Abstract: The deployment of regional military and police forces to Cabo Delgado Province in northern Mozambique to assist the Mozambican government against what was then a growing jihadi insurgency nearly two years ago has introduced new dynamics into the conflict, expanding the insurgency’s presence in the region and increasing the importance of the information space as each side works to persuade its constituencies that the conflict is proceeding in its favor. For the Mozambican government, showing progress on security and a return to normalcy in the province is of vital importance in order to accelerate the resumption of a $20 billion liquefied natural gas project, an imperative all the more significant as ruling party elements begin preparing for the 2024 presidential election. The Islamic State-affiliated Ahl al-Sunnah wa al Jamma’ah (ASWJ) insurgency—or as it is more commonly called locally, al-Shabaab—similarly must demonstrate that the increase in offensive operations did not significantly diminish its capabilities as it attempts to persuade civilians that it is a viable alternative to the state in northern Mozambique, an effort that the Islamic State regularly supports through its global media channels. The sustainability of security gains along the coast and the prospects for long-term stability, however, will depend largely on the government’s willingness to develop and implement a more balanced counterterrorism approach that addresses the underlying grievances driving this conflict. Furthermore, as the cast of both domestic and foreign armed actors supporting the government grows, improved coordination and clearer definitions of what these actors’ roles are and how they fit into the broader strategy will be essential to maximizing the impact of their contributions.
The conflict in northern Mozambique reached a turning point in March 2021 when the ASWJ insurgency launched its most audacious attack to date against the town of Palma, widely considered by locals and the international community alike as an island of relative security amid a spreading conflict. While the group achieved short-term material gains and a boost in notoriety as a real threat to the state, the first part of this article outlines how this escalation also proved to be the final straw that would push the Mozambican government into accepting foreign boots on the ground to bolster its own counterinsurgency efforts, turning this short-term win into a strategic error that presented the group with a more hostile battlefield environment.
The second part of the article outlines how, after a period of reduced activity, the group last year began to rebound, leveraging its move into new areas of the province to find new opportunities to undermine the state, obtain new supply sources, and reconsider its relationship with the civilian population more broadly.
As the third part of the article details, these shifting dynamics on the ground have elevated the importance of the information space as both sides seek to persuade their constituencies that the conflict is progressing in their favor.
The fourth part of the article provides an outlook on the terrorist threat environment in Mozambique. Security improvements along the coast belie long-term counterterrorism challenges as the government struggles to develop and implement a comprehensive strategy that addresses the underlying social, economic, and political grievances driving this conflict. As displaced people return to their homes, the urgency for effective governance and a security strategy that goes beyond areas of highest economic value becomes more acute—a need that third parties are beginning to fill—further weakening the social contract between the state and the public and lending credence to insurgent propaganda about a government focused on self-enrichment and indifferent to the plight of the poor.
Part One: Strategic Error Introduces New Phase in Cabo Delgado Conflict
In retrospect, the March 2021 ASWJ attack on the northern Mozambique city of Palma1 represented a poor strategic choice and overreach that was likely predicated on the assumption that as with other high-profile attacks, the consequences to the group would be minimal. In the months leading up to this event, the group had succeeded in controlling the primary paved north-south road as well as the key port town of Mocimboa da Praia, and was responsible for the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians.2 Reports of a meager 200 fighters taking over the town of 70,000 that had been serving as a base for international liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects made headlines worldwide,3 directly impacting the international community for the first time as foreign nationals suffered firsthand the effects of this attack.
