Abstract: The jihadi insurgency in northern Mozambique has shown renewed vitality with an ambitious and successful attack on the town of Palma, an economically significant hub that was home to hundreds of foreign workers involved in a nearby gas project being developed by Total. The fighters, known locally as Shabaab, belong to Ahl al-Sunnah wa al Jamma’ah (ASWJ), which is one of two branches of the Islamic State’s Central African Province (ISCAP). The attack on Palma in late March 2021 likely involved as few as 200 fighters, but they were able to control the area for four days—an indictment of the Mozambican security forces. As a result of the attack, Total has mothballed its Afungi project, one of the largest energy projects in southern Africa. The attack was the first in almost five months to be claimed by the Islamic State in Mozambique. Debate continues on ASWJ’s relationship with the Islamic State, fueled by the United States’ decision in March 2021 to designate the group as a foreign terrorist organization, naming it ISIS-Mozambique.

On March 24, 2021, about 200 fighters of Ahl al-Sunnah wa al Jamma’ah (ASWJ)a attacked the northern Mozambican town of Palma. For four days, they were rampant, killing at least dozens of local people and destroying much of the town’s infrastructure, including banks, a police station, and food aid warehouses. The attack reverberated around the world because Palma was home to hundreds of foreign workers, most of them contractors for the Total liquefied natural gas (LNG) project on the nearby Afungi Peninsula. Dozens of foreigners were trapped at a hotel in the town and under fire for at least 36 hours. The attack was another stunning failure for Mozambique’s security forces, which proved unable to hold a town of 70,000 against a couple of hundred young militants.

This article builds on research and reporting for a previous study published by this author in CTC Sentinel in October 2020.1 That piece explored the origins of the insurgency and the factors that enabled it to flourish: a traditional Islamic leadership out of touch with younger Muslims; economic and social deprivation in northern Mozambique amid a wealth of natural resources; and corruption and ineffective governance. The insurgency in Mozambique officially became part of the Islamic State’s Central Africa province (ISCAP) in June 2019. In a short video the following month, a group of Mozambicans are shown pledging allegiance to then Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but there has been no public pledge from any purported ASWJ leader to the central leadership of the Islamic State.2

This article focuses on the attack on Palma after a lull in activity during the rainy season—and what it portends for the insurgents, the security forces, and Mozambique’s economic future, which is tightly bound to the exploitation of its LNG potential. It examines the tactics and goals of the attack, the involvement of private military contractors in the response, and the failings of the security forces. The analysis draws from a range of sources, including witnesses to and survivors of the attack, local sources, regional analysts who follow the insurgency, and officials with aid organizations who are based in Mozambique.b Some have preferred to speak on background.

The article also explores the possible consequences of the United States’ designation of ASWJ and its identification of the group as ‘ISIS-Mozambique.’ It examines the extent to which foreign fighters play a role in ASWJ and cross-fertilization with militancy in southern Tanzania but finds few organizational links with Islamic State ‘Central.’ It also reviews the current and potential assistance to Mozambique’s flagging counterterrorism efforts.

The article is split into six sections. The first examines the attack on Palma. The second looks at the significance of the attack and how it underlines the threat posed by the insurgency and the failings of the Mozambique government to deal with the insurgency. The third section examines the relationship between the Mozambique militants and the Islamic State and ASWJ’s foreign fighter recruitment. The fourth section examines the so-far failed regional and international efforts to counter the threat. The fifth section examines the economic fallout. The final section looks at the potential future trajectory of the insurgency.

Cabo Delgado, Mozambique

The Attack on Palma
The attack on Palma, a town of some 70,000 people swollen by thousands of civilians already displaced by the conflict, began on March 24, 2021. According to witnesses and the Mozambican Defense Ministry, it was a sophisticated operation launched from three directions simultaneously,3 and from inside the town itself by fighters who had previously infiltrated the area.4 Analysis of aerial photographs suggests the attack was accompanied by an ambush of trucks heading north from the town.5

The attack began hours after the French energy giant Total had announced an agreement with the Mozambique government to restart work on the nearby Afungi Peninsula project,6 which had been suspended since January 2021 after a series of insurgent attacks on the perimeter of the complex. However, the preparations for such an assault must have begun before the announcement.

The attack on Palma appears to have had specific targets: the airfield to the north of the town, the army barracks, the town’s banks, and a food storage warehouse.7 There are indications that the insurgents had intelligence about recent deliveries of food aid to Palma, as well as cash to its banks, which may have influenced the timing of the attack.8 Several food supply trucks were attacked and their drivers killed.9 Cellular communications were quickly cut, although it is not clear this was done by the insurgents.10

There were also indiscriminate attacks on civilians, with dozens and maybe more killed in their homes and on Palma’s streets during the initial attack. Residents reported that some of the dead had been beheaded, their bodies left in the streets.11

As the attack unfolded, thousands of local people fled into the bush or mangrove swamps along the coast. The more fortunate reached nearby beaches and were taken off by small boats. “On the beach we had support from small boats who carried us out and we were rescued by cargo ships,” one survivor said.12 Thousands more fled toward the Total compound to seek protection, taking shelter in a village at the edge of the complex.13 By some estimates, more than 20,000 people arrived at Total’s perimeter.14

Some 10,000 people arrived in the town of Pemba, mainly by boat, in the days after the attack, while others headed west through the bush to the garrison town of Mueda, which is now the military’s northernmost outpost.15 Several hundred others arrived at the border with Tanzania but were not allowed to enter the country;16 a full week after the attack, many more were still believed to be in the forests around Palma.17 Aid agencies believe some 40,000 people were displaced, of whom some 18,000 had arrived in other parts of Cabo Delgado by April 14, 2021.18

