MS Risk Blog

Insurgency to Continue in Cabo Delgado

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Cabo Delgado, Mozambique’s northernmost province, is in the midst of a slow-growing Islamist insurgency with the districts of Mocimboa de Praia, Palma, Montepuez and Macomia most affected. The unrest looks set to continue into the new year and beyond.  In the close of the previous year a reported 65,000 people were displaced and over 600 people are estimated to have been killed as a result of the spreading violence which began in October 2017.  The group’s modus operandi so far has been fairly unsophisticated, although in recent months this has expanded from attacks mainly targeting civilians with remote village raids, burning down of homes and businesses, killing residents with machetes and occasionally firearms; to abductions, beheadings, raiding of police stations, ambushes along major roads and increased violent clashes with government defences forces and contracted mercenary groups. While the month-to-month pace of attacks has been inconsistent, there has been a general increase in violence over the past year, particularly in the months leading up to the close of the year, suggesting a growing confidence among the militants. The reported beheading of 10 members of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group on 25 Nov 2019 is an example of the shadowy insurgency’s increasing operational boldness.

Still at an early infancy, the exact origins or who the insurgents are is unknown. Despite their increased activity, the motives, ideology and objectives of the militants remain unclear, largely due to a lack of public statements from the group, however it is likely that the group is looking to create a new social order that could afford them greater economic and political power. Although there are no formal links with local, regional or international extremist networks, including Somalian regional terror group Al-Shabaab, the insurgents are known locally as ‘Al-Shabaab’. There have been reports that the Islamic State (IS) is said to be operating in Northern Mozambique under the umbrella of its so-called Central Africa Province Branch which it declared in April 2019, however there has been no verified collaboration or merger between the two groups. The insurgent group has been referred to by several other names including, ‘Ahlu Sunna Wa-Jamma’ (ASWJ). Mozambique’s ‘Al-Shabaab’ or ASWJ, is the radical activist sect that split off from a sub-organisation within the Islamic Council of Mozambique, called “Ansaru-Sunna” formed in the 2000’s. The insurgency is most likely rooted in the historically unequal distribution of political and economic power among the predominant ethnic groups in the province. Although Cabo Delgado is wealthy in natural resources such as gas, oil and minerals, it ranked among Mozambique’s poorest provinces.

ASWJ may not have any established motives or objectives, however their most recent activities indicate that further violence can be expected at least in the Cabo Delgado province over the next 6 months. In light of the wider instability that is affecting Mozambique, from its environmental crisis to the continued unrest being propagated by the opposition Renamo’s break away dissident faction, ASWJ is likely to seek to take advantage of, and build on its own momentum it has created in Cabo Delgado in recent months. The ‘strategic retreat’ which it reportedly forced the Russian mercenary Wagner group to take on 25 November 2019 was a symbolic victory that signalled the insurgent group’s capability of diversifying their modus operandi and taking on other targets that are not limited to civilians or remote villages. On 5 December 2019, further attacks were launched on the country’s defence and security forces where at least 18 people died and on 19 December 2019 it was reported that ASWJ had been raiding police property in order to enable them carry out their attacks in Cabo Delgado. The operational tactics may have remained fairly unsophisticated, however ASWJ has become more brazen with their attacks while the government has been very slow in combating this, and there are a number of factors for this. The first is that the government’s party line was an initial denial of an Islamic insurgency in favour of holding onto the belief that opposition Renamo’s break away militant faction ‘Military Junta’ was responsible for the attacks. This has not been helped by the fact that threats of violence by Military Junta have been issued and on 28 December 2019 Military Junta took responsibility for the attacks on vehicles travelling through the centre of the country, which resulted in 10 deaths. In response the government deployed army escorts to address that issue. President Nyusi on 19 December 2019, made a pledge to end the insurgent attacks, however since the insurgent attacks began in October 2017 the primary use of the military  as a means to weaken the militants has proven to have little impact on the group’s capabilities.  Without a clear government strategy aimed at addressing the insurgency in Cabo Delgado, the violence is likely to continue and potentially escalate if the group is not contained in its infancy. Currently ASWJ does not appear to be competing with a rival armed group for dominance in Cabo Delgado, while on the other hand, the government is dividing its defence resources between dealing with the armed groups in Central Mozambique as well as in Cabo Delgado, this is another factor that is likely see the violence continue as the insurgency takes advantage of the opportunity. The north, like other parts of Mozambique, is still recovering from the devastation caused by Cyclone Kenneth, added to this that Mozambique is within the region of Southern Africa that is facing severe drought and is likely to enable ASWJ to enact strategic violence in the Cabo Delgado province. The province’s long history of marginalization by the state is not likely to be addressed in under 6 months and the lack of accessibility to the region gives the militants in Cabo Delgado a strategic advantage for the foreseeable future.