The recent insurgent raid on the Mozambican city of Palma made headlines around the world because foreigners were killed and because the Islamic State group said it was behind, leading to sharp divisions over how the four-year conflict in Mozambique should be interpreted, writes analyst Dr Joseph Hanlon.
Palma has always been a sleepy fishing town, until last year it was transformed into a thriving hub for Mozambique’s burgeoning gas industry.
French company Total has started developing a $ 20 billion (£ 14.6 billion) gas liquefaction plant for Africa’s second-largest gas reserve.
Total was developing its own fortified complex with airstrip and jetty on the Afungi peninsula 10 km south of Palma. But the entrepreneurs and the service sector were all based in Palma, which has seen a boom in the construction of hotels, banks and construction sites.
When the insurgents entered on March 24, they were attacking a growing city with large foreign investment and more than 1,000 foreign workers linked to the gas industry.
Just two weeks earlier, the United States had called the insurgents “IS-Mozambique” and identified it as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).
Four days after the attack, the Islamic State-aligned Amaq news agency released a statement claiming its fighters attacked Palma and destroyed government offices and banks.
ISIS claim debunked
With ISIS claiming responsibility for the Palma raid, it made headlines.
CBS news called it a “headquarters of Isis activists” with hundreds of foreign workers huddled in fear. The British Daily Mirror newspaper called it a “terror of Isis” and a “jihadist massacre”. The British Times newspaper had already made headlines: Isis militants attack a town housing foreign workers in Mozambique.
But on the same day, before some of the newspaper headlines were published, ISIS’s claim was debunked.
Jasmine Opperman, Africa analyst at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (Acled) project, which closely followed the insurgency in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, showed that the videos and photos were not from Palma, but from Mocimboa da Praia, 65 km from the south.
One of the first things insurgents now do in attacks is cut off all telecommunications links, mainly using machetes to cut cables.
In Palma, mobile phone connections were cut off just 30 minutes after the start of the attack. ISIS and Amaq therefore had no information about the raid. Besides the fake images, the only claims were vague ones that had already been published in international media.
The complaint was also the first concerning Mozambique by ISIS or Amaq for five months.
In 2019, insurgents forged ties with ISIS, much of which appears to be gaining publicity, and sent videos to cellphones. They continued to point out that their target was the government, so a widely published photo shows insurgents with the black ISIS flag in front of a burnt down district administration building.
But the insurgents continued to use the name given to them by the local population, al-Shabab, which simply means “the youth” and has no connection with al-Shabab in Somalia.
As Acled, the closest and most trusted monitor of the Cabo Delgado conflict, concluded in a recent report: “There is no evidence from the Palma attack that ISIS controls the strategic direction of the insurrection.”
Who are the insurgents?
The insurgents are mostly Muslims from the coastal area of Cabo Delgado, recruited by local fundamentalist preachers with a fundamentally socialist message – that sharia, or Islamic law, would bring equality and that everyone would share in the resource wealth to come. .
The first attack took place in 2017 on Mocimboa da Praia, the only town and port in this northