Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado: Militants advance as aid access shrinks

‘Where are they going to strike next? We don’t know.’


The small group of militants were dismissed as bandits and machete-wielding gangs by Mozambique's government after they began launching attacks in the country's northernmost Cabo Delgado province in October 2017.

A little more than three years later, the jihadists count thousands in their ranks and end 2020 having seized towns, launched deadly cross-border raids, and displaced more than half a million people – the vast majority over the past few months.

As Mozambique’s army – and its South African mercenary allies – try to hold back the insurgency, local communities in parts of the province are forming self-defence militias composed of veterans who fought here during the country’s war of independence in the 1960s and 1970s.

But these groups are reportedly committing their own abuses against civilians, and the insurgents – known as Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jammah (ASWJ), and aligned with the so-called Islamic State – are launching ever more brutal attacks, particularly in areas where militia members are active.

Mário Canhão Pedro, an 81-year-old man, told The New Humanitarian he fled his village of Muatide in late October during attacks that reportedly saw dozens of local residents decapitated on a football pitch – some of the worst violence in the province to date.

Pedro did not witness the mass killings – which the government denies took place – because he was hiding with other residents outside Muatide. But he said a local teacher who was part of his group was beheaded after insurgents stumbled across them in the bush.

“I don’t know what they want with this war,” said Pedro of the insurgents. “As an 81-year-old man, I don’t feel well being in this situation.”

Humanitarian groups told TNH they are struggling to respond to the rapid escalation of violence: Funding gaps have led to fears of food ration cuts for displaced people, while access constraints and restrictions on providing aid in insurgent-controlled areas mean some are missing out on assistance.

Displaced people are taking shelter across Cabo Delgado as well as in neighbouring provinces. The majority are living with host families, some of which have been hosting dozens of strangers for long periods. Others are staying in temporary camps set up recently by the government, while many are hiding out in the bush – some for weeks or months on end.

The militants' long-term strategy is anyone’s guess, but as they gain ground many fear the conflict will envelop nearby provinces in northern Mozambique and could even spread to neighbouring countries.

“Clearly these guys don’t seem to want to stay put,” said Paolo Israel, a researcher at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. “Where are they going to strike next? We don’t know.”

Mass killings

Early on in the insurgency, members of ASWJ – one of a number of IS offshoots gaining ground in sub-Saharan Africa – rarely showed their faces, causing confusion among residents about who was behind the violence.

Though the group still has no clear leader or manifesto, videos filmed earlier this year during attacks showed fighters posing with Islamic State flags and criticising Mozambique’s government for corruption and neglect.

Research suggests the group is not new to Cabo Delgado. Some of its members are drawn from an Islamist sect – known locally as al-Shabaab or “the youth” in Arabic – that emerged in the province over a decade ago.

Its message has resonated with marginalised youth unable to benefit from the coastal region’s offshore gas fields, ruby deposits, and other natural resources exploited by local elites and foreign corporations.

Young men from the neighbouring provinces of Nampula and Niassa have increasingly been drawn into the insurgency. Researchers say these “recruitment reservoirs” indicate that the conflict’s root causes can be found throughout northern Mozambique.

As the group expands, its horizons are broadening: early this year the militants mainly attacked rural villages before retreating. Now they have a presence in most of the province’s 17 districts, and have taken control over key transport routes, waterways, and a strategic Indian Ocean port town.

Attacks are also spilling across borders. In October, a large group of insurgents raided a village in Tanzania’s southeastern Mtwara region. In a video of the incident, an insurgent is filmed saying, “we’ve come to remove Magufuli” – the surname of Tanzania’s president.