Source Responsible Statecraft
WASHINGTON, U.S.-Several private security companies, militaries, and foreign governments, including the United States, have arrived to help quell the growing insurgency in northern Mozambique which has, since 2017, claimed the lives of 4,000 people and caused the displacement of around one million more.
However, American military assistance has not been successful. U.S. support of an ineffective and brutal counterinsurgency led by a corrupt government illustrates Washington’s unfamiliarity with the complex local situation and could further destabilize a country battling with socio-economic problems and religious marginalization.
Roots of the Insurgency
Violent jihadist movements are not a salient part of Mozambique’s history. Muslims are the minority nationwide with a population of less than 20 percent, but are the majority in northern and coastal provinces, especially Cabo Delgado with 58 percent of its population practicing. It was not until the aftermath of the 1964 independence war that their marginalization began to take shape.
During the war, a large portion of the Muslim majority north fought with the Portuguese against the now ruling party, Frente de Libertação de Moçambique, or FRELIMO, composed largely of Christians.
Ahlu Sumnah Wal Jammah (ASWJ) is locally known as al-Shaabab, despite no apparent formal connection with the Somalia-based extremists, and is active in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province.
According to displaced Mozambicans, the insurgency today was born out of anger over government corruption, poverty, and poor economic policies.
While Cabo Delgado is resource rich with vast mineral and gas deposits, local Muslim ethnic groups, namely the Mwani and Makua who make up the core of ASWJ, are excluded from the benefits; including those of French Total’s, a European multinational energy and petroleum company, $20 billion Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) project off the northern coast. The state’s inability to address these social, religious, and political dynamics served as ASWJ’s tipping point into armed action.
Chaos in Cabo Delgado
In October 2017 in Mocímboa da Praia, 30 armed men simultaneously attacked three police stations resulting in 16 deaths. Over the next two years, the group destroyed churches and homes, assassinated the National Director of Reconnaissance, and beheaded civilians.
Before Cyclones Kenneth and Idai in 2019 — the worst weather-related disasters to hit southern Africa — halted their attacks, their violent campaign depopulated Cabo Delgado, which is the size of Rwanda, placed 2.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, made 1.6 million food insecure, and killed 2,500 civilians. President Filipe Nyusi has however labeled the violence as no more than “crimes committed by local unemployed criminals.”
Despite the president’s designation, the Mozambican military launched several counter-insurgency operations during this period, some conducted jointly with Russia’s Wagner Group, though U.S. private military companies also offered to help contain the insurgency.
To make matters worse, the group’s jihadist leaning became clear in a statement released by the Islamic State (IS) which claimed its new Central Africa Province branch had been behind the attacks.
A Holistic Counter-insurgency Strategy
Mozambique is a litmus test to evaluate how far global terror networks have expanded into new regions through local groups or their splinters: as with the Allied Democratic Force in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Central Africa Province), Boko Haram in Nigeria (West Africa Province), and Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in Egypt (Sinai Province).
However, a counter-insurgency response, especially one backed by the United States, cannot include only repression, and must center on a holistic security approach.
Since Mozambique officially designated ASWJ as a terrorist organization and requested international assistance in September 2020, the United States has deployed Green Berets in a training-only mission to “prevent the spread of terrorism and violent extremism.” Through Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET), the United States has trained Mozambican marines in both combat and (officially at least) the law of armed conflict.
However, the fate of the Wagner Group soldiers illustrates the physical danger for external intervention and the possibility of inflaming the conflict.
Though there is ongoing training, there are concerns that Mozambique’s security forces have limited institutional capacity and that the Mozambican government is incapable of deeper reforms that would address root causes of the rebellion.
At the start of violence in 2017, there were an estimated 1,484 fatalities in Cabo Delgado Province, of which 109 resulted from security force violence against civilians. Anti-terrorism proclamations have also been used as an excuse to intimidate the press in parts of Cabo Delgado and detain Muslim youths.
Many critics also point to the absence of development assistance in the government’s counter-insurgency strategy. While the Mozambican government has formed the Resilience and Development Strategy for the North (RDSN) with input and funding from donors, culminating in $700 million with $106 million from the United States, the government is only addressing poverty.
Despite U.S. foreign assistance, the millions of dollars spent on development initiatives are ineffective in the face of a government with a track record of corruption and inadequate economic policies. Moreover, since the start of the U.S. training program, Mozambican soldiers have committed human rights abuses, adding fuel to the fire.
The U.S. should monitor development assistance in a way that ensures it does not line the pockets of government officials while addressing citizens’ social, religious, and political grievances.