and disappeared into the bush.

Since then, the group, referred to variously as Ansar al-Sunna (Soldiers or Followers of the Tradition) or more generally, simply as “al-Shabaab”, (The Youth) has steadily increased its attacks on civilian centres and military and police forces in the province. Al-Shabaab is coincidentally the name of the terrorist groups that have effectively turned Somalia into a failed state, but no link is known between the two.

The group graduated from attacks against police stations and shops to massacres of villagers and attacks on towns, capturing and holding Mocímboa da Praia in March 2020. In this attack, the insurgents hit the port from both land and sea. However, instead of massacring the population, they initially handed out food.

Observers state that the group has become more sophisticated, and its world headline-grabbing occupation of the town of Palma, in March 2021 indicated careful planning, with a three-pronged attack. They attacked the police station, then the banks and repelled Mozambican troops with what the latter described as “heavy weapons” — likely heavy machine guns and Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs).  This was followed by destruction of the town’s limited infrastructure and targeted killing of victims, then an attack on the nearby Amarula Hotel, killing a number of expatriates working on the nearby Afungi natural gas project. They approached the Afungi project, run by French oil giant Total, then withdrew from Palma.

ISIS infiltrates Southern Africa

So, who is this “Al-Shabaab”? Where do they come from and is it time to panic that ISIS has spread its tentacles into Southern Africa, as many in the EU and the US would have you believe? The short answer is “no”, but that does not mean Shabaab are not a problem. This problem lies in the modern reality of Mozambique, and that is explained by its recent history.

Portugal, which ruled Mozambique as Portuguese East Africa for about four centuries after displacing Arab and other Muslim rulers, considered its colonies in Africa, such as Guinea Bissau, Cabinda, Angola and Mozambique to be overseas provinces of the mother country. Compared to the 15th to the early 16th centuries, when Portuguese explorers were in the vanguard of maritime and cannon technology, the country had fallen behind northern European nations by 1900, and had become a poor, mainly agricultural nation.

This impacted its overseas provinces, which saw only very minimal development, such as one major railway in Angola, and two modern ports in Mozambique (Lourenco Marques, now Maputo and Beira). Most people remained illiterate, with most of the engineers, technicians and other educated people being of Portuguese origin. The country fought very hard for its “Ultramarine” provinces, losing thousands of men in the 14-year-long conflict.

Unlike in other former provinces, only one major anti-colonial group fought in Mozambique, the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO). This group was overtly Communist, and this would later impact Mozambique very negatively.

In 1974, the so-called Carnation Revolution, which overthrew the right-wing dictatorship, threw Portugal into a state of coup and countercoup and ongoing instability for two years. During this time, the Portuguese (often egged on by anti-colonial forces) simply abandoned their overseas territories overnight, and in the case of Mozambique, FRELIMO gave Portuguese, many of whom had lived in the region for generations, an ultimatum to leave or join. This led to hundreds of thousands of Portuguese fleeing to Rhodesia, South Africa and of course to Portugal, leaving Mozambique with effectively no engineers, administrators, or teachers.

FRELIMO rapidly implemented its program of Communist “re-education”, sending at least 100,000 city-dwellers to poorly organised re-education camps. Those who managed to dodge the wild animals and survive in the wilds of the bush formed the core of the Mozambique National Resistance, RENAMO.

According to a former Rhodesian SAS officer, they soon got in touch with neighbouring Rhodesia. That country objected to FRELIMO’s giving sanctuary to the Zimbabwe African National Union’s faction led by Robert Mugabe. Unlike some other factions, they were dedicated to Maoist Communism and were welcomed by FRELIMO. Rhodesia, not surprisingly, sent missions to attack their bases and began training RENAMO. This in turn led to a civil war situation in Mozambique which officially ended in 1992 but broke out again in 2013-2019.

Widespread corruption

The civil war destroyed much of the infrastructure left behind by the Portuguese, leaving the country even poorer. But that’s not all. Political corruption, which is extreme even by African standards, is possibly the country’s biggest problem. According to The Africa Report, some US$600-800 million worth of heroin passes through Mozambique. It comes from Afghanistan through Pakistan and by means of dhows to northern Mozambique. The website says three drug “families” run this trade.  Interestingly, all have Muslim names and close links to Arabia and Pakistan. More concerning is that the government is implicated both directly in the trade and in turning a blind eye to it.

Unfortunately, Mozambique’s military is very simply not up to engaging, let alone defeating, the insurgents. Before the Palma attack there were some firefights between the two, with Mozambique seeking help from private military contractors. First, the secretive Russian Wagner Group, which was unable to help judging by reports, and then Mozambique called on the South African Dyck Advisory Group. The trouble with the latter was they only had some four Aérospatiale Alouette III helicopters and were in fact advisors. Had it not been for them, it is likely even more would have died in the attack on Palma town and the hotel.

