Relocating or expanding? Islamic State Mozambique’s reaction to foreign intervention

Islamic State militants in northern Mozambique as seen in a recent photo released earlier this month

Despite notable successes following twin interventions by both the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Rwandan Defense Forces (RDF) in July and August 2021, the Islamic State’s Mozambique Province, known locally as Al Shabaab (not to be confused with al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa) and its insurgency in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado Province has remained resilient and adaptable.

Having lost control over the city of Mocimboa da Praia in August 2021 after holding the town for a year – the largest urban center controlled by any Islamic State affiliate since the fall of the territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria in 2019 – Al Shabaab has managed to sustain a high tempo of activity and even expand its operations beyond its core territories in Cabo Delgado. 

Following a failed attempt to establish itself in neighboring Niassa Province in late 2021, a series of attacks in southern Cabo Delgado and northern Nampula Province appear to be part of a sustained effort by the jihadists to establish themselves in areas that have not faced insurgent violence since the conflict began in 2017.

Successes without closure

Having begun in Oct. 2017 with assaults on police stations in Mocimboa da Praia, Al Shabaab has steadily expanded its operational reach throughout approximately one third of Cabo Delgado by 2019. In 2020, the group’s tactics shifted from small unit ambushes and raids into coordinated assaults on urban centers, culminating in its seizure of Mocimboa da Praia in August 2020.

The group’s violent assault on Palma – a port town in close proximity to a major natural gas project on the Afungi peninsula – grabbed international headlines in March 2021 as multiple foreigners working for the project were killed. 

French oil company Total reacted by suspending work on the project, a major setback for the Mozambican government, which had staked its entire economic policy on significant future revenues from gas export.

Al Shabaab’s capacity to threaten such important projects spurred twin interventions by both the Rwandan Defense Forces and SADC’s Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM).  Approximately 2500 RDF subsequently managed to secure the natural gas project on Afungi Peninsula near Palma, clear areas adjacent to Palma, and advance from two directions towards Mocimboa da Praia, ultimately seizing the town after Al Shabaab fighters withdrew.

Over 1000 SAMIM troops have deployed in other districts of Cabo Delgado, namely Macomia, Mueda and Nangade, similarly attempting to bolster Mozambican security forces. These deployments have concentrated in areas where local militia recruited and led by veterans of the ruling Liberation Front of Mozambique (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique, FRELIMO) party’s war of independence from Portugal in the 1960s and 1970s play a major role in maintaining security. The Mozambican government recently announced its intentions to regularize these militias, a decision which follows Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s April statement that Ugandan support to Mozambican security forces would be channeled to these veteran-led militias.

SAMIM’s areas of responsibility have remained insecure, however, as Al Shabaab has continued to consistently launch attacks in both Nangade and Macomia, where 350 Rwandan troops deployed alongside SAMIM for the first time on March 31.

Beyond the RDF’s successes in securing major transportation arteries and urban centers, the twin interventions have inflicted significant losses on Al Shabaab.  As many as 200 Al Shabaab fighters had reportedly been killed in the six months between the beginning of foreign deployments in July and the end of 2021.  

These combat losses, as well as Al Shabaab’s intentional demobilization of fighters sent to mix back into civilian communities, have led Al Shabaab’s manpower to fall from a high of 3000 to between 600 and 1200, while SADC claimed that active combatants numbered as few as 300.

Al Shabaab’s Niassa strategy

Al Shabaab’s first attempt to react to its losses after the Rwandan and SADC interventions was through a campaign of attacks in the neighboring Niassa Province to the west of Cabo Delgado. Beginning in Nov. 2021 and lasting through most of December, Al Shabaab fighters launched at least 16 attacks against civilians and security forces in Niassa, resulting in at least 23 deaths.

These attacks were reportedly led by a senior Al Shabaab commander named Maulana Ali Cassimo, who had worked in Niassa’s Mecula district as a civil servant before joining Al Shabaab even before the violence officially broke out in Oct. 2017. 

Cassimo reportedly returned to Mecula district in fall 2021, and led Al Shabaab’s offensive there before police claimed he was killed in clashes in Dec. 2021. Al Shabaab’s operations in Mecula quickly fizzled as a result, potentially bolstering claims of his death.

While unsuccessful at establishing Al Shabaab in Niassa, as captured documents indicated was the intention, the offensive suggested a potential new strategy whereby members recruited from outside the insurgency’s core areas in coastal Cabo Delgado would return to their home areas to launch new attacks. 

With security forces concentrated in Cabo Delgado’s coastal districts, Al Shabaab appeared to be attempting to repurpose its expansive recruitment networks beyond those areas to stand up new operational cells. These cells outside the insurgency’s heartland could then expand its scope, creating new base areas with access to borders and supplies, and stretch Mozambican and foreign troops beyond what they could secure.

Expansion, replicated

Developments in 2022 suggest that Al Shabaab may be attempting to replicate the strategy attempted in Niassa in Cabo Delgado’s southernmost districts bordering Nampula Province. Nampula, to the south of Cabo Delgado, while the site of recruiting cells for Al Shabaab in the past has until this year avoided much of the bloodshed taking place to its north.  

