Mass hunger. Razed villages. Midnight abductions. Beheaded children.
All are increasingly common features of Mozambique’s northernmost Cabo Delgado province where, for three years, attacks by Islamist insurgents have destabilized the region.
An estimated 700,000 people have been displaced by the violence and some 2,600 people have been killed since 2017.
The latest outburst of violence began yesterday, when a new assault targeted the area immediately surrounding Africa’s largest gas development.
In what is being called a “coordinated attack by several groups,” armed insurgents launched an attack on the town of Palma. Located some 15 miles from a $60 billion liquified natural gas development held in part by companies such as Total, Eni, and ExxonMobil, the town is an important economic and travel hub.
Government forces were reported to have initially resisted the assault but have now fled. Foreign contractors working on the development are currently trapped in their hotel by the insurgents. And mobile phone service was cut, though it is unknown if the insurgents or government is responsible.
Confusion currently reigns on the ground, but the violence is likely to be connected to the terrorist group Ansar al-Sunna, locally referred to as Al-Shabaab (“The Youth”) though distinct from the Somali terrorist organization of the same name.
The group has a history of brutal violence, including the massacre of 52 young people who refused to join their ranks last April and the capture of a strategic port in August. It is funded primarily through the sale of heroin, ivory, and other contraband.
The US labelled the group as a branch of ISIS earlier this month, though few agree on the actual extent of the relationship between the two factions. It is currently unclear whether attacks in Mozambique are part of larger effort by global jihadists to exploit a local insurgency or vice versa. Given the group’s apparent focus on local issues, it is possible that they are using the ISIS flag and title to brand themselves in an effort to recruit more fighters and garner greater financial support.
The US also deployed Special Forces to the region earlier this month to train and assist local forces. The effort comes after repeated failures to control the situation by the Russian-backed Wagner Group and accusations of war crimes against the South African Dyck Advisory Group.
It is currently unclear to what extent the US is advising local forces, though it is likely that the US will seek to influence security force strategy in Mozambique more broadly.
The question that remains is how much further the current violence can escalate.
Just four years ago, Ansar al-Sunna was a set of disparate bands attacking remote outposts with machetes and blunt objects. Now they are well enough funded, manned, armed, and trained to assault and hold areas of vital importance to the local economy and international interests.
Moreover, though promoting a particularly brutal from of Islamism, the Ansar al-Sunna has also demonstrated the capacity to create targeted messaging in the region that plays on locals’ resentment and fear of a corrupt government and the horrific conditions brought on by an endemic poverty. The strategy has been compared to that of Boko Haram in Nigeria, and there is good cause to believe that the comingling of fundamentalist dogma with righteous fury over systemic government abuses may continue to produce exponentially explosive results.
For now, the people of Cabo Delgado will continue to live in fear of attack and persecution from three sides: Fear of violent extremists stalking the night, fear of private security agencies indiscriminately firing upon civilians, and fear of a government apparently incapable or unwilling to protect them from the most horrific and wanton acts of violence.