In the short term, the attack on Palma provided the insurgents with supplies and a reputational boost. The town had just received a shipment of goods that the government and TotalEnergies had arranged and that the insurgents looted,4 and the Islamic State wasted little time in praising the operation in its media outlets.5 However, this attack also forced Maputo to come to terms with the growth and impact of this armed group and to accept foreign assistance, albeit on its own terms. In July 2021, just over four months after the Palma attack, roughly 1,000 Rwandan police and military deployed to hotspots along the Cabo Delgado coast through a bilateral arrangement,6 while the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Mission to Mozambique (SAMIM) consisting of roughly 2,000 troops7 from eight member states arrived the following month to provide security in other areas.8
The introduction of these foreign forces for the first time posed a serious threat to ASWJ, temporarily halting the momentum it had been building in the years prior. Rwandan forces, in collaboration with their Mozambican counterparts, launched operations against Palma first, driving out any remaining insurgents from the town before undertaking a two-pronged attack to retake Mocimboa da Praia,9 a key port town that the group had occupied for nearly two years.10 The operation to reclaim Mocimboa da Praia town began with joint Rwandan-Mozambican operations in the district of the same name in order to disrupt insurgent movements and access to Mocimboa da Praia town, an effort that the insurgents were unable to effectively counter given the Rwanda Defence Force’s (RDF’s) ability to resist insurgent ambushes. This extensive movement to Mocimboa da Praia culminated with an RDF-FADMa attack on the town itself, which lasted roughly three days as the insurgents put up enough resistance to facilitate the evacuation of their personnel, who ultimately retreated to remote, forested areas of the province where foreign forces—particularly the RDF, who had proved themselves a formidable challenge—were absent.11
Having secured Mocimba da Praia and Palma, these joint forces continued pushing toward strategically important towns in southern Mocimboa da Praia district, further restricting insurgent activity in an area that had served as its base.12
Follow-on operations by the RDF, SAMIM, and Mozambican forces resulted in the capture of insurgent bases and materiel in these areas,13 seemingly denying ASWJ a reliable safe haven and access to supplies. Indeed, a U.N. report published in February 2023 stated that after foreign intervention, the total number of fighters dropped, with the remaining group of hardened fighters splitting into small groups and returning to guerrilla warfare and attacking isolated villages and civilians.14
Part Two: The ASWJ Rebound
Evolving Strategic Approach to Targets and Civilians
ASWJ’s area familiarity; ability to navigate gaps among Rwandan, SAMIM, and Mozambican forces; and ability to maintain access to supplies likely helped the group rebound and adapt, allowing it to carry on its fight albeit at a smaller scale than before foreign intervention. While the group retains a presence in its previous strongholds, the move into new geographic areas brought with it an opportunity to improve logistics, adjust its target set, and rebrand its relationship with civilians. The group’s relationship with the Islamic State, which has evolved from being a part of the Islamic State-Central Africa Province to being its own wilayat,15 has helped to bolster the impact of the group’s recovery in the media space, highlighting its successes to global audiences despite the presence of additional counterterrorism forces.
A Geographic Shift Provides Access to New Resources
The absence of a credible force to counter ASWJ beyond its coastal bases created space for the group to split up, relocate, and procure resources and recruits from areas that had experienced relative stability during the previous four years. Insurgent attacks in late 2021 and into 2022 spread southward, into Ancuabe and Balama districts16 and into neighboring Niassa Province, Nampula Province, and southern Tanzania,17 areas that had seen little to no activity prior and where local economies were still relatively intact. Furthermore, the presence of high numbers of displaced people struggling to find means of support and suffering from traumas at the hands of insurgents and government forces alike, provides the insurgents with a pool of vulnerable potential recruits seeking an income and stability. Indeed, some observers of this conflict speculated the group had hesitated to move into these areas previously in order to preserve a recruitment base.18 The relative stability of southern Cabo Delgado and neighboring provinces provides a stark contrast to the group’s operating environment in its stronghold along Cabo Delgado’s northern coastal areas, where years of violence and displacements—compounded by the effects of historic cyclones—had disrupted local commerce and agricultural activities, creating increasing logistical pressure on the group that its subsequent moves into previously undisturbed districts likely helped to alleviate.
Expanded Set of Economic Targets Provides Opportunities to Challenge the State
The presence of a more robust counterterrorism force pushed ASWJ to employ new tactics; split into smaller, more mobile units;19 and shift into areas that provided the group with economic targets that likely served to both send a message to the FRELIMOb elite and underscore the group’s messaging opposing government corruption. As the group divided into smaller units, it returned to guerrilla warfare, concentrating on attacking easy targets such as civilians and villages, rather than attempting to hold territory as it had previously.20 Over time, these hit-and-run attacks began to evolve, disrupting the free movement of people and goods on primary roads in the new areas of operations,21 marking a continuation of its tactics in the northern part of the province. According to a February 2023 U.N. report, the group has been using surveillance drones as well as improvised explosive devices.22 This likely has enhanced its capabilities in light of a decreased force size, enabling it to challenge these superior forces from a distance.
