Islamic Insurgency in Mozambique Requires Nuanced Response

Written by: Peter LaBelle

A long-running conflict in Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado escalated at the end of last month as Islamic insurgents belonging to the extremist group ‘Al-Shabaab’ invaded the town of Palma. The town is a strategically important one in the far north of the state and houses a project by French energy company Total to take advantage of liquefied natural gas offshore in the Indian Ocean. The insurgency is a serious humanitarian crisis for the local people and serves as a key test for how the United States, its western Allies, and local governments will deal with the growing issue of Islamic extremist movements in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

The Al-Shabaab insurgency has been operating at a low level since 2017 but has grown in recent years. Its impact on the province of Cabo Delgado has been significant: over 2,700 people have been killed, 670,000 internally displaced, and close to a million are in need of humanitarian assistance. The fighting has been brutal; according to an Amnesty International report, Al-Shabaab has abducted children and young people, beheading young boys and keeping the women as wives. The same report accused the Mozambican Army of summary executions and rapes and claimed that a mercenary company supporting the government, the South Africa-based Dyck Advisory Group, had committed war crimes in the province.

In mid-March, the United States government officially declared the insurgency to be a branch of the Islamic State (IS), slapping its leaders with sanctions and making it illegal for any Americans to do business with the organization. The United States has also announced that special forces will spend two months training the Mozambican military to combat the insurgency more effectively and provide them with equipment. But the efficacy of such training, as well as the accuracy of the terrorist designation, is subject to debate.

Some observers of the conflict have cast doubts on the value of the United States’ designation of Al-Shabaab as an IS-affiliate. According to Jasmine Opperman, a researcher at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, the US may have “oversimplified this insurgency to suit a specific agenda … to suit militarization … and if anyone thinks that two months training is going to make a difference, I’ve got some bad news for them.” Though Islamic extremist ideology obviously plays a role in the organization, she and others point to broader social grievances in the region which account for Al-Shabaab’s successful recruitment efforts. According to Fernando Lima, a journalist based in Maputo, Cabo Delgado is still an extremely impoverished region with few economic opportunities. And, while foreign investment in natural gas projects may help, the government has failed to communicate the details of these projects to communities, leading to local resentment. Many locals mistakenly believe that nefarious individuals are already exploiting the gas reserves in southern Mozambique. It is precisely these types of misconceptions that groups such as Al-Shabaab thrive upon. 

The foreign response to an extremist Islamic insurgency in Sub-Saharan Africa will have to take these factors into account if it is to be successful. To some extent, US officials have demonstrated recognition of these issues. In a briefing last year, Major General Dagvin Anderson, Commander of US Special Operations in Africa, addressed the expansion of IS-affiliated groups in Africa, saying that the US recognized Islamic terrorist tactics in East Africa: “we see [IS and al Qaeda] take their overall methodology, their ideas, we see them leverage local grievances and spread their ideology, which is concerning.” Shortly after the attack on Palma, the State Department announced that the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS would discuss the situation in Mozambique. However, it is still of secondary importance to the core region in the Middle East. 

Mozambique is not only overshadowed by events in the Middle East, but also by Islamic Extremism in the Sahel, where western powers led by France have been supporting local governments against jihadist insurgents for almost a decade. This region, too, offers lessons for the United States about approaching insurgency in South-Eastern Africa. As in Mozambique, local people in the Sahel region often do not trust their government or its security forces, which have been routinely accused of war crimes. Additionally, peace in the Sahel has largely come as a result of negotiation between insurgent groups, local armed forces, and the central government. American anti-terrorism policy, which generally forbids negotiating with such groups, is likely counterproductive in these circumstances. 

If peace is to be restored in northern Mozambique, the United States must apply these lessons. The US should recognize the economic origins of the insurgency, and policymakers should not shut the door on the possibility of negotiation with terrorist organizations. The benefits of peace for the region would go far beyond an end to outright violence. Economic benefits from exploiting natural gas in the region could be enormous: one American energy company alone plans on investing over $25 billion in Cabo Delgado, the largest single project of foreign direct investment in Mozambique’s history. In a severely underdeveloped region, such a project promises not only jobs for local citizens but also improvements in regional infrastructure necessary for greater economic development.