The attackers appear to have included many teenagers, according to witness accounts. A short video later released by the Islamic State’s Amaq news agency appears to corroborate the youth of many of the fighters.19 Some insurgents appear to have worn police or military uniforms, which confused the small army detachment based in Palma.20 Clashes continued into March 25, 2021; about 20 Mozambique soldiers were reported killed.21 However, no reinforcements were dispatched to defend Palma despite there being a capable force guarding the Afungi complex—about 10-15 kilometers away.22

The attackers took advantage of Palma’s isolation. Many routes from the town to other parts of Cabo Delgado were already blocked due to the prevailing insecurity.23 The arrival of the dry season may also have been a factor, according to Lionel Dyck, who runs the Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), a South African military contractor working in northern Mozambique. “As the rain stops, they call it the fighting season, and this is the start of the fighting season when [the insurgents] can actually come out and attack and do this, and it’s been on the cards for a long time,” Dyck said.24 Much of Cabo Delgado, which is prone to hurricanes, is impassable in the rainy season.

By the morning of March 25, 2021, the insurgents had surrounded a hotel—the Amarula Lodge—north of Palma, where some 200 foreigners and Mozambicans, including local government employees and the District Administrator, had taken shelter. A few of them were evacuated in DAG helicopters.25

In the ensuing 36 hours, several expatriate workers who lived in the Palma area or were staying at the Amarula were among those killed, including a Briton, a South African, and a Zimbabwean.c Among them were people at the Lodge who decided to form a convoy in an effort to escape northwards to the Tanzanian border. This convoy was ambushed soon after leaving Palma.26 Mozambican authorities said seven people were killed in this ambush. Other estimates put the number at between 40 and 50.27 The bodies of 12 white men were later exhumed close to the Lodge. A local police commander, Pedro da Silva Negro, showed visiting journalists where the bodies had been discovered but could not provide their identities. He said the insurgents had entered the hotel and abducted the men, and then beheaded them.28

By March 28, 2021, DAG helicopters had airlifted some 120 people from the area and the insurgents had left the town, though were still present for several days in the surrounding forest.29 Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi insisted the following week the insurgents had been “chased out” of Palma,30 but other reports suggest they left at will. As noted by Mozambique analyst Joseph Hanlon: “The insurgents do not initially try to hold towns, but drift away as the military response increases.”31 As has been evident in previous attacks, such as the seizure of Mocimboa da Praia and those close to the Afungi Peninsula in late December 2020, the insurgents showed tactical awareness in Palma.32 After overcoming the small number of troops in the area, they avoided being trapped by military reinforcements. They were also well enough equipped to hit at least one DAG helicopter that fired on them.33

In the final analysis, the insurgents were able to remain in Palma for four days. They used explosives to attack and rob two banks, with some reports suggesting they seized about $1 million because military salaries for the area had recently arrived.34 By March 28, 2021, their objectives had been achieved: seizing cash and food aid, while putting Total and the government on notice that Afungi was not safe. The military did not secure the airstrip to the north of the town until April 3, 2021, when officials also declared the area safe.35 However, sporadic attacks in the area continued over the next week.36

Insurgent Strength and Government Failings
The attack on Palma was highly significant for several reasons. It was the most complex since the insurgents’ attack on the port of Mocimboa da Praia in August 2020 and has led to the largest displacement of civilians since then.37 It was the most ambitious attack yet launched in the area adjacent to the Total complex in the Afungi Peninsula to the southeast of the town. It was also the first insurgent attack to target so many foreigners working in Mozambique.

A report for the United Nations Security Council published in February 2021 noted that “In recent attacks, ISCAP operatives seemed to have acquired sophisticated operational capabilities and pursued a strategic intent to seize more locations and expand operations to other districts and provinces.”38

The report noted in particular simultaneous attacks in October 2020, including one into southern Tanzania, saying: “Member States observed sophisticated military tactics deployed by ISCAP to cross the Ruvuma River into the southern United Republic of Tanzania, where it attacked Kitaya village in the Mtwara region.”39

According to Alexandre Raymakers, senior Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, the group’s “ability to hit multiple targets simultaneously in a three-pronged approach and the use of small arms fire combined with mortar fire to overwhelm government forces in just a couple of hours shows enhanced command and control and discipline.”40

The Palma attack demonstrates that the insurgency in Cabo Delgado continues to have momentum, and that ASWJ’s capabilities and tactical skills continue to evolve, while the government’s response remains haphazard and inadequate. As Emilia Columbo of the Center for Strategic and International Studies puts it, the security forces’ response “was in keeping with what we have seen these past years—weak, reactive, insufficient to keep the insurgency in check.”41

The insurgents were clearly helped by detailed local knowledge, having probably had supporters providing information from inside the town for weeks or even months. Further anecdotal evidence that ASWJ overwhelmingly comprises youth from Cabo Delgado comes from interviews with 23 women who were formerly prisoners of ASWJ.42 They said the fighters spoke local languages. They also referred to basic ideological instruction. One woman said: “On the day we arrived, they did a reading of the Koran, brought up the whole issue of injustice in the country, of social abuse, of corruption.”43 Some of the women reported that captured civilians are forced to undergo ideological instruction, while boys are given military training. They spoke of the youth of the fighters, referring to children and teenagers carrying out military training and fights with machetes. One described seeing a 14-year-old boy “who had come from his first mission” and was “happy” and “fulfilled” to have murdered and beheaded someone.44

Despite high-profile changes to Mozambique’s security forces in recent months, their response in Palma was as inadequate as during the assault on Mocimboa in 2020. Raymakers says it is stunning that the security forces were not better prepared for such an attack and that their capabilities have not improved despite the insurgency being in its fourth year. The military is still training to use combat helicopters, and military fighting vehicles are “completely unable to meet the current security threat,” he believes.45

The inadequacy of the military’s response may also have been influenced by internal upheavals in Mozambique’s security establishment. This weakness is rooted in a long-standing rivalry between the police and military commands, with the former historically favored by the ruling FRELIMO party given that some former RENAMO cadres have been integrated into the army.

