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19.12.2019 Mozambique

Jihadist insurgency grows in northern Mozambique

By Aldemiro Bande with Philippe Alfroy in Johannesburg
Islamist militants have attacked and burned villages in Mozambique's northern Cabo Delgado region.  By Joaquim Nhamirre (AFP/File)
LISTEN DEC 19, 2019
Islamist militants have attacked and burned villages in Mozambique's northern Cabo Delgado region. By Joaquim Nhamirre (AFP/File)

Deep in the remote jungles of northern Mozambique, a growing war is pitting troops against insurgents, forcing families from their homes and destroying villages.

For two years, a shadowy Islamist militancy has sown terror in Cabo Delgado, never making claims, only staging attacks in the mostly Muslim province that sits in the shadow of the country's offshore gasfields.

Branded mere "criminals" by authorities, the militants began mostly targeted the civilian population, causing several hundred deaths.

But in recent months the conflict has intensified.

Mozambique's armed forces have taken over policing the province, helped discreetly by Russian military private contractors, while Islamic State militants have claimed their first attacks in the region.

Today all agree: Violence in Cabo Delgado has reached its peak since the insurgency first emerged in 2017.

All agree that violence in Cabo Delgado has reached its peak since the insurgency emerged in 2017.  By MARCO LONGARI (AFP/File) All agree that violence in Cabo Delgado has reached its peak since the insurgency emerged in 2017. By MARCO LONGARI (AFP/File)

In November alone, there were 31 attacks, one foreign source on the ground said, the highest number since the militancy began.

"There are more incidents, more frequently, against more targets and with increasing firepower," said one analyst with a security consulting company.

A media blackout imposed by the authorities in the province has made evaluating the situation even more difficult, with journalists considered persona non grata.

'Out of hand'

In a country still scarred by the long civil war between 1976-1992, the ministry of defence tried to show it was gaining the upper-hand and in October announced it had neutralised a "large number of criminals."

But two months later, it remains silent.

"The situation has gotten worse. It's even getting out of hand," said one resident of Mocimboa da Praia. "The insurgents are attacking administrative centres, even if they are protected by the army."

Map of Mozambique locating districts of Cabo Delgado province affected by an Islamist insurgency.  By Gillian HANDYSIDE (AFP) Map of Mozambique locating districts of Cabo Delgado province affected by an Islamist insurgency. By Gillian HANDYSIDE (AFP)

Mozambique's armed forces, known by its Portuguese initials, FADM, appear to be struggling.

"The FADM is not in control of what is happening in Cabo Delgado," said independent analyst Jasmine Opperman.

"The fear in the FADM soldiers in this area is paramount. They don't want to go out at night, they don't want to leave their vehicles."

The attacks are growing. On December 6, a military convoy was ambushed in the village of Narere. Between nine and 14 soldiers were killed and three vehicles destroyed, a villager told AFP.

The arrival in September of 200 contractors from the Russian private security company Wagner, appears to have changed little.

Several sources told AFP about the presence of "white soldiers" patrolling alongside Mozambique troops and said they had also suffered "heavy losses".

Russian beating

Unsurprisingly, officials in Maputo and Moscow did not confirm details and have not provided any information about the contractors.

"The Russians started to launch heavy operations, and they hit hard enough. But it didn't have any real impact," said the analyst at the consulting firm.

"The Russians have taken a beating," said the foreign source.

Mozambique's army has taken over policing in the region but it appears to be struggling against a stubborn militant insurgency.  By ADRIEN BARBIER (AFP/File) Mozambique's army has taken over policing in the region but it appears to be struggling against a stubborn militant insurgency. By ADRIEN BARBIER (AFP/File)

Mozambique's opposition leader has publicly denounced the use of these "dogs of war".

"We reject this intervention," Issufo Momade said. "Mozambicans die every day, but nobody knows what is going on in Cabo Delgado."

Islamic State's claim to have entered into the conflict has further muddied the situation.

Little is known about the local insurgency. Cabo Delgado inhabitants say the "Al Shabaab" group -- youth in Arabic -- was formed from locals who followed an ultra-conservative Islamic movement and trained in camps in Somolia and Tanzania.

But the ideology and objectives of these "ghost" jihadists remain a mystery. They have never published a statement.

Since June however, Islamic State has opened a new media front by claiming around 20 operations in Cabo Delgado, including the December 6 attack "against crusaders from the Mozambican army".

It has also published photos of armed fighters with the group's trademark black flag on vehicles it claims to have captured from the Mozambique army.

But security experts remain unsure.

"People say this is only PR for the IS, others want to draw ties that are not necessarily there yet. We don't have hard evidence yet," said Ryan Cummings with Signal Risk consultancy.

"There hasn't been any change in terms of operations and targets that people might have been expecting when this group became an Islamic State affiliate."

Others see more reason to be concerned.

"Ignoring more than 20 ISIS claims will be to the peril of Mozambique. They do not need large numbers, they rely on cells and proxies," said analyst Opperman.

"Fact is they have their eyes on Cabo Delgado and with that the risk for kidnappings, IEDs and targeting of any humanitarian workers are of significant concern."

Gas giants

Whether Islamic State is involved or not, Mozambique still refuses to recognise that it is fighting an Islamist insurgency, preferring to brand them criminals.

That maybe complicated with militants operating just on the doorstep of energy majors Exxon-Mobil and French oil company Total who are looking to exploit the country's gas reserves off the coast of Cabo Delgado.

At the start of December, Mozambique authorities announced a new offensive. But few believe in its success. Even the Mozambique central bank expressed its concern over the "worsening military situation in the north."

"It's very unlikely that the (private contractors) alongside the Mozambique army is going to completely dislodge this insurgency," said Cummings.

On the ground the situation is becoming dire.

According to one NGO working on the ground, more than 90,000 civilians have been displaced by the fighting and are surviving in precarious conditions.

"Everyone is already hungry and now we are entering into the season of hunger. Imagine what will happen when you already have around a 100,000 people outside of their homes and who are not able to go to the fields," said one NGO source.

"We are going to see a bigger humanitarian kind of tragedy happening here."

Mozambique

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