Over the past three years, a local Islamist insurgency in the northern Mozambican province of Cabo Delgado has grown in strength and viciousness, developing ties with international terrorist groups and threatening one of the world’s largest natural gas projects. The insurgency is turning Cabo Delgado into a killing field. While many Americans are increasingly wary of overseas counterterrorism commitments, there is increasing consensus among experts that the conventional, militarized counterterrorism responses that have dominated in the post 9-11 era are failing, particularly in Africa. The situation in Mozambique is an opportunity to reorient such efforts through addressing the underlying drivers of conflict and extremism.

A man works in the fields outside of the Taratara Camp, in Cabo Delgado province. (U.N. Photo/Eskinder Debebe)
A man works in the fields outside of the Taratara Camp, in Cabo Delgado province. (U.N. Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

Locals call the insurgent group “al-Shabaab”—in part because the group reminds them of the al-Qaida-linked Somali terrorist organization of the same name. This year violence against civilians doubled from 2019 levels. In November 2020, al-Shabaab militants burned the farming community of Muatide to the ground, herded 50 of its residents onto a soccer field and beheaded them. Routine al-Shabaab atrocities and human rights abuses by Mozambican security forces deployed to the region have forced more than 350,000 people to flee their homes.

As ISIS touts al-Shabaab’s exploits and backs the insurgents with increasing levels of operational and tactical support (including formal incorporation into the Islamic State in Central Africa Province in April 2019), counterterrorism analysts and Africa watchers should be deeply concerned about the increasing efficacy and sustainability of ISIS’s franchising efforts across the continent. Without a thoughtfully calibrated international intervention, terrorism may be entrenched in a new theater with equally long-term impacts on human security and regional stability.

The Wrong Playbook

The Mozambican government’s response of deploying army units to take on the insurgents, has backfired, at the cost of lives, time, and state legitimacy. Security forces deployed to Cabo Delgado have arbitrarily detained and summarily executed suspected terrorists abuses against civilians, threatening to exacerbate and expand the threat of violent extremism along the East African coast: al-Shabaab has already conducted brazen cross-border attacks in neighboring Tanzania.

Mozambique cannot manage this crisis on its own. After a string of military defeats by the insurgents, the government began looking for outside help. In August 2019, President Filipe Nyusi met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to secure the help of the Wagner Group—a shadowy mercenary outfit with direct ties to the Kremlin. The situation only worsened; insurgents inflicted heavy losses on Mozambican forces and Russian contractors, causing the Russians to withdraw abruptly just months after arriving.

The result of the government’s mismanagement has been that in just three years, al-Shabaab has graduated from attacking small villages to mounting complex, multi-pronged attacks on Mozambican security forces and strategic towns like the port city of Mocimboa da Praia, which the group has controlled since August. Regional players are increasingly concerned. Mozambique’s neighbor (and regional hegemon) South Africa has offered to provide military support to this failed strategy, lest insecurity threaten its northeastern border. As 2020 closes, the crisis in Mozambique continues on a downward trajectory, increasingly resembling the continent’s protracted counterterrorism challenges in the Sahel, the Horn, and the Lake Chad Basin.

It’s Not Too Late

International policymakers’ fatigue in dealing with groups like Mozambique’s insurgents is understandable: since September 11, 2001, the United States and its allies have been engaged in the so-called “forever war” against Islamist terrorist groups across the globe. In sub-Saharan Africa, the United States has built military and intelligence partnerships in vulnerable countries in the hopes that better trained, equipped, and informed local forces can defeat terrorist groups militarily. Sadly (and predictably), this emphasis on military responses has largely failed to staunch the spread of terrorism. In Somalia, Nigeria, and several countries in the Sahel, terrorist groups are absorbing military pressure and continuing attacks against security forces, peacekeepers, and civilians. Routine abuses by security forces against the civilians they are supposed to be protecting only fuels local grievances and the cycles of new recruits and alliances that repopulate violent extremist groups.