Although the failure of the Mozambican Armed Defence Forces (FADM) was most starkly highlighted in the taking of Palma and the advance on Afungi, military observers were deeply concerned by their performance in June 2020, when Al-Shabaab attacked Mocímboa da Praia again. The attacks started by insurgents taking outlying towns and roads leading into the town, then taking the town by land and sea in what was described as a well-planned attack. They defeated local Mozambican forces, and when the FADM attempted to re-take the town, they repelled elite marines and destroyed a specialised trimaran ocean-going ship, a French-built HV-32 Interceptor. The fighting lasted from late June to August 11, when the remaining Mozambican military were withdrawn by sea.

This resulted in Mozambique turning for help to the EU and the US. The EU promised assistance, with Portugal offering training, and the US sending a Special Forces “A-Team” of 12 men to train Mozambican Marines. This training ended in May this year and precisely how effective it was remains to be seen. (The training has been renewed since August 9.)

African nations pitch in

This raises the question of why Mozambique did not immediately turn to its neighbours and partners in the Southern African Development Community (SADC, generally pronounced “SADEC” locally.) Following the Rwandan genocide, African leaders realised they could not rely only on outside assistance in such cases and set up the African Union Standby Force. Their website puts it like this:

The Constitutive Act gives the AU the right to intervene in a Member State in grave circumstances, namely war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.  As per Article 13 of the Protocol Relating to the Establishment of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union, the ASF is based on standby arrangements with Africa’s five sub-regions. 

SADC is supposed to contribute a Standby Brigade to this force in its “sub-region” (read “region”) and Mozambique, right until after the Palma attack, would not turn to its regional partners. However, following the attack, France’s Total energy giant withdrew from its 20 billion Euro investment in Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) on the Afungi Peninsula, less than 50 kilometres from Palma, declaring Force Majeur and offering to return when the security situation had stabilised. The natural gas was the biggest find ever in Africa and would have been the single biggest international investment on the continent.

And still the Mozambican government took its time.

Eventually, after the surprise arrival and deployment of 700 Rwandan soldiers and 300 policemen, Mozambique finally acquiesced to the Standby Force’s arrival. It was surprising because Rwanda is not part of SADC. The SADC force, known as SAMIM, is now slowly arriving, and deploying in Mozambique. As the governments are not informing the public, reporters are relying on sightings and Rwandan government media conferences. So far, Rwandan Army elements have deployed to Cabo Delgado and have re-taken small towns near Mocímboa da Praia as well as the port itself, with some assistance from the Mozambican military. Significantly, the insurgents did not put up a fight, although they damaged recently repaired infrastructure heavily before leaving.

The South African parliament recently approved a force of some 1,500 troops, while Botswana has reportedly begun deploying some 1,000. A South African is in overall command of SAMIM and a Botswanan is the “2iC” (second-in-command). Angola has promised some 20 advisors. Zimbabwe has sent a similar number and Tanzania has tightened up its border on the Rovuma River, which also the northern boundary of Cabo Delgado Province. Namibia, Zambia, Democratic Republic of Congo and some others seem very hesitant to send troops or simply need help themselves.

Given this somewhat confused situation among the political-military leadership, it is worth looking at just who this Al Shabaab is and what kind of outcome can be expected for Mozambique and the region?

Who are these insurgents?

Panicky claims from US and EU quarters would have you believe they are “ISIS-Mozambique”, but while there is a link, it seems tenuous. True, the group (or groups) swore allegiance to ISIS in 2019 and have killed around 3,000 people and made around 800,000 people homeless, but it is more likely that they are influenced by preachers from Tanzania and Kenya up the former Swahili Coast.

A name that stands out is that of Aboud Rogo Mohammed, who was linked to Somalia’s “Youth” and killed in Kenya in 2012, but whose influence is said to have spread to individuals who studied in Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Tanzania and who have received military training there.

Mozambique is a Christian majority nation, but close to 20 percent of the population are Muslims, most in the northern coastal provinces. Also, while the official language is Portuguese, most in Cabo Delgado speak Swahili, which puts them closer, culturally, to the north. Furthermore, Cabo Delgado is the poorest province in Mozambique, itself one of the 25 poorest nations on earth and in Africa. Observers say the perception in the province is that the central government, based in Maputo on the other end of the country, does not care about the people there.

