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. 

Washington must take into account local and regional dynamics, otherwise the Islamists’ insurgency will become a protracted crisis that neither the United States or Mozambique is prepared for.

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. 
The North seemingly sided with the Portuguese out of a combination of compulsion as colonial subjects, religious ideology, and Portuguese favoritism to Northerners as more economically savvy, since the northern coast was a major trading hub. 
What is clear is that the war furthered tensions between the north and south and these divisions have been kept alive by the ruling party’s policies towards its past enemies.

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. 
Their occupation of Cabo Delgado has been marked by the decapitation of civilians, abduction of young men, and enslavement of women. In 2019, a video released by the group revealed its goal to establish a Caliphate, signaling its affiliation with the Islamic State and sounding the alarm for international intervention.

According to displaced Mozambicans, the insurgency today was born out of anger over government corruption, poverty, and poor economic policies. 
In 2013, three Mozambican state-owned companies secretly borrowed $2 billion from international banks, but the loans were contracted without parliamentary approval plunging the 8th poorest country in the world into a financial crisis yet to be recovered from. This did little to help the 46 percent of Mozambique’s population, especially those in the north, who live below the poverty line.

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. 
While security forces were able to capture several dozen insurgents and retake parts of Cabo Delgado, the government’s string of successes did not last long as all the Russian mercenaries were captured and killed, and Mocímboa da Praia was recaptured by ASWJ.

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). 
The relationship with IS can allow local forces to gain financing and legitimacy among would-be jihadists, and influence neighboring countries, which have their own extremist group struggles.

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. 
The United Kingdom, Portugal, and France have also pledged support, and there have been troop commitments from Rwanda and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

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. 
According to U.S. State Department reports, members of the country’s security forces have committed human rights abuses including unlawful and arbitrary killings; forced disappearances; and harsh and life-threatening prison conditions.

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. 
This does little to prevent the prospect of the insurgency evolving into a longer-term conflict as it can alienate the local population and bolster rebel recruitment, embolden current insurgents, and furthers human rights abuses.  

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. 
Governance failures are another driver in the growing insurgency and the vast external resources provided by RDSN, as well as the $560 million given annually by the United States as part of the Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability, will be managed by a state with a history of poor economic policies that only benefits the elites.

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. 
To prevent the United States from becoming its own worst enemy, as it has in Somalia and Libya, and to prevent it from acting as an incentive for the local government to avoid addressing the internal problem that led to the insurgency in the first place, it must address the drivers of the conflict.

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. 
Otherwise, civilian welfare will continue to deteriorate and insurgents will become more emboldened, making the prospect of a long term conflict with cross border implications inevitable.