Extremism, Blood & Money - Mozambique’s Struggle with ISIS

  • Jean-Patrick Clancy
  • 11.3.2021 17:58

Mozambique is emerging as a regional hub of Salafi-jihadi activity in Southern Africa. The government has thus far failed to eliminate the threat posed by Islamic State affiliated insurgents in the country’s northern province. The group has, since October 2017, challenged the Mozambican government’s control over Cabo Delgado, a resource-rich province that is seen by many as the foundation for development and future economic growth.


After years of international intervention and following its territorial downfall in the Middle East, the centre of gravity for the Islamic State has shifted towards sub-Saharan Africa. Through its affiliates, the group has gained momentum in the region and just like many countries in Central Africa, Mozambique has not been spared by the Islamic State’s dramatic expansion and gruesome campaigns.

The country’s Muslim majority northern province of Cabo Delgado, which has become a stomping ground for international oil companies after the discovery of major oil and gas deposits, has been affected by a violent Islamist insurgency since October 2017 which has thrown the region into a dire humanitarian situation. The OCHA reported that by February 2021, an estimated 1.3 million people were in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and around 670,000 people had been internally displaced because of ongoing violence.


Cabo Delgado Province, Mozambique. Copyright: European Security Journal


The fast-expanding and increasingly brutal jihadi group known locally as both Al-Shabab and Al-Sunna wa Jama’a (ASWJ), is affiliated with the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS or ISIS) as part of its Central African Province branch. Referred to as IS-CAP, it is also threatening to disrupt crucial foreign investments in the oil-and-gas-rich northeast corner of Mozambique worth billions of dollars - a niche of valuable natural resources worth $60 billion that have become one the insurgents’ main targets.

Its ranks have been swelled by the arrival of foreign fighters who have relied on barbaric methods similar to those from IS’s operations in Syria and Iraq, all the while exploiting local grievances, poverty and rampant unemployment to radicalise and recruit youth in their fight to establish an Islamic caliphate of their own with territorial control.


“A dramatic increase in the number of attacks and the seizure of several towns raised concerns over the deteriorating security situation in the north of Mozambique.”


Since 2017, militants have targeted villages and towns, ransacked and destroyed government infrastructure, and subjugated the local population to an unprecedented level of wanton violence never before witnessed in the region. A dramatic increase in the number of attacks and the seizure of several towns, including the heavily-defended port of Mocimboa da Praia in late 2020, raised concerns over the deteriorating security situation in the north of the country.

A failed attempt by government forces to regain control over the port in February 2021 and concerns over the effectiveness of the Mozambique Armed Defense Forces (FADM) in countering the threat posed by Islamist insurgents have evidently demonstrated militants growing sophistication, firepower and operational capabilities.

Furthermore, while insurgents’ brutal killings and IS style executions were widely mediatised, the group also attempted to gain support by depicting itself as an alternative to a government many locals had felt abandoned by. From warning civilians of impending attacks to distributing food and money, ASWJ has adopted a ‘hearts and minds’ approach, advocating for the Muslim poor and protecting the weak from a corrupt elite - a growing societal gap following the discovery of immense natural gas reservoirs leading to investments by energy giants - thereby further undermining the Mozambican government’s fragile claim to legitimacy in its’ northern province.


A Failed Russian Involvement

For a time, Moscow expressed interest in Mozambique as Wagner Group forces were deployed to combat the ASWJ insurgency alongside the FADM in September 2019, in return for strategic influence and access to raw materials and natural resources.

In spite of footage circulating on social media of a Russian Air Force An-124-100 transport aircraft delivering military equipment as well as an Mi-17 helicopter to the Nacala Airport in Nampula Province on 25 September 2019 - an unequivocal indication of Russian military activity in the southern African country - the Kremlin denied it had boots on the ground after reports emerged that a Russian serviceman was killed in the fighting.

Yet, only a month prior, Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi signed both energy and security agreements with his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin during the first visit to Moscow by a leader from the resource-rich country in two decades.


“Kremlin-linked Wagner Group forces were deployed in Mozambique to combat the ASWJ insurgency, in return for strategic influence and access to raw materials and natural resources.”


Russian Air Force AN-124-100 of the 224th Flight Unit delivering military equipment and an Mi-17 helicopter at the Nacala Airport, Mozambique, 25 September. Copyright: European Security Journal.


However, the Russian shadow military’s involvement in Mozambique and the deployment of an estimated 200-300 military contractors did not meet with the same success as its Sudan and Central African Republic campaigns, leading to a humiliating defeat and eventual withdrawal from the region in November 2019. This came as mercenaries suffered painful blows, a series of defeats amid reports of several casualties and beheadings at the hands of the Islamist militants in Cabo Delgado, due in part to the mercenary’s failure to effectively cooperate with local pro-government forces and their lack of equipment and training for African bush combat according to a CNN report.