“The Mozambican army, since its creation in 1994 following the end of the civil war, was never designed to combat this type of insurgency and has for years been in direct rivalry of the elite paramilitary police units,” writes Alex Vines, Africa Director at Chatham House.46

President Nyusi only gave the armed forces the lead in Cabo Delgado in January 2021. A new Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, General Eugénio Ussene Mussa, died of an undisclosed illness in February 2021, weeks after being appointed.47 Additionally, the military has been reorganized into regional commands. One of those commands has the role of protecting the Afungi Peninsula, where the Total complex is situated, but regional analysts believe this concentrates too many of the better troops in a small area, essentially forfeiting much of the hinterland.48

The Palma attack confirms a deteriorating trajectory for the government in Cabo Delgado. In 2020, ACLED recorded some 1,600 fatalities in the province, more than three times the number in 2019. The insurgents still hold a population center—Mocimboa da Praia—after attacking and occupying it in August 2020. In December 2020, the group launched its first attacks adjacent to the Total complex, causing the company to suspend work there. The United Nations estimates the conflict displaced 580,000 civilians in Cabo Delgado in 2020 alone.49 About 44,000 of them had taken shelter in Palma before the attack in March.50 The total number of IDPs due to the conflict in the north is now thought to be close to 700,000.51

There is little concrete evidence about how the insurgency sustains itself. Its raids appear partly driven by the need to acquire food supplies and in some instances cash. Civilians have reported that the insurgents have done nothing to preserve or encourage food production in areas where they are dominant, and there are frequent reports of raids carried out solely to seize food supplies.52

There is anecdotal evidence that the insurgency derives some benefits from the long tradition of smuggling along northern Mozambique’s coast. One recent report claimed that ASWJ “benefits from a diverse illicit trade portfolio, which includes the export of timber, gemstones and wildlife products and the large-scale import of narcotics, especially heroin.”53 There is no firm evidence the group controls drug or ivory smuggling.54

The opportunity to tax such illicit trade may present itself. Dino Mahtani of the International Crisis Group notes: “There are fears that [the insurgents] are already beginning to take a slice of illicit coastal smuggling, including taxing drugs cargoes that transit through waters and land they control … It stands to reason they might take a cut of the trade, either by transit fees or taxes, or from facilitating transport and landing of cargoes.”55

ASWJ and the Islamic State
On March 28, 2021, the Islamic State through its news agency Amaq claimed responsibility for the Palma attack on behalf of ISCAP, its first claim in Mozambique since November 2020. The Islamic State said fighters had killed more than 55 “members of the Mozambican army and the Christians, including nationals of Crusader states.”56 The Islamic State claim was accompanied by a short video showing young fighters gathered on a road, but geolocation appears to place them near Mocimboa da Praia rather than Palma.57 It also appears likely that the video was from 2020.58

The depth of ASWJ’s relationship with the Islamic State remains a contentious subject. In June 2019, the Islamic State released a statement on Telegram describing ASWJ as “soldiers of the caliphate.”59 A month later, ISCAP/ASWJ repledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi as part of the “And the Best Outcome is for the Righteous” series.60 That was also when the first video emerged of ISCAP fighters in Mozambique pledging allegiance to al-Baghdadi.61

There followed a sequence of claims via the Amaq news agency for attacks in Mozambique.62 But little else emerged about the leadership or organization of ISCAP/ASWJ.

In March 2021, the United States designated ASWJ as a terrorist organization, calling it “ISIS-Mozambique,” without sharing specifics on ties between the two groups.63

Tore Hamming of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College, London, believes the growing sophistication of ASWJ operations is an “indication of the benefits it has gained from its inclusion in ISCAP,” arguing that this shows “the Mozambican affiliate is part of an interconnected regional militant network in East, Central and Southeast Africa linked to the Islamic State.”64

Hamming says the publication of news and media from Mozambique by the Islamic State’s central media unit, “despite being irregular”, is a further indication of some level of connection between ASWJ and the Islamic State’s Central Media Department.65

Similarly, the U.N. report published in February 2021 stated that “some Member States observed that operatives in Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo had received reinforcement of trainers, tactical strategists and financial support remitted from the ISIL core through ISIL networks and enablers in Somalia and other East African countries, most recently in September 2020.”66 d

The fact that Islamic State ‘central’ releases propaganda—albeit inconsistently—on behalf of ISCAP/ASWJ is evidence of a continuing link between the two. Operational and ideological links are more difficult to gauge, although ISCAP/ASWJ’s use of beheadings and its targeting of Christians are at least indicative.

It is also difficult to assess the relationship between the two parts of ISCAP: ASWJ and the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), which operate in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. A previous CTC Sentinel article notes that while ADF-affiliated Ugandans have been arrested in Mozambique and “Islamic State Central designated its Somali branch as a ‘command center’ for both ISCAP affiliates, tangible, material ties between the two groups that could affect either wings’ trajectory are limited and speculative.”67 They are, the authors contend, “functionally separate organizations, largely insulated from the fortunes of each other just as they are both insulated from the fortunes of Islamic State Central.”

