On 5 September 2017, about 30 militants attacked three police stations in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado Province killing at least two police officers. According to officials, 14 of the assailants were killed in the resultant firefight and several others were captured. The incident occurred in the coastal town of Mocimboa da Praia when militants attacked police stations including the district police command and a Natural Resources and Environment police station. The gun battle lasted most of the day and roads were only reopened at 18h00 that evening. It is believed many of the militants managed to escape after seizing firearms from the police stations. Some militants also attempted to rob a local bank branch, during which two security guards were injured. In response, security in Mocimboa da Praia remains high and a nighttime curfew is in effect.
Authorities have stated that they believe that the militants were affiliated with the Somali Islamist extremist militant group, Al-Shabaab. If this is confirmed, this would represent an increase in the group’s operational capacity and area of activities along Africa’s east coast. It is also unclear if the attack was motivated by ideology and anti-government sentiment, or was a pure raid aimed at sourcing weapons and money to supply the group’s other operations such as the fight against the Somali and Kenyan militaries. If the attackers are indeed aligned with Al-Shabaab the latter scenario is most likely. This would mean that there is a likelihood of further attack raids in Mozambique, but a lower risk of terrorist and bomb attacks. However, foreign oil and gas companies would be considered a high-profile target regardless. A particular concern for Mozambique’s security forces is that the majority of attackers appear to have been Mozambican nationals. This represents an apparent domestic radicalisation of Mozambican citizens which could lead to a more entrenched and active radicalised militant presence. It also suggests that Islamist extremism has spread along most of Africa’s east coast and that Al-Shabaab could become a security concern for Southern Africa and no longer solely an East African issue.
In response to this attack, Mozambique is going to have to increase its military presence in the northern province and improve the policing of its border with Tanzania as intelligence officials believe that it is likely that the militants were trained in Tanzania and crossed into Mozambique from Tanzania by either land or sea. This could force the country to deploy troops away from the militarised Gorongosa area, which was the centre of the recent conflict with Renamo to the northern border. In turn, the dispersal of military forces will up the ante in terms of the ongoing peace process, as Mozambique is short on capacity to both fight another conflict with Renamo forces and effectively police its northern border for militants.
Regardless of the origin of the militants, the attack is a major concern for the government as Mocimboa da Praia is located only 80km north of the intended site for two liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals that multinational energy companies ENI and Anadarko plan to build. If Al-Shabaab or other terrorist and militant organisations can stage attacks in northern Mozambique this will severely undermine Mozambique’s ability to develop the region and the vast oil and gas supplies found off the country’s north coast.
It is unlikely that the recent attack will be a once-off incident as extremist militant organisations like Al-Shabaab tend to orchestrate repeated attacks once they have established an operational presence in a region. This is particularly true since many of the attackers were local citizens. Accordingly, the increased security presence, both military and private, across Cabo Delgado is expected to be maintained. For now, Mozambique faces an additional and serious security concern.