Mozambican Tomas Queface asks why no one is talking about the Islamic State-backed jihadists.
An insurgency is going on in northern Mozambique. Armed men affiliated with Islamic State, but driven by local dynamics, have been carrying out a series of attacks in the province of Cabo Delgado.
They have been clashing with Mozambique Defense Forces, killing innocent civilians, and burning and destroying public and private properties. Locally they are known as Al-Shabaab, but they’re not affiliated with the Somali terror group. They are also called insurgents, terrorists, rebels or even Islamic State.
The reason for the insurgency is still a mystery. Almost nothing is known about their motivations and objectives.
The little that is known about the insurgents is thanks to the testimonies of those who survived attacks or escaped capture.
A local think-tank called OMR interviewed around 23 people, who fled from the hands of the terrorists.
They described the insurgents as local young people, but said there were also foreigners, mostly from East Africa, among their ranks.
The United States has recently designated the Tanzanian national Abu Yasir Hassan as the leader of ISIS in Mozambique.
However, in Mozambique this name is not well known. Insurgents have never been interviewed nor publicly revealed their motives or what they are hoping to achieve.
When the violence began in October 2017, the insurgents started attacking government buildings and police stations.
Later on, attacks spread to villages and towns close to the coast, killing innocent civilians and burning down their houses.
The government has since played down the seriousness of the attacks, saying that the situation is under control, and that the army and police were fully capable of extinguishing the insurgency. But after four years, the conflict has resulted in many deaths and a humanitarian tragedy.
In 2019, the conflict gained an international dimension. On one hand, the government of Mozambique sought help from private militia companies.
A Russian military company called Wagner Group with links to the Moscow regime intervened on the conflict but left the country with a number of casualties.
The government then turned to the Dyck Advisory Group, a South African company, which provided air support and military training for the Mozambique Security Forces. Their contract expired in April 2021.
Meanwhile, the local insurgents established ties with the international terrorist organisation the Islamic State. In the first attack following their collaboration with the Islamic State, they managed to seize the town of Mocimboa da Praia, killing and displacing the entire population.
The most significant attack carried out by insurgents, though, took place on March 24 this year when they attacked the town of Palma, in the Afungi Peninsula.
Afungi is home to the Liquified Natural Gas Project run by the French multinational energy company Total.
After a coordinated attack, the insurgents held the town for almost 10 days, leading to the suspension of activities and the evacuation of all the staff. Nearly 60,000 people lived in Palma before the attack, but the majority of the citizens have fled the area.
The government again underestimated the significance of the attack.
The president of Mozambique, Filipe Nyusi, failed to address the issue for more than a week, and downplayed the attack as ‘not the biggest’ that the security forces have ever faced during the conflict.
After the attack on Palma, calls for foreign military intervention have increased. So far, the government in Maputo has accepted limited support in terms of training from the United States and Portugal.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) sent a technical team to Mozambique in order to draw up a plan for a regional engagement in the conflict. But Mozambique doesn’t seem interested in having foreign boots on its soil.
President Nyusi said that Mozambique is open to international support, but only Mozambicans will defend their sovereignty.
This approach will only drag out the conflict. The violence has already seen more than 700,000 people driven from their homes, and more than 1,300 people have lost their lives, according to ACLED, a non-governmental organisation that monitors global conflict.
Military intervention might crush the insurgency in Mozambique, but it will ultimately prove fruitless unless the social factors that trigged the conflict are addressed.
Although Cabo Delgado has the greatest mineral wealth of any province in the country, it’s the poorest province in Mozambique, with lots of unemployment among young people and a lack of economic opportunities.
Poverty is driving many people to the extremists.
Win the war on that, and the government will win the war in Cabo Delgado.
Tomás Queface is a Mozambican research and analyst who holds a Master’s degree in Anthropology and Development from the University of Sussex in the UK.