On 29 February 2020, at least two people were killed in a suspected jihadist insurgent attack in Pemba in what is believed to be the first such incident within the city itself in the two-year Islamist insurgency in northern Mozambique. The ongoing insurgency, which has predominantly occurred in the northern areas of Cabo Delgado province, has killed over 700 people and displaced over 100 000 others, resulting in a burgeoning internal refugee crisis in the country.
The insurgency began suddenly in October 2017 when armed militants attacked the town of Mocimboa da Praia in Cabo Delgado killing 17 people. Since then the insurgency has grown in size and sophistication. The insurgent group Ahl al-Sunnah wa-al-Jama’ah, also known as Ansar al-Sunna, has managed to establish a significant presence along the country’s northern border, often operating from across the border from neighbouring Tanzania. The group has maintained a comparatively low media profile, rarely formally claiming attacks or releasing manifestos. This has made the group difficult to fully understand and combat as, beyond the traditional goals of jihad and establishing a caliphate, the group’s specific grievances, ambitions, and leadership are largely unknown.
Over the past two years, the insurgency has grown from a localised matter to a growing regional concern. This is fuelled by the increasing number of foreign nationals who appear to have joined the militants. This was underscored by the April 2019 declaration by the Islamic State (IS) Islamist extremist group that it had formed the Islamic State Central African Province (ISCAP). This new IS province appears to mainly be in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Mozambique. Initial scepticism over IS’s presence has largely been set aside and it is accepted that group is operational in Cabo Delgado province. However, the extent of its presence in Mozambique is uncertain as it appears as if ISCAP is cooperating with Ansar al-Sunna with the latter providing ISCAP with pictures and evidence of attacks in order for ISCAP to claim it as its own and project the impression of wider capacity. In return Ansar al-Sunna is likely receiving assistance and training, benefiting from IS’s expertise and infrastructure.
The presence of IS is contributing to the growing sophistication and deadliness of militant attacks in Mozambique. The group has essentially been driven out of its strongholds in Iraq and Syria and dozens of its fighters have moved to join the group’s African “provinces” including ISCAP.
The Mozambican army has struggled to contain and combat the insurgency despite the end of the low-level Renamo insurgency in the country’s central provinces freeing up military capacity and the deployment of Russian military contractors. This is partly due to the manner in which the Mozambican army has addressed the situation. The military has shut down large swathes of Cabo Delgado and not permitted journalists or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) access. This, combined with the practice of arbitrarily arresting hundreds of Mozambicans on spurious grounds in the name of fighting the insurgency, and reports of crimes by soldiers, has failed to win over local Cabo Delgado residents and likely helps the Islamist militants in their recruitment efforts.
Despite the evident severity of the situation, the insurgency has largely been ignored by regional powers and organisations with a greater focus placed on Mozambique’s political and economic woes. However, at the February 2020 meeting of the African Union (AU) heads of state, the AU finally took note of the Mozambique insurgency. The organisation’s Peace and Security Commission is considering assistance in the form of intelligence sharing and military training but there is still a reluctance to commit any real resources or troops to this end.
Understandably the AU will want to leave this to the regional bloc the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which typically takes the lead on matters relating to Southern Africa. Thus far, SADC has shown little interest in addressing the situation although this could owe to Mozambique’s reluctance to ask for help in dealing with the insurgency.
However, the insurgency cannot remain unattended for much longer. The growing presence of ISCAP threatens to expand the insurgency beyond the borders of Mozambique. Tanzania should be particularly concerned as there is now an ISCAP presence on its southern and western borders. Further, should IS manage to establish an operational base and secure territory it will be able to conduct attacks elsewhere in the region, targeting more traditional IS targets such as US and European interests in southern and central Africa, potentially even South Africa.
The threat of possible attacks against foreign state and business interests is increasing. The greatest threat is to businesses operating in Cabo Delgado province, particularly the oil and gas energy firms developing operations there, notably the US’s ExxonMobile and France’s Total. The recent attack on 29 February 2020 within the city of Pemba has elevated these concerns. Although it was a low-level attack, it proves that the group is growing in operational capacity and confidence. Pemba is the hub of the nascent liquified natural gas (LNG) industry and home to the province’s largest port. Unless major action is taken, including regional and international security cooperation, it is inevitable that the city will begin to experience further and increasingly violent attacks.