U.S. Special Forces have deployed to Mozambique for an extended training mission with select military units of the Armed Defense Forces of Mozambique. The past few years have seen a surge of insurgent activity in northern Mozambique. ISIS is attempting to establish a “caliphate” in the southern region of Africa and seems to have established strong links with the local insurgency named al-Shabab (“young people” in Arabic). The Mozambique insurgent group is a separate entity from the Somalia-based al-Shabab insurgent group of the same name.
Foreign Terrorist Organizations Designation. The United States maintains that the Mozambique al-Shabaab is an extension of the Islamic State. On March 10, 2021, the United States listed ISIS in Mozambique as a foreign terrorist organization. The statement designated the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – Mozambique (ISIS-Mozambique) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. ISIS-Mozambique is also known as Ansar al-Sunna (and locally as al-Shabaab in Mozambique) according to the State Department. Another name for the group is the Ahlu Sunna Wal Jammah (ASWJ). The designation requires the US government and its allies to freeze and confiscate the assets of all those associated with ISIS-Mozambique. Some observers worry that the terrorist designation will make it difficult to conduct peace negotiations in the future and could hamper delivery of humanitarian aid and supplies.
IS’s “Central Africa Province”. The Islamic State has seen its physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria dismantled. However, it is broadening its presence throughout the world. An IS franchise can be found in eastern Afghanistan using the name of the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP). Throughout many African countries it also has ties to insurgent groups. Since 2019 IS has declared the existence of the “Central Africa Province” which includes parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique.
Special Forces Training for FADM. On March 15, 2021 the US embassy in Mozambique issued a press release that stated US special operations forces would support Mozambique’s efforts to prevent the spread of terrorism and violent extremism. The Green Berets are deployed on a two-month long training mission to aid in the fight against an insurgency with ties to ISIS. The Mozambique Marines will be the recipients of the training program. The Deputy Commander of US Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) was in Maputo, the capital city of Mozambique, in mid-March and stated that the ‘modest’ training program consists of a dozen Army Green Berets. His visit coincided with the opening event of the Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) between the US and Mozambican forces. In addition, the US will provide advice and support in intelligence as well as some medical and communications equipment.
Portugal SOF to Assist. Portugal may be providing up to 60 members of its special forces to provide some military assistance. Arrival of the trainers could be as soon as April 2021. Mozambique is a former colony of Portugal. It gained its independence from Portugal in 1975 after a long struggle between the guerrilla forces of the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) and Portugal. For many years during the Cold War Mozambique fell into orbit of the ‘eastern’ block of communist ruled nations. Lisbon will be encouraging the European Union to consider offering assistance to Mozambique at an informal gathering of EU defense ministers in late May 2021.
Country Profile. Mozambique is a country nearly twice the size of California with a population of almost 28 million people. It currently faces a range of political, economic, and security challenges. Mozambique is represented by people of diverse religions. Christians number about 60%, Muslims about 19%, and another 21 % are other or unknown.
Cabo Delgado Province. The northernmost province of Mozambique has seen the insurgency increase in strength since 2017. The ranks of the insurgents come from local fighters of the province. The province is located along the southern border of Tanzania and has a coastline on the Indian Ocean. The Cabo Delgado Province has about 2.3 million people – most of them Muslim. The region is rich in off-shore natural gas reserves and minerals. The conflict has resulted in a severe humanitarian crisis in northern Mozambique with many people in search of food. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced in the conflict area.
Insurgent Grievances. The province has a high illiteracy and unemployment rate – which breeds discontent and encourages recruits to join the insurgent group. Grievances include lack of jobs, poverty, and access to land. In addition, the rich off-shore natural gas reserves are currently being explored by multinational energy companies with little chance that the local population will benefit. There is a belief that the rich natural resources of the northern province is being exploited by central government officials and foreign corporations.
Insurgency. The insurgent group formed up in 2017. Members include poor fishermen and local workers who split off from the established religious leaders. In time more people joined and the group began conducting small-scale violent attacks against police and local officials. Over the past few years the group has become more dangerous with its attacks against security forces and civilians. The insurgent group has between 800 to 3,500 fighters – depending on the source of the information. The assistance from IS appears to be minimal. IS has provided a minimal level of media support. A United Nations report has information that trainers and explosive experts traveled to Mozambique to provide training and advise. There is a foreign fighter presence within the insurgency – most from neighboring Tanzania.
Atrocities. The Islamic State affiliated group has been conducting a number of atrocities to include the beheading of children as young as eleven years old. The US State Department estimates that ISIS-Mozambique has killed thousands of civilians. Beheadings by the jihadist group are a common occurrence.
Types of Attacks. The group is responsible for orchestrating a series of large scale and sophisticated attacks in the region. They briefly held the strategic port of Mocimboa da Praia in Cabo Delgado Province. The insurgent group targets police stations, government facilities and personnel, and local civilians. Farms have been destroyed and villages burned down. Contractors working for the U.S.-based energy firm Anadarko have been targeted as well. The weapons used include small arms and explosives. Many of its weapons have come from the government security forces during raids and ambushes conducted by the insurgents.
FADM. The Armed Defense Forces of Mozambique (FADM) are comprised of approximately 11,000 personnel. There are 10,000 Army, 200 Navy, and 1,000 Air Force personnel (CIA figure from 2019). The military’s equipment is primarily Soviet-era although India has been providing some equipment in recent years.
PMCs. Mozambique has been engaging in the services of private military corporations (PMCs) from foreign nations. Some reports indicate that there has been limited success by the security forces with the assistance of the PMCs.
At least one PMC is of Russian origin – numbering between 160 and 200. They arrived in 2019 on An-124 transport aircraft. Mozambique – despite being a poor country – has natural resources that make it attractive for outside investment. These include precious minerals and natural gas. So there is a strong incentive for the Russians to become involved in the affairs of Mozambique. Recent reports indicate that the Russians have withdrawn from the conflict area after suffering several casualties.
A more recent PMC is from South Africa – the Dyck Advisory Group (DAG). Human rights organizations have accused the South Africa mercenaries of human rights abuses. DAG provided training, advice, armored vehicles, and aviation services (helicopters and attack aircraft). The effectiveness of the South African contractors is still being determined.
Future Outlook? The Mozambique security forces are not highly skilled in counterinsurgency and lack the capability to use intelligence to target the insurgents. There is friction between the police and military which hampers the joint effort to confront the insurgency. It is hoped that the introduction of US Special Forces will improve the professionalism of the some of the Mozambique security forces to the extent that they can successfully combat and degrade the insurgent group. The advisory program will likely need to be longer than two months and scaled up in size for any real long-term benefit to occur.
Graphic. Derived from CIA maps.