Counter-Terrorism: Mozambique Matters


April 16, 2021: The Islamic terrorism problem has gotten worse, and is happening in a country where Moslems are a minority. In the southeast Africa nation of Mozambique rebels captured a critical port in late 2020, and they are still there. This escalation began in August 2020 when a local Islamic terrorist group with some ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) affiliation seized Mocímboa di Praia, 2,600 kilometers north of the capital. More importantly, it is only eighty kilometers the coastal boom town of Palma, which is ten kilometers from the vital gas facility on the Afungi peninsula. At the end of 2020 their forces probed to within ten kilometers of the natural gas facilities, prompting the French firm (Total) operating the facility to evacuate some staff. In late March 2021 the ISIL led rebels, now calling themselves ISCAP (Islamic State Central Africa Province), captured Palma and declared it their ISCAP capital. Work at the nearby natural gas facility was halted and more staff were evacuated. This time government forces acted more promptly and recaptured Palma during the first week of April. Because Palma is only 30 kilometers from the Tanzanian border, ISCAP is closer a country with an even larger Moslem population than Mozambique and where most foreign Islamic terrorists travel to before crossing the border into Mozambique. The fact that ISCAP captured Palma, if only for about a week, is seen as a major victory by Islamic terrorists in Africa and that will attract more experience Islamic terrorists as well as more contributions from individuals and Moslem organizations, often passing as charities, that react positively to events like Palma.

Since the natural gas discoveries over a decade ago, Mozambique’s northernmost region, the Cabo Delgado area, came to be called the Cinderella province because of the expected oil and natural gas bonanza. Largely ignored by the central government since 1992, when a civil war ended, all of that changed when natural gas was discovered off the coast. There are also significant graphite deposits. Cabo Delgado now represents Mozambique’s economic future. The foreign companies developing the offshore natural gas deposits have had to borrow $15 billion to build the facilities to extract the oil and get it to foreign markets. Another five billion dollars has to be invested to complete the work. Many of the new jobs went to foreigners who had skills none of the locals possessed. Too many of the unskilled jobs for locals went to friends or family of politicians and government officials. In other words, Cabo Delgado residents are angry about their continued poverty despite all the money being spent on the new natural gas complex, which depend on local towns of Mocímboa da Praia and Palma for their airports and docks for bringing in equipment and personnel.

Local anger at a new natural resource bonanza is common in Africa, where most nations with oil or natural gas, or any valuable exportable raw material, see most of the export income stolen by corrupt politicians. This is the rule, not the exception in Africa. Big promises were made to nearby inhabitants, but governments crippled by corruption fail to deliver the promised benefits. Add the fact that Mozambique’s minority Moslem population is concentrated in the north, to provide the Islamic terrorists with recruits and some local support and you have potential problems. This can create a classic long-term problem sustained by fanatic Islamic terrorists. Initially calling themselves Ansar-al-Sunna (AS), this group was actually a coalition of at least four smaller factions, not all of whom identify explicitly with ISIL. AS has been very active since 2017, with attacks ramping up considerably in 2019. By December 2020 there were some thirty attacks reported each month. These conform to a familiar and tragic model. Guerrilla groups appear suddenly, targeting government security forces and small centers of population. The attacks are swift and overwhelming, with poorly equipped government forces outgunned and massacred before they can call in support. Beheadings, mass abductions, forced recruitment and the full panoply of ISIL rule follows. Usually, the rebels do not initially seek to exert territorial control, preferring to melt back into the bush and keep attacking local security forces until the local opposition is weak enough, and the Islamic terrorists strong enough to capture and hold territory. That’s what happened in mid-2020 when Mocímboa taken and held. AS, now ISCAP, became more aggressive and the recent capture of Palma was an example of that.

