Supporting Mozambique’s Response to the Growing Insurgent Threat in Cabo Delgado

The Islamic insurgency operating in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province is showing increased tactical capacity, outmaneuvering a government hobbled by strategic mistakes, capacity shortfalls, and an evolving Covid-19 outbreak. In late March, Ahlu Sunna wa Jama (ASWJ) attacked the district capitals, Mocímboa da Praia and Quissanga, in its most audacious operations since the group’s emergence in October 2017. It struck Mocímboa da Praia by land and sea, hoisting its flag over police headquarters and exercising control over the area for one day. ASWJ launched a similar attack on the district capital of Quissanga, an urban area 75 miles north of the provincial capital of Pemba. Following the attacks, the insurgents filmed a video in front of the police headquarters in Quissanga where they rejected “the wealth of this world” and called for the implementation of Sharia law in the area, an unusual move for a group that has previously eschewed publicity. Through these attacks, the insurgents demonstrated increased sophistication, planning, and confidence, as well as a shift to targeting government structures and wooing civilian support.

Government and Security Services Struggling

These attacks have brought into sharp focus Maputo’s struggle with defining and countering the worsening violence in Cabo Delgado. According to local reports, the security services did not defend Mocímboa da Praia or Quissanga, and in some cases shed their uniforms to blend in with civilians and avoid combat, provoking criticism from the Catholic bishop of Pemba and other Cabo Delgado residents. A video on social media purportedly showing Mozambican soldiers complaining of low morale launched a debate over whether the video was legitimate or insurgent propaganda, highlighting the lack of trust in the security services and perceptions of the insurgents’ growing capability. At the same time, the government has been incoherent in its response; President Nyusi declared the insurgents a potential threat to national sovereignty, while Defence Minister Jaime Neto claimed the security services have the situation in hand. Authorities arrested 50 people in connection with the attacks but failed to provide details about the detainees’ identities and their connection to the insurgency, raising concerns about due process and extrajudicial detentions.

Opening for Foreign Assistance

The recent attacks also prompted Mozambican officials to repeat their public pleas for security assistance in Cabo Delgado. President Nyusi during the January UK-Africa Summit called for foreign assistance to face its internal security challenges. Even Defense Minister Neto, who has claimed the Mozambican security forces are sufficient to maintain security in the province, said following the recent attacks, “Do we need reinforcement? Yes, and if we get them, we will use them.” Last year Mozambican officials signed security memoranda of understanding with a variety of countries, including Egypt, India, and Russia—which could potentially help with training and materiel for the security services.

Addressing the Security Situation during the Covid-19 Pandemic

Maputo’s current focus is managing the country’s Covid-19 response. To the extent that authorities use the pandemic as an opportunity to expand medical services and provide economic assistance in Cabo Delgado, the government could make some headway in gaining the local population’s trust. However, the Nyusi government will likely turn to potential foreign partners for security assistance if insurgent attacks continue to grow in complexity and frequency—at minimum to protect foreign investments in the region. To ensure the greatest return on their investments in Mozambican security, foreign partners should collaborate with Mozambique in combining assistance with best practices for sustainability to help implement long-lasting stability in Cabo Delgado.

  • Develop a Strategy. Maputo needs to develop a whole-of-government counterinsurgency strategy and identify areas where foreign assistance would be the most impactful—an important step during a time when most would-be partners find themselves under financial constraints. President Nyusi’s reaction to last week’s attacks reveal his evolved view of the insurgents—from a ramshackle group of “evildoers” to a legitimate threat to state presence in Cabo Delgado. Mozambique’s partners, particularly the United States, should capitalize on this changed thinking to help the government develop a basic plan to address both the insurgent fighters and their reasons for fighting.

  • Increase Accountability in the Security Services . The Mozambican security services’ heavy-handed approach toward civilians and clampdown on media coverage of the security situation has exacerbated distrust between civilians and the state. At the same time, press reports indicate that civilians in Mocímboa da Praia either welcomed the insurgents or stayed out of their way, choosing not to resist the recent attack. Partners can help Maputo start to turn the tide by providing human rights training to units deploying to the province and finding ways to reinvigorate accountability within the police and military for the treatment of civilians.

  • Involve Other Government Ministries. The Mozambican government needs to assert control over the provision of goods and services to the local population. In addition to working with the national government and traditional ministries, Mozambique could develop a more inclusive approach, leveraging other cabinet-level officials, including at the Ministry of Education, to improve literacy rates in Cabo Delgado.

Emilia Columbo is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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