SIM Report: Mozambique's northern insurgency vastly weakened, but underlying threats remain

SIM REPORT: East & Southern AFRICA, ISSUE 14

MOZAMBIQUE: NORTHERN INSURGENCY VASTLY WEAKENED, BUT UNDERLYING THREATS REMAIN

Insurgents loyal to Ahlu al-Sunnah wal-Jammah (locally referred to as al-Shabaab) have largely been pushed out of their strongholds in Cabo Delgado province after  Rwandan security forces and the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) standby force, SAMIM, deployed in mid-July. The armed forces of Rwanda (RDF) and Mozambique (FADM) achieved some early successes, particularly by  recapturing Mocímboa da Praia, a strategic port town, in early August; the town had been under ASJ’s control since August 2020. About a month later, President  Filipe Nyusi claimed that nearly all the territory lost to the insurgents had been retaken by FADM, RDF, and SAMIM. Then in late September, government sources claimed they had captured, a senior ASJ commander believed to have led one of three groups into Palma in late March. However, that claim has subsequently been refuted, undermining the government’s credibility. 

SOME POSITIVE DEVELOPMENTS 

Nevertheless, there were some positive developments in September. Since the beginning of the month, authorities progressively worked to accelerate resettlement of displaced persons to their homes ahead of the rainy season, usually between January and March. Public utilities, including electricity, and banking services are also being brought back online in some places, allowing business operations to resume and populations to access health care. Nevertheless, significant budget constraints experienced by the Mozambican authorities as well as humanitarian organisations such as the World Food Programme are hampering the humanitarian efforts, including the resettlement of displaced populations and delivery of aid.

From a commercial perspective, there is also more signs of optimism. French energy group TotalEnergies, through its local subsidiary LNG Mozambique, is now preparing to resume operations, but does not anticipate production of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to start before 2026, two years later than initial plans. This is according to a Strategy and Outlook document the company released in September. The document echoed a statement by Akinwumi Adesina, the president of the African Development Bank, in late August forecasting that the company’s LNG project would be able to resume within 12 to 18 months. 

DESPITE SUCCESSES, UNDERLYING THREATS REMAIN ELEVATED AND CHANGING

Despite Nyusi’s confidence of significant territorial gains, his claim at the beginning of September remains premature. Furthermore, TotalEnergies’s and Adesina’s forecasts seem to confirm this. Although ASJ has been pushed out of its urban strongholds, it remains active across the Cabo Delgado countryside. Despite a lull in major news headlines, isolated and sporadic attacks have continued in several districts, targeting both civilians and military assets. At the end of September, Rwandan media confirmed the country’s first fatalities and a series of casualties in the conflict.

Moreover, there are indications the insurgents are increasingly resorting to the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and landmines – a tactic not previously used by ASJ. For instance, house-searches by the RDF and FADM in Mocímboa da Praia district have also led to the seizure of several types of IEDs. One such type was a mortar shell that had been linked to a package of powder, which subsequent analysis suggested was ammonium nitrate – a chemical compound that is mostly used for making fertilisers, but which can also serve as an explosive. The IED was also fitted with a remote-controlled detonator. In another incident on 12 September, an RDF armoured vehicle reportedly struck a roadside IED in the south of Mocímboa da Praia, although only the tyres of the South African-made Ratel truck were damaged and no casualties were reported.

In addition, due to the increased security presence in Cabo Delgado, there are growing concerns that the insurgents are moving to other districts of the province, including some where they were previously not based. This means the operational theatre may be expanding, particularly as FADM and its allies have prioritised patrolling and securing primary roads in the province. The fragmentation and geographic expansion of insurgent cells may undermine the efficacy of the current counter-terrorism operations.

ASSESSMENT

Despite the minimal damage caused by the IEDs so far, the presence of such weapons and its increasingly frequent use underscores ASJ’s acquired know-how and access to IED-producing materials. The expanding operational zone, despite ASJ’s lost territorial control, signals a changing threat picture and likely a growing overland travel risk in the longer term (<12-18 months). As a result of this, logistics operations aimed at supplying LNG construction projects in Palma and the adjacent Afungi peninsula – where TotalEnergies operations are based – may continue to face high security threats which will demand extensive security investments.

The changing threat picture of the Cabo Delgado insurgency has important implications to security of staff and assets in the province more broadly over the coming year at least. As the insurgents move out of their territorial strongholds, they are likely to stop attempting to hold territory and fall back to their traditional guerrilla war tactics, launching sporadic and opportunistic attacks on the security forces and intimidating and harassing civilian populations. This could also affect, until now, largely spared districts, such as Montepuez where significant gemstone mining activities are present. Furthermore, SAMIM’s three-month mandate is due to end in mid-October, unless it is extended, and their exit from the country is likely to undermine security force capacity in the medium term. While there are unconfirmed reports of Rwanda considering increasing its deployment, the marked reduction in troop numbers is certain to weaken the Mozambican and Rwandan responses.

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