The Nation-State of Mozambique and Terrorism

Terrorism involves the use of violence by a small group of people that is targeted against a country in order to realise a defined political agenda. It entails the indiscriminate application of violent methods that mostly target the civilian population or non-combatants, writes Dr Rich Mashimbye.

The terrorist attacks that have emerged in Mozambique align with the afore-mentioned description of the phenomenon of terrorism in several ways. First, the initial organised violence happened on 5 October 2017 in the Cabo Delgado town of Mocímboa da Praia and was perpetrated by a group of roughly 30 armed Islamic militants (the group is ASWJ). The terrorists targeted 3 police stations in Mocímboa da Praia, killing officers and destroying facilities in the process. This was the beginning of a period where Mozambique, especially the Cabo Delgado province, would be characterised by insecurity and instability. Mocímboa da Praia is a port town which is a crucial getaway to the developing natural gas industry that is valued at around USD20 billion.

The coastal town of Mocímboa da Praia (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Second, and in terms of its modus operandi, the Islamic militants targeted installations that are representative of the state and its authority, as an act of defiance against the government in Maputo. So far, villagers residing in the outskirts of the Cabo Delgado province have felt the wrath of the ASWJ and its violent attacks. In terms of their nature, these attacks are characterised by mass murder of civilians, maiming and destruction of residential properties. The BBC reported that in November of 2020 alone some 50 people were beheaded by the militants terrorising Cabo Delgado. Beheadings have become a notorious method of killing associated with Islamic fundamentalist organisations and is intended to convey a political message. Thus, the conflict is a form of a jihad in a province where majority of the people are Muslims.

Terrorist attacks or violence relay a political message. The victims or objects of the violence possess no definitive value for the terrorists, rather they serve the purpose of communicating the political message that the terrorists seek to get across. In this sense the violence becomes a means to an end, not necessarily an end in itself. However, in the case of Mozambique religious radicalism is rarely the sole reason for the kind of organised violence perpetrated by the ASWJ. There are other underlying grievances which are mostly socio-economic and political in nature. This is exactly the case in Cabo Delgado, a province characterised by extreme poverty and political marginalisation.

More problematically is the fact that the ASWJ has support from the Islamic State (IS), the al-Shabaab as well as extremists from neighbouring Tanzania and Kenya. It is increasingly becoming part of global terrorism; this means that the terrorist group is likely to receive support in the form of weapons, training and money for the purpose of waging terror. In 2019 the much feared IS even went as far as referring to the ASWJ as its ‘Central Africa Province’ cell. What separates religious terrorists from those that are secular is the belief that their actions are in pursuit of some Godly end. The mujahadeen will be rewarded accordingly in the after-life. It is for this reason that suicide bombings have increasingly been adopted as one of the tactics used by terrorists as they pursue their political objectives.

ASWJ terrorists (Source: Upstream)

The terrorist activities of the ASWJ constitute a security risk for the entire southern Africa region. By their nature, security risks are not confined to a single state but tend to also affect surrounding states – thus they are transnational in character and accordingly require a multinational coordinated response. Indeed, terrorists have an inclination of attacking countries that are adjacent to their base. For example, the al-Shabaab which is based in Somalia has often launched devastating terrorist attacks on neighbouring Kenya. Accordingly, the risks that are associated with terrorism vary, ranging from threat to regional stability, security of persons through to destabilisation of economic activities.

To illustrate the transnational character of terrorism, let us consider the example of Kenya and Tanzania. On 7 August 1998, Khalifan Khamis Mohammed, a Tanzanian national who had links to global terrorism syndicates, planted explosives in American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, that killed over 200 people. After the bombings, Mohammed moved across several SADC countries and finally entered South Africa as he attempted to escape law enforcement authorities. Although he was arrested a year later after his location was identified, Mohammed was able to skip many SADC countries without being noticed. It is for this reason, amongst others, that the terrorism currently gripping Mozambique also constitute a regional security threat.

US Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, just after the 1998 terrorist bombings (Source: ABC News)

One of the discernible effects of the terrorist activities of the ASWJ in Cabo Delgado has been a creation of a regional humanitarian crisis. Indeed, images of throngs of women carrying babies in their backs as they flock out of their homes and communities in an attempt to escape the violence unleashed by the Islamic militants have been disturbing. The coastal town of Pemba have received hundreds of boats that were ferrying refugees from other districts affected by the terrorist attacks in Cabo Delgado. As of November 2020, some 400 000 odd people have been internally displaced by the violence. The ASWJ extremists have used tactics that include raiding vulnerable communities during the night, burning houses, killing and mutilating their victims; expectedly, this produces a climate of fear in communities, which in turn leads to people fleeing their homes.


