The ongoing conflict in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province has entered a new as Ahlu Sunna wa Jama’a (ASWJ) insurgents successfully attacked the key town of Palma on 24 March in a major tactical and symbolic victory for ASWJ that saw the deaths of scores of people, including at least six foreign nationals. As of 30 March, the militants still retained control of large sections of Palma as security forces struggled to fully repel the insurgents, conjuring up comparisons with the fall of Mocimboa da Praia in August 2020 when ASWJ fighters overwhelmed Mozambique’s security forces to capture the strategic port town.
The assault began on the evening of 24 March when about a hundred ASWJ insurgents attacked Palma in a coordinated assault from three directions, quickly overrunning the token security force presence in the town’s western areas. It appears that the Mozambican military (FADM/Forças Armadas de Defesa de Moçambique) had redeployed a significant number of troops 25km south to protect the Afungi peninsula where French energy giant Total’s liquified natural gas (LNG) operations are located, as well as west to defend the town of Mueda where they suspected ASWJ was considering launching an attack. This left Palma – a key town where the majority of the country’s LNG operations are expected to be based – with insufficient defence in the face of the major militant assault.
As it stands the situation in Palma remains fluid. FADM forces are still trying to repel the ASWJ occupation from the west while evacuation operations continue. The majority of Palma’s residents appear to have fled into the surrounding bush or have been evacuated in a loosely planned operation that is a mix of military convoys, private contractors, chartered helicopters, and military and private-owned vessels moving people to either the secure zone in the Afungi peninsula or south to the provincial capital Pemba. However, as of 31 March, hundreds of residents, including dozens of foreign nationals based in the town, remain unaccounted for.
The assault on Palma indicates an escalation in the insurgency for several reasons. Firstly, it dispelled the theory that ASWJ was critically weakened and splintered – a narrative that has been eagerly promoted by the Mozambican government. Instead, the decline in attacks since December seems to have been more a result of the impact of the rainy season and ASWJ planning the 24 March attack. Secondly, the assault illustrates ASWJ’s growing strength. The insurgent group managed to organise a coordinated attack comprising over 100 fighters and utilised heavy firearms and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). The group has been growing in strength since its first major attack in 2017 and has notably grown capacity since the capture of Mocimboa da Praia. Thirdly, the Palma attack is the first time foreign nationals were specifically targeted by ASWJ. At least six foreign nationals, including British and South African citizens, have been confirmed killed thus far. This last shift brings ASWJ’s modus operandi more in line with the Islamic State (IS) to which the group swore allegiance in 2019 but in reality, only maintains a loose affiliation with. In targeting foreign nationals, the group has boosted its profile globally and will likely catalyse increased foreign intervention and see more foreign powers assisting Mozambique to combat the insurgency. Finally, the attack on Palma was the first true assault on LNG operations themselves. To date, the group has been an imminent but tangential threat targeting supply convoys and villages near Palma and Total’s Afungi development. Now, however, ASWJ has essentially forced the suspension of Mozambique’s nascent LNG operations, derailing the government’s plans and dependency on the development and underscoring the consequences of Mozambique’s failure to properly address the root causes of the insurgency and the militants themselves in 2017.
From a symbolic point of view, the assault on Palma was a major boost to ASWJ and hugely embarrassing for the Mozambican government and FADM. Forcing major international energy firms to suspend operations will be a key propaganda victory for ASWJ as will the successful assault on what authorities repeatedly promised was a secure town. It is also clear that ASWJ is cognisant of this symbolic importance as it took efforts – as it did in Mocimboa da Praia – to raise the IS flag, also referred to as the Black Standard, in Palma. This impact will be underscored if the flag is maintained over the upcoming Easter weekend.
The government has also been glaringly outmanoeuvred. It had been evident for months that ASWJ had designs on Palma. The group had steadily isolated the town by cutting off supply roads and launching attacks on villages in the district. Officials had publicly stated that efforts had been taken to secure Palma while failing to implement sufficient measures on the ground.
The attack also highlighted the lack of capacity of FADM and Mozambique’s authorities. Once the attack began FADM lacked the mobility and equipment to rapidly reach Palma and properly engage with the militants once there. The lack of contingency planning was borne out by the fact that it took two days for a proper evacuation plan to take root and even this was partially driven by non-government actors including private military contractors, and corporations.
Although the situation remains fluid and further conflict and even additional attacks are possible in the coming days, the long-term consequences of the attack are already stark. The international LNG companies are unlikely to resume operations until Palma is fully secured including with a clear security buffer outside the town. Total has already stated it will not resume its operations in Afungi until Mozambique has established a 25km secure zone around its operations. This will delay the LNG developments by months, potentially even years, which in turn will further delay any financial windfall the government may have been hoping for from the LNG fields. This is a major problem for the government, and President Filipe Nyusi, as they have largely bet Mozambique’s economic future on LNG revenue. Specifically, Mozambique’s agreements with its creditors are dependent on using revenue from the LNG projects in Cabo Delgado to finance debt. Should this revenue be delayed or derailed, Mozambique could once again find itself facing a major debt crisis relating to 2016 revelations of over US$2 billion in undisclosed debt.
The disruptions are also unlikely to be limited to just the LNG industry. As ASWJ expands its operational area, and with government now proven to be an unreliable security guarantor, major operators in the province’s mining sector will also reconsider their operations. Should ASWJ expand to the Montepuez and Balama districts, the province’s ruby and graphite industries could witness similar disruptions. In the interim, these firms are expected to boost security and formulate their own evacuation plans to avoid the fate of operators in Palma.
The ASWJ assault on Palma has also been a major political blow to Nyusi. He has staked significant political capital on the success of LNG developments and promises to contain the insurgency. The 24 March attack and the August 2020 fall of Mocimboa da Praia have left the President (a former defence minister) looking inept as Mozambique has essentially ceded the most territory to a hostile force it has since the end of the civil war in 2002.
Accordingly, Nyusi will be under severe pressure both internationally and within the ruling Frelimo party to address the insurgency. This will require the President and the country’s military leaders to swallow their pride and seek increased regional and international assistance. Given the high-profile nature of the 24 March attack, along with the ongoing internal displacement crisis, foreign powers may be more willing to assist. This is especially likely given the deaths of foreign nationals in the attack on Palma.
Regardless, the 24 March attack is a turning point in the insurgency. Increased attacks on Palma and its surrounds are anticipated in the short term as ASWJ seeks to capture the town, or at least loot equipment and supplies, and the FADM attempts to repel the insurgents. Over the longer term, Mozambique will be forced to drastically escalate its counterinsurgency and secure additional intelligence and security assistance if it is to resuscitate the promise of Cabo Delgado’s LNG wealth.