Deadly conflict in Mozambique’s ruby- and natural gas-rich northernmost coastal province feeds on a mix of colonial-era tensions, inequality and Islamist militancy. To tame the insurrection, Maputo needs to use force, with bespoke assistance from outside partners, and to carefully address underlying grievances.

What’s new? Militant attacks and security force operations in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province have claimed nearly 3,000 lives, while displacing hundreds of thousands of people. Insecurity has prompted the suspension of a massive gas project. The Islamic State (ISIS) claims ties to the insurrection. Southern African governments are lobbying to send troops.

Why did it happen? Mozambican militants have been motivated by grievances against a state that they see as delivering little for them, despite the development of major mineral and hydrocarbon deposits. Tanzanians and other foreigners have joined up, fuelling the insurrection. The country’s historically weak security forces have been unable to stem the onslaught.

Why does it matter? Unaddressed, the insurrection could spread further, threatening national stability just as Mozambique is fulfilling a peace deal with the country’s main opposition group and heading into national elections in 2024. It could worsen instability along East Africa’s coast and present ISIS with a new front to exploit.

What should be done? Maputo should accept targeted assistance for security operations to contain the insurrection, and avoid a heavy external deployment that could lead to a quagmire. Authorities should deploy aid to build trust with locals and open dialogue with militants. Regional governments should redouble law enforcement efforts to block transnational jihadist involvement.

Executive Summary

Fears are mounting that Mozambique’s Muslim-dominated province of Cabo Delgado could become the next frontier for prolonged jihadist rebellion on the continent. Since 2017, Mozambican militants backed by Tanzanians and other foreigners have thwarted the weak security forces’ efforts to defeat them and perpetrated atrocities against civilians. Thousands have died and hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced. The Islamic State (ISIS) global core claims it is behind the insurrection. While keen to respond militarily, Maputo also needs to deal with the set of local factors that have spurred Mozambican rank-and-file militants into battle. The government should take military assistance from external partners but use force wisely to contain the militants’ expansion while it ramps up efforts to persuade as many of them as possible to demobilise. To that end, it should channel aid to communities and use them and other influencers to open dialogue with Mozambican militants and tackle their grievances. Regional countries should step up efforts to interdict foreign support for the insurrection.

Cabo Delgado is a province that has long been ripe for conflict. In 2007, frustrated youth in the province’s southern districts dominated by ethnic Makua began denouncing the authority of local religious leaders, especially those close to the country’s official Muslim council. By the mid-2010s, ethnic Mwani militants in the coastal district of Mocímboa da Praia had joined the fray. Their activism had an Islamist tinge: they pushed for alcohol bans while opposing the enrolment of children in state schools and the right of women to work. But it was also fuelled by their economic exclusion amid the discovery of rubies and natural gas. They resented, too, the influence of liberation-era generals who have business interests in the province and are drawn from President Filipe Nyusi’s Makonde ethnic group. Amid this boiling resentment, authorities expelled artisanal miners from commercial mining concessions in early 2017, further feeding local discontent. Militants, known to locals as al-Shabab (not to be confused with Al-Shabaab, the jihadist group in Somalia) moved to armed revolt in October 2017.

At first dismissing the militants as criminals, officials now refer to them as “terrorists”. In so doing, they admit the problem is greater than initially thought, but the rhetoric also fuels a perception that global jihadism is the only reason for the threat. Fighters from neighbouring Tanzania, many of whom are part of Islamist networks that have proliferated on the Swahili coast of East Africa are, indeed, among the militants’ leaders. But the bulk of the group’s rank and file are Mozambicans, including poor fishermen, frustrated petty traders, former farmers and unemployed youth. Their motivations for joining and staying with the group are diverse but less shaped by ideology than by desire to assert power locally and to obtain the material benefits that accrue to them via the barrel of a gun. If the group is still growing, it is because it is managing to draw on recruits who see joining and staying with al-Shabab as a good career move. That said, some of the Mozambican militant core may well, by now, be committed jihadists.

