/ 21 May 2023

New tactic: Isis reigns with less terror in northern Mozambique

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Trauma: People were displaced by violence in Mozambique’s Chiure region last year. (Aldemiro Bande/AFP)

A sharp decrease in violent attacks against civilians and villages in northern Mozambique suggests that the Islamist insurgents who have been terrorising civilians since 2017 have changed tactics to “win the hearts and minds” of locals while intensifying attacks on security and military forces.

Insurgents operating across the Cabo Delgado province endorsed a new six-man leadership in April after a primary figure, known as Mustafa al-Tanzani, was presumed to have died at the end of 2022. A person known as “Farido” is understood to be the new chief commander of Islamic State-Mozambique (IS-Moz).

Bonomade Machude Omar, who was declared a designated national by the US as a senior leader of IS-Moz in 2021 has been appointed chief of operations. He is also known as Abu Sulayfa Muhammad, Bin Omar or Abu Surakha.

In February, Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi publicly conceded for the first time that the insurgency was being led by a Mozambican. Five of the six leaders are reportedly Mozambicans while the spiritual leader, called “Ulanga”, is from Tanzania.

According to a well-placed source close to military and corporate officials in Mozambique, the IS-Moz leadership has adopted a new strategy that excludes excessive violence against civilians.

Data released by the non-profit Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (Acled) shows a noticeable decline in violence across Cabo Delgado.

Comparing the months January to April 2023 with the same period last year, the reported fatalities from organised political violence dropped from roughly 296 to 124. In addition, the reported fatalities from organised violence targeting civilians declined significantly from an estimated 114 to about seven.

The number of organised political violent events for this year’s first four months totalled about 62 compared with last year’s 149 during the same period.

“There has clearly been a change in strategy, where we are seeing the insurgents refraining from mass atrocities against civilians,” risk analyst Jasmine Opperman said, adding that groups in the Cabo Delgado areas of Macomia, Muidumbe and Mocímboa da Praia were “clearly busy with an outreach in terms of trying to win the hearts and minds of people”.

A humanitarian aid worker in northeast Mozambique, who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons, also said attacks on civilians were far fewer than they used to be. The aid worker recalled a recent incident where insurgents had bought food for villagers.

Acled reported that, on 26 April, an insurgent group bought food and clothes for people living in a village called Ntoni, in the Macomia district. Days before this event, another group of nearly 30 insurgents socialised with fishermen in Pangane village, near Ntoni.

Another source told the M&G the insurgents were going as far as to assist farmers with laborious tasks, such as ploughing and harvesting.  

Meanwhile, a visit to the province in February by Patrick Pouyanné, the chief executive of TotalEnergies, suggests the multi-energy firm is considering resuming its liquefied natural gas project after it declared force majeure on 26 April 2021 at the height of the insurgency.

Pouyanné’s visit was followed by a statement in early February announcing an independent assessment of the security and humanitarian situation in the northern region and whether operations at TotalEnergies’s Afungi site could resume.

“Since 2021, the situation in Cabo Delgado province has improved significantly, thanks in particular to the support provided by the African countries that committed themselves to restore peace and security,” said Pouyanné.

He was referring to ongoing military efforts by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Rwanda to combat the insurgency since July 2021. The South African National Defence Force forms part of SADC’s operation in Mozambique, known as the Southern African Development Community Mission in Mozambique (Samim).

SADC did not respond to questions from the Mail & Guardian relating to its mission.

In January Namibian President Hage Geingob, in his capacity as chairperson of SADC’s organ on politics, defence and security, said in a statement that as a result of Samim’s presence in Cabo Delgado, there had been “tremendous improvement in the humanitarian and security situation” which had encouraged internally displaced people to return to their areas of origin.

A similar strategy “to win the hearts and minds of people” will play out when residents return to their homes after being forced to leave, Opperman noted, adding: “But communities are so sensitive and so weary, that a word of presence of insurgents, and even them entering a village, is enough to cause panic.”

Opperman cautioned that irrespective of the decrease in attacks and the noticeable change in the insurgents’ strategy, discretion must be applied.

“Decreasing the numbers [of attacks] does not mean peace has descended upon Cabo Delgado. We need to take care in jumping to optimism here,” she said, arguing that as long as Islamic State’s voice was present “military deployments will simply not be able to counter such an extremist narrative”.

She said civilians who do not co-operate with the insurgents would probably still be severely dealt with. Visits to villages are generally accompanied by sermons and a call to an extreme interpretation of Islam.

The Cabo Delgado insurgency, which escalated in 2017, is a complex composition of local insurgents, the Islamist group Ahlu-Sunnah wal Jama’ah — said to have no relation to the Somalia-based al-Qaeda affiliate — and foreign support from Isis.

While insurgents are attempting to build relations with locals, their attacks on the military and security forces continue.

Local media and Acled reported a series of clashes between insurgents and the Mozambique Defence Armed Forces near Mandava and Mapate in the Muidumbe district on 29 and 30 April, where about five government soldiers are believed to have been killed.

Large quantities of weapons and ammunition have reportedly been stolen by the insurgents, one of the primary reasons why security forces are targeted.

According to the well-placed source close to military officials in Mozambique, gathering intelligence is becoming increasingly difficult. They said the budding relationship between the insurgents and communities has made villagers more reluctant to share critical information with security forces. 

An increase in attacks on military and security groups is expected over the coming months, ahead of the municipal elections. Cabo Delgado will hold elections in the five municipalities of Pemba, Chiúre, Montepuez, Mueda and Mocímboa da Praia.

Opperman said there was no final victory at this stage for either the military forces or the insurgents, in that no definitive leadership had been “taken out or arrested”.

“And this is the problem where we are now,” she said.