MS Risk Blog

Cabo Delgado’s insurgency: SADC’s moment to shine?

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Cabo Delgado, Mozambique’s northernmost province has been besieged by what was a slow-growing Islamist insurgency since October 2017. In the last nine months, the conflict has evolved from inconsistent largely opportunistic attacks with limited capacity that lacked sophistication, to a noticeable upscale in the frequency of attacks, capacity and sophistication. Approximately 1,495 people have been killed since 2017 and around 250,000 people have been internally displaced. This underpins the situation in Cabo Delgado as a growing security and humanitarian crisis, one that forced President Filipe Nyusi to shift from actively denying that there was a growing insurgency, to reluctantly acknowledging the conflict in May 2020 after soldiers were killed during heavy fighting with the insurgents. The growing momentum of the insurgency is increasing the likelihood of regional overspill, and without regional military support, substantial financial commitments, a coherent counter-terrorism strategy and meaningful structural reform of the Mozambican forces the situation within the next 6 months is likely to escalate.

The group responsible for this campaign of terror is Ahlu Sunna Wa-Jamma (ASWJ). They have also been referred to by several other names including Al-Shabaab, although there are no formal links with the Somalian regional terror group of the same name. Little is known about the shadowy group, except that they have links to the Islamic State (IS) group and have over the last nine months become more emboldened. Their March 2020 pre-dawn attacks on the towns of Mocimboa da Praia and Quissanga signalled a notable shift in tactics and illustrated a growing confidence with the display of more sophisticated capabilities, after they occupied Mocimboa da Praia for a day. This attack was notable because it was the first time the group hoisted its flag, which signalled formal links to Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP). It also made known its ambitions for Sharia Law in Mozambique via a video they filmed during the attack. There have been a number of further attacks that IS has taken credit for, despite this, the degree of affiliation these two groups have with each other remains contested. The scale and scope of ASWJ’s overall aims remain ambiguous, although their repeated attacks in the area, and most recently the capture of the strategic port town of Mocimboa da Praia after over five days of intense fighting with government forces on 12 August, provides a glimpse into the group’s near-term goals. The strategic targeting of Mocimboa da Praia suggests the group is currently focused on consolidating its coastal base instead of expanding the reach of its geographical presence. This latest attack by the insurgents underscores their increased capabilities and operational sophistication and indicates the group has developed adequate supply lines and manpower to sustain operations for an extended period.

Although ASWJ have demonstrated increased capacity and capability that poses a credible threat, the escalation of events should also take into account that since the Covid-19 pandemic took root across sub-Saharan Africa, extremist groups have been leveraging the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to intensify attacks and increase civilian support. U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) commander Stephen Townsend warned in April 2020 that “al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab and ISIS have announced that they see this crisis as an opportunity to further their terrorist agenda.” The exploitation of Covid-19 by extremists groups in sub-Saharan Africa is of particular importance in the Mozambican context, because it reinforces the reality that although the majority of the physical conflict is currently isolated to Cabo Delgado, the problem itself has regional implications and will require a regional response, most likely from the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

The dispensation of regional assistance from SADC, sooner rather than later, is important for a number of reasons. The insurgency as it stands bears the hallmarks of the initially unchecked growth of similar terror groups in sub-Saharan Africa like Boko Haram, where the window of opportunity to contain the group in its infancy  was initially missed due to a lack of a coherent counter-terror strategy, adequate funding of military forces and a coordinated regional approach. Although the evolution of any terror group will bear its own unique markers due to a variety of factors that fuel the conflict, the similarities with the case of Nigeria’s army in the initial stages of fighting the Boko Haram insurgency and Mozambique’s current predicament cannot be ignored by the Mozambican leadership or SADC. There are lessons to be learned from the Nigerian, Mali and Sahel region experiences, where extremists groups were allowed to develop, due to similar issues facing Mozambique.

So far, in order to stave off the advancing insurgency, the Mozambican government has sought help from private military contractors (PMC) such as the Russian Wagner Group and more recently South African based, Dyck Advisory Group (DAG). The utilisation of PMCs  may provide immediate combat support to an escalating situation, however based on the most recent capture of the port of Mocimboa da Praia, this quick remedy is fast becoming little more than an added expense, with a low prospect of remaining a sustainable solution in the face of an increasingly aggressive  and agile insurgency that could soon eclipse the capabilities of Mozambique’s defence forces.

The signing of a Liquid Natural Gas Project with Exxon Mobil and Total, worth an estimated US$50 billion also makes the Afungi Peninsula, which is located just South of Mocimboa da Praia, an increasingly likely target for attacks. This stands to potentially jeopardize the LNG project, because opportunistic attacks on operators, such as the killing of eight workers of a private construction company this June, will likely increase in frequency over the next six months. Further to this, disruptions to supply lines are likely continue as ASWJ targets key infrastructure installations across Cabo Delgado. The fact that part of the signed LNG project deal includes Total providing logistical support to a newly established joint task force to guarantee the protection of its planned onshore liquified natural gas project, strongly indicates that whatever counter-insurgency efforts the Mozambican government had put in, has not been enough and will almost likely require regional support.

For SADC the insurgency in Mozambique is an opportunity for southern African countries to test the effectiveness of their regional strategies against terrorism. Furthermore, under the Chairmanship of Mozambique, SADC has a real chance at putting into practise its August 2020 commitment to support Mozambique in addressing terrorism and violent attacks. The SADC principle of non-interference in the affairs of the states may have presented an issue for previous Chairs of SADC, especially because the only support Mozambique had requested from its neighbours was better border control, in its reluctance to request regional assistance. However, what is increasingly more pertinent is the principle of collective security under which President Nyusi’s chairmanship SADC has the opportunity for a better-coordinated regional response to the Cabo Delgado crisis

SADC, like a number multinational organisation, has sometimes been in the past viewed as an institution that is all bark and no bite due to the competing interplay between the principles of collective security and non-interference. Making a success out of the Cabo Delgado crisis is another opportunity to highlight a positive gain in the area of counterterrorism for Mozambique and the region. More so, because the Covid-19 pandemic puts limitation the amount of international military assistance that could be offered, therefore the Cabo Delgado crisis could be SADC’s moment to shine in the area of regional responses for counterterrorism.