Maputo is meanwhile struggling to contain a group that is growing in strength on land and which can also operate in waters off the coast. The army, which significantly shrank after the 1992 peace deal ending the country’s civil war, is in disrepair, a soft target for militants who have overrun many of its positions and plundered its weapons stockpiles. It is also stretched, having to guarantee security in the centre of the country while it tries to achieve the final surrender of a residual armed faction of the Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (Renamo) opposition group. The navy, meanwhile, is barely functioning. Under pressure to respond to the Cabo Delgado crisis, Nyusi dispatched elite paramilitary police units with air support from a South African private military company. This joint force stopped the militants’ advance toward the provincial capital Pemba and destroyed some of their camps but was unable to neutralise them. In March, militants stormed Palma, the gateway to major gas fields, prompting the French multinational Total to halt development.

Mozambique’s government has thus been pressing its foreign partners to provide the resources, including lethal assistance, that it says it needs to build up its military, which Nyusi now wants to be the primary force tasked with fighting militants. Mozambique’s Western partners say they want to help but their diplomats say their capitals will be reluctant to supply materiel to the military without the institution going through significant training and reforms. Those partners are concerned, too, about reports of abuses committed against the population by security forces and potential leaks of government weapons into militants’ hands as a result of alleged graft and indiscipline.

Southern African Development Community (SADC) states, which see Cabo Delgado’s conflict as endangering their own security, are meanwhile seeking to build international support to deploy their own troops into Mozambique. Nyusi has been nervous about that happening. His critics say he wants to keep prying eyes out of the province, a zone for illicit activity including heroin trafficking that benefits elites. His supporters emphasise rather that he is just being careful about what kind of intervention he allows, wary that a heavy presence of foreign troops could become difficult to control and could end up in a quagmire. After the Palma attack, Nyusi, who is currently SADC chairman, has come under further pressure from the regional bloc. He is, however, courting other security partners, including Rwanda, whose troops could be used to provide Mozambican security forces combat support.

Whichever partners he chooses, any external intervention should be measured in how it uses force, so that it can both respond to the very real security threat posed by the militants but also eventually allocate enough resources to protect civilians when they return to their native districts. A heavy deployment of regional troops unfamiliar with the local terrain may not be necessary. Instead, Maputo should welcome bespoke African and international assistance to support its own special forces, who are receiving training primarily from a few Western partners. It should task these special forces to spearhead restricted military operations to contain and then degrade al-Shabab. Patrolling territorial waters could also deny militants opportunities to move fighters and supplies via coastal waters. If residents can be persuaded to return to areas they vacated, Mozambique’s other forces should focus on providing security around these population centres to benefit civilians and humanitarian actors.

A security plan like this would pressure al-Shabab militarily but also leave space for authorities to seek a negotiated end to the conflict. Besides needing to win back aggrieved locals’ loyalty, they also need to induce militants lured by weapons, money and abducted women used as sex slaves to give up violence. Maputo should use its new development agency for the north to start dialogues with civilians in areas where security permits and to work out with them how best to spend donor aid, soothe local tensions and rebuild trust with communities who feel let down by the state. Such dialogue might also help authorities open lines of communication with Mozambican militants, given how deeply al-Shabab’s own recruitment network is embedded in society. If they can reach back this way, authorities could seek ways to encourage the militants’ demobilisation and possible participation in local security arrangements. Maputo may need to offer them security guarantees, and in some cases amnesties, after they exit.

In the meantime, East and Southern African countries should, via their regional blocs, also start exploring how they can conduct joint law enforcement operations to stymie any support to al-Shabab from transnational militants, including ISIS, whose influence over the group appears weak for now. Such operations should focus on stopping attempts by individuals to finance, train or provide new technologies to al-Shabab. Their success will require Mozambique and Tanzania in particular to share information with their international partners about al-Shabab networks that have been operating across their borders.

After more than three years of violence in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique and its regional partners are gearing up to respond together to the threat. They are right to put their heads together. Cabo Delgado’s population craves safety and wants the security forces to act, petrified that otherwise they could end up abducted or killed. A security response is necessary. The government and its allies also need to think carefully, however, about how they can address the grievances underpinning a rapidly expanding challenge that in essence started as a local revolt.

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