Armed combatants recently overtook the town of Palma in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado region, killing local inhabitants as well as foreign workers associated with a natural gas development. Just a week earlier, a dozen U.S. Green Berets had arrived to help train Mozambican marines who are fighting the insurgents. And the week before that, the U.S. State Department designated ISIS-Mozambique, a reference to the region’s militants, to be a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) and, under a 2001, post-9/11 Executive Order, also designated the group and its leader a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT).
The terrorist designations and U.S. security cooperation are wrong-headed. The U.S. needs to remove the small cadre of Green Berets, not give air to the myth that the Cabo Delgado conflict is global in nature, and avoid any association with the disastrous security intervention occurring there. The Biden administration instead needs to prioritize diplomacy, require accountability, and offer targeted aid to address the underlying issues. It can do that by pressing the Mozambican government and multinational energy companies to provide for basic human security in the region in the form of development and stable governance.
For now, Mozambique’s military says it has retaken Palma after 10 days of fighting, though that may be more a matter of the combatants’ tendency to seize and then cede towns as a show of force. While violence has escalated in recent weeks, it has plagued the province for years, with the current conflict dating back to 2017 and its roots even deeper. That was the year foreign energy companies including France’s Total, U.S.-based Exxon Mobil, Italy’s ENI, and China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), stepped up work on the ground to extract liquid natural gas (LNG) from the African continent’s three largest deposits, all in Cabo Delgado.
Local populations, who already were living in poverty and have long been neglected by the government in the far-off capital Maputo in the country’s south, were displaced by the LNG exploration. Nearly one-third of Cabo Delgado’s estimated 2.3 million inhabitants have been internally displaced, either by the LNG work or by associated violence. Although northern Mozambique is home to a significant portion of the country’s Muslim minority, the current violence appears to be indiscriminate and based on local grievances rather than deliberate targeting of Christians or other groups.
In 2019, in response to persistent attacks, the gas companies brought in private security, hiring the infamous Kremlin-linked Wagner Group, which quickly found itself outmaneuvered in deadly ambushes. Last week in Palma, the South African Dyck Advisory Group, which was brought in on the heels of Wagner’s failures, similarly found itself unable to provide adequate security. The Mozambican military has also failed in its interventions.
Now the U.S. is training Mozambican marines, and Portugal, at the request of Mozambique President Filipe Nyusi, is sending a larger contingent, also to train Mozambican armed forces. Amnesty International reports the Mozambican military, defense contractors, and insurgents have all killed civilians and committed other atrocities. The increasing deployment of security forces has escalated the conflict, at the cost of civilian lives.
Misguided Reading of the Militants
U.S. participation and the terrorist designations are premised on a purported affiliation between the insurgents in Mozambique and ISIS. This is misguided.
Even as ISIS lost its physical caliphate in Syria and Iraq and has shifted to a non-geographically specific caliphate, northern Mozambique makes a strange choice. The benefits to a transnational terror movement are difficult to discern. Outside of the LNG projects, there is limited Western presence to foment a global narrative. And unlike in Somalia, where illegal and illicit trade generates millions of dollars in revenue, there is as yet no way for such a movement to extract wealth from northern Mozambique’s natural resources. With no economic incentives and no demonstrated ability to hold territory, the insurgents are embarking on a scorched-earth campaign that accomplishes nothing for ISIS as a global movement nor for their own interests locally, other than to inflict pain upon those they believe are doing likewise to them.
The violence in northern Mozambique is better understood as a highly localized insurgency that has grown in size and ferocity as disaffected populations in proximate provinces have joined the fight. The increasing strength and violence of the insurgency are concerning, but that does not mean they are properly designated as ISIS. In 2013, as I traveled across northern Mozambique, tensions were escalating across the lines that defined Mozambique’s civil war, which had officially ended two decades earlier. Though political negotiations de-escalated that violence, the results ignored underlying local grievances in favor of short-term pacification of leaders.
The current insurgency has seized on this dissatisfaction to promote its narratives of government failure and neglect. It also has operated with military precision and strategy, cutting off military supply lines, using seized military uniforms and weapons, and targeting government buildings with the goal of making the region ungovernable. In spite of the claimed affiliation with ISIS, the strategy more closely reflects Mozambique’s Civil War than the pursuit of a global caliphate. During the country’s civil war, the armed rebel movement RENAMO was known for horrific and terrorizing violence, including burning people alive and forcing new recruits to murder family members. The brutality of the current violence is not new to the region or unique to the present conflict. (Local residents call the combatants “al Shabaab,” but only because it translates as “the youth;” the fighters don’t appear to have any links with the al-Shabaab militant group that operates out of Somalia in the Horn and East Africa.)
Risk of Backfire for US Involvement
The March 10 U.S. designation of Mozambique’s local combatants as global terrorists only lends credence to the grievances driving this small but effective and violent insurgency. Ironically, the U.S. attention may actually attract external support by affiliating a local conflict with global conflict dynamics. At the same time, the presence of a dozen U.S. Green Berets in Mozambique, while unlikely to make much of a difference in training for the military, only aligns the United States with the LNG developers, their private security firms, and the Mozambican forces, all of whom are viewed with disdain by much of the local population. As Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace notes, “There is no correlation between increased SSA [security sector assistance] and stability in fragile states. Studies show that in the absence of minimal state capacity and societal inclusiveness, SSA fails.”
To undercut the violent extremist activity in Cabo Delgado, the Mozambican military and private contractors first and foremost need to be held accountable for any human rights abuses. The above-mentioned Amnesty International report contains damning allegations against Mozambican security forces of beatings, harassment, extortion, torture, and extrajudicial killings. The Mozambican government appears to be relying on the urgency of global cooperation against ISIS to distract from accountability for these horrific acts. A clear, sensible plan for addressing the causes of the violence and for achieving accountability should be the minimum conditions for the U.S. to consider security cooperation, not to mention U.S. laws regulating and even barring such assistance to foreign security forces that have committed human rights abuses.
Total, Exxon Mobil, ENI, and CNPC also need to make increased local investment in return for the privilege of extracting the area’s natural resources for profit. The long-neglected population justifiably doubts whether private companies and the government in Maputo will equitably distribute the resultant wealth. A 2016 case study of such investments described support for a few hundred school children in Pemba, the capital of Cabo Delgado, and training programs in Maputo. In other parts of Africa, such investment has established health systems and brought infrastructure development like roads, but the offshore location of the Cabo Delgado deposits has limited the gains experienced by the local population.
Emilia Columbo, an analyst working on the region for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, cites the potential of the Integrated Development Agency of the North, an initiative of the Mozambican government to address socioeconomic needs in Cabo Delgado and adjacent Niassa and Nampula provinces. The LNG operators could invest in this program, with a specific focus on job creation and infrastructure development that could transform the regional economy. The U.S. government could offer support for this work, while making any security assistance conditional on both development progress and accountability for atrocities committed by Mozambique’s military. All of this would undermine the narratives promoted by the insurgents, while building local resiliency.
Mozambique is a case where the U.S. should begin to reject 20 years of widespread conflict escalation that began with the Global War on Terror after 9/11. Instead, the Biden administration should make a fresh start here by digging deeper to the roots of this conflict, and deploy the tools of diplomacy and development to help address the real causes for a more sustainable peace this time.