After attempts made by the terrorist group DAESH (banned in the Russian Federation – Ed.) to gain a foothold in the Middle East failed, that group began to establish branches throughout the world, including on the African continent. Consequently, in a very short time frame DAESH, taking advantage of the social ills experienced by the planet’s poorest populations to attract their members to its side, has created branches in numerous African countries – and one of those is Mozambique.
There are many religious denominations in the southeastern African country, which has a population of 29 million: the main ones are Catholicism (28%), Protestantism (28%) and Islam (18%), although a significant part of the indigenous population (just like many other African states) profess local animistic traditions of worship.
Over the past five decades, this country has experienced many wars, from the guerrilla warfare waged against Portuguese colonialism to a civil war between the socialist FRELIMO party and the nationalistic, anti-communist RENAMO party. Although this domestic conflict officially ended in 1992, not only do political differences persist among the population, but so do ethnoreligious ones, and that is what DAESH recruiters are trying to exploit to attract supporters into its ranks. Besides that, the lengthy duration of the time this country’s population has stayed in a state of armed conflict is also contributing to the replenishment of the militants’ numbers, owing to the fact that certain inhabitants in Mozambique have never found any way to apply themselves except for combat operations, or obtaining a livelihood by performing the jobs of mercenaries.
As a result, in just a few years small gangs of Islamic radicals have transformed themselves into a full-fledged terrorist group in this country, and have managed to gain a foothold in the northern province of Cabo Delgado; the Mwani people form the majority of the population there, and they are followers of Islam. It is definitely worth noting that the Mwani people themselves in this province occupy a position that is at a clear disadvantage vis-a-vis its other inhabitants: these are the Makonde people, who retain control over most of the power and businesses in the province. The discord among, and stratification of, the population in Cabo Delgado province is also exacerbated by the fact that it is the veterans among the older generation of Makonde who fought in the national liberation war who are the ones that receive a “veterans’ pension”, and enjoy other privileges.
For the Mozambican authorities, Cabo Delgado Province holds strategic importance, chiefly because of the extensive reserves of natural that were discovered there in the late 2000s. Therefore, the French company Total, and other transnational oil and gas companies, have made a beeline for this province, and even back in 2017 began building the infrastructure for prospective LNG plants. However, developing these projects began to be hindered by the actions taken by radical Islam militants, who came to Cabo Delgado in the early 2010s to distribute CDs with speeches recorded by preachers from neighboring Tanzania, and to disseminate extremist materials on the Internet for the locals. Because of this, more and more children in the province of Cabo Delgado have begun to receive schooling not in public schools, but rather in religious madrasas, and are subjected to Islamist propaganda there.
And so in 2013 Mozambican intelligence services discovered the first DAESH terrorist cells operating in the port city of Mocimboa da Praia, located in the northern part of Cabo Delgado Province. On October 5, 2017, a group of 30 fighters with DAESH attacked three police stations in the city, and the attackers included people from Tanzania, including two religious preachers. Seventeen people fell victim to the attack, and the radicals stole weapons and munitions.
Later on, a series of raids by the militants on other towns across the province took place. In the local media, militant cells appeared using Islamic names that were unusual for the region, but most often it was Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna (Arabic: جماعة أنصار السنه), literally “Assembly of the Helpers of Sunnah” (banned in the Russian Federation – Ed.), which began to rely to a large extent on proceeds from smuggling and drug trafficking from Tanzania to South Africa.
In 2020, the situation prevailing in Cabo Delgado has become substantially worse. Members of the DAESH group began to carry out more and more armed raids on financial institutions, destroy administrative buildings, schools, hospitals, and residential buildings, and kidnap people, owing to which the province’s locals have started to flee from the militants to other parts of the country. According to the results of a survey done by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, by July 2020 the number of internally displaced people in the country had reached 250,000.
In early August, DAESH militants defeated a battalion of marines fielded by the Mozambican army, and occupied the port city of Mocimboa da Praia, and gained full control over both the small port and a full-fledged airport. On September 12, militants managed to capture Metundo Island and Vamizi Islandm, part of the Quirimbas Archipelago in the Indian Ocean, and this now poses a threat to maritime shipments in the region, where a multibillion dollar gas production project is being implemented. On the night of October 1, militants attacked nine villages in Muidumbe District in Cabo Delgado Province, decapitating nine residents and destroying property owned by many other people. In early November, radical Islamists brutally executed more than 50 people in the village of Muatide.
In October, DAESH fighters from Mozambique raided a Tanzanian village on the Rovuma River, which runs between Tanzania and Mozambique, and then another village in the Mtwara District in southern Tanzania, killing dozens of local residents.
The uptick in DAESH activity in Mozambique starting in 2020 has become a very important topic for discussion among the countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC). During the 40th Summit held by video conference on August 17, SADC representatives proclaimed their willingness to lend their support to Mozambique in the fight against terrorism.
Running up against objective difficulties in combating DAESH militants, at the end of September the government of Mozambique submitted an official request to the European Union for support in its fight against Islamist militants in the country’s gas-rich northern province of Cabo Delgado, where at least 1,500 people have already been killed and the government has lost control over three coastal regions.
On November 11, French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted that the attacks in Mozambique are a threat that requires a response from the international community.
Meanwhile, the Mozambican army is mobilizing its own forces to fight DAESH in Cabo Delgado Province, a place which terrorists are seeking to make into their regional stronghold. To accomplish this, Maputo has sent major reinforcements to Mueda, including armored vehicles, and soldiers from the Republic of South Africa that have arrived to assist them. For the authorities in Mozambique, Mueda holds strategic significance, because if they lose that then the government could virtually lose complete control over the northern province of Cabo Delgado, since the only highway that Maputo currently controls – and that connects this region with the rest of the country – passes through the city.
Vladimir Danilov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.