The Road Less Traveled

In the context of failing counterterrorism efforts elsewhere in Africa, the deteriorating situation in Mozambique should encourage policymakers to reframe what has thus far been purely a militarized counterinsurgency and counterterrorism response to an integrated human security strategy that addresses political, economic, religious, and social dimensions driving the violence in Cabo Delgado. The Mozambican government and citizens, donors and security assistance providers, and even (or perhaps especially) multinational energy companies, all have a role in shaping the approach.

  • Energy windfalls and wealth distribution. Across Africa, recent history does not lend optimism that energy investments can serve as a vehicle for inclusive economic growth. Chad, Angola, and Nigeria’s Niger Delta are all places where energy wealth has had negligible benefits for local populations while fueling corruption and enriching elites. And while Mozambique has committed to establish a sovereign wealth fund for a projected $96 billion windfall from natural gas exploration off the coast of Cabo Delgado, for these funds to make a difference in the lives of ordinary Mozambicans—particularly those in the conflict zone—a holistic and transparent distribution strategy is needed now, not later. If regional residents do not see the benefits from multinational oil companies’ $60 billion investment, it will only further the anger and disillusionment that help fuel the insurgency. As a start, energy companies could help fund humanitarian assistance to conflict-affected communities and establish public-private partnerships with local government to expand basic service delivery across Cabo Delgado. At the same time, donors could insist that the Mozambican sovereign wealth fund be subject to regular and credible audits to prevent graft and make public the results so Mozambicans can see for themselves who is benefitting from the country’s natural wealth. USIP’s work in Nigeria, the Horn of Africa, and the Sahel demonstrates ways to bridge community needs with government priorities through discourse and consistent dialogue, which could lend lessons to how the Mozambican government, energy companies, and citizens could co-design projects, particularly those in the north and center of the country.
  • Security and peacebuilding. Corruption, underdevelopment, and abuses by security forces have eroded the limited faith citizens in Cabo Delgado had in their government before al-Shabaab launched its first attacks. To begin to rebuild trust, the government and its partners must treat the people of Cabo Delgado as equal partners in developing a shared version of security—one that demonstrates the government’s commitment to protecting communities from al-Shabaab attacks while clamping down on abuses by security forces and helping those communities meet basic human needs. Addressing al-Shabaab’s influence and networks within the local ecosystem will require the government to work with communities and prove they are committed to address systems of exclusion, mitigate mistrust in institutions, and repair lack of access that can help citizens work better with their governments, including holding security forces accountable. To help guide policymakers navigate through these difficult lanes, nuanced, and empirical research can help identify important contextual trends about radicalization and about resilience; like that produced by the RESOLVE Network, housed at USIP.
  • International cooperation. Without engaged regional or international leadership, Mozambique is sleepwalking into a counterterrorism quagmire. The African Union, Southern African Development Community, the U.N., and the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS all have a role to play, but coordination must be ramped up quickly to develop and support an integrated, African-led strategy. A short-term focus may include degrading the insurgents’ ability to plan attacks and close off arm flows and other financing that fortify the militants’ capacity. But a focus on long-term peacebuilding needs to be present throughout to overcome sources of historic contestation, which has impacted Mozambican government capacity to address grievances. It will be critical for regional actors, especially from the Swahili coast, to play a role in supporting dialogue and peace operations, and help manage historic divides between the primarily Muslim and Swahili north with the Christian and Lusophone south.

The trendlines are deeply concerning in Mozambique, but the violence has not yet reached the severity of conflicts in the Sahel, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. As the United States and others pay more attention to threats emanating from Cabo Delgado, they should avoid the proven failures of an overly-militarized counterterrorism approach. Revising the playbook can demonstrate that private sector actors can be a force multiplier in reestablishing formal governance in the region; that the Mozambican government can respect human rights while better protecting its citizens from violence; and that the international community can cooperate and buoy efforts to amend a failed counterterrorism strategy to one centered on peacebuilding and civilian protection.

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