Mozambique: Where next for the Cabo Delgado insurgency?

April 2021

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On 24 March, the Mozambican town of Palma – a formerly sleepy fishing harbour that has recently become the epicentre of the country’s nascent Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) industry – came under attack by Islamist-linked insurgents known locally as al-Shabaab. The attack and subsequent occupation of Palma, and the bungled response of Mozambican security forces, threw into sharp relief the scale of the security challenge in Cabo Delgado province. While Palma has returned to a tenuous form of government control, a significant portion of the wider province remains beyond the Mozambican state’s authority. With insurgents displaying a highly sophisticated attack capability during the Palma assault, and deploying weapons hitherto unseen in the conflict, the current lull in fighting represents an aberration in a trend of growing violence.

Internationally, the Palma attack has been widely labelled a turning point in the Cabo Delgado conflict. Coming shortly after the Mozambican government had announced the completion of a 25km ‘secure zone’ surrounding the LNG projects – an area which comfortably includes Palma – the already-damaged credibility of the Mozambican security forces has been seriously undermined. The attack has accelerated a growing trend of international interest in the conflict – including discussions of military support with the US, Portugal and EU – and prompted an intensification of regional pressure on Maputo to accept offers of foreign assistance. Economically, the Mozambican government’s strategy of gas-driven development in Cabo Delgado has grown more fragile, with Total announcing the suspension of work on its Mozambique LNG project on 29 March and later declaring Force Majeure on 26 April. Visions of industrial development fuelled by LNG revenues have given way to a serious humanitarian crisis, with the UN estimating that at least 700,000 people have now been displaced by the conflict.

Given the position of Cabo Delgado’s LNG projects at the heart of Mozambique’s future growth trajectory, the picture for investors in the country is increasingly uncertain. With communications in Cabo Delgado extremely poor, and heavily restricted by the Mozambican government, tracking the conflict remains difficult. There continues to be little consensus among analysts and international organisations on the size, objectives, nature and even name of the province’s insurgency. In this insight, therefore, AML will contextualise the conflict in Cabo Delgado to date, and set out three scenarios for the future trajectory of the insurgency. While contagion beyond Cabo Delgado remains unlikely, the Palma attack points to protracted insecurity in the province, suggesting that developing an understanding of the insurgency’s impact will be crucial for investors for the foreseeable future.

Cabo Delgado’s insurgency: Socio-economic neglect and religious radicalisation

Al-Shabaab is widely considered to have first emerged as a fighting force in Mozambique in October 2017, when a group of lightly armed men attacked several banks and police posts in the town of Mocímboa da Praía. The Muslim-majority area surrounding Mocímboa da Praía, and towards the town of Macomia to the south, remains the insurgents’ heartland. Attempts by al-Shabaab to expand into areas inland, dominated by members of the largely non-Muslim Makonde ethnic group, have to date been largely unsuccessful. The group remains small, numbering, at most, several thousand fighters. Evidence from the ground indicates that the group does not enjoy extensive funding – with fighters regularly pictured going barefoot, and often targeting food warehouses, pointing to a minimal resource base. First-hand testimony from escaped prisoners of the insurgency suggests that, while the majority of fighters are local to Cabo Delgado, some fighters may be from further afield, notably neighbouring Tanzania and the southern provinces of Mozambique.

While the Mozambican government has made much of the presence of foreign fighters in the insurgents’ ranks – with many senior Frelimo figures publicly describing the violence in Cabo Delgado as an externally directed conspiracy – in AML’s assessment, the group remains primarily driven by local socio-economic grievances. As noted in our April 2020 insight, Cabo Delgado is something of a politico-economic paradox – while home to many of Frelimo’s most senior figures, and possessing significant mineral resources, the province is severely underdeveloped. Trade in valuable minerals – and illegal activities such as heroin trafficking – have long been controlled by a small elite, often associated by locals with southern Mozambique, to the detriment of the local population. Consequently, Cabo Delgado’s socio-economic neglect has produced a sizeable underclass of young people with little allegiance to the Mozambican government, and little prospect of economic advancement, despite the foreign-backed resource developments that have been established around them.

