In Mozambique, on March 24, a group claiming to be international jihadists carried out a spectacular attack on the city of Palma in the north of the country. Since then, the situation is far from normal again and the security crisis is added to the humanitarian crisis. Dino Mahtani, Deputy Director of the Africa Program for the International Crisis Group, visited Cabo Delgado in early 2021 to investigate this jihadist group that has destabilized this province on the Tanzanian border since 2017.
RFI: According to the research you were able to carry out on site, who are the warriors that make up this group??
Dino Mahtani: Rebels come from very specific ethnic groups: Mwani, a coastal people, and Makwa, located in the south and west of Cabo Delgado, inland. Of course, some warriors have other origins, but it is these two ethnic groups that are mainly represented in the uprising. (In the province of Cabo Delgado, Makonde represents the majority ethnic group, from which Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi, editor’s note).
From a socio-economic point of view, the members of this group come from the same “stratum”: fishermen, agricultural workers, artisan miners or even small smugglers. Boys who have a common sense of marginalization and who have been mobilized under the same banner. Locally, the population calls them “Al-Chabab”, meaning “young people” (unrelated to the Somali terrorist group, editor’s note).
If the group today has links to networks outside Mozambique’s borders, it is important to remember that it is a rebellion with local roots and before the first attacks in 2017 (including students of mattresses of inspiring Wahhabis from northern Mozambique began to rebel against local Muslims authorities 2007, ed.
Do we know how many warriors make up this armed movement??
According to security sources, the group consists of a thousand people. Others say it is much more and speaks of 3,000 members, but it may include civilians kidnapped to serve as bearers and perform all types of combat missions. What we do know is that there were more than a hundred attackers during the attack on Palma at the end of March. I would say that there are at least several hundred.
This seems relatively small given the scale of the crisis in Cabo Delgado where we are talking about 700000 displaced in April, perhaps more in June.
It should be remembered that Cabo Delgado is a large province where the Mozambican state is almost non-existent. The security forces there are weak. And overall, the National Army has been understaffed since the 1990s, in part because of the peace agreement signed during that period (1992, an agreement signed between Frelimo and Renamo to end the Civil War. Peacekeeping forces deployed since 1995, editor’s note) .
As bizarre as it may sound, it is the police who have been mobilized the most since the beginning of the uprising in Cabo Delgado. The Mozambican police are better equipped, better gifted and more structured than the army. And Maputo has called on private South African military companies, such as the Dyke Advisory Group (DAG), to back it up. But this security response can only be weak until Mozambique has a more robust army.
The trace of dialogue has not been explored. We should have tried to persuade the young people who joined this uprising to leave the armed uprising and return to civilian life. But the system fails to bring young combatants to justice or involve them in intelligence strategies to better understand the group’s function.
What are the expectations and demands of Cabo Delgado’s rebels??
There is no specific request and that is part of the problem. It is portrayed as jihad and under this flag the uprisings promised allegiance to the Islamic State in 2018 and their affiliation was official in 2019, but there are also many young people who have joined this system of violence due to old frustrations linked to the province’s underdevelopment. It is the government’s responsibility to try to understand this complex breeding ground. For decades, Cabo Delgado has been the province with the lowest human development index in the country.
Is this Al-Chabab group linked to illegal trade in northern Mozambique?
It is true that Cabo Delgado is a province characterized by drug trafficking, but it is an activity to which economic or political elites are quite attached. In addition, since the start of this uprising, the routes used by human trafficking have been moved further north to Tanzania and further south to central Mozambique.
But there is other human trafficking going on in Cabo Delgado. Many insurgents come from the coast, they have the ability to navigate. The first attacks took place in ports, especially in Mocimboa Da Prahia. It is therefore possible that they derive their income from a coastal smuggling activity, or even human trafficking, which would extend along the Swahili coast, from Tanzania, to Somalia via Kenya.
How do the people of Cabo Delgado perceive this uprising??
It depends on who you are talking to. Residents of Mocimboa Da Prahia have seen applauding the rebels when they attacked the city, as it is a Mwani area. In the northern part of Cabo Delgado, in the territory of Makonde, the villagers formed self-defense groups against Al-Chabab.
But beware, the ethnic dimension is only one aspect of a complex problem, it certainly does not define this conflict, as the victims come from all backgrounds. And it is through terror that the insurgents are trying to drive out all the inhabitants. What is very frightening is the way in which the rebels kill, not only with weapons but with machetes, with mutilations, even beheadings. This level of violence will make any possibility of dialogue and reintegration of former rebels very complicated.
Another source of complication of this conflict is the ambiguous role of part of the Mozambican elite that would benefit from the departure of the population from certain parts of Cabo Delgado. In fact, landowners have been offered prices to buy back their concessions, where wood, minerals, stones …
What is the reality of the link between the armed group in northern Mozambique and the Islamic State??
What has been observed elsewhere on the continent, especially in northern Nigeria with the part of the Boko Haram group affiliated with ISIS, is that the terrorist organization ISIS acts behind the scenes, provides training, advice, while the local group pursues its own goals. I think this is what is happening in Mozambique. Thanks to IS, the Cabo Delgado group is taking a form of “professionalisation”. Palma’s very well prepared attack is an example.
We also have elements that indicate that communication between the armed group and IS is not always fluid. In 2019, 2020, ISIS took responsibility for a number of attacks. Propaganda linked to Mozambique dried up for a few months. And after the Palma attack, it took several days and the film shown was taken elsewhere.
There was also talk of the arrival of an IS trainer in Mozambique with experience in manufacturing explosives, but so far we have not seen the use of home-made explosive devices in Cabo Delgado. The more concrete support for combatants probably comes from the Swahili coast with Tanzanian jihadists trained in radical circles in the 2000s and 2010s in Tanzania.
On March 11, the United States registered the Mozambican group on the list of terrorist organizations and called it Daesh Mozambique, just like the ADF in the DRC. What do you think?
Opinions differ. For some, this is too simplistic to qualify a motley movement formed by young people with multiple motives. What is striking is that the Palma attack came shortly afterwards. For the first time, the rebels attacked foreign nationals. It is a bit as if, once labeled “terrorists”, they could behave fully as such.
As for the links between the Mozambican Chababs and the ADF, which is active in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, we know that there were contacts in 2017, but since then we have no concrete evidence of links between the two movements.
How is the crisis perceived by Mozambique’s neighbors in the sub-region? And why did Maputo not seek more help from his neighbors??
Mozambique has been clear from the outset and does not want any external military intervention in its territory. This comes from its tradition as a non-adapted country. But others will say that the ruling party, Frelimo, does not want its illegal activities in the north of the country to be exposed.
For a long time, this was a dead end. Mozambique requested financial and material assistance from its partners, but wanted to be able to use it without responsibility. Its interlocutor, in particular SADC (Community of Southern African States) does not want to write Maputo an empty check without tracking.
What governments fear is that as this uprising grows on the ground, it will attract more and more warriors from other countries, especially neighboring countries, who would then return home with them. New ideas and try to do, for example, what Somali shebabs have done in Kenya, that is, carry out spectacular terrorist attacks on hotels, malls or a US military base on the coast.
There is also a growing concern that some international Islamist networks are beginning to use the southern part of Africa as a base for exchanging ideas and forging connections between jihadists from different parts of the continent.