The growing Islamist insurgency in northern Mozambique can only be stopped with a coordinated military and development effort involving African and Western countries or run the risk of deviating from control, experts have warned.
They argue that the incursion into the port city of Palma last month by the local group al-Shabaab, affiliated with the Islamic State, which killed dozens and displaced thousands, marks an important moment in the escalation of the conflict of four years.
“This is the first time foreign nationals have been attacked,” said Bulama Bukarti, a sub-Saharan terrorism analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, on the attack on the Amarula Hotel used by contractors working in vast multinational gas projects nearby.
Bukarti also highlighted the relative sophistication of the assault, with tactics targeting banks and warehouses (for money and food) derived from other Islamist groups in Africa.
“This outweighs other insurrections in Africa; It took Boko Haram six years in Nigeria to reach where this group has reached in three, “Bukarti added.” The situation is increasingly desperate and needs regional intervention from African nations with Western logistical support. “
The attack on Palma was launched on March 24 by about 100 fighters, who took control of the city, which has a population of approximately 75,000. Reports were circulated about the bodies beheaded in the streets, while a convoy of foreigners trying to flee was repeatedly ambushed. A Briton was among the dead. Eleven days later, the true number of deaths remains unknown, with internet and mobile networks disrupted.
Al-Shabaab insurgents emerged in Cape Delgado province in 2017, a historically neglected Muslim area in a Christian-majority country. Last year an estimated 1,600 died in the region, three times as many as in 2019, and in the worst incident, 50 villagers were beheaded on a football field.
A thousand kilometers from the capital, Maputo, the importance of the region skyrocketed with the discovery of natural gas in 2010. But while companies like France Total (which closed its operations in the area on Friday) and ExxonMobil in the United States have started trying to exploit resources, few benefits have been shared.
Although the al-Shabaab group is affiliated with Isis, which claimed credit for the deaths of 55 people, including those from the “crossed nations,” ties are weak. Experts believe the group shares tactics via Telegram and WhatsApp with al-Shabaab in Somalia and groups in West Africa, but their weapons and resources are obtained from attacks and the fighters are local.
However, Western military analysts conclude that the threat posed is becoming strategic. Last month, just before the Palma attack, senior British soldiers warned in private about the Mozambique crisis, which along with the conflicts in Yemen and Somalia are creating instability on the west coast of the Indian Ocean.
A recent reorganization of the UK Armed Forces highlighted the creation of Rangers, a second-tier special forces battalion designed to conduct training and combat operations to combat insurgency and modeling on U.S. green berets. . The idea is to offer an alternative to countries like Mozambique, which had unsuccessfully targeted Russian and other mercenaries to contain Al-Shabaab’s threat.
In August 2019, President Filipe Nyusi signed economic and security agreements with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Moscow. A month later 200 soldiers from Russia’s Wagner group arrived in the north of the country, but it was quickly learned that they were out of their depths, alarming Western investors in the gas fields.
They were replaced by the South African advisory group Dyck, an anti-poaching specialist who operated a handful of small attack helicopters. Dyck said he had rescued “a couple of hundred” when insurgents attacked Palma, but Amnesty International criticized him for taking part in indiscriminate shootings of civilians and military targets during previous al-Shabaab raids.
So far, the historically unaligned Maputo government has been reluctant to hire Western aid and has even downplayed the impact of the conflict. Nyusi said on Wednesday that the government would respond with “forcefulness”, but also described the assault on Palma as the largest the country had seen.
However, last month about a dozen green berets from the United States arrived in Mozambique to help train the country’s military in the fight against the Isis affiliate. After the attack on Palma, Portugal, the former colonial power, said it would send 60 soldiers on a similar mission. Diplomatic sources said the UK was considering making a similar offer.
The situation in Mozambique is complex. Amnesty also accuses Mozambique’s security forces of engaging in violent reprisals, including summary executions, when they have re-established control after previous raids, making future security associations potentially tense.
Alex Vines, who heads the Africa program at Chatham House, said that “it seems that the Mozambican government has accepted that it cannot manage the crisis through private security contractors, although it still does not accept the need for ‘a complete intervention “.
But the concern is that any emerging Western support may struggle to keep pace with the worsening security situation.
“Right now, the direction of things is going very badly,” said Brian Castner, Amnesty’s crisis specialist. “The rainy season that has prevented the attacks has just ended and we are now in what is called the fighting season, which lasts until the autumn.”