The designation and description of ASWJ as “ISIS-Mozambique” by the United States is potentially a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it may focus international attention and assistance on a conflict that has become entrenched. There are already signs this is happening. It is worth recalling that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria only became an “international” problem with the massacres of the Yazidi population in northern Iraq and the Islamic State onslaught against the Kurdish town of Kobani in northern Syria.

However, some believe the U.S. designations of the ISCAP franchises may be counterproductive. The International Crisis Group argues that such designations “could be used by hardliners to justify calls for addressing the challenge posed by the ADF and ASWJ through military action alone.”68 The labeling may distract the international community from the task of persuading the Mozambican government to address the root causes of the insurgency. Emilia Columbo says it “gives the Nyusi government additional cover for its ‘this is a foreign thing imposed upon us’ narrative, which risks distracting from socio-economic programs necessary to address the underlying grievances driving this conflict.”69 Unsurprisingly, pro-Islamic State fora welcomed the designation. “If this indicates anything, it is that the soldiers of the Caliphate in Central Africa Province have become a great danger and they fear its developing capabilities,” wrote one user on the forum al-Minbar.70

Thus far, the ASWJ’s “foreign fighters” have come from Tanzania, with a handful from Uganda and South Africa.e The U.N. experts report from February 2021 cited “indicators of recruitment” in both Mozambique and southern Tanzania, “where ISCAP has gained sympathizers and enablers.”71

A new study based on interviews with more than 20 women who were kidnapped by the group and subsequently escaped tends to support this assessment.72 Some of the former female captives refer to a “number of foreigners coming from the East African coast and from Arab countries.”73 While evidence of Arab fighters is difficult to confirm, there is growing evidence of a substantial Tanzanian contingent that shares linguistic and ethnic ties with the coastal Mwani youth of Cabo Delgado.74 Aid workers in Mozambique say that many civilians who have escaped attacks by ASWJ have spoken of Tanzanians among its ranks.75

This may not be an entirely recent phenomenon. In 2017, Tanzanian authorities launched a crackdown on young militants in the Kibiti region after several police officers were killed.76 Some of the survivors, already radicalized, moved into Mozambique. By March 2018, Mozambican state media was broadcasting images of men of “Asian descent”—possibly Tanzanians of Arab descent—who had been purportedly killed in fighting in Mocimboa da Praia.77 Between May 2017 and March 2018, the Mozambican authorities claimed to have prosecuted 370 individuals associated with what was then known as al-Shabaab (though it had no link with the Somali group of the same name). Of that total, 52 were Tanzanian.78 Over several months in 2018, a total of 104 individuals suspected of wanting to join Mozambique’s “Al-Shabaab” were arrested by Tanzanian authorities before they could cross the border into Mozambique.79

In October 2020, the Islamic State claimed ISCAP/ASWJ’s first incursion into southern Tanzania,80 clashing with security forces in Kitaya across the River Romura that forms the border. That attack led to closer collaboration between Tanzania and Mozambique in the face of a common threat, with the extradition of more than 500 alleged fighters to Mozambique.

The United States has also designated a Tanzanian—Abu Yasir Hassan—described by U.S. officials as the group’s leader.81 f It is the first time any government has named the leader of ASWJ, although Mozambican authorities claimed to have identified prominent figures in Shabaab in 2017.82 U.S. officials provided no other information about Hassan beyond his approximate age. Tanzanian authorities had no record of an individual by that name, and several analysts said they had never heard of the name.83

Equally little is known about a Somali member of the Islamic State alleged in a September 2020 U.N. Security Council report to have arrived in Mozambique. The report, by the Panel of Experts on Somalia, asserted that after rifts within the Somali Islamic State affiliate, a senior commander, Mohamed Ahmed “Qahiye,” fled to Ethiopia in 2018 and subsequently traveled to Mozambique.84 The U.N. report stated that “the arrival of ‘Qahiye’, a veteran military operator, into the ranks of Islamic State Central Africa Province is a significant acquisition for the group and highlights the linkages between terrorist networks across the African continent.”85 However, there is no independent evidence of Qahiye’s presence in Mozambique.

Ultimately, in the author’s analysis, the jury is still out on the extent of organizational and operational connections between the Islamic State and ASWJ. Through ISCAP, ‘Islamic State core’ seeks to co-opt the achievements of the group as a demonstration of its continuing global appeal. Notably, after the Palma attack, the Islamic State’s Sinai Wilayat released images of its fighters watching the video released by the Islamic State on behalf of ISCAP on March 28, 2021.86

The Islamic State is looking to Africa to exhibit its vitality and reach. According to a Hudson Institute study, in 2020, “the lion’s share of its photo and video propaganda was devoted to the exploits of provincial franchises in the Lake Chad Basin and the Greater Sahara and, to a slightly lesser extent, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Mozambique.”87 But the authors of the study caution that “while its foothold in Nigeria is a well-established reality now, the situation is markedly less clear when it comes to its alleged activities in the DRC and Mozambique.”88

Details of the Palma attack, if anything, reinforce the notion that ASWJ is primarily an evolution of the local Shabaab. It is evolving into a more regional phenomenon—one that straddles borders through linguistic, ethnic and socio-economic ties in the face of a one-dimensional response from the governments of Mozambique and Tanzania. Whether it begins to attract fighters from further afield as a result of its success, and becomes ideologically and operationally more closely bound to the Islamic State, is the outstanding question.