Within this context, religious influence has played a significant role in instrumentalising and radicalising localised grievances. With the established Islamic umbrella organisation, the Islamic Council of Mozambique (CISLAMO), maintaining close ties with Frelimo, more radical sects, often inspired by foreigners travelling south along the Swahili coast, gained traction among elements of the region’s youth. The most comprehensive study to date of the conflict’s origins, by Dr Eric Morier-Genoud of Queen’s University Belfast, traces al-Shabaab’s current operations back to one such sect in the Balama district, which later moved to a base in Mocímboa da Praía.

With so little first-hand testimony coming from al-Shabaab members, it is impossible to definitively state what the insurgents’ objectives are. However, the group’s behaviour to date has increasingly focused on targets associated primarily with the authority of the Mozambican state – such as local government offices and civil servants – and, more recently, on those linked to foreign-backed resource extraction, such as a hotel housing expatriate workers in Palma. Eyewitness testimony gathered by local NGO the Observatório do Mundo Rural (OMR) additionally suggests that al-Shabaab leaders have styled themselves as fighting Frelimo-linked “corruption”, offering Islamic fundamentalism as the solution to Cabo Delgado’s socio-economic malaise. Although sporadic attempts have been made by insurgents to distribute food to local populations, the insurgents’ propensity for carrying out serious human rights atrocities against local people suggests that many fighters may have only a loose adherence to the objectives reportedly espoused by their leaders.

AML Insight April 2021

“ISIS Mozambique”? The insurgency’s international dimension

While the insurgents’ objectives remain unclear, it is beyond doubt that al-Shabaab is now an effective and disciplined fighting force, capable of launching increasingly sophisticated attacks. The growing sophistication has renewed focus on the group’s purported links to the Islamic State (IS) group, and the possible role the Iraqi-Syrian group may be exerting on al-Shabaab’s activities.

Claims of IS involvement in the group date to 2018, with IS now describing al-Shabaab as a part of its ‘Central African Province’. The exact extent of IS’ role in directing the group is fiercely contested. The Mozambican government has regularly sought to focus attention on IS’ role, partially in an effort to deflect from scrutiny of the underlying conditions in Cabo Delgado that have facilitated the insurgency.

However, throughout 2020, ties between al-Shabaab in Mozambique and IS appear to have grown stronger. On 10 March 2021, the US State Department designated al-Shabaab an affiliate of IS, terming it “ISIS-Mozambique”, citing confidential evidence purportedly showing that IS provides material support to the group. While the ISIS-Mozambique designation has attracted criticism for implying that IS is directly controlling al-Shabaab’s strategy and operations – for which no evidence has yet been presented – al-Shabaab’s increasing sophistication suggests that IS networks are playing a role in supporting the group. Similarly, while IS claims of al-Shabaab attacks have often been sporadic or delayed, intelligence community sources have indicated that al-Shabaab has designated ‘propaganda makers’, equipped with video cameras, possibly to feed back to IS.

In AML’s assessment, the IS-al-Shabaab relationship is best considered as a mutually beneficial arrangement – al-Shabaab provides propaganda to support IS’ claims to be a global terror force, in exchange for gaining some material support, but retaining overall operational independence. In this understanding, it is unlikely that al-Shabaab’s activities will meaningfully spread beyond northern Mozambique, given the continued core role of local fighters in retaining operational control of the insurgency. The insurgents’ tactics to date add to the credence of a cautious approach influenced by local knowledge – brief attempts to encroach into majority-Makonde areas in 2020 were quickly abandoned, while the insurgents have continued to avoid directly attacking ‘hard’ targets, such as the LNG facilities at Afungi. IS’ involvement nevertheless adds an unpredictable dimension to the insurgency – with al-Shabaab’s ability to attract foreign support likely to add to difficulties in dislodging the group.