Refugees of terrorism in Pemba, Mozambique (Source: Zitamar)

Aside from the humanitarian crisis, the destabilisation that resulted from the terrorism has also negatively impacted economic development. The discovery of liquid natural gas reserves in 2010 in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province was widely regarded as a significant breakthrough that might spur economic growth and development in the impoverished country and also the SADC region. Nonetheless, the terrorist attacks by the ASWJ have thrust the budding natural gas industry in Cabo Delgado into suspense and uncertainty. Massive investments were made by multinational corporations like Total and Standard Bank. These investments are seriously threatened by the violence attributed to the ASWJ. On 22 February 2019 the insurgent attacked employees of Anadarko in Palma, one of the multinational companies participating in the newly discovered liquid natural gas industry in the region. Necessarily, an attack of this nature is bound to disrupt production, thereby affect Mozambique’s ability to extract sound economic value from the industrial activities in the region.

Terrorism generates instability, insecurity and heightened risks for MNCs which ultimately increase the cost of conducting business. On 24 August 2020 Total signed a security pact with the Mozambican government under which the French MNC undertook to finance a joint security task force aimed at safeguarding its natural gas projects. Under normal and stable circumstances, the role of providing security falls under the purview of the state, and not business. Countries need large foreign direct investment (FDI) in order to develop economically, and therefore, the existence of elevated security risks that accompany terrorism is a discouraging factor. Mozambique is a poor country that desperately needs significant FDI. In light of this, the country cannot afford the destabilisation that is wrecked by the ASWJ militants.

Entrapped in state-centric worldview of security, and clinging steadfastly to rigid notions of sovereignty and non-intervention, SADC initially held back from deployment of a regional military task force to counter the terrorist attacks that were unfolding in Mozambique. Expectedly, there was widescale criticism of this posture, particularly on the score that it was not aligned with the organisation’s overarching objective of advancing peace, security and stability in the region. After much procrastination, on 23 July 2021 in Maputo the SADC Summit of Heads of State and Government adopted a resolution authorising the deployment of the SADC Standby Force to Mozambique to counter terrorist attacks in the Cabo Delgado province. Even after the authorisation of military intervention through the SADC Standby Force as part of counter-terrorism efforts, it took several weeks for the force to land in Mozambique.

SADC Standy Force deployed in Mozambique ( Source: ISS Africa)

The dithering by SADC and/or states in the region on the issue of Mozambique created space for state actors outside the region to intervene. In the absence of a state within the SADC region that assumed a leadership role on the Mozambique terrorism problem, Rwanda seized the opportunity and reached an agreement with the Mozambique government which saw it deploy its military in northern parts of the country, before the deployment of the SADC Standby Force. As per the bilateral agreement, Rwanda deployed 1000 troops who arrived in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado region on 9 July 2021. SADC was unimpressed about Rwanda’s military involvement in Mozambique, possibly fearing that this will overshadow the imminent deployment of the SADC Standby Force. Rwanda’s counter-terrorism efforts have to date registered marked progress, including the re-claiming of the port town of Mocímboa da Praia from ASWJ terrorists. This will obviously bode well for Rwanda’s foreign policy interests, especially trade interests it may develop in relation to Mozambique.

Beyond military operations by the SADC Standby Force and the Rwandan military deployment in Mozambique, various other strategies can also be concurrently adopted as part of the broader counter-terrorism strategy in the country. Since Islamic terrorist organisations rely on dissemination of a radical version of Islam to mobilise support and gain new recruits from communities, SADC has to urge and assist the government of Mozambique to craft counter-indoctrination measures. This can involve government-led systematic promotion of moderate version of Islam in the mainly Muslim region of Cabo Delgado. This will likely result in the weakening of religious ideological propaganda often used to lure new members into Islamic fundamentalist organisations. Furthermore, the liquid natural gas industry in the region provides an opportunity for massive socioeconomic development. As such, the Mozambican government must incentivise MNCs operating in this industry to localise certain percentages of the economic spinoffs. This can include empowerment programmes like youth skills training, employment, building of infrastructure in the surrounding communities, and creation of factories that process natural gas-based industrial products, amongst other measures.

Conventionally, countries confronted with severe security challenges, especially problems that threaten the very survival of the state and prevailing societal values, tend to disproportionately increase defence and security budgets to the detriment of other pressing social issues. While Mozambique obviously needs to increase resources towards counter-terrorism efforts, it is also important to simultaneously safeguard government expenditure towards public good. This is because a counter-terrorism strategy that results in significant destruction or disruption of economic activities and diversion of social expenditure will probably radicalise communities and set them against the government, something that terrorists also aim for. Historically, the Muslim majority province of Cabo Delgado has largely been ignored by the Mozambican government, resulting in disproportionate poverty compared to other parts of the country, which feeds into resentment towards the state. Therefore, prioritisation of the region for social and economic development would ensure locals retain a favourable view towards the government and ultimately make it harder for the Islamic militancy to spread.

As a final point of departure, as the SADC Standby Force and the Rwandan soldiers halt the ASWJ’s takeover of towns and territories in Cabo Delgado, it is important for SADC and the Mozambican government to realise that it will take more than a barrel of a gun to eliminate terrorism in Mozambique. A more comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy is required, focusing not only on security issues but also on social, religious and economic aspects, as highlighted in the paper.

Dr Rich Mashimbye is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg

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