The presence of multiple, foreign mining operations in the southern districts of Cabo Delgado have afforded ASWJ a new opportunity to strike the government economically, even on those occasions when its attacks are not directly targeting the mines themselves. Attacks against mining ventures in southern Mozambique began in June 2022,23 forcing various mining interests to temporarily halt operations in response to growing insurgent activity. For example, Australian mining company Syrah Resources suspended operations at a major graphite mine in Balama in June 2022 after attacks near a key road heighted the security risk to transporting the product,24 while mounting insecurity around the mine itself led the company to briefly evacuate staff in November 2022.25 Another Australian mining company that June ceased operations after two employees died in an attack on its graphite mining operations.26 Gemfields, which owns a 75-percent stake in ruby mining in Ancuabe, has suspended its operations twice since June 2022 as a result of insurgent activity in the vicinity of its operations.27
Nascent Attempts at Winning Hearts and Minds
The insurgents’ recent outreach to civilians marks another shift in the group’s strategy that suggests it may be seeking to more seriously demonstrate itself as a viable alternative to the state as well as secure a more reliable source of support and supplies in its current areas of operations. ASWJ fighters continued to attack villages and individuals throughout 2022, kidnapping civilians, burning personal property, and driving thousands of new displacements in southern Cabo Delgado, according to a U.N. report.28 Indeed, images of these attacks have featured prominently in Islamic State media outlets and in local messaging29 to intimidate civilians into remaining neutral if not outright supporting the group. However, in early 2023 local media and conflict observers reported a more concerted effort province-wide by ASWJ at building relations with civilians, portraying itself as an ally to the general public rather than an enemy. For example, ASWJ fighters in Mocimboa da Praia district contacted returnees to provide reassurances for their safety, according to Mozambican media.30 The fighters purchased goods from locals at inflated prices, an approach they repeated at least twice in subsequent weeks in diverse parts of the province,31 suggesting a more global policy at play rather than a local leader’s initiative. Following an attack on Nairoto, Montepuez District in mid-February 2023 in which the insurgents destroyed or looted personal property,32 the group left behind letters in Arabic and local languages advising civilians it had taken only necessities and offering to repay Muslims who were impacted by the attack and encouraging Christians to convert to Islam to avoid paying a tax.33
Part Three: The Growing Importance of the Information Space
An important driver of the ASWJ’s focus on economic targets and outreach to civilians is the need to reassure would-be supporters that the group is still intact after foreign intervention. The shifting winds of the conflict have made influence and the information space more relevant for insurgents and government officials and allies alike. Both sides need to project their versions of ground truth in an environment where reliable information is scarce and civilians are likely equally disenchanted with government forces and insurgents. A Mozambican civil society organization reported in February 2023 that the ASWJ had begun making a more concerted effort at developing counternarratives to the government’s claims in its interactions with civilians,34 an important shift for a group that has traditionally been conservative in its use of the media. It had initially released only a couple of low-quality videos decrying corruption within the FRELIMO government and presenting itself as a viable alternative.35 In subsequent years, the group focused its messaging through community meetings,36 the indoctrination of captives,37 and graffiti.38
The Islamic State has emerged as an important partner in this information war, promoting the group’s operations through its global media channels. The Islamic State declared Mozambique its own wilayat in May 2022,39 distinguishing it from Islamic State-Central Africa Province, a move that elevated the group in the Islamic State network. In the intervening months, videos and still images showing military supplies looted in attacks, burning villages, and captured or deceased members of local militia groups have frequently appeared on these channels, serving as force multipliers in portraying the group as a victor to a broader audience.40
Conversely, for the government, showing progress on security and a return to normalcy in the province is of vital importance to accelerate the resumption of a $20 billion liquified natural gas project led by TotalEnergies, an imperative all the more significant as ruling party elements begin preparing for the 2024 presidential election. Government officials and their allies have frequently highlighted the security gains their forces have made in reducing insurgent activity in Mocimboa da Praia and Palma districts and in preventing ASWJ from holding territory in these areas. For example, Cabo Delgado Governor Valige Tauabo41 in March 2022 noted the insurgents no longer held territory in the province, a sentiment echoed a year later by the RDF commander in Mocimboa da Praia who vowed the group would not hold the town again.42 Well-publicized visits to Palma and Mocimboa da Praia during the early part of 2023 by President Filipe Nyusi, TotalEnergies CEO Patrick Pouyanne,43 and World Bank Vice President Victoria Kwakwa44 further support the image that the government is creating of an area where security has been largely restored.
Part 4: Outlook
The progress foreign forces have made in reducing the insurgent presence in its former strongholds belie the long-term obstacles to achieving sustainable security gains in the region. The government’s focus on a military solution comes at the expense of addressing the root causes of the conflict, while the growing presence of foreign forces risks disincentivizing the reforms required to ensure Mozambique’s security forces are capable of eventually taking over security from these foreign partners. Absent major shifts in the current approach, Maputo and its partners will face three major sets of obstacles in achieving long-term counterterrorism gains.
