PGI INSIGHT: Mozambique – April 2021

- Geopolitical Risk - Intelligence

22-04-2021


Militant activity to persist in Cabo Delgado despite increased international involvement

In brief

  • On 24 March, Islamic State (IS)-affiliated militants attacked Palma, a key port town in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province. The militants killed tens of people, including foreign nationals, during a ten-day occupation and forced Total’s Afungi gas facility to close indefinitely.
  • The attack is likely to trigger an increase in support from international actors to Maputo, as the insurgency assumes increasing regional significance.
  • However, limited military assistance is unlikely to resolve the military’s shortcomings in the short-term, suggesting that security forces will continue struggling to contain the insurgency in the coming months.
  • The militants are likely to launch further attacks on Palma, as they seek to consolidate control over coastal regions and expand west towards Mueda. The militants may also launch attacks on the provincial capital and container port of Pemba, but are unlikely to possess the capabilities to take the town.

Background

On 24 March, Islamic State (IS)-affiliated militants attacked Palma, a key port town in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province. The militants killed tens of people, including an unconfirmed number of foreign nationals besieged in the Amarula hotel, during a ten-day occupation, and forced over 35,000 others to flee by boat. Security forces regained control of the town by 5 April. However, the militants remain in control of the surrounding areas.

The attack was the most significant in the province’s Islamist insurgency to date. The conflict, which began in late 2017, has claimed thousands of lives but escalated significantly in 2020, with militants seizing control of the port town of Mocimboa da Praia in August that year. In November, the militants also launched the first cross-border attacks on Tanzania since 2017, and stepped up attacks on islands and small vessels in coastal waters off Cabo Delgado.

The conflict threatens the viability of Cabo Delgado’s potentially lucrative natural gas industry. The Palma attack forced French energy company Total to halt construction at the nearby Afungi natural gas facility for the second time this year, after a previous attack on 1 January.

Internationalisation of the conflict

There is growing pressure on regional and international actors to help contain the crisis, whose impact is increasingly felt beyond Cabo Delgado’s borders. The militants have demonstrated growing ambition and capabilities since early 2020, seizing and holding Mocimboa da Praia, while steadily expanding their operations geographically. The 24 March assault on Palma was the most sophisticated to date and, crucially, marked the first time that the militants targeted and killed foreign nationals. It may also threaten the long-term viability of Total’s Afungi gas facility, Africa’s largest gas project, after the French energy company suspended operations indefinitely.

Mozambican security forces are likely to receive increased training, equipment, and financial support from partner governments. Before the Palma attack, the US had deployed special forces to train local forces. Portugal also announced that it would send 60 special forces troops to train Maputo’s marine and commando units following the attack. On 7 April, the US State Department said it would consider expanding support to Maputo, while the SADC regional body agreed to send a technical mission to draw up plans for a security support package that could include intervention, underlining the likelihood of further assistance.

Any international military involvement in Cabo Delgado is likely to remain limited, at least in the short-term. President Filipe Nyusi has consistently resisted the possibility of a major foreign military intervention, citing the need to protect Mozambique’s sovereignty. In any case, key international actors like the US and EU are highly unlikely to launch large-scale combat deployments due to domestic political considerations. Meanwhile, COVID-19 and other factors have impacted the SADC’s financial resources, military capabilities, and political will, suggesting that SADC assistance is likely to fall significantly short of that hoped for by proponents of regional intervention.

Insecurity to persist

Mozambique’s security forces will likely continue struggling to contain the insurgency in the coming months in the absence of significant international support. Mozambique’s military remains chronically short of personnel, low on morale, and very poorly equipped and trained. Local reports indicate that security forces quickly retreated from their positions in Palma on 24 March, a finding consistent with previous failures in Mocimboa da Praia when the army ran out of ammunition during the militants’ seizure of the town. Though welcome and necessary, a boost in training and other support is highly unlikely to dramatically improve military performance in the short-term, suggesting that security forces will be unable to immediately halt the insurgency’s increasing momentum.

The militants are likely to launch further attacks on Palma. The militants have previously adopted this strategy, occupying Mocimboa da Praia on at least two occasions in March and June 2020 before finally seizing the town in August. As a vital resupply point for security forces, and potential export point for the Afungi LNG facility, the town remains a high-profile strategic target for the militants. Indeed, though security forces have retaken control of the town, the militants still control the surrounding area, including the main access roads. On 11 April, suspected militants beheaded a recently returned civilian, indicating the apparent ease with which militants continue to access the area.

Local reports suggest the militants could launch an attack on Pemba. The militants control the main roads north of the provincial capital and, buoyed by their recent successes, could attack settlements near Palma as a precursor to an assault on the town in the months ahead. The fall of Pemba, a major container port, would represent a significant threat to shipping in the Mozambique channel.

However, the militants are unlikely to possess the capability to take Pemba at present. The militants penetrated into Metuge district surrounding Pemba in early 2020 but were turned away by Mozambican ground troops and Dyck Advisory Group (DAG) helicopters. Though DAG’s contract with Maputo is coming to an end, the government has reportedly acquired additional military helicopters from its new private security partners, Paramount and Burnham Global. Moreover, government supply lines to Pemba are far more secure compared with Palma and Mocimboa da Praia, giving security forces a considerable advantage over the militants. Instead, the militants will likely continue to consolidate control over coastal regions of Cabo Delgado north of Pemba, look to expand west towards Mueda district, and launch further cross-border raids in Mtwara region, Tanzania.


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