The discovery of vast natural gas reserves offshore and along the coast meant that Mozambique could get a share of some US$60 billion worth of natural gas, bringing interest from energy giants like Total, Exxon Mobil, Chevron and BP as well as Japan’s Mitsui, Malaysia’s Petronas and China’s CNPC.

But previous experience in the province and the experience of other African nations like Nigeria, where oil finds have benefitted investors and the government but not locals in the Niger River Delta and the conviction that they will see nothing of the profits, resentment and anger are not surprising. Add to that the differences in ethnicity, language and religion and mix in the Islamist ideology, which portrays the rule by Sharia as being a kind of heaven on earth, and the fact of angry young men taking up arms cannot be too surprising.

Clearly, the answers to the problem, if there are to be answers and not just knee-jerk reactions, must be two-pronged. First, the neglect and destitution must be addressed; humanitarian aid in the short term and development, including schools, clinics, and sources of income for locals are an absolute must. However, the use of fear and the call of Islamist utopianism will remain strong unless the insurgents are also defeated militarily. This will not be easy.

Military analysis

Cabo Delgado Province is over 82,000 square kilometres with a population of almost 2.5 million, and is largely flat with a small mountainous outcrop in the north. It is, however, heavily forested inland and has heavy tropical coastal vegetation including mangroves along the coast. In addition, the coastline is dotted with islets and small islands, perfect for smugglers and difficult to observe and patrol. Al Shabaab will have no problems hiding from the military in this kind of terrain.

So far, Rwandan and Mozambican forces, with some SAMIM assistance, have taken control of some key roads and junctions like Mueda and port towns including Mocímboa da Praia (called MdP locally) and Palma. However, all this will do is shift the insurgents into the heavy bush and off the coast, where they can resort to standard guerrilla tactics of ambushes and melting away into the bush. They can also use small boats from the sea to create mayhem.

This geographical situation will give all regular military forces problems with the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) function, and finding where the jihadists are will not be easy. The military will need to rely on its own intelligence capabilities and on a friendly population. This may be a problem given earlier events where poorly trained troops have assaulted local people. Troops with low discipline and morale might ask the whereabouts of the insurgents, and fearful villagers may well not tell them, which could invite reprisals against them, all of which would be grist to the insurgents’ mill. Sadly, Mozambican troops have a record of such behaviour and worse.

Then there is the traditional Swahili Coast smuggling route, in place for centuries and controlled only by British and Portuguese naval forces. Once they were gone, the routes between the Arabian Sea and East Africa were re-established, allowing smugglers the opportunity to move people, arms, drugs and illegal wildlife or wildlife parts such as ivory and rhino horn.

Currently, South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia have navies, while the French have a unit of the Foreign Legion and a small base on Mayotte in the Comoros Islands. Of the SADC navies, only the South Africans have ocean going capability. However, the other SADC countries have some inshore and patrol capabilities, which added to Tanzania’s inshore vessels and France’s ongoing agreement with the Comoros along with the French Floréal Class frigates based on Réunion Island, could create a serious obstacle for the Indian Ocean smuggling rings. This could cut off both material and spiritual-ideological support for the jihadist insurgents in Cabo Delgado.

Summarising the situation, it is definitely possible for the southern African nations, with some outside assistance (like that of Portugal or France) to eventually defeat the Al Shabaab insurgency. There are two major questions that remain open:

  • With the US self-inflicted defeat in Afghanistan, jihadists worldwide will receive both a boost in self-confidence as well as material benefits, including money and arms. This boost is very bad timing for the forces of law and order in Mozambique and the region.
  • Will the Mozambican authorities be prepared or even able to get rid of corruption and self-interest and move into a national way of thinking?

A very real danger exists for Mozambican military forces to create a kind of corridor from Palma-Afungi through Mueda inland to the next province south, Nampula, in order to safeguard the new natural gas investment. If this route is chosen, the insurgents could withdraw deep into the interior and carry on hit and run attacks indefinitely, causing the local population great suffering, while the foreign investors and the government (and those close to them) rake in the big money. This is still the case in Nigeria with the local people, like the Ogoni who protested their exclusion (as far back as 1992) and which flared into open violence in 2000, pitting groups like the Niger Delta Volunteer Force on the one hand and the government and the oil companies on the other. The conflict has still not been resolved.

Should Mozambique take the same route, they would create an ongoing insurgency for the foreseeable future. While wishing to remain hopeful, this is the most likely outcome as things stand. But perhaps wiser heads will prevail. After all, without hope there is not much to life, as some two millennia ago, Saint Paul wrote: “Hope does not disappoint.”

Living in Africa, sometimes hope is all we have.

Christopher Szabo is a freelance journalist in Pretoria, South Africa.