The recent attacks in south east Africa suggest that IS has found a new vacuum to occupy.
In March 2021, reports emerged of attacks carried out by militants in the Cabo Delgado province of northern Mozambique. As details trickled out in the aftermath, they roused memories of the mid-2010s when IS was rising to power in the middle east. Now, the fighters based in the region are believed to have links to the now-displaced Islamic State, prompting fears that the group may be gaining a new foothold in the region.
The insurgency in Mozambique began truly in 2017 and in that time more than 2,500 teams have been killed. Yet, it is only recently that the protagonists have been concretely identified. When the militants of the local al-Shabab militia (linked only to the Somalian group in name) swept into Palma in March, they targeted shops, banks and military barracks, culminating in the town’s capture. However, the successful seizure of Palma followed an earlier insurgency in the Cabo Delgado region. During the insurgency, the militants embarked on a spree of violence, beheading children as young as 11, shooting others and forcing tens of thousands of people to flee for their lives.
The similarities to the actions of the Islamic State in 2014 are stark. As seen when IS militants captured a Syrian military base in Raqqa in July 2014, insurgents storm a town and ruthlessly seize control of it. Now, the sudden emergence of this movement raises questions as to where it came from and whether the terrorists have found a new lifeline in Africa.
Northern Mozambique is among the poorest areas of the country. The rates of unemployment and illiteracy are high. There is, however, the paradox of an extremely poor region being extensively rich in resources. In 2009-10, there was the discovery of a large natural gas field. As a result, energy companies have flocked to the region. Most notably is the French energy company Total who had begun works on a $20 billion gas project. Following the attacks, this has been suspended as the company feels they can no longer operate safely in the region.
The gas discovery has contributed to the socio-economic grievances of the insurgents. Although a massive foreign investment came into the Cabo Delgado, there have been few benefits for the locals of the region. Dr. Yussuf Adam, speaking to the BBC, highlighted how the region has a youth bulge, who are not only unemployed but are also discriminated against because they are northerners. When IS were originally looking to recruit in the middle east, internal fighters (those primarily from Iraq and Syria) were motivated by money and status. For the Mozambican insurgents, the motivation behind joining the groups is much the same. Now, with the number of militants rising, the violence is escalating. As seen in the footage from the most recent attacks, the insurgents were armed with guns and vehicles, allowing them to operate freely in the region. The capture of Palma evidenced just this capability.
The task immediately on the horizon is combatting the insurgency and preventing it from gaining further ground in the region. The speed at which the insurgents have moved through Cabo Delgado came as a surprise. However, the Mozambique government is struggling to halt their progress. President Filipe Nyusi has been unable to rely on his army, turning instead to private foreign contractors to bolster his forces.
Yet, the government’s reliance on private military forces, as opposed to foreign military aid, is creating its own problems. Although private contractors have access to the best weapons and equipment, controlling them is more challenging. There have already been suggestions that the private contractors are abusing their power in the region with Amnesty International accusing the Dyck Advisory Group of war crimes, including opening fire on civilians and dropping explosives from helicopters. The forces of the Mozambique government have also been accused of torture, ill-treatment and extra-judicial executions against their own citizens.
The accusations of war crimes against these forces only serve to amplify the problems in the region. Residents of Cabo Delgado are now caught within a maze of violence, surrounded by hostile militants and undisciplined government forces and private contractors. Although efforts are being made to stop the militants, they are being undermined by the actions of those supposedly protecting the people.
Indeed, rather than hindering their progress, the status of the defence effort plays into the hands of those loyal to IS. In creating the insurgency, IS preyed upon youth dissatisfaction with the government. Now, the unlawful killing of civilians by government forces will only foment the ill-will towards the Nyusi regime. In terms of their actions, there is no clear distinction between the insurgents and those resisting them.
The chaos created by the insurgency gives the appearance that IS has compensated for their losses in the middle east. Similarly, the return of the violence that shocked the world in 2014 signals that IS have not retreated into irrelevancy. In the aftermath of IS claiming responsibility for the attacks in northern Mozambique, The New York Times reported that there was talk on the Islamic State’s online forums of the establishment of a new caliphate.
The likelihood of a new caliphate at this stage appears unlikely. That said, it could prove a grave mistake to again underestimate the influence and reach of IS. The pace at which they swept through the middle east in 2014 caught many by surprise, resulting in foreign military powers being forced to involve themselves in the conflict. Already, foreign powers are wading into matters in Mozambique as the US has deployed US Army Special Forces soldiers to train Mozambican marines. France and South Africa are also monitoring the situation.
The immediate involvement of foreign powers in Mozambique could be premature. Yet, it would be a misjudgement to ignore the recent events in Mozambique. If the recent events are a vision into the future, then IS have a new outpost in Africa from where they can truly begin to rebuild their power.
Written by James Hingley
James Hingley is a columnist at DecipherGrey.
Photograph: F Mira|Flickr