Elements of AS emerged in 2015 in Cabo Delgado. This northern province of two million people is majority Moslem. Cabo Delgado is adjacent to Tanzania, a nation of 56 million and a larger (35 percent) Moslem minority. Islamic radicals from northern neighbors Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia were the key to creation of AS. These other African terrorists tend to favor al Qaeda over ISIL but major victories make the more vicious and fanatic ISIL more popular. Moslems are a minority in East Africa but an aggressive one when it comes religious matters. That’s a major reason why most East Africans are either Christians or follow ancient local religious practices. The Islamic terrorists still finance themselves via smuggling, extortion and outright theft.

Mayhem in Mozambique dates back to the 1500s when Portugal, using new technologies (cannon and superior sailing ships) conquered and colonized the area, creating the current borders of Mozambique. This explains why the country consists largely of coast and interior areas reachable via rivers. What ended Portuguese rule was an anti-colonial rebellion which began in the early 1960s, when other European colonizers, but not Portugal, were departing, until 1975 when Portugal finally got rid of its colonies. This meant nearly 300,000 Portuguese left Mozambique, taking with them a major portion of the new nation’s technical personnel and skilled administrators. Mozambique elected its own government but that only lasted two years before a fifteen-year long civil war began. This civil war was far more damaging than the shorter, and less successful anti-colonial war. The civil war killed over a million people and drove more than 20 percent of the population from their homes for months or years. Nearly two million of those refugees fled the country.

Mozambique has been suffering wars or threats of war since the 1960s. Mozambique is a largely coastal country north of South Africa and south of Tanzania. Most of the coastline runs parallel to the large island of Madagascar. The population of 30 million is a lot larger, and less prosperous, than the six million living there in 1950. For over a thousand years Mozambique has, like many other parts of East Africa, consisted of coastal cities that prospered by serving as a market places where people from the interior could obtain all manner of foreign goods. Mozambique was part of a vast trading network using dependable seasonable winds to allow ships to move good from East Africa to the Persian Gulf, India and Indonesia.

Mozambique never recovered from all the violence it has suffered since the 1960s. The rebellion against the Portuguese colonial government left about 60,000 dead, 94 percent of them rebels and civilians. The rebels were never a real threat to the colonial government but Portugal was having domestic problems and their African colonies were expensive to maintain and unpopular with European and African governments. The first Mozambique government was socialist and run by politicians who wanted to establish a communist police state “for the greater good.” This triggered a civil war in 1977 that killed over a million people, most of them civilians, before it ended in 1992. With collapse of European communist governments and the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991, the Mozambique communists agreed to accept true democracy. Some tensions between communists and democrats remained and there were brief outbursts of violence in 2013 and 2018. A 2019 agreement eliminated most of that tension just as a new threat, from Islamic terrorists, was developing.

The civil wars were mainly about politics and tribal alliances. Religion was not a major factor because more than four centuries of Portuguese rule had left the population mostly (60 percent) Christian, with about 20 percent practicing ancient local religions or no religion at all. About twenty percent were Moslem, mostly in the north. Until the huge natural gas deposits were discovered, the north was poor and not worth fighting over. In the last decade it became clear that Mozambique was really going become one of the largest natural gas producers in the world. That made some Mozambique politicians very rich while everyone else remained poor. That got the northern Moslems receptive to calls for rebellion and that led to Islamic terrorists taking the lead, as they often do in Moslem majority areas. It only took a few years for several small Islamic terror groups to get organized and then agree to merge to form the larger Ansar-al-Sunna. After a few years of fighting and a few spectacular victories, Ansar-al-Sunna became ISCAP. The way this works is that the subsequent fighting in areas where Moslems are a minority is all about whether corrupt Moslems or corrupt Christians gain control of the new source of wealth, in this case natural gas. An Islamic terrorist victory is unlikely as the Mozambique Moslems are outnumbered. The Islamic rebels say they are out to eliminate corruption. All Islamic rebels say that and none ever deliver. That has been demonstrated many times in the last few decades and many Moslems have noticed.