A Greater Reliance on South African Firms

The Wagner Group’s departure from Cabo Delgado left a security vacuum which was hastily filled by the South African Dyck Advisory Group (DAG) hired to provide air support to the Mozambican military. The private military firm was recently thrust into the spotlight following a damning report titled ‘What I Saw Is Death’ published by Amnesty International accusing the company of gross human rights violations, using helicopters and light aircraft to indiscriminately target suspected militants, resulting in civilian deaths.

After years of anti-poaching operations in the country, DAG’s soldiers of fortune and their experience in bush tracking and combat operations seemed, more than ever, crucial for Mozambique’s unprepared and under-resourced military given what was at stake in the resource-rich northern province.


Images shared online (sources include @RYP_) of Dyck Advisory Group contractors operating in Cabo Delgado Province, Mozambique. Copyright: European Security Journal


According to news reports and footage shared online, the private military firm reportedly operates as airborne support with limited yet essential assets including Gazelle gunships, armed Bathawk light aircraft, an old weaponized Allouette, a multipurpose ‘Huey’, a Bell 206, and several fixed-wing aircraft. Used for intelligence gathering, combat and supply operations, these aircraft are operated by no more than a few dozen contractors but have massively boosted the FADM’s firepower against the ASWJ.

Similarly to the Wagner Group, the South African firm has hit a few hurdles, including the loss of a Gazelle helicopter in April 2020 during a military operation against insurgents, and the crash of a Bathawk aircraft in June of the same year.


Footage shared online shows Dyck Advisory Group contractors using a temporary heliport in the port city of Pemba. The exact location was determined by @il_kanguru and verified by the author of this commentary. Additional footage showing light armed helicopters operated by DAG flying along the coast geolocated by the author. Copyright: European Security Journal.


While the DAG’s contract has been extended several times, the company seems to have scaled down some of its activities due to operational shortcomings and serious technical limitations in its combat operations with ageing and ill-equipped helicopters for the intended missions. DAG’s air support might have been credited with preventing a militant advance on the port city of Pemba and supporting the FADM’s efforts to retake previously lost ground in Cabo Delgado, however the firm was still unable to subdue the insurgency with fire power alone.

In addition to hiring and extending DAG’s contract, another South African company, Paramount Group, supplied Mozambique’s Government with armoured vehicles and helicopters and has been hired to provide training to Mozambican pilots while its Dubai-based subsidiary, Burnham Global, has been tasked with providing training to military personnel on armoured vehicles operations.


A Treacherous yet Decisive Path Ahead

The Mozambican government can no longer downplay the threat posed by the ASWJ insurgency in the north of the country and its possible regional implications after both Russian and South African private military companies failed to put an end to the IS threat in Cabo Delgado and deter militants from pursuing their ideological and territorial agenda.

Reliance on a military solution only and the absence of a clear security framework from the international community means that the level of violence and the humanitarian crisis experienced in Mozambique is bound to worsen with each passing day. In the words of Martin Ewin, regional coordinator for Southern Africa at the Institute for Security Studies, “this is now a race against time because the longer it takes to organise a robust and effective regional response [...], the more difficult it is going to get”. 

The Mozambican military’s response to the insurgency has resulted in civilian deaths and further destruction, fuelling local grievances in one of the most risk-prone countries in the world, affected by weather-related hazards, climate change as well as by public health risks as the country bears the full weight of the coronavirus pandemic. Mozambican forces lack the training, the discipline and the equipment required to effectively deal with the insurgency.

If left unchecked, the smouldering insurgency in Cabo Delgado could have profound regional implications, with insurgents increasingly targeting neighbouring countries that will also be affected by the burden of regional displacements. The ASWJ insurgency has already spilled over into Tanzania which has led the country to tighten border security and conduct military operations in areas close to the Mozambican border. 


“If left unchecked, the smouldering insurgency in Cabo Delgado could have profound regional implications, with insurgents increasingly targeting neighbouring countries that will also be affected by the burden of regional displacements.”


Solving the ASWJ threat will require more than reliance on private military contractors, only an international response could help resolve current challenges the government is facing. Yet, direct foreign military assistance remains unlikely despite its potential of being the most effective way of ending the insurgency. Talks about some level of military support with regional and international actors like the UK, the US and South Africa have not yet resulted in action.

But there has been some encouraging news following Portugal's offer to help train Mozambican security forces in a bid to move away from excessive reliance on private companies and to prevent the conflict from becoming transnational. Reports emerged in February 2021 suggesting that Portugal, currently holding the rotating six-month presidency of the EU, could send over 1,400 troops in early 2021, a potentially significant step in bolstering Mozambican defences against ASWJ. However, this effort may not be enough and the European Union has been called upon to step up its military and security assistance in an effort to prevent the insurgency from evolving into a well-established and long-term security hazard.

For the time being, Mozambican troops remain woefully unprepared and are simply not up to the task. The absence of, or delayed, assistance from foreign actors could allow the crisis to continue to grow as insurgent activities persist, turning into yet another preventable Salafi-jihadist insurgency nightmare in Africa.

About author: Jean-Patrick Clancy


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