A string of 14 attacks in Cabo Delgado’s Meluco district in Jan. 2022 were followed by a resumption of attacks there in May. This was then followed in June by the rapid expansion of attacks southward into Cabo Delgado’s Quissange, Ancuabe, Chiure, and Mecufi districts and ultimately across the border into Nampula province itself on June 17.

Meluco district had frequently been the target of Al Shabaab attacks prior to foreign intervention, and Ancuabe had also suffered attacks prior to this new offensive. But the frequency of attacks in both districts is notable, as is the fact that Ancuabe had not faced Al Shabaab attacks in nearly three years and Quissanga had seen none since last September. Chiure and Mecufi districts in Cabo Delgado and Nampula Province had never before seen armed Al Shabaab activity.

All these areas, however, were home to extensive Al Shabaab recruitment efforts, and Ancuabe had seen episodes of mob violence by radical sects even before the insurgency began.  

In Nampula Province, poverty, Salafi activism, and promises of high wages in Cabo Delgado had long helped funnel recruits north, particularly from the coastal districts of Nacala-à-Velha, Nacala Porto, Ilha de Moçambique and Memba. June 17’s attack in Nampula, Al Shabaab’s first in the province, took place in Lurio, a coastal town in northern Memba just across the river from Cabo Delgado.

The size of units engaged in attacks in southern Cabo Delgado suggests that Al Shabaab’s southern push is less a military offensive in force than an expansion of its small-unit insurgency, enabled by the kinds of support networks that make small-unit insurgent tactics possible.  

While likely a subset of a larger force, an Al Shabaab unit that attacked an Australian-owned graphite mine in Ancuabe on June 8, for instance, consisted of around ten men, a unit too small to sustain itself across the kinds of distances involved in Al Shabaab’s southern campaign without assistance.  

The geographic sequence of attacks does suggest the physical movement of fighters southwards, but the speed of this offensive – covering nearly 100km over the course of two weeks – likely also indicates the role of sleeper cells and sympathizers put in place across the region.

As had occurred in Niassa, demobilized fighters surreptitiously embedded back into the civilian communities from which they were recruited may be assisting active Al Shabaab units in this drive southward.

Simultaneously, the collapse of Cabo Delgado’s economy and the mass displacement of hundreds of thousands to the southern parts of the province may offer ample opportunities for insurgents to establish support networks in communities facing dire conditions and limited resources.

Islamic State and implications

The Islamic State has been quick to claim Al Shabaab’s attacks in southern Cabo Delgado and Nampula. Since rebranding Al Shabaab as its own “province” in May, as the group was previously labeled as the Mozambican wing of its Central Africa Province since June 2019, the Islamic State’s claims and media of Al Shabaab attacks have rapidly increased

The focus of the Islamic State’s claims has also shifted southwards, despite continued Al Shabaab activity in its core areas in northern and central Cabo Delgado. This suggests that the Islamic State intends to loudly publicize Al Shabaab’s expansion to new areas following its promotion to a stand-alone province of the Islamic State. 

The assumption of the Islamic State’s new caliph in March following the death of its second leader in Syria in February has also likely played a role, as the Islamic State attempts to propagandize its viability and capacity to grow despite repeated leadership and territorial losses.

Elevating Al Shabaab to its own province and heavily publicizing its ability to expand in northern Mozambique – despite foreign interventions against it – may reflect an Al Shabaab on better footing, but also bears immense importance for the Islamic State’s central narratives.

More practically, the southern offensive also risks the kinds of operations that have proven critical to other Islamic State affiliates. 

Cabo Delgado’s largest prison is located in close proximity to locations attacked by Al Shabaab this month, and an arson attack carried out by unidentified assailants hit the town where Mieze prison is located. Located only 15km southwest of Pemba, Mieze prison has never before faced repeated attacks in such proximity, though Mozambique’s Ministry of Justice reported a failed attempt to storm the prison in November 2020.

That Al Shabaab now has the capacity to launch repeated attacks nearby has raised fears of attempts to stage a prison break for the hundreds of known or alleged Al Shabaab members detained in the facility, a tactic repeatedly undertaken by Islamic State’s affiliates elsewhere around the world and one repeatedly encouraged by its leadership.

The Islamic State’s Central Africa Province, locally referred to as the Allied Democratic Forces, staged a massive prison break in Congo in October 2020, for instance, freeing hundreds of its members in addition to recruiting numerous other escapees. Such prison breaks have bolstered Islamic State affiliates by freeing fighters and commanders, as well as providing significant propaganda victories, an outcome that may prove attractive for a group under substantial military pressure like Al Shabaab.

Al Shabaab’s offensive southwards into Mozambique’s Nampula Province is the group’s most important operation since Rwandan and SADC troops intervened against it nearly a year ago.

While the group has suffered major losses and its area of operations is much reduced since the group’s zenith in late 2020, its ability to adapt, expand and relocate to more vulnerable areas belies its deep entrenchment after nearly five years of war. As has been the case throughout Cabo Delgado’s conflict, it is local civilians paying the highest price.

Ryan O'Farrell is a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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