Security adrift: A failed government response to the insurgency

To date, the Mozambican government’s reaction to the insurgency has been ineffective. The response of the national security forces – the Defence and Security Forces (FDS) – has been heavy-handed, with soldiers accused of committing multiple human rights violations. Mozambican security forces – particularly soldiers from the armed forces, the Forças Armadas de Defesa de Moçambique (FADM) – have fared poorly in battle, often abandoning their posts and being implicated in the looting of local villages. The government has to date sought assistance from a range of Private Military Contractors (PMCs) – most notably the South African Dyck Advisory Group, itself accused by Amnesty International of perpetuating war crimes – which have had a mixed record in fighting. While elements of the Mozambican government have sought to address the underlying socio-economic difficulties in Cabo Delgado – notably through the creation of the Integrated Agency for the Development of the North (ADIN) under the auspices of agriculture minister Celso Correia – funding difficulties and limited political capital have curtailed progress in advancing localised development strategies.

Despite the worsening security situation in Cabo Delgado, and the growing threat posed by the insurgency to the LNG developments, Maputo has to date proved resistant to entertaining offers of meaningful foreign military assistance. While recent months have seen an initial agreement with the EU to provide limited military support, and the deployment of a small US training mission, senior Frelimo figures have repeatedly reiterated that maintaining Mozambican ‘sovereignty’ – in effect, refusing to entertain the prospect of foreign troops on the ground – is a priority. Recent attacks have prompted a slight softening of this approach – with a technical team of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) arriving in Mozambique on 15 April to evaluate possible assistance to be provided by the bloc, following months of stalling by Maputo.

However, significant questions remain over both Maputo’s willingness to host foreign forces, and the appetite of regional and international powers to intervene in the conflict. Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa, for instance, has called for a “forceful” military intervention, but costs are known to have presented a barrier in allowing a deployment of even a small number of Zimbabwean troops in Mozambique. Similarly, the appetite of the EU and US to become directly embroiled in what remains a localised conflict is low given the prevailing politically introspective mood in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic – limiting the options for intervention, even if Maputo changes its cautious stance.

Within this context, AML considers the conflict to have several prospective future trajectories. Below, we set out three different scenarios for the conflict’s development and potential containment, beginning with the most probable, and ending with the least.

Scenario one: Cabo Delgado plagued by insecurity, but insurgent progress checked by international assistance

Under scenario one, AML expect a continuation of violent attacks within Cabo Delgado throughout 2021, primarily concentrated in the insurgents’ existing sphere of influence along the coastline from Mocímboa da Praía to Palma. Such attacks would broadly follow the insurgents’ existing modus operandi – primarily operating from the bush, rather than occupying district centres for extended periods. In this scenario, al-Shabaab can be considered likely to continue to pose a significant threat to Palma town – with further attacks in the area likely – while slowly advancing inland, notably to areas surrounding the garrison town of Mueda, which have already seen sporadic insurgent activity.

Insurgent movements are likely to be limited in this scenario by the provision of modest foreign military aid – namely a continuation of US training assistance, and training deployments by Portugal and/or the EU – to complement ongoing support by currently operational PMC Paramount. In addition, under this scenario, limited SADC assistance is provided to Mozambique – primarily in training and intelligence sharing, but possibly extending to small special forces deployments. Such assistance may also encompass improved maritime security, clamping down on the insurgents’ ability to attack coastal towns from the sea, a key prong of many of al-Shabaab’s most successful assaults. The Mozambican government would continue to retain overall control of counter-insurgency operations, however, with only slow progress being made in improving the capacity of the FDS.

