Latest Developments on Mozambique’s Ansar al-Sunna: A Deteriorating Security Situation

Editors Note: This month’s much anticipated article is by Jasmine Opperman (@Jasminechic00 on Twitter), who’s currently an analyst at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) Project. I met Jasmine about 3 years ago following her input on a report published and presented at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) on Violent Extremism in South Africa: Assessing the Current Threat. Looking back at the feedback she gave back then to where we are now with Mozambique, I’m simply amazed at her foresight and ability to identify and emphasize key issues commonly overlooked by many analysts. Jasmine has established herself as a key authority on the rising insurgency in Mozambique whose article follows my controversial take on Violent Extremism in Mozambique. I’m honored to have her contribute to TAJ on the latest developments not only as a guest contributor but as a mentor.

Since mid-March, a spate of attacks by insurgents (known as Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamo/Ansar al-Sunna) in Cabo Delgado have launched efforts by the Mozambican security forces with the assistance of private military contractors, The Dyck Advisory Group, to push back the rapid deterioration of Mozambique’s security situation. As Mozambique reaches out to the region for help, concerns that the insurgency was not on the formal agenda of the AU’s Peace and Security Council at the summit in February or SADC’s Organ for Politics, Defense and Security, has indicated neighboring countries have little appetite to assist.

Since early 2020, the security situation has deteriorated significantly, especially in the districts of Mocimboa da Praia (MdP), Muidumbe, Macomia, Mucojo, Ibo, Quissanga, Bilibiza and Manhate. The scale and nature of attacks reflects enhanced internal organisation within and between insurgent cells. Insurgents have come to demonstrate greater strategic sophistication and capacity by instigating brazen confrontation with security forces, as well as executing attacks increasingly proximate to LNG sites on the nearby Afungi peninsula, generating deepening anxieties by investors on whom the country’s projected economic fortunes are heavily dependent. They have also systematically targeted state infrastructure, communications and banks. Appropriately, more questions are being asked about the insurgency and its links to international extremism.

Additionally, Mozambique’s security services has been exposed, demonstrating a limited ability to contain, let alone push back the emerging insurgency. Its public posturing of denial, attributing the insurgency to organised crime, banditry and foreign influences belies the complexities of the push-pull factors involved and highlights the absence of a strategic plan of action to arrest this trajectory. Since 01 January 2020, over 40 attacks have been recorded (the following map shows how the insurgency has expanded since October 2017 (note the map does not reflect all incidents but those viewed as of significant impact).

Credit: Independent Consulting Team: Mozambique

The following map shows how insurgents moved down from the Mucojo/Quiterajo/Marere areas and have established themselves in the woods of Quissanga district in the area bordered by ADPP west, Cagembe north, Bilibiza south and Mahate East:

Credit: Private Consultants: Mozambique

The Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP)

Rooted in domestic dynamics, the development of an Islamic State franchise in Cabo Delgado is increasingly likely. IS has been advertising its expansion through its propaganda arm, Al-Naba, which since June 2019 has been propagated though Islamic State Central Africa (Wilayat Wasat Ifriqiyah). ISCAP, which was previously linked only to attacks in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), claimed responsibility for 29 attacks in Cabo Delgado, posting accompanying photos and detailed commentary regarding some incidents. Since late March and the temporary occupation of the towns of Mocimboa da Praia and Quissanga, reports on these operations and subsequent attacks in Muidumbe district in early April have been profiled in recent Al-Naba copy. IS flags have been hoisted in several locations.  Recent video footage from insurgents shows a clear overlap of core interests; the total rejection of a secular state, its institutions and symbols, and the imposition of Sharia law. In the absence of a visible local leadership and clear demands from insurgents, IS claims, however, do not reflect a commanding authority.

Despite this, evidence of direct IS involvement is not proven; verification of attacks and their impact remain an ongoing challenge, leaving much under-reported and subject to distortion. This is compounded by government reticence and a hostile attitude to media whom it sees as a nuisance factor. The IS modus operandi and its franchise evolution suggests a flexible approach towards enhancing relations with proxies on the ground, endeavouring to profile and provide tactical and strategic guidance and where possible direct support through financing, training, weapons provision and so on. Since June, insurgents have become better equipped, and have captured considerable supplies of weapons and ammunition from the security services, as well as vehicles, The three-pronged attack (including from the sea) on MdP involved as many 200 insurgents.