1. Unresolved Grievances
First, the government’s lack of attention to the underlying grievances that gave rise to this conflict risks undermining security gains as the state shows itself unable to respond to the growing need for state presence in areas that have been generally cleared of insurgent presence, such as Mocimboa da Praia and Palma towns. After five years of conflict, the decline in humanitarian conditions and worsening economic conditions have likely fed into pre-existing grievances against the government, increasing the urgent need for a more balanced approach by the government that will also address the local drivers of conflict. A 2023 United Nations Development Program study of jihadism in Africa showed that 25 percent of former fighters interviewed for the study said they had joined a jihadi group because they lacked employment,45 while another 40 percent said they joined out of a dire need for income.46 Furthermore, nearly half of respondents noted they joined in reaction to a “trigger event,” which for over 70 percent of that group involved a government abuse toward themselves or a loved one.47
While former Mozambican fighters were not among those interviewed for the UNDP study, these same factors are almost certainly at play in Cabo Delgado as the focus on a military response to the conflict has come at the expense of addressing the underlying socioeconomic factors that facilitated the group’s growth and continued operation. Indeed, the conditions detailed in the UNDP study as key drivers for recruitment into extremist groups, such as access to education, geographic isolation, and government distrust, are present and likely worsening in northern Mozambique. Years of widespread destruction of infrastructure and basic services, such as health and education, have driven hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes.48 Destruction and displacement have reduced employment opportunities and livelihoods, and increased dependence on humanitarian aid; as of February 2023, close to one million people had been displaced in northern Mozambique, with children representing over half of that number.49 The head of the Confederation of Economic Associations of Mozambique (CTA) said in an interview in June 2022 that over 50,000 jobs had been lost and 5,000 companies impacted by terror attacks since October 2017.50 Furthermore, disruptions in education during the past five years because insurgents have destroyed schools and displaced children51 who have been unable to resume their education risk worsening this economic marginalization over the long term, absent a more focused effort at improving governance in the area.
The need for a stronger government focus on economic development programs as part of its broader counterterrorism grows more acute in light of the shifting humanitarian situation. Demands for government services are growing as some displaced return to areas of relative stability even as others are displaced anew. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported that interviews with a small group of female returnees in Mocimboa da Praia revealed concerns over the lack of economic opportunities for returnees, a trend that in these areas had pushed young men to join civilian militias.52
These findings are further supported by a study conducted by a Mozambican organization53 evaluating the experience of displaced people returning to Mocimboa da Praia and Palma towns, which revealed widespread destruction of personal property and infrastructure and uneven efforts at rebuilding the local economy. While agriculture along the main road and near the coast is beginning to emerge, programs to provide seeds and other supports have fallen short, while the fishing industry continues to languish.54 The disparities between the agriculture and fishing sectors threaten to reinforce pre-existing perceptions of a government that favors the Makonde ethnic group—who are prominent in agriculture and allied with the ruling FRELIMO party—over the Mwani fishermen, the coastal-based ethnic group from which the insurgency emerged.55
2. Perceptions of Biased Security Provision
Secondly, disconnects between official government statements about security in the province and events taking place on the ground threatens to further sour government relations with civilians. The imbalance in the government’s approach to the conflict extends to its military strategy, which appears to focus on key economic areas at the expense of less strategically important parts of the Cabo Delgado province, potentially reinforcing the insurgents’ narrative that the FRELIMO government seeks to enrich itself at the expense of the poor. The initial Rwandan deployment to Palma and Mocimboa da Praia,56 two towns vital to the LNG exploration project in the province,expanded in December 2022 to those mining areas of southern Cabo Delgado that had begun experiencing attacks that year.57 While the February 202358 attacks in areas near the Rwandan deployment in southern Cabo Delgado59 demonstrate the insurgents have become bolder in the face of a more robust security presence, the message that the deployment sends to those Cabo Delgado residents left with what they perceive as a less effective force is that the government’s priority is not the general security of the population. This perception is likely further reinforced by government messages claiming improved security and stability in the province while segments of the population remain under attack. For example, in early February 2023, President Nyusi celebrated his birthday and hosted TotalEnergies CEO Patrick Pouyanné in Cabo Delgado, conveying an image of a stable and secure place.60 However, during that same period, three groups of insurgents launched attacks in Mueda, Montapuez, and Meluco districts, causing civilian deaths and destruction of personal property.61
3. Overreliance on Foreign Partners for Security and Governance
Finally, foreign intervention itself, while it has helped improve security in parts of the province in the near term, risks over time contributing to a more complex counterterrorism environment absent better coordination among the growing number of actors in this space and a more robust effort from Maputo at developing and implementing a comprehensive counterterrorism approach. By February 2023, a bilateral Tanzanian police deployment had arrived in Cabo Delgado, joining the Rwandan, SAMIM, Mozambican security services, and civilian militias already in place. However, these multiple entities have struggled with communication and coordination,62 leaving gaps between their areas of responsibility that the insurgents can effectively exploit.