Consequently, while al-Shabaab would be unlikely to exert a significantly greater degree of territorial control in Cabo Delgado, AML do not foresee a major rolling back of the insurgents’ sphere of influence in this scenario. As such, al-Shabaab would continue to pose a significant security threat in Cabo Delgado, likely preventing a meaningful return for internally displaced persons throughout 2021. Under this scenario, work on on-shore LNG projects is unlikely to restart until 2022 at the earliest – with the gas consortia likely to adopt a cautious approach to any future security guarantees issued by the Mozambican government. While AML do not expect a decision on the future of ExxonMobil’s Rovuma LNG project – for which a Final Investment Decision (FID) has yet to be taken – in 2021 under this scenario, the risk of cancellation rises significantly, given the wider changes underway in global gas markets driven by the accelerating transition to renewable forms of energy. The ongoing delays are likely to further depress economic sentiment around Mozambique, however, increasing fiscal pressure on the Mozambican government, and limiting the likelihood of significant funding being directed at development initiatives such as ADIN.

AML considers scenario one to be the most likely outcome for the insurgency over the course of 2021. Recent comments by senior officials in Frelimo’s conservative wing dismissing the prospect of foreign military intervention – and a conciliatory response by President Filipe Nyusi – have signalled that any assistance will likely be limited in scope. The structural difficulties in the FDS that foreign training missions are intended to solve are deep and long-standing, with Frelimo having long sought to maintain a relatively weak armed forces in order to guarantee its own hold on power. Shaping the Mozambican armed forces into an effective fighting force is, therefore, expected to be a multi-year task, limiting the potential for a rapid reversal of fortune for the government in Cabo Delgado if Frelimo retains its tight grip on operations.

Simultaneously, however, the scale of international attention – and pressure – on Maputo relating to the insurgency is likely to deliver at least a degree of improvement to the FDS’ effectiveness through training and assistance, therefore limiting the potential for major losses elsewhere in Cabo Delgado. Given al-Shabaab’s limited numbers and resources, the group is likely to proceed cautiously in expanding its influence – as it has done in its operations to date – therefore avoiding a substantial expansion in the insurgents’ sphere of control, particularly into neighbouring provinces. Additionally, the prioritisation within the Mozambican government of defending the LNG sites is likely to deter a substantial attack on the projects, allowing the oil and gas companies time to consider the future of their operations.

The ongoing internal political difficulties that external intervention poses for senior Mozambican decision makers – and the insurgents’ ability to remain a serious fighting force despite limited resources – therefore point to a continuation of the existing situation of insecurity, but one that remains relatively contained for the months ahead.

AML Insight April 2021

Scenario two: Uncontrolled spread of insurgent influence across Cabo Delgado

Under scenario two, al-Shabaab rapidly expands its sphere of influence throughout the forthcoming dry season, capitalising on the continued weakness of the FDS. In this scenario, al-Shabaab’s area of control would expand substantially, encompassing much of the region stretching inland from the coast, and seeing an extension of attacks into the neighbouring Niassa and Nampula provinces. While Cabo Delgado’s capital, Pemba, is likely to be defended from insurgent incursions, in scenario two AML would expect al-Shabaab to transition from a localised presence into a group posing a regional security threat across north eastern Mozambique.

In this scenario, AML foresee ongoing political difficulties in Maputo posing a continued stumbling block to significant military assistance – particularly from SADC – throughout 2021, in line with the pattern established in 2020. As such, the FDS would continue to be unable to contain the insurgency. A sustained series of attacks by insurgents is additionally likely to boost their own profile – likely fuelled by IS propaganda channels – enabling continued recruitment of experienced foreign fighters, therefore improving their own fighting capabilities.

Such an expansion would severely curtail hopes for the LNG industry, while accelerating the already serious humanitarian crisis in Cabo Delgado. Notably, the risk of incursion into the LNG project sites by al-Shabaab can be considered high, if al-Shabaab continue to expand their presence in and around the Palma district. Any such incursion would almost certainly bring an end to hopes for ExxonMobil’s Rovuma LNG project, while raising the prospect of a long-term challenges to Total’s Mozambique LNG. As a baseline, any revenues gained by the Mozambican government from the LNG industry in the long-run in this scenario are likely to be substantially lower than initial forecasts, raising questions over the country’s long-run fiscal sustainability.

