The Big Read: Five years on, Cabo Delgado in Mozambique still a hotbed of insurgency

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A Rwandan soldier walks in front of a burned truck near Palma, Cabo Delgado, Mozambique. Thousands of Rwandan soldiers are assisting Mozambique amid insurgency.
A Rwandan soldier walks in front of a burned truck near Palma, Cabo Delgado, Mozambique. Thousands of Rwandan soldiers are assisting Mozambique amid insurgency.
  • Al-Shabaab insurgents in Mozambique have spread beyond Cabo Delgado into new areas beyond the patrols of the SADC and Rwanda forces.
  • According to an analyst, they also garner positions in communities by playing on feelings of exploitation, or through fear. 
  • Anger still simmers in the region over the TotalEnergies gas project, where communities feel they are not getting the jobs and benefits they expected.  

Almost five years into the crisis, Mozambique's Cabo Delgado province remains a hotbed of insurgency in southern Africa despite the SA Development Community (SADC) Mission in Mozambique, known as SAMIM, and the Rwandan Defence Force's (RDF) attempts to fend off violent Islamic extremists. 

A lot has been written and insights provided by analysts studying the crisis, yet policymakers still find resolutions elusive, as much of the battle revolves around gas fields. 

News24 spoke to Ryan O'Farrell, a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation - an organisation dedicated to ending and preventing mass atrocities around the world.  

How has Al-Shabaab managed to expand its operations beyond its core territories in Cabo Delgado?

Over the past year, since the interventions by Rwanda and SADC in July and August 2021, Al-Shabaab has staged attacks in areas outside its controlled zones, or areas where it had a presence during the height of its power in 2020. 

The first was in Niassa province, to the west of Cabo Delgado, in November and December 2021, and over the past two months, in southern Cabo Delgado and northern Nampula provinces.

What are the reasons for the insurgents spreading to other parts of the country, and how can the SADC and RDF address this?

I think Al-Shabaab wants to move some of its forces to new areas because they are facing significant military pressure in their core areas in Cabo Delgado. 

Its core areas in Cabo Delgado have seen the deployment of far more soldiers, police, and foreign troops than other areas, given that it was Al-Shabaab’s stronghold.

READ | Thousands flee as jihadist attacks resume in Mozambique

Sending Al-Shabaab fighters to new areas with far fewer security forces would allow them to attack where targets are more vulnerable, and potentially force security forces to redeploy to these new areas and reduce the pressure on Al-Shabaab in its core areas.

This poses a serious challenge to both Mozambican and foreign security forces, as sending troops to deal with new Al-Shabaab cells in new areas would overstretch them, which I believe is the intention behind Al-Shabaab's new strategy. 

SAMIM in particular has not deployed as many troops as its mandate allows due to budgetary constraints, and I believe SAMIM would struggle to cover even more areas of northern Mozambique.

Is there a link between the local Al-Shabaab and the one in East Africa? 

There is no operational link between Al-Shabaab in Cabo Delgado and Al-Shabaab in Somalia. Al-Shabaab in Cabo Delgado is an Islamic State (ISIS) affiliate, while Al-Shabaab in Somalia is an al-Qaeda affiliate.

As such, they are enemies.

Al-Shabaab in Cabo Delgado does have connections to Islamic State in Somalia, which defected from Al-Shabaab in 2015.

But Al-Shabaab in Somalia and ISIS in Somalia, despite their former ties, are now bitter enemies like all Islamic State and al-Qaeda groups around the world.

The name creates some confusion, but "Al-Shabaab" merely means "the youth" in Arabic, and has historically been a common casual title for any radical jihadist groups in East Africa.

I believe this happened because Al-Shabaab in Somalia was the earliest and most prominent jihadist group in East Africa, but this is more a product of public discourse than something that implies an operational link between Cabo Delgado’s insurgency and its ideological rival in Somalia.

Are they getting support from the local communities. If so, how can that be dealt with?

Al-Shabaab’s relationship with local communities has been brutal and exploitative, and they have intentionally driven people from their homes, rather than govern them. 

I think the communities may have provided support in certain circumstances, but I believe that in the vast majority of cases, this was out of fear rather than because they genuinely supported Al-Shabaab.

One strategy that Al-Shabaab has undertaken since the interventions, is to send fighters back out into civilian communities or to Internally Displaced Peoples [IDPs] camps, and those members may now be supporting Al-Shabaab.

