Summary of the attack
- Islamist militants seized control of the Cabo Delgado town of Mocimboa da Praia on Monday, 23 March, in the most brazen attack of the two-and-a-half-year insurgency in the province
- The assault exposed major security failings as police and military were routed from the town and struggled to organise a counterattack
- The attack also highlighted how the increasing reach and capabilities of the shadowy insurgency in recent months have presented a growing threat to major gas investment in the region
- The government is likely to come under significant pressure to increase security in coastal areas of Cabo Delgado, but serious questions remain over its counterinsurgency strategy and ability to protect gas infrastructure
Militants briefly seize Mocimboa da Praia
Several government buildings were destroyed and an unknown number of people killed on Monday, 23 March, when Islamist insurgents launched a major attack on the coastal town of Mocimboa da Praia in Cabo Delgado province. The assault, which saw dozens of militants arrive by land and sea and briefly occupy the town, was the most significant so far in the insurgency which has gripped multiple areas of the remote northern province for two and a half years, even as the government promotes major gas investment in the region.
Monday’s attack reportedly began at around 0430hrs (0230 UTC) when a group of insurgents in several vehicles entered the Pamunda area before spreading out to other neighbourhoods surrounding the town. A second group is believed to have arrived in the Milamba area by boat and overrun a local security post. Throughout the day, the insurgents attacked various government buildings and assets in Mocimboa da Praia, including the district military headquarters, district and municipal administrative offices, the mayor’s residence and several police stations. Two banks and a secondary school were also raided and burned, while a number of inmates were released from the district prison in the town after it was attacked by the insurgents.
Despite several statements by officials in Maputo that security forces were engaging the attackers, there were few reports of major fighting in the town on Monday, and the situation remained highly confused amid contradictory claims of areas under both military and insurgent control. Pictures and video footage allegedly showing insurgents operating freely in the town, including within the district military headquarters, continued to circulate throughout the day, but by Tuesday afternoon most were reported to have withdrawn. However, there were unconfirmed reports that insurgents remained in control of the town’s port as late as Tuesday evening.
Islamist militants seized control of the Cabo Delgado town of Mocimboa da Praia on Monday, 23 March, in the most brazen attack of the two-and-a-half-year insurgency in the province
Increasing militant capabilities threaten gas investment
The assault on Mocimboa da Praia marked the most significant large-scale attack in two and a half years of insurgent activity in Cabo Delgado and is likely to have symbolic value. The insurgent group, known as Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama but frequently referred to locally as al-Shabaab, launched its first widely reported attack in Mocimboa da Praia in October 2017, killing two police officers and a local community leader and briefly occupying the town. At least 14 of the attackers were killed in a subsequent counterattack by security forces two days later but further attacks, mostly on security forces, were carried out in the district over the following weeks.
Despite the commitment of additional security forces to the region amid a major crackdown, low-level attacks have continued largely unabated in rural areas of the Mocimboa da Praia and Palma districts and increased significantly since the beginning of 2019. Although a ban on journalists reporting from areas with active security operations has severely hampered the verification of information from the most affected districts, at least 350 people are believed to have been killed since the beginning of the insurgency, with more than 150,000 others being displaced due to the violence. The group has also gained increased notoriety and international attention since mid-2019 following claims of affiliation by the Islamic State group’s Central Africa Province (ISCAP) affiliate. Although the connection with ISCAP remains disputed, with no statement of affiliation from the insurgents themselves, Islamic State sources have continued to claim responsibility for attacks in Cabo Delgado, including Monday’s assault.
Whilst the alleged link with ISCAP is unlikely to have yielded any physical support or transfer of resources to fighters in Cabo Delgado, the insurgency has undoubtedly seen its capabilities increasing in the last 12 months. The initial insurgency-related incidents were predominantly small-scale low-capability attacks targeting undefended rural communities. However, as attacks have increased since 2019, so have the group’s capabilities, moving from threatening village elders with bladed weapons to ambushes of military patrols and civilian vehicles using firearms captured from security forces. Monday’s attack reportedly saw the capture of hundreds of weapons from raided police and military facilities in Mocimboa da Praia.
If confirmed, the demonstration of a maritime attack capability and the alleged capture of several patrol boats during the assault on Mocimboa da Praia would mark a particularly concerning increase in insurgent capabilities. Whilst a strong military presence has meant that the group has so far posed a relatively limited threat to gas infrastructure projects around Palma and the Afungi peninsula, the ability to attack offshore or coastal assets would present a significant threat in a domain where the capabilities of local security forces and robustness of protective and threat monitoring measures remain largely untested. Although their capability to threaten major projects is likely to remain limited in the medium term, Monday’s attack also highlighted the ability of insurgents to threaten peripheral infrastructure, with port and airport facilities in Mocimboa da Praia having been heavily utilised for projects further north.