AML considers scenario two to have a moderate likelihood of emerging during 2021. The Palma attacks indicate that the FDS remain far from operating as an effective fighting force – and the subsequent withdrawal of DAG mercenaries risks further undermining military capabilities. In parallel, al-Shabaab’s capabilities have clearly increased, while government weapons taken during the attack from the FDS is likely to further buttress their fighting power. However, the extent of international interest in the conflict – and the very real threat to the Mozambican government that LNG revenues slip away – is likely to deliver sufficient internal and external intervention to ensure that, as a baseline, the FDS contain the insurgency to within Cabo Delgado. Moreover, although al-Shabaab have become bolder in their approach, the relatively rapid withdrawal from Palma indicates that the insurgents will continue to cautiously deploy their capabilities, rather than making a substantial play for territorial expansion.

Scenario three: Rapid containment of the insurgency, limiting insecurity

Under scenario three, AML anticipates the intense international focus on the Cabo Delgado insurgency translating into meaningful and substantial intervention in support of the Mozambican government. Pressure on Maputo to accept assistance in Cabo Delgado from SADC and international partners delivers a rapid improvement in the capabilities of the FDS, buttressed by a limited contingent of troops, likely derived from SADC. The suspension of LNG projects, and the threat of a near-total loss of gas industry revenues for the Mozambican government, is instrumentalised by senior ministers to overcome resistance to more substantial foreign intervention within Frelimo.

In this scenario, the enhanced military response would add to existing food supply pressures on the insurgents. Improved Tanzanian border security, and maritime security provided by international partners, would stem the flow of weapons to the insurgents, limiting their expansion capability. Al-Shabaab is therefore restricted to operating in its existing sphere of influence, coming under increasing military pressure to the extent of restricting the group to the bush. While sporadic attacks would continue under this scenario, the Mozambican government would retain stable control of most of Cabo Delgado’s key towns, and provide effective guarantees for the resumption of construction on the LNG projects at Afungi.

AML considers this scenario, at present, to have a low likelihood of occurring during 2021. As noted above, while the Cabo Delgado conflict has aroused international concern, the willingness of credible powers such as South Africa, the US or EU to directly intervene in the conflict is very low, given the prevailing political context during the COVID-19 pandemic. Opposition to foreign military intervention is deep-seated within Frelimo – dating back to the civil war era, and additionally closely tied to a reluctance to open senior figures’ business affairs in Cabo Delgado to external scrutiny. Mozambican stakeholders remain remarkably bullish on prospects for the LNG industry – despite repeated warnings over project security issued by the operators – suggesting that suspensions are unlikely to force a significant change in approach to the conflict.

As such, the likelihood of a significant and rapid turnaround of the conflict is, at this stage, low. The Cabo Delgado insurgency is set to remain a significant local security threat over the course of 2021, with the prevailing political dynamics of the conflict preventing rapid and meaningful external intervention.

A difficult road ahead in Cabo Delgado

Regardless of how the Cabo Delgado conflict develops over the coming months, the Mozambican government has suffered a significant setback to its credibility, with already-fragile investor confidence dented by repeated failures in the government’s handling of the insurgency. The scale of the problems now facing Cabo Delgado – not least the serious humanitarian situation – indicates that, visions of the province fuelling an economic boom in Mozambique are unlikely to be realised.

While the conflict has highlighted severe ongoing governance failures in Mozambique, the international attention now focused on the country offers a chance to meaningfully limit the insurgency, and sustainably turn the tide on decades of neglect in Cabo Delgado. Mozambique is now at a crossroads, with the government’s response in Cabo Delgado likely to influence investor perceptions of the wider country for decades to come. Cabo Delgado’s war is a consequence of decades of failed policymaking – and only a radical shift in approach is likely to shift Mozambique off its current course of deepening insecurity.