As expected, the Mozambique Islamic terrorists got started because of the failed promise of prosperity from the offshore natural gas fields after production, and sale or natural got stated over the last few years. Economists expected to Mozambique to receive nearly $120 billion in revenue from natural gas and oil over the next 25 years. That’s for a country with an annual GDP of $14 billion and a per capita GDP of under $500. Mozambique is one of the poorest nations in Africa, and one of the most corrupt even before the natural gas bonanza. The natural gas was supposed to reduce poverty but didn’t. GDP is growing a few percent a year and little of that improves living standards of those closest to the source of wealth. When the Islamic terrorist violence first appeared, the government hired several hundred Russian military contractors, who were mostly veterans, often with combat experience, to safeguard the natural gas facilities. These Russians clashed with the Islamic terrorists but the main job of the Russian contractors was protecting the natural gas operations, not local civilians which they have done. Some of the Russians fought in Palma recently, both during the failed government effort to defend the town and during the subsequent effort to drive ISCAP out. The Russians will fight for Palma because it is the largest town to the natural gas facility. Losing control of Palma is a threat to the natural gas complex, which was shut down for over a week until ISCAP could be ejected from Palma.

Mozambique needs foreign military help because the local military forces are small and not well trained, armed or led. The military only has 15,000 personnel, 80 percent of them in the army which is organized into ten light infantry battalions and some support units. Three of the infantry battalion are designated special forces, but lack sufficient training and equipment to qualify as special. The air force and navy are much smaller and have few operational aircraft and ships. The army received a lot of weapons from Russia from 1975 until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. China has since been selling Mozambique some weapons and ammo but most of the military gear is elderly and often not operational.

The air force has a handful of Russian and French helicopters and about a dozen Tucano armed trainer aircraft. The navy includes patrol boats and a small contingent of marines. These forces were supplemented after 2019 by Russian mercenaries, followed by South African military contractors belonging to DAG (Dyck Advisory Group), who brought some helicopter gunships with them. Both these military contractors went to Mozambique with the approval of their respective governments.

So far nearly 3,000 people have been killed during the fighting, mostly civilians. Over 700,000 civilians have been displaced. Four major engagements have taken place; at Quissanga, Macomia, Mocímboa and Palma. The rebels continue to get stronger.

The first ISCAP victory was in mid-2020 at Mocímboa. It took place over six days, culminating in its capture in August 2020. Government troops were at company strength, about 200 marines tasked with protecting the port facilities. It seems they were holding their own, against several hundred attackers who employed sophisticated tactics to infiltrate the city (population 60,000) and then attack it from all sides. Routes into town were blocked beforehand, with fifty government troops killed during a reinforcement attempt. The garrison was therefore trapped and ultimately had to be evacuated by sea. DAG provided intermittent helicopter gunship support, operating at extreme range. Ultimately, the garrison fell because it could not be reinforced or supplied; it ran out of ammunition. Both DAG and the government were accused of attacks on civilian targets, notably the hospital.

Since then, soldiers and DAG gunships made repeated efforts to retake the city, but it seems they lack the means to do so. The rebels themselves have consolidated their position and launched further attacks towards the French run natural gas facility on the Afungi peninsula. Capturing the French facility may not be their main objective right now, but threatening it is. That explains the March attack on Palma and quick recapture by government forces. The government was accused of concentrating on defending the natural gas facilities at the expense of protecting the local population. Indeed, by early 2021 they military was still working on establishing a 25-kilometer security zone around the plant.

Politically, the government has been reluctant to seek outside help. At the end of 2020 a security partnership was negotiated with neighboring Tanzania, despite the government implying that Tanzania was supporting, or tolerating support for the Islamic terrorists. Portugal promised to deploy a training and advisory force in 2021, particularly for the air force. France is extremely reluctant to involve itself in another African war. The United States has encouraged Zimbabwe to act, but that government is unlikely to do so unless supported by SADC (South African Development Community). The SADC itself has discussed the crisis repeatedly and may be edging towards military intervention, with South Africa in the lead. In what may be an important development, in mid-March the Americans announced its special forces would deploy to the country on a two-month training mission. It’s not clear that the Mozambique government or its allies have a coherent or plausible strategy for defeating the rebels. Attacks have recently been reported across the border, in neighboring Tanzania. With the Americans now engaged however, this may be about to change. --Andrew Mulholland




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