Ineffective Foreign Intervention and Assistance
The attack on Palma has renewed the spotlight on foreign counterterrorism and military assistance to Mozambique. A small detachment of U.S. Special Forces trainers—about a dozen U.S. Army Green Berets—arrived in Mozambique in early 2021, but they have no operational role and are based far from the conflict zone.89 The U.S. embassy in Mozambique emphasized that the two-month training program was part of “a multi-faceted and holistic approach to counter and prevent the spread of terrorism and violent extremism. This approach addresses socio-economic development issues as well as the security situation. Civilian protection, human rights, and community engagement are central to US co-operation and foundational to effectively counter Islamic State in Mozambique.”90

Even before the Palma attack, there were discussions underway between Portugal and Mozambique on a training mission. On March 29, 2021, in the aftermath of the attack, Portuguese Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva said: “We are planning and preparing a team of around 60 Portuguese service members that will support the Mozambican armed forces in the training of Special Forces.” He also anticipated further assistance at the European level.91

There are also military contractors such as DAG—which provides air cover for ground forces—and Paramount, which has a strictly training role.92 However, it appears that the DAG contract with the government was not renewed when it expired early in April 2021, despite the company’s efforts in Palma.93

The Russian contingent, at one point some 160 strong, from the Wagner Group, which was deployed with considerable fanfare in 2019,94 was not involved in the response to the Palma attack. Indeed, they have largely withdrawn from Mozambique after an unsuccessful stint in which they failed to make an impact on the conflict and took casualties.95

In early April 2021, several heads of state from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) met in the Mozambique capital Maputo to discuss regional assistance.g A communique declared that “such heinous attacks cannot be allowed to continue without a proportionate regional response.” It directed “an immediate technical deployment” to Mozambique, without specifying its purpose.96 However, a meaningful SADC role in northern Mozambique seems unlikely for several reasons. The countries represented in Maputo simply cannot afford any foreign adventures and their armed forces are ill-equipped for such a demanding counterterrorism campaign.

Analysts point to the lack of capabilities, such as airlift, and the poor human rights record of the Zimbabwean army, for example. Raymakers doubts that the international community would be willing to finance a regional force that included a Zimbabwean contingent.97 And he says South Africa’s public finances, as well as the relative obsolescence of its military, would preclude a meaningful role, even if Maputo was willing to countenance it.

Despite Total’s multi-billion-dollar investment in Mozambique, there seems little prospect of French land forces becoming involved, given their extensive commitments in the Sahel. However, France has been in contact with the Mozambican authorities since 2020 over the possibility of maritime cooperation, using French facilities in Mayotte in the Indian Ocean. That option may become more relevant if ASWJ continues to take advantage of the Cabo Delgado coast.98 An internal E.U. policy paper has suggested an extension of the European Union’s maritime mission off the Horn of Africa (EUNAVOFOR) further south.99 The insurgents have a basic maritime capability, frequently commandeering small vessels for coastal raids. In late March 2021, they used motorboats to attack two fishing villages 100 kilometers south of Palma.100 After the Palma raid, they attacked the coastal village of Pangane from the sea.101 They also appear to have taken possession of a larger freighter off the coast of Palma for several days.102

The Mozambican government has historically been averse to foreign involvement in its internal security, but the scale of the problem and the government’s (misleading) recharacterization of ASWJ as directed by outsiders has led to a recalibration of its approach. The government reached out to the European Union for help with military training in September 2020, and in November, President Nyusi said Mozambique was open to any form of support in the struggle against terrorism.103 But he has repeatedly set conditions on such support. “Those who arrive from abroad will not replace us, they will support us. It is a sense of sovereignty,” Nyusi said in April 2021.104

The government has preferred to use military contractors such as the now-departed Wagner Group and DAG. Additionally, South African group Paramount has trained Mozambican pilots to operate Gazelle helicopters and has provided an Mi17 and an Mi24 piloted by Ukrainians.105

The evidence of the last two years suggests military contractors cannot provide the expertise or resources to make an impact. John T. Godfrey, the State Department’s acting coordinator for counterterrorism, told reporters in March 2021 that the United States is “concerned” by the presence of private contractors, which “complicates rather than helps efforts to address the terror threat there.”106

Economic Fallout
In the aftermath of the Palma attack, the decision by Total to evacuate its complex and essentially halt all work at Afungi is a bitter blow to the government and calls into question the viability of the project on the current timeline. Total issued a statement saying it had “decided to reduce to a strict minimum level the workforce on the Afungi site.”107 Later in April, Total declared force majeure and essentially mothballed the entire project “as a result of the severe deterioration of the security situation in Cabo Delgado.”108 The impact on the local economy, with contractors, hotel workers, translators, and security guards now out of a job, will be significant.

“Total’s decision to resume construction was contingent on Maputo guaranteeing a 25-kilometer security perimeter around the Afungi peninsula, which would include Palma,” Raymakers says.109 It could be some time before government forces reestablish full control over this area.

Contractors may reassess their commitment. RA International, which lost at least one employee in the attack, said in late March 2021 that it expected further delays in a project to build a large residential camp at Afungi.110

The project that was at the heart of Mozambique’s economic transformation is now on hold indefinitely. Industry sources say that Exxon’s even larger investment is also in jeopardy, and that Total may shift resources to similar prospects in South Africa.111 The sources say that only projects belonging to Italian energy company ENI, which do not rely on onshore infrastructure, seem secure.112

The development of the LNG industry has at least the potential to improve the economic fortunes of Cabo Delgado and all of Mozambique, if corruption can be tamed and infrastructure developed. But equally, there is the risk that the unequal division of spoils will only feed discontent and the insurgency in Cabo Delgado.