But it is important to make the distinction that these are Al-Shabaab sympathisers within civilian communities, rather than communities at large providing support to them.

This is an important distinction for security forces. If security forces attempt to stop this support by cracking down on communities in general, rather than going after specific individuals, it may help Al-Shabaab recruit more young men who would not join the group if security forces did not abuse them.

What factors led to the failed attempt by Al-Shabaab to establish themselves in the neighbouring Niassa province in late 2021?

Al-Shabaab has always recruited members from outside its area of operations. Significant numbers of fighters were recruited in Nampula province to the south of Cabo Delgado and in Niassa province to the west of Cabo Delgado.

Small recruitment cells operated in these areas, both using radical rhetoric to recruit young men or promising them high-paying jobs in Cabo Delgado, taking advantage of entrenched poverty in Muslim communities in northern Mozambique. 

The Niassa attacks in November and December 2021 appear to have been an attempt to send fighters back to the province to establish a new insurgent base. 

They managed to stage quite a few attacks, killing dozens of civilians, soldiers and police, but their mission appears to have been defeated as there have been no attacks in nearly six months.

I believe the reported death of Maulana Ali Cassimo in December was critical in the defeat of Al-Shabaab in Niassa, as he was the group's leader there.

Who was Maulana Ali Cassimo, and how influential was he as a leader? 

He was born in Niassa in 1990 or 1991 to a Muslim family and worked as a civil servant in Mecula district before the conflict.

Cassimo reportedly advocated on behalf of artisanal miners and small farmers, making him a prominent activist in certain parts of Niassa and Cabo Delgado.

He was reportedly very religious and became radicalised around 2016, becoming less interested in his work, and ultimately left his job in July 2017 to join Al-Shabaab in Mocimboa da Praia before the war began. 

As an early member of the group, he became an important commander and participated in important attacks including the assaults on Mocimboa da Praia and Palma.

After the SADC and Rwandan interventions, it appears that he then led this operation in Niassa, because he had previously spent much time in Mecula District.

What can TotalEnergies do to address grievances that have primarily led to the insurgency?

There was a lot of public anger at the gas project not providing jobs and resources to local communities, but so much has happened in these five years of war. Most of the population in the districts where Al-Shabaab operated have been driven from their homes, and Cabo Delgado’s economy has been destroyed.

There is so much that has to be done to return people to their homes and provide them with the kinds of opportunities that prevent Al-Shabaab from being able to recruit young men.

This is made even more complicated by the fact that much of Al-Shabaab’s membership comes from areas outside those impacted by the gas project, with large numbers even coming from outside Mozambique altogether. 

I think TotalEnergies should put a heavy emphasis on improving local conditions, but we should also be careful in assuming that this project can fix the huge number of grievances that led to this war, or the new grievances that have been created by the war.

Veterans from the war of independence from mostly Frelimo in the 1960s and 70s, are reportedly fending off insurgents. How capable are they of defending territory?

Most of these veterans are not themselves fighters, but have instead organised militias. They’re the leaders, rather than the men manning checkpoints or conducting operations. 

These veterans, because of their service, are well connected to politicians and police and are influential in their communities, and have thus become leaders of militias attempting to provide security when soldiers and police could not.

They have not defeated the insurgency by any means, but they do play an important role in their local areas.

This becomes complicated, however, as their relationships with the police are better than their relationships with the army, and the ability of SAMIM or the Rwandan forces to cooperate with them is also a challenge due to their lack of formal legal status.

What kind of support are the veterans getting from the government to fight insurgents, and roughly how many are they?

The militia have reportedly been supported by police and important political leaders, but the exact nature of this support is unclear.

We do not know if the government has provided them with weapons or money, and what support has flowed to them is likely very dependent on specific militia leaders’ relationships with specific police commanders or politicians.

These militias do not have a centralised structure and do not have a formal legal framework, which the Mozambican government is now attempting to change, but the results of this remain to be seen.

We do not know how many fighters these militias have, and it is likely that these numbers change as militia members are rarely full-time fighters.

The number of fighters likely rises and falls depending on the situation, and the socially and geographically fragmented nature of these militias also likely creates significant variation from place to place.

The News24 Africa Desk is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The stories produced through the Africa Desk and the opinions and statements that may be contained herein do not reflect those of the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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