MS Risk Blog

Cabo Delgado: Old insurgent, New tactic

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In recent weeks insurgent terror has once again besieged Cabo Delgado, Mozambique’s northernmost province, in what has been a spectacular display of brazen attacks, marking a notable shift in tactics by the shadowy insurgent group.

The group that goes by several monikers which include, Ahlu Sunna Wa-Jamma (ASWJ) and Al-Shabaab; though there is no formal connection to the Somalian regional terror group of the same name, has been responsible for up to 1,000 killings and the displacement of approximately 100, 000 people since October 2017. Since the rise of the insurgency, the violence has mainly been concentrated in the district of Mocimboa da Praia and the surrounding towns and territory within the province of Cabo Delgado, in what would have been described as a brutal low-intensity conflict. The operational tactics that marked this conflict had previously favoured the targeting of civilians with a penchant for widespread human rights abuses, relegating its modus operandi to a fairly unsophisticated and opportunist execution. The insurgents most recent activities point to a more pronounced ambition for territorial acquisition and infamy parallel to established terror groups like ISIS. The feasibility for ASWJ to achieve such a feat within the next 6 months to a year is unlikely. However, ASWJ’s demonstrated ability to widen its tactics and range of targets is indicative of a growing confidence and with the growing confidence is the increased likelihood for further brazen attacks against the state or other symbolic targets that help reinforce their newly stated ambitions for Sharia Law in Mozambique.

The 23 and 26 March pre-dawn attacks on Mocimboa da Praia and Quissanga respectively, were notable for a variety of reasons; first, they were the most daring assaults ASWJ had ever mounted since the beginning of their campaign of terror in October 2017.  In an audacious attack, the group struck Mocimboa da Praia by land and sea, hoisting its flag over police headquarters and exercising control over the area for one day. ASWJ launched a similar attack on the district capital of Quissanga. The violence which resulted in the death of about 20- 30 members of Mozambique’s security forces and the occupation of Mocimboa da Praia for a day, was largely focused on targeting government forces and property. There was a visible effort not to harm civilians and instead win their hearts and minds by redistributing stolen food, medicine and fuel to ‘loyal’ residents. The exercise seems to have been less of a violent escapade, but more of a coordinated PR stunt to demonstrate strength in taking on government forces and garner potential sympathy from the community which is likely to lead to success in recruiting more members. The timing of the attacks from a cynical standpoint could not have come at a more opportune moment; the amalgamation of a variety of factors, not necessarily connected to ASWJ, have enabled the group to stage their attacks and further their aim with relative impunity.

There have been a series of security issues that have competed for the Mozambican government’s priority leading to a lack of sustained focus in any one area, namely the COVID-19 pandemic which has resulted in the confirmation of at least 28 positive cases, with 14 cases in Cabo Delgado. The economy of Mozambique, much like others in Southern Africa, has not fared well in the wake of the virus outbreak, particularly the delayed launch of major Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) projects by oil companies like ExxonMobil and Total which is estimated to be worth $60 billion, is potentially a major setback to the economy. The practicality of lockdown in the country has not translated well with the local population where demographics, social structures and behaviours, and set-up of the economy mean more problems are being created rather than solved. Cabo Delgado is historically an economically challenged province and the uncertainty that the coronavirus breeds has distracted the government’s ability to focus wholeheartedly on the growing ASWJ crisis. Other factors that have resulted in a competing set of priorities for the government have been the two major Cyclones in 2019, that have left tens of thousands of people still in need of aid, one of the worst hit areas from Cyclone Kenneth in April 2019 was Cabo Delgado. The slow government response in addressing the matter of rebuilding the affected communities is likely to engender local support for ASWJ, as people seek to vent frustrations and garner quick solutions for their woes. The hearts and minds operation between 23 and 26 March stands as an example of ASWJ attempts to garner fealty from disenfranchised communities.  Furthermore, despite the government managing to broker a peace deal in August 2019 with the formerly hostile opposition party Renamo, its breakaway militant group, Renamo Military Junta, has sustained its own campaign of violence which has also been escalating in recent weeks and days. None of these secondary factors that the Mozambican government has to contend with are the result of any concerted effort in strategic sabotage or ambush by ASWJ, rather it appears as though this is another serendipitous set of circumstances that have enabled ASWJ  the opportunity to cause maximum damage as efficiently as possible in order to further their cause.

The 23 and 26 March attacks were significant also because the normally reclusive insurgent group made known  its aims by filming a video in front of the police headquarters in Quissanga where they rejected “the wealth of this world” and called for the fall of the Mozambican government with the implementation of Sharia law in the area. Prior to the ISIS flag hoist on 23 March, ASWJ’s affiliation with ISIS Central Africa Province had remained inconclusive, and apart from openly affiliating itself to ISIS, there is still very little that is known about ASWJ, its ultimate aims or how extensive this newly affirmed connection to ISIS is. It cannot be determined whether the group shares the same largescale territorial acquisition ambitions as ISIS. However, what is highly likely is that ASWJ has its sights set on controlling Cabo Delgado, access to its oil and gas reserves and being perceived as the benevolent alternative to an inattentive government in the local community. The donning of ISIS regalia does not necessarily translate to a complete merger with ISIS’s remaining core, rather more of a means to an end for ASWJ aims that remain largely ambiguous despite their latest public announcement.

The absence of a coherent government-led counterinsurgency strategy against the growing Islamist insurgency in Cabo Delgado may be the catalyst that is enabling the ASWJ’s growth in confidence.  The need for a restructured Mozambican military and security forces has never been more apparent as they face a complex, multi-layered and asymmetrical conflict. Although President Nyusi has acknowledged a need for foreign assistance, the type that been provided in the form of private contractors like the Russian mercenaries, the Wagner group, has proven ineffective, as they too have underestimated the complexity of the growing insurgency.  While there are no quick wins to solving the threat of increased Islamist insurgent activities in Cabo Delgado, a holistic government -led counterinsurgency strategy will need to be developed, and areas where foreign assistance would be most effective will need to be identified. What is emergent is that ASWJ is taking notes on the current shortcomings of the Mozambican government and using that to its advantage in order to find increasingly innovative and bolder tactics to further its aims.