Members of an humanitarian organization look on as a helicopter carrying other humanitarian personnel lands
at the airport in Pemba, Mozambique, on March 31, 2021. (AFP via Getty Images)

The Future of the Insurgency
The insurgency in Cabo Delgado has evolved substantially since 2017, when it launched its first attack.113 “It started attacking in the form of small groups of young men, brandishing mainly blunt weapons, and attacking remote security posts. It has evidently now grown into something much more serious,” according to Dino Mahtani of the International Crisis Group.114

Columbo says the government of Mozambique is not close to developing, let alone implementing, a comprehensive strategy to neutralize the insurgency. The regional fund for the north created last year “should have been a good start on the ‘soft-side’ of this counterinsurgency fight, but its activities are stalled. A military solution is not feasible because it won’t address those grievances and to date, has probably made those grievances worse.”115

João Feijó, author of the report on the abducted women, concluded that civilians in much of Cabo Delgado are caught between the violence of the insurgents and distrust of the security forces. “This pressure leads them to flee to the south of the province, where they encounter insufficient aid and social injustice, which pushes them back into violent movements – and the cycle continues,” he says.116

The effect on hundreds of thousands of civilians of the violence of the last 18 months will be long-lasting. Schools throughout much of Cabo Delgado have been shuttered; 136 did not open for the 2021 academic year.117 A generation of children is being inured to violence, either as perpetrators or victims.

One major question is whether the growing profile and success of ASWJ will attract foreign fighters from beyond Tanzania. “The presence of foreign fighters in ASWJ’s ranks is already apparent. Less clear, however, is how foreign fighters might impact ASWJ as an organization and the trajectory of the conflict in Mozambique,” Columbo and Austin C. Doctor wrote in a recent report.118

Foreign fighters might bring new skills and experience to the group—in battlefield tactics and bomb-making, for example. Over time, however, foreign fighters can become a liability, “potentially sowing division within the group,”119 and inviting a more international counterterrorism response.

At present, however, the insurgency in Cabo Delgado is more damaging and threatening to the future of Mozambique than at any time since it began in 2017. It is showing signs of attracting support from beyond Mozambique, and especially from southern Tanzania, and is recruiting hundreds of teenagers who will know nothing but conflict if the insurgency persists. The security forces have failed to turn the tide on an insurgency approaching its fifth anniversary, and the Mozambique government has missed plentiful opportunities to win over the civilian population of Cabo Delgado through economic development and social programs. Despite its plentiful natural resources, it remains Mozambique’s poorest province.

In a majority Christian country, ASWJ does not pose an existential threat to the government. It holds one town in Cabo Delgado and is present in about half its districts. But those districts are adjacent to the multi-billion-dollar energy projects that are the crown jewel in Mozambique’s economic future.     CTC

Tim Lister is a journalist with CNN who has covered multiple conflicts in the past decade in the Middle East, Ukraine, and Africa, as well as the activities of Russian private military contractors on three continents. He is also co-author of Agent Storm: My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA and  Nine Lives: My Time as MI6’s Top Spy Inside al Qaeda. Twitter: @TimListerCNN

© 2021 Tim Lister

Substantive Notes
[a] This article generally refers to the group as ASWJ. When the group is mentioned in relation to Islamic State claims, this article refers to the group as ISCAP/ASWJ.

[b] This article also draws on relevant extracts of a soon-to-be published book on the Islamic State in Africa, which were shared by its authors. Jason Warner with Ryan Cummings, Ryan O’Farrell, and Héni Nsaibia, The Islamic State in Africa: Emergence, Evolution, and Future of the Next Jihadist Battlefront (London: Hurst Publishers, 2021, forthcoming).

[c] South African Adrian Nel, 40, was killed in the convoy that tried to escape Palma. “‘He didn’t deserve to die like that’: Mother of victim in Mozambique attack,” CNN, March 30, 2021. See also “Mozambique town Palma ‘retaken’ from militant Islamists,” BBC, April 5, 2021.

[d] As links between Islamic State Central and ISCAP-DRC have been more visible, much of this assistance may have been provided to operatives in DRC. For more on the links to DRC, see Warner et al., The Islamic State in Africa (forthcoming).

[e] In January 2018, three Ugandans were arrested in Mocimboa da Praia on terrorism charges. Mozambique informed Ugandan authorities of the arrests in May 2018. One was Abdul Faisal—previously the imam of the Usafi Mosque in Kampala. See Warner et al., The Islamic State in Africa (forthcoming).

[f] At the same time, the United States also designated the other component of ISCAP—the Allied Democratic Forces—in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “State Department Terrorist Designations of ISIS Affiliates and Leaders in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique,” U.S. Department of State, March 10, 2021.

[g] SADC comprises 16 members, but five—South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, and Tanzania—are involved in the initiative in Mozambique.

[1] Tim Lister, “Jihadi Insurgency in Mozambique Grows in Sophistication and Reach,” CTC Sentinel 13:10 (2020).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Leonel Matias, “Moçambique: Ataque em Palma pode ter sido um “sinal” para o Governo,” Deutsche Welle, March 25, 2021.

[4] Accounts of the attack and occupation of the area and the civilian exodus are, in part, based on the author’s interviews in March and April 2021 with aid organizations, private military contractors, and testimony from some of those trapped in Palma during the assault. Some spoke on condition of anonymity. See also “Cabo Ligado, March 22-28, 2021,” ACLED.

