Adelino Alberto and his family, who fled an attack claimed by Islamic State-linked insurgents on the town of Palma, wait at a temporary displacement centre in Pemba, Mozambique, April 3 2021. Picture: REUTERS/EMIDIO JOZINE
Adelino Alberto and his family, who fled an attack claimed by Islamic State-linked insurgents on the town of Palma, wait at a temporary displacement centre in Pemba, Mozambique, April 3 2021. Picture: REUTERS/EMIDIO JOZINE

The Mozambican forces’ fight to liberate Palma from the “Soldiers of the Khalifa” who audaciously attacked the town on March 24 could be a decisive battle that will determine the future of terrorism in the region. Another victory for the group, which already controls the town of Mocimboa da Praia, could entrench the roots of terrorism in Mozambique and render any counterterrorism measures futile.

Bitter lessons from Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, Syria, Iraq and many other places confirm that when terrorists are allowed to control territories, no matter how small, it becomes increasingly difficult to dislodge them. Territorial control affords terrorists the space to carry out the complex training and planning required for sophisticated attacks; generate revenue and other resources, including forced conscriptions; and establish criminal enclaves. Terrorist groups with territorial control tend to be many times stronger than those that do not.

With their control over Mocimboa da Praia for the past eight months, and now Palma, it could take several years to dislodge the Islamic State and Ansar-Al Sunnah groups in Mozambique, and several more years to defeat them. This could leave Mozambicans with no other option but to learn to live with terrorism, as has been the fate of so many people in Africa.

Since the beginning of the century, ushered in by the 9/11 attacks, the international community has watched terrorist groups armed with sophisticated Western and Asian arms devour African countries one by one: Mali and Burkina Faso in West Africa; Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Nigeria in the Lake Chad Basin; and Somalia in the Horn of Africa.

Since 2017 we have been watching a repeat in Mozambique, Southern Africa. How long will this be allowed to continue? The international community has adopted 19 instruments and several regional conventions and UN resolutions to deal with different aspects of the phenomenon, but none seems to apply to Mozambique.

Such internationalisation and any rash multilateral or unilateral intervention in Cabo Delgado could have dire consequences that further entrench the insurgency

The attack on March 24, though the largest and most ferocious thus far, is not the first in the broader Palma district. Since last year the region has experienced a growing number of attacks, many of which have been concentrated in the village of Pundanhar, west of Palma, and other villages close to the liquefied natural gas (LNG) exploration site.

The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project says almost 100 violent events occurred between January 1 and March 14 in which more than 200 people died. The total since 2017 stands at 829 violent events with 2,658 deaths of whom 1,341 were civilians.

The motive for targeting Palma is best known only to the insurgents. The northernmost coastal town of Cabo Delgado province, it is traditionally known for rug-making, basketry and other art works, as well as its picturesque offshore islands. But since 2010 the town has acquired global prominence as a strategic town in the Afungi region, where Africa’s most extensive LNG exploration is taking place.

It is just 80km northeast of Mocimboa da Praia, which is under the control of the insurgents, and has been a major recipient of people fleeing attacks from other nearby towns in the province. This proximity and Palma’s global strategic significance have increased its vulnerability to terrorism. It could be that the attack was a response to French energy giant Total’s decision to resume operations at its $20bn LNG site, which were suspended on January 4 due to military attacks.

There has been increasing internationalisation of the insurgency, with calls for greater direct involvement by the international community; the recent blacklisting of Isis-Mozambique and its purported leader, Abu Yasir Hassan, by the US government; and decisions by the US and Portuguese governments to send forces to train Mozambican navy and soldiers, respectively. Such internationalisation and any rash multilateral or unilateral intervention in Cabo Delgado could have dire consequences that further entrench the insurgency since revenge is a key element of the jihadist modus operandi, and such developments often necessitate a response from Islamist groups such as Isis.

Meticulous planning

There have been numerous attacks this year on coastal towns and villages that are of strategic importance for supplies to Palma and other LNG operation areas in the Afungi region. Of particular concern this year, as the International Crisis Group’s database on tracking conflict worldwide demonstrates, is that since January there have been incessant attacks on villages such as Nangade, Quionga, Quirinde, Quitunda, Olumbe, Ibo, Macomia, Olumboa, Ingoane, Pangane, Mandimba, Namiune, Nkonga, Lijungo and the town of Mocimboa da Praia, nearly all of which lie on the coast and close to the LNG operation site.

These attacks, which have mostly targeted access roads and key transport points, reveal a clear strategy by Isis-Mozambique to cut Palma off from supplies.

The sophisticated nature of the Palma attack is the latest expression of a group that has grown in strength since it took control of Mocimboa da Praia and its port in August. The attack showed meticulous planning and the effective use of deception as a tactic by Isis-Mozambique, providing a glimpse of what could constitute the future trend.

The strong media coverage and visibility the group received due to the latest attacks in Palma could boost its appetite for organising similar high-profile attacks. It could also mark a turning point through the targeting of foreigners in Cabo Delgado and beyond.

Adjacent regions

Total’s immediate suspension of operations after the attack, bowing to terrorist pressure, could encourage the insurgents to further instrumentalise violence to disrupt the exploration for gas.

The attack demonstrates the threat terrorism in Cabo Delgado poses to Southern Africa, particularly regions adjacent to northern Mozambique such as southern Tanzania and Malawi.

There is nothing new or unexpected in what Isis-Mozambique is doing. There have been similar experiences with the Algerian Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat, now known as Al-Qaeda, in the Islamic Maghreb in the 1990s, Al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Mali since 2012, and Boko Haram in Nigeria since 2002. These were so strikingly similar that one gets the impression such violent extremist groups are reading from the same playbook.

The attacks in Palma have unravelled the ability of the Mozambican government to deal with the insurgency single-handedly. Indeed, no country has ever defeated terrorism on its own, especially when it is of transnational and global character such as the Isis-Mozambique attacks.

Mozambique needs allies and the support of the region and international community to deal with the insurgency. It can secure such support by creating an informal coalition or task force of willing countries, or accept the intervention of the AU Peace and Security Council and Southern African Development Community (Sadc).

• Ewi is senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies.

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