Rwanda’s engagement in particular risks creating what a RAND study of insurgencies and counterinsurgencies calls “perverse incentives or dependencies,”63 whereby the host government allows its foreign partner to carry the burden of rolling back the insurgency for it, a trend that could potentially contribute to a further weakening of the social contract between the Mozambican government and the population of Cabo Delgado Province. The Rwandan force size in Cabo Delgado has already doubled since its initial deployment,64 and its presence has expanded to cover areas of economic significance, giving the RDF a significantly greater role in security than it initially had. More recently, media reports suggest Rwandan private security companies are being hired to potentially expand the country’s security presence in Cabo Delgado.
However, the Rwandan presence has extended beyond traditional security roles. Rwandan forces in Cabo Delgado have been applying the concept of umuganda, or community work, as part of its intervention in the province, a concept that calls on the RDF to work with locals to rebuild their communities in an effort to develop goodwill and improve stability in these areas of operation.65
A Mozambican study of conditions in Palma and Mocimboa da Praia published in March 2023 showed Rwandan forces serving as mediators in disputes between civilians and Mozambican security services and stepping in where the state has failed to reassert its presence.66 For example, the Rwandan military in February 2023 provided materials to school children in Palma and Mocimboa da Praia as they returned to schools that had been closed since 2020.67 The Rwandan military also handed over to Mozambican authorities a newly constructed fish market in Mocimboa da Praia,68 aiding an industry vital to that local economy, but that the government has largely neglected.
Looking ahead, despite the changes to the battlefield dynamic that foreign intervention introduced in 2021, the fundamental drivers of the trajectory69 of this conflict remain largely intact. ASWJ retains the ability to procure supplies and recruits, and to operate with relative ease in areas where counterterrorism forces fail to communicate and coordinate their presence, enabling the group to continue destabilizing the region and disrupting daily life and commerce. The government, for its part, remains committed to a military solution to the conflict, bringing in multiple regional and bilateral partners to bolster this effort alongside Mozambican security forces and civilian militias. Trapped between these two forces are the growing number of civilians who are without access to health care, education, and employment, feeding the cycle that launched the conflict in the first place.
Breaking this cycle will require a genuine commitment among Mozambican elites to implement reforms that address the economic and social grievances at the heart of the conflict. As a RAND study of counterinsurgency practices has noted, the host government must want the win more than its foreign partners.70 CTC
Emilia Columbo is a Senior Associate (Non-Resident) with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa Program and the Senior Security Risk Analyst at VoxCroft Analytics. Columbo previously served as a senior intelligence analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency and in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Office for the Western Hemisphere. She has a BA in political science from the University of California at Santa Barbara and an MSFS from Georgetown University. Twitter: @EColumbo2019
© 2023 Emilia Columbo
[a] FADM is the acronym for the Mozambique Defence Armed Forces.
[b] The Frente de Libertação de Mocambique (FRELIMO) originated as a nationalist movement fighting for independence from Portugal and has evolved into the dominant political party in Mozambique.
 For more on this attack, see Tim Lister, “The March 2021 Palma Attack and the Evolving Jihadi Terror Threat to Mozambique,” CTC Sentinel 14:4 (2021).
 “Thirty-first report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2610 (2021) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations, February 13, 2023.
 Author discussions, Mozambique security experts, January 2021.
 Cabo Delgado, “The insurgents appeal to the population not to flee their villages. They say that they are no longer burning houses …,” Twitter, February 10, 2023.
 Author tracking of Islamic State media channels.
 “Mozambique LNG: TotalEnergies Entrusts Jean-Christophe Rufin with an Independent Mission to Assess the Humanitarian Situation in Cabo Delgado Province,” TotalEnergies Press Release, February 3, 2023.