Shifting insurgent tactics are also in play; whilst local authority figures, headmen, administrators, teachers continue to be targeted, in the last two months, insurgents have in a number of cases issued warnings ahead of attacks. In some instances, they have engaged captured community members, encouraging compliance with Islamic law, but also threatening consequences for collaboration with the state. Large swathes of territory are no longer under the control of the government, prompting an exodus from rural areas in search of protection; as many as 200,000 are reportedly displaced according to Pemba Catholic Bishop, Luis Fernando Lisboa.

There is one undeniable reality, the Islamic State has its eyes on Mozambique, and no matter the reasons why, the group will struggle to gain a well-organized presence, as they are the unwelcome guest. Nonetheless they do not need large numbers of supporters to cause mayhem and their greatest allies are cells willing to act as proxies. Added to this is a phase of acquiring weapons, ammunition, and spreading propaganda. These realities were noticeable with the attacks in Mahate, Mocimboa and Quissanga.

Security Forces Effectiveness

March developments exposed the failure of Government’s security policy in Cabo Delgado. Recent calls for international assistance acknowledge the problem, but are accompanied by denials by security elements regarding operational conditions and realities. Neither the military of the police are fit for purpose, yet current counter-insurgency strategy reflects an over-reliance on selective security tactics such as indiscriminate arrests of suspects, improper interrogation techniques, and a media clampdown. More significant, has been evidence of a latent fear amongst military and police commanders to directly confront cells or ensure deployments in the field are appropriately equipped and commanded. The insurgency’s expansion also reflects a major intelligence failure, which was acknowledged in late January in a rare admission by former Airforce Chief General Antonio Hama Thai  

Mozambique government forces are generally poorly trained, ill-disciplined and lack the necessary equipment. The paucity of combat experienced leadership compounds this, resulting in low levels of morale, desertion (including to insurgent ranks) and many believe a degree of infiltration that enables insurgents to stay one step ahead of the FADM (military) and UIR (police).  Local confidence in the government’s ability to provide basic security has collapsed, but calls to arm local militia have not been heeded. Unconfirmed reports from Mueda district in early April claim former Frelimo guerrillas accessed weapons from a local armoury and confronted insurgents in Muidumbe, killing as many as thirty insurgents. In some areas, communities are treated as insurgent collaborators, and trust is further undermined by excessive use of force by FADM / UIR units such as indiscriminate arrests, extra-judicial killings and disappearances.

In November 2019, in the wake of resuscitated Mozambican – Russian defence and security agreements, the Russian PMC, the Wagner Group was reportedly engaged in confrontations with insurgents in Cabo Delgado, losing a number of personnel before withdrawing.  Media reports in February this year suggested they were poised to redeploy, but this has not been corroborated and reports suggest only a very limited Russian presence on the ground in Cabo.

In early April, South African based private contractor Dyck Advisory Group, working with Mozambique’s police command, entered the frame.  Believed to be working on a short-term contract to help confront insurgents, after a few days of operations in which one of their helicopters was hit by enemy fire and forced to make an emergency landing, they appeared to step down, raising questions about the legality of their operation in terms of South Africa’s Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act, that is intended to prevent anything perceived as mercenary activity.

LNG Sector

The government has deployed an estimated 500 soldiers to protect LNG developments in Cabo Delgado. While foreign companies have their own security personnel, Mozambican security forces usually provide protection in the general perimeter zone where these companies operate.  But as the insurgency draws ever closer, LNG companies have become understandably spooked.   In late January, Exxon, Mobil and Total requesting additional 300 troops for security deployments in areas of operation to protect personnel and infrastructure development. Following the March MdP attack, Total recalled all offshore vessels. Adding further woes, the LNG facilities are at the heart of Mozambique’s current COVID-19 challenges.

The Mozambican military has deployed its best trained soldiers and underwriting an expansion of this force is likely to require some measure of subsidy from the LNG projects. Though the need for an immediate security response is self-evident, without a structured and integrated security force presence, an over militarised response could generate blowback that fuels the insurgency further. The absence of multilateral (SADC/AU) intervention reflects Mozambique’s preference, to date, to pursue bilateral support from countries such as Angola, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Uganda and further afield, such as Russia. The region, however, has yet to demonstrate an appetite to assist, and the question remains, who has the resources to underwrite this. Further delays in putting together a comprehensive plan of action provides further space for the insurgency to evolve, and many believe the situation is set to worsen, compounding the humanitarian woes of a local population still struggling with the aftermath of the 2019 cyclones.

Featured Image Source: Insurgents Hit Second Mozambique Town as Islamic State Claims Earlier Attack by Iain Esau (2020), https://www.upstreamonline.com/politics/insurgents-hit-second-mozambique-town-as-islamic-state-claims-earlier-attack/2-1-781270

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