Last week thousands were forced to flee Palma, a port town in Mozambique’s northeastern province of Cabo Delgado, following an attack by a jihadist militia linked to the Islamic State (ISIS). The attack is the latest example of the deteriorating security situation in Mozambique, leaving dozens dead, including several foreign workers, and many more missing. The attack on Palma is the most serious incident since insurgents seized control of the town of Mocimboa da Praia in August 2020.
Cabo Delgado has been gripped by an insurgency since 2017 when poorly armed militants began attacking villages and police outposts. Since then, the insurgents have grown in strength, whilst more than 2,600 have been killed and between 670,00 and 700,000 have been displaced. NGOs on the ground such as Save the Children have reported on examples of deeply disturbing human rights abuses by militants, such as executions, abductions and the beheading of children as young as 11. Amnesty International has also accused a South African mercenary group, who have been contracted by the government to combat the insurgents, of firing bullets and throwing grenades into crowds.
The government has come under significant fire for its failure in handling the insurgency. Despite taking steps to regain control of Palma, its military efforts have mostly centred on protecting the province’s lucrative gas-field development projects. Although President Nyusi’s government has been keen to exploit the recently discovered reserves of liquid natural gas in Cabo Delgado, the recent violence has caused French energy company Total to suspend its plans to resume construction work and led ExxonMobil to delay a decision on whether to invest $30bn in a separate project.
The deepening nature of the crisis has led the government to seek external support. The United States is helping the government to redraw its strategy and is providing further military training. The US also recently declared the insurgents to be a franchise of the Islamic State (ISIS-Mozambique). Although there is some evidence for this, the rebel group responsible for the violence Ahlu Sunna Wal Jammah (ASWJ), also known as Ahlu al-Sunna and Al-Shabaab, is said to be largely driven by local grievances and dynamics rather than any serious desire to establish a caliphate in southeastern Africa. Furthermore, the group is thought to include a large contingent of Tanzanian militia fighters.
The US designation speaks to a broader concern about the growth of ISIS-linked militias in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Nigeria, Boko Haram has been resurgent, rebranding itself as the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA), whilst in the Sahel countries of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, jihadists attacks linked to ISIS and al-Qaeda have escalated in recent years.