/ 4 April 2021

Lessons from Palma attack: What next for the insurgency in Cabo Delgado?

Mozambique Unrest
Waiting for refugees: Men keep an eye out for boats carrying displaced people at Paquitequete beach in Pemba Bay, Mozambique. Nearly 700 000 people have been internally displaced since 2017 when a group known locally as al-Shabaab began its insurgency in the Cabo Delgado province. Photo: Alfredo Zuniga/AFP


The armed insurgency in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province is international news following the attacks on Palma since 24 March. The total death count is likely to be in the dozens. Since 2017, 2 500 people have been killed and nearly 700 000 internally displaced by the Islamic State (Isis) insurgency.   

The Palma attack is a new morbid watershed. Exactly a year ago, the Mozambican government, on the back foot, commissioned the South African private security company, the Dyck Advisory Group (DAG) to support its counterinsurgency operations after disappointing results from the Russian Wagner private military company in late 2019. Paramount and the associated Burnham Global have also now entered the fray. 

Without DAG and other privateer involvement the insurgency would have spread further. But the current situation is grave and demonstrates again that the Mozambican armed and security forces need more than private military support: they need counterinsurgency training, coupled with better logistics and tactical and strategic leadership. 

This is an additional headache for France’s Total, as Palma is near the Afungi multibillion-dollar gas project in which it is investing. Total suspended its operations in January following an insurgent attack and had just said it was restarting operations when the attack on Palma occurred. 

Afungi is untouched and is well protected by elite government forces but Palma falls within a 25km security zone set up to protect the ­project. The government units protecting Afungi are well supplied and undergo additional training, including for the Voluntary Principles for Security and Human Rights initiative. 

Total has again suspended its Afungi operations but remains committed to the project and is encouraging the Mozambican government to improve its security guarantee. 

To its credit the Mozambican government has gradually become more accepting of international military training and advice and in early March also replaced senior military and security leadership. 

In Maputo, a liaison body for foreign assistance partners to coordinate their Covid‑19 support with the government has been replicated to also focus on Cabo Delgado security, but broadened to include regional stakeholders such as South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and ex-colonial power Portugal. 

This has helped to build trust and foreign advisers are now embedded in the Mozambican armed forces. Military training packages from Portugal, the US and UK have been accepted: a two-month deployment of US special forces to train Mozambique’s marines will start up soon. The Portuguese have brought forward and increased their planned engagement by sending 60 military trainers to Cabo Delgado. 

The government rarely chooses state security offers solely on merit but also through a nonalignment prism, to avoid becoming pigeonholed, which has been the Frelimo default position since the early 1980s.

Maputo is allergic to any full-fledged external foreign intervention but accepts its needs to look beyond private contractors for effective counterinsurgency operations. The Mozambican army, since its creation in 1994 following the end of the civil war, was never designed to combat this type of insurgency and has for years been in direct rivalry with the elite paramilitary police units.

These rivalries will need to be better managed. Training and restructuring of the armed forces will take time. In the short term, private security and local militias will continue to be used to try to contain this virulent insurgency. 

South Africa’s defence company Paramount is importing four Gazelle helicopters and DAG has upgraded its air fleet to include Mi-8s. The DAG contract with the police is due to expire in early April and a three-month extension may fall through as its management wishes to focus on its anti-poaching core business. 

DAG pulling out in the short term would punch a hole in the government’s ability to respond to the Palma attack, including assisting in evacuating government officials, foreign contractors and civilians. Shortages of fuel and ammunition have impacted DAG’s operations over the past week and they have been stung by allegations of human rights abuses by Amnesty International, which they strongly deny. 

The violent, calculated raid on Palma broke a three-month hiatus in attacks that was widely attributed to counterinsurgency tactics and the January-March rainy season. 

The conflict dynamics are changing. The Mozambican armed forces are restructuring and drawing increasingly on a network of local militias. 

Displacement and more maritime patrols has pressurised support networks for the insurgents, resulting in supply shortages with which to reward their supporters. 

The attack on Palma was a response to these pressures but was clearly well planned and coordinated. Insurgents infiltrated the town with weapons before a three-pronged attack timed to capitalise on the rotation of government armed forces in the town. The offensive included some foreign fighters, mostly Tanzanians but possibly also a handful of South Africans. 

Since 2017, there has been a gradual regionalisation of this conflict. It involves Tanzanians but also some training in eastern Congo, and informal connections with Uganda and Somalia. There had been informal contacts with sympathisers in South Africa and if the insurgency has drawn in radicalised nationals, this will be a worry for Pretoria. 

If true, this internationalises the Cabo Delgado crisis further, adding pressure on the government to respond to the crisis effectively. On 29 March, Isis via its Amaq news agency claimed responsibility for the Palma attack and reported that they had killed 55 people, taken control of buildings and seized vehicles — although some of the images Isis used are actually from 2020 during the capture of Mocimboa de Praia. 

Much of the Cabo Delgado insurgency is about local issues and the Isis affiliation acts mostly as a flag of convenience for the aggrieved. But as this conflict worsens, it draws in foreign fighters and these dynamics get more complex. 

The US designation earlier in March of this insurgency as a foreign terrorist organisation makes peeling away supporters more difficult. It’s apparent to all, including the Mozambican government, that there is no military solution to this insurgency and that dialogue, development and opportunity are equally important to draw away supporters from a radicalised and violent core.  

It can be done. President Filipe Nyusi is making significant progress in finally ending armed confrontation with opposition party Renamo — 2 307 out of 5 211 ex-combatants have been demobilised and reintegrated in central Mozambique despite Covid-19 and there has been only a single armed incident in 2021 by a splinter group. 

Dialogue, disarmament and development can help end insurgency but only when coupled with better trained, equipped and deployed Mozambican defence and security forces respecting human rights.