The past months have witnessed an unprecedented escalation of military activity from the Islamist group known as al-Shabab in the mineral-rich province of Cabo Delgado in Mozambique.
In August the insurgents occupied the port of Mocímboa da Praia, about 100km from the natural gas extraction plant of Palma. The town was emptied of the majority of residents, and the insurgents are holding sway over its ruins.
The swathe of coastal land extending from Mocímboa to Macomia in the south is de facto controlled by the group, which rose to prominence in Mozambique at the end of 2017. Many islands in the Quirimbas archipelago — previously a thriving fishing community and tourist paradise — were also raided, their inhabitants reaching the provincial capital of Pemba by boat. This situation enabled the group to receive military supplies by sea and to recruit destitute youths into their ranks.
Meanwhile, the morale and reputation of the Mozambican army was severely damaged by leaked videos showing soldiers torturing prisoners to death. Based on the accent and dress of the perpetrators, Amnesty International indicted the government, which in turn denied responsibility and dismissed the videos first as a false flag operation and then as a “deep fake”.
In September, another video was leaked in which a group of soldiers could be seen following a naked woman along a road, later identified as the Awassi crossroad. The woman swerved away from the fateful tree that had been chosen as the site of her execution; the soldiers first flogged her and then riddled her with more than thirty bullets.
“We’ve killed an al-Shabab,” one soldier said, making a sign of victory to the cellphone camera. A number of informal explanations emerged on social media — supposedly stemming from army sources — alleging that the woman was a witch sent by the insurgents to spy or cast a spell upon the soldiers.
Again, the Mozambican army denied all involvement; but again, to most observers, the soldiers’ dress and accent unequivocally betrayed the perpetrators. Two days after the video was leaked, the death in combat of the soldier identified as the one making the victory sign was announced.
In October, some signals seemed to indicate a firmer governmental response. The commander of the rapid intervention police made an incendiary speech, spurring his unit into action. Local reports described the taking of the Awassi crossroads by war veterans led by a septuagenarian and the alleged death of 270 insurgents in the operation.
The police commander announced an insurgent base had been destroyed and weapons and cooking equipment confiscated. President Filipe Nyusi visited the province; on the island of Ibo he reassured the local population that military advances were under way. In response, an elderly man told him, in a turn of phrase that has by now become a meme: “Mr President, we don’t want support: we want peace.”
Alas, hopes of peace or even military advance were soon thwarted. The Islamic insurgents carried out forays across the border in Tanzania, allegedly to plunder ammunition. On 31 October, they attacked the district of Muidumbe in force, the heartland of the liberation struggle, which they had briefly occupied in April of this year. A sound clip recorded by a militiaman describes the beginning of the attack in detail.
According to this account, a group composed of local militias and soldiers was patrolling a lowland village when cars carrying the insurgents arrived. The local militias managed to ambush two cars, but soon ran out of bullets and had to fall back.
The soldiers ran away, shedding their uniforms, weapons and ammunition to avoid capture and beheading. Dressed in army uniform, the al-Shabab insurgents approached the soldiers at the district headquarters and shot them at close range.
In the space of two days, eleven villages were subdued, looted and emptied out. Mercenaries from the Dyck Advisory Group responded with helicopter fire, which was largely ineffective, as the insurgents hid in the emptied houses and moved around mostly at night. Local eyewitness accounts referred to smoke bombs being dropped indiscriminately from the helicopters.
In the midst of this ongoing conflict, it is easy to forget that these villages are rich in history, art and culture. But this is all under threat.
What is left of the civilian population of Muidumbe — 40 000 people according to a conservative estimate — is now ensconced in remote lowland production areas and forests. These are, incidentally, the same spaces that served as bases for Frelimo during the liberation struggle.
This time around, though, the insurgents did not content themselves with burning and ransacking government buildings and notables’ houses. According to some reports, they hunted down and beheaded civilian escapees. In two cases, they allegedly stumbled upon ritual initiation camps and slaughtered children and instructors alike.
One source, supported by several other eyewitnesses, referred to a factory of death set up in the football field of Muatide village, where all people apprehended were brought to be beheaded.
Since all villages were emptied out, no reliable information on the number of civilian deaths is available.
In the following days, reports indicated looting of houses and shops by soldiers and skirmishes between the army and local militias, who felt betrayed by the desertions, the plunder and the arbitrary violence. And in much the same way as during the country’s civil war between Frelimo and Renamo, the civilian population is caught between the hammer and the anvil.
Meanwhile, the situation in neighbouring Mueda — the hometown of President Nyusi — is chaotic. Thousands of people are flooding in from neighbouring districts. Alarmed by rumours of a looming attack, relayed also by means of SMS, residents are fleeing the town en masse. The 200km stretch between Mueda and the ruby-mining city of Montepuez is strewn with overcrowded cars and families on foot, who will rejoin the ranks of more than 450 000 refugees spread across the north of the country.
After a long phase in which analysts bickered over the nature of the insurgency, the recent escalation of military activities has provided some clarity. That Mozambique’s al-Shabab emerged from a local sect exposed to regional and global Islamist influences has been documented fairly precisely by scholarly work. Its affiliation to Islamic State — specifically its Central African Province — has been recognised by the Mozambican government.
Yet much is still to be understood. Who exactly coordinates the insurgency? What are their motivations? How many are coerced or bought into its ranks? Are there opportunistic groups that take advantage to plunder? What is the nature of the support provided by Islamic State? What are the connections to other East and Central African Islamist groups? What are the financial forces behind the insurgency?
Providing clearer answers to these questions is crucial to being able to confront the threat. This would require a concerted effort from the Mozambican state to foster — rather than shut down — critical independent inquiry.
Meanwhile, the nameless woman at the Awassi crossroads, shot down by young men in uniform, stands as the symbol of this tragic war.
Paolo Israel is an associate professor in history at the University of the Western Cape