On 8 July an opposition Member of Parliament (MP) in South Africa alleged that the country’s special forces were deployed in Mozambique and demanded clarification on this rumour especially in light of the “ISIS threat”. This was in reference to reports that, in its al-Naba newsletter on 3 July, the Islamic State (IS) – also known as ISIS – had warned the South African government against any possible involvement in the ongoing insurgency in Mozambique. Specifically, IS threatened to “open a fighting front inside its [South Africa’s] borders” should South Africa offer any military assistance to the Mozambican army in combatting IS affiliate Al-Sunnah wa Jamaah (ASWJ) – also referred to as Ansar al-Sunnah – in Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado.
ASWJ has developed into a major security threat in recent years after its initial attacks on police outposts in the Cabo Delgado town of Mocimboa da Praia in October 2017. The group has grown in sophistication and capacity, developing into a sustained insurgency which has killed over 1 100 people in the province and displaced over 200 000 others. In 2019, it was revealed that ASWJ had sworn bayat (pledge of allegiance) to IS and was now part of the Islamic State’s Central African Province (ISCAP). This made it part of a larger nexus of Islamist militant organisations in the region such as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and gave it access to IS’s larger networks and resources. It was after joining ISCAP that ASWJ began to slightly change its tactics, seeking to occupy territory and increasing its use of propaganda and visual imagery such as the raising of the blacks standard and openly addressing residents of temporarily occupied towns.
The entrenchment of the ASWJ insurgency, despite the effort of the Mozambican military and various mercenary groups such as Russia’s Wagner Group and the South Africa based Dyke Advisory group (DAG), led to increased regional concerns that it could extend beyond Mozambique and become a regional security threat. Nonetheless, the South African Development Community (SADC) has been reluctant to get involved and Mozambique has, thus far, refrained from requesting overt military assistance. However, due to the growing threats, pressure is increasing on SADC states, particularly South Africa, to offer military assistance to Mozambique and directly address the insurgency before the situation worsens and ASWJ expands its operations to bordering states.
These expectations have given rise to rumour that South African special forces are already in the country, but to date there is no verifiable evidence that such a deployment has taken place. The South African government has said that it is only in discussions with the Mozambican government on possible assistance, and not even necessarily military assistance.
Although South Africa has displayed little appetite for an active involvement in Mozambique, IS appears to be taking the threat somewhat seriously as implied by the warning issued in al-Naba. The threat should be treated with concern given IS’ historical ability to activate radical lone actors within states, but should be contextualised by the understanding that al-Naba is generally bombastic in its rhetoric, frequently issuing threats that are never actualised. Currently, ASWJ poses little threat to South Africa, the militant group remains largely contained to Cabo Delgado which is Mozambique’s northernmost province. In addition, ASWJ has, so far, not proven the capability to conduct attacks much beyond this area of operations. For instance, the group is yet to carry out an attack in major Mozambican cities such as Maputo, Beira, or Nampula. Even IS itself has historically shown little interest or ability to orchestrate attacks in South Africa despite the presence of high-profile western targets. The group is more likely to focus its efforts and resources on targeting European or US targets.
For its part, South Africa is reluctant to get involved in combatting the insurgency for several reasons. These include the country’s unofficial security policy of not attracting the attention of terrorist organisations and becoming a target – as exemplified by its avoidance of contributing to African Union (AU) forces in Somalia. However, this may not be an option indefinitely given South Africa’s economic and political dominance in SADC and the fact that it has the most advanced military in the region. Likely the largest disincentive is the fact that South Africa currently lacks the finances and capacity for a large-scale military deployment. The country’s economy is reeling from the ongoing global coronavirus-induced recession compounding years of poor economic growth and management. These fiscal challenges have led to years of underfinancing of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), which has claimed that it only has half the required budget needed to adequately perform its duties. This has seen it limit training, maintenance, and equipment upgrades in order to adapt to budgetary constraints. In 2018 it was revealed that SANDF helicopters stationed in the DRC were unable to fly the requisite hours needed by their peacekeeping mission and in 2019 the SANDF had to charter an aircraft to assist with relief efforts in Mozambique following Cyclone Idai as it lacked capacity due to aircraft requiring repairs.
This lack of financial and military capacity means that South Africa has limited ability to effectively deploy forces to Cabo Delgado in a meaningful way. The country is more likely to offer South African-made arms and vehicles as a form of aid or on a low-interest loan sale, or potentially even turn a blind eye to Mozambique’s use of private contractors out of South Africa – mercenaries are banned under South African law. There is a possibility that South Africa could clandestinely deploy special forces to assist Mozambican troops fighting ASWJ, but this is more likely to occur alongside a larger SADC peacekeeping effort potentially with financial backing from the US or the EU.
In the meantime, South African security and intelligence officials will need to increase efforts to prevent IS and ASWJ operatives from operating within or across South African borders as well as monitor for possible online radicalisation of South African citizens.