With insurgent capabilities increasing and attacks seemingly creeping closer to Afungi, companies investing heavily in the region’s gas sector have been calling for additional security support from the government in recent months, including a request in February for several hundred more military personnel to be deployed to protect the projects. However, apparent failings by security forces in counterinsurgency operations and increasing hostility from local communities have raised questions over the ability of the government to protect gas infrastructure in the long term.
Military failures raise Cabo Delgado security concerns
Amid the confused and contradictory reports emerging from Mocimboa da Praia on Monday, several local sources claimed that security forces in the town had failed to engage the attacking insurgents, with some suggesting that personnel from the military barracks had fled after being informed of the incursion. Although there have since been reports of police and military personnel being killed in clashes with the insurgents, it appears likely that a large number of personnel were either not present at the time of the attack or hid among the civilian population. Such reports are reflective of a wider lack of confidence in the security forces among large sections of the population in Cabo Delgado. Whilst hundreds have been deployed to protect gas projects and principal towns along the coast, the government has largely failed to protect small rural communities in remote and largely inaccessible areas of the densely forested province which have suffered the brunt of the insurgency.
Reports following the latest Mocimboa da Praia attack stated that several of the most senior officers based in the town had recently been transferred to the provincial military headquarters in Mueda, leaving more junior officers and NCOs in charge of the barracks. Whilst many personnel within Mozambique’s armed forces are undoubtedly committed professionals, questions of competency and commitment have dogged the military following its transformation from the armed wing of the FRELIMO party and confrontation with the RENAMO opposition during the country’s long civil war. As concerns over the insurgency in Cabo Delgado have grown and pressure on the security forces has increased over the last year, claims have emerged of forced conscription from communities in other provinces in order to meet manpower commitments for the struggling counterinsurgency campaign. Whilst these allegations have not been proven, the use of poorly trained conscripts in the province would raise significant questions over the ability of the military to ensure the professionalism of its personnel.
As well as resentment over the concentration of security forces to protect foreign interests, the government and security forces have also faced claims of human rights abuses during the counterinsurgency campaign which have alienated communities in Cabo Delgado. In December 2018, the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) organisation published a report accusing security forces of the arbitrary detention, ill treatment and extrajudicial killing of dozens of suspects in the northern province. The majority of the abuses were reported to have occurred in the aftermath of militant attacks on remote villages in the province, with soldiers rounding up witnesses, particularly young men, and accusing them of involvement with the group. Suspects were allegedly held in military custody for several days or weeks, often in poor conditions, rather than being immediately handed over to police as required under Mozambican law, while an unknown number are believed to have been killed whilst in military detention.
In the face of these alleged abuses by security forces, support for the government has been falling in Cabo Delgado since 2018. Opposition or resentment towards foreign companies and gas investment in the province is also reported to have increased among communities yet to see significant benefit from the projects. Although difficult to assess, both of these factors are believed to have contributed to increasing public support for or acceptance of the insurgency in some areas. During Monday’s attack, footage emerged purporting to show dozens of Mocimboa da Praia residents greeting armed insurgents entering the town, indicating at least a certain level of local support for the group. Although several civilians were reportedly killed in the assault, local sources claimed that many residents were protected after seeking shelter in mosques and a nearby hospital at the request of the insurgents. It remains unclear whether attackers were able to easily integrate with the local community in Mocimboa da Praia following the assault, but the threat of terrorist-style attacks arising in areas under government control is likely to increase in the medium to long term in line with sympathy for the group.
Security and risk outlook
The attack on Mocimboa da Praia has, once again, raised significant concerns over the deteriorating security environment in Cabo Delgado and along the coast in particular. Whilst the group remains relatively limited in its ability to threaten major gas facilities and foreign interests in the province, their increasing capabilities and operational planning significantly increase the risk that such sites will be targeted in the medium term. The attack has also highlighted concerns over the ability of the security forces to respond to the increasing threat, with the current counterinsurgency strategy alienating local communities and failing to stem the increase in insurgent activity. In the long term, Mozambique’s government will have to invest increasing resources both in security and local communities in order to protect the gas investment on which so much of its economic future depends.