[5] Ibid.

[6] For details on the LNG projects in Mozambique, see Lister.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Author interviews, survivors and aid officials, April 2021.

[9] Lionel Dyck interview, SABC News, March 28, 2021. Helicopters belonging to Dyck’s company took photographs of the ambush of food trucks.

[10] “Cabo Ligado, March 22-28, 2021.”

[11] “Mozambique: Protect Residents Fleeing Northern Town,” Human Rights Watch, March 26, 2021. See also Marcelo Mosse, “Detalhes do ataque à Palma: De como os terroristas ludibriaram as FDS para alcançarem o centro da vila,” Carta de Mocambique, March 25, 2021.

[12] Author interview, April 2021.

[13] Multiple author interviews on background with international aid groups, April 2021. See also Matthew Hill and Borges Nhamirre, “Thousands Seek Refuge at Total Mozambique LNG Site After Attack,” Bloomberg, March 31, 2020.

[14] “Cabo Ligado, March 28 – April 4.” Aid officials gave similar numbers to the author in interviews, April 2021.

[15] Author interview, April 2021.

[16] Andrew Meldrum and Tom Bowker, “40,000 displaced in north Mozambique after assault on Palma,” Associated Press, April 20, 2021. See also “Moçambique. Fuga de Palma leva centenas para fronteira com a Tanzânia,” Mundo ao Minuto, March 29, 2021.

[17] Author interviews, aid officials, April 2021.

[18] “Mozambique: Palma Displacement Response – Situation Report,” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, April 14, 2021.

[19] “Cabo Ligado, March 22-28, 2021.” See also “Amaq Video Shows ISCAP Fighters Congregating, Resting in Palma After Taking Control Over City,” SITE Intelligence Group, March 29, 2021.

[20] “Cabo Ligado, March 28 – April 4,” ACLED.

[21] “Há chacina em Palma,” Pinnacle News, March 26, 2021.

[22] Dyck interview. This was confirmed to the author by aid officials on background.

[23] “Cabo Ligado” Conflict Observatory, March (monthly) Report, ACLED.

[24] Dyck interview.

[25] Ibid.

[26] “‘We spent the night under heavy fire,’ recalls survivor after terrifying escape from Islamists in Mozambique,” CNN, April 3, 2021.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Gonçalo Correia, “Em Palma, 12 cidadãos estrangeiros foram degolados e decapitados num hotel,” Observador, April 9, 2021.

[29] Dyck interview.

[30] “Attaque au Mozambique: les autorités affirment reprendre le contrôle,” RFI, April 5, 2021.

[31] Joseph Hanlon, “Mozambique: IS claim is fake; Palma fighting continues, debate on IS role,” Club of Mozambique, April 1, 2021.

[32] Author interviews, aid officials and military contractors, April 2021.

[33] Dyck interview.

[34] “Palma: Equivalent to US$1M looted from banks; town remains uncontactable via mobile phone – TVM,” Club of Mozambique, April 12, 2021.

[35] “Cabo Ligado, March 29 – April 4, 2021,” ACLED.

[36] Author interviews, regional security analysts and aid officials, April 2021.

[37] Author interviews, aid officials, April 2021. See also Christina Goldbaum, Eric Schmitt, and Declan Walsh, “As Militants Seize Mozambique Gas Hub, a Dash for Safety Turns Deadly,” New York Times, March 28, 2021.

[38] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations Security Council, February 3, 2021, p. 12. 

[39] Ibid.

[40] Quoted in Tim Lister and Vasco Cotovio, “The brutal attacks in Mozambique are a ‘game-changer’ and imperil a whole country’s financial future,” CNN, March 30, 2021.

[41] Author interview, April 2021.

[42] João Feijó, “Caracterizacao e organizacao social dos machababos a partir dos discursos de mulheres raptadas,” Rural Environment Observatory, Maputo, Mozambique, April 2021.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Author interview, April 2021.

[46] Alex Vines, “What next for the insurgency in Cabo Delgado?” Chatham House, April 7, 2021.

[47] “Mozambique: General Eugénio Mussa, FADM Chief of Staff, dies after illness,” Club of Mozambique, February 8, 2021.

[48] Author interviews, regional analysts, April 2021.

[49] “Mozambique – Attacks in Palma District,” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, March 29, 2021.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Author interviews, aid officials, April 2021.

[52] “Cabo Ligado” Conflict Laboratory, ACLED, April 13, 2021.

[53] Ivor Roberts, “Unholy Alliance: Links between extremism and illicit trade in east Africa,” Counter Extremism Project, March 2021.

[54] Alessandro Ford, “‘Criminals and Terrorists’: Framing Mozambique’s Insurgency,” Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, April 2, 2021.

[55] Quoted in Nicholas Norbrook, “How Mozambique’s corrupt elite caused tragedy in the north,” Africa Report, April 10, 2021.

[56] “Amaq Video Shows ISCAP Fighters Congregating, Resting in Palma After Taking Control Over City,” SITE Intelligence Group, March 29, 2021.

[57] See, for example, Samir, “geolocation of IS fighters in Mocimboa da Praia …,” Twitter, March 29, 2021.

[58] Hanlon, “Mozambique: IS claim is fake; Palma fighting continues, debate on IS role.” For further discussion of the footage the Islamic State posted, see Joseph Hanlon, “Mozambique Palma attack: Why IS involvement is exaggerated,” BBC, April 17, 2021.

[59] Caleb Weiss, “Islamic State claims first attack in Mozambique,” Long War Journal, June 4, 2019.

[60] See Robert Postings, “In the first official video from the province – and the 11th video …,” Twitter, July 26, 2019.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Discussed in Lister.

[63] “State Department Terrorist Designations of ISIS Affiliates and Leaders in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique,” U.S. Department of State, March 10, 2021.

[64] Tore Refslund Hamming, “The Islamic State in Mozambique,” Lawfare, January 24, 2021.

[65] Ibid.

[66] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” p. 11.

[67] Jason Warner, Ryan O’Farrell, Heni Nsaibia, and Ryan Cummings, “Outlasting the Caliphate: The Evolution of the Islamic State Threat in Africa,” CTC Sentinel 13:11 (2020).

[68] “Understanding the New U.S. Terrorism Designations in Africa,” International Crisis Group, March 18, 2021.

[69] Author interview, April 2021. See also Emilia Columbo, Judd Devermont, and Jacob Kurtzer, “Mozambique: The Problem with Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) Designations,” CSIS, March 12, 2021.

[70] “Jihadists Congratulate ISCAP for ‘Honor’ of US terror Listing,” SITE Intelligence Group, March 12, 2021.

[71] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” p. 12.

[72] Feijó.

[73] Ibid.

[74] This is discussed in greater detail in the author’s previous article, “Jihadi Insurgency in Mozambique Grows in Sophistication and Reach.”

[75] Lister.

[76] Norbrook.

[77] Jason Warner with Ryan Cummings, Ryan O’Farrell, and Héni Nsaibia, The Islamic State in Africa: Emergence, Evolution, and Future of the Next Jihadist Battlefront (London: Hurst Publishers, 2021, forthcoming).

[78] Austin C. Doctor, “The Looming Influx of Foreign Fighters in Sub-Saharan Africa,” War on the Rocks, August 18, 2020.

[79] Warner et al.

[80] Ibid.

[81] “Burma-related Designations; Counter Terrorism Designations and Designations Updates; Global Magnitsky Designation Update; Democratic Republic of the Congo Designation Update,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, March 10, 2021.

[82] Warner et al., The Islamic State in Africa (forthcoming); “Authorities name 2 Mozambican men suspected leaders of Mocímboa attacks; link them to Tanzania, Sudan, Saudi Arabia,” Club of Mozambique, December 4, 2017; “Police commander identifies Islamist terrorist leaders – AIM report,” Club of Mozambique, August 14, 2018.

[83] Author interviews, regional security analysts, April 2021.

[84] “Final Report, Panel of Experts on Somalia,” United Nations Security Council, September 28, 2020.

[85] Ibid.

[86] The image can be seen here: “Pointing to Photos from Sinai, Jihadist Cautions IS Against Potentially Revealing Fighter Locations,” SITE Intelligence Group, April 12, 2021.

[87] Haroro J. Ingram, Craig Whiteside, and Charlie Winter, “The Routinization of the Islamic State’s Global Enterprise,” Hudson Institute, April 1, 2021.

[88] Ibid.

[89] Declan Walsh and Eric Schmitt, “American Soldiers Help Mozambique Battle an Expanding ISIS Affiliate,” New York Times, March 15, 2021.

[90] “U.S. Government Provides Military Training to Mozambican Marines,” U.S. Embassy, Maputo, March 15, 2021.

[91] “Portugal: Santos Silva confirms sending military personnel to Mozambique,” Club of Mozambique, March 29, 2021.

[92] “Paramount and Lionel Dyck massively boost Nyusi’s firepower,” Africa Intelligence, December 10, 2020.

[93] “Cabo Ligado March 29 – April 4.”

[94] Tim Lister and Sebastian Shukla, “Russian mercenaries fight shadowy battle in gas-rich Mozambique,” CNN, November 29, 2019.

[95] Ibid. Several regional analysts have confirmed Wagner’s withdrawal to the author.

[96] Communique obtained by the author.

[97] Author interview, April 2021.

[98] “Mozambique: Military maritime cooperation agreement with France under discussion,” Club of Mozambique, July 17, 2020.

[99] “Cabo Ligado Monthly, March 2021,” ACLED, April 15, 2021.

[100] “Cabo Delgado Insurgents kill again in attacks on coastal Macomia,” Zitamar News, March 30, 2021.

[101] “Cabo Ligado, March 22-28.”

[102] Author interview, shipping industry source, April 2021.

[103] “Cabo Delgado: President says Mozambique is open to receiving ‘any type of support,’” Club of Mozambique, November 19, 2020.

[104] Hanlon, “Mozambique Palma attack: Why IS involvement is exaggerated.”

[105] Author interviews, regional analysts, April 2021.

[106] “Digital Press Briefing on U.S. Efforts to Combat Terrorism in Africa,” U.S. Department of State, March 11, 2021.

[107] Statement on company’s website, March 28, 2021.

[108] Total statement sent to author, April 26, 2021.

[109] Lister and Cotovio.

[110] Statement from RA International sent to author, March 29, 2021.

[111] Author interviews, LNG industry sources, April 2021.

[112] Ibid.

[113] Lister.

[114] Dino Mahtani on Twitter, March 28, 2021.

[115] Author interview, April 2021.

[116] Feijó.

[117] “Cabo Ligado, March 22-28, 2021.”

[118] Emilia Columbo and Austin C. Doctor, “Foreign Fighters and the Trajectory of Violence in Northern Mozambique,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, April 14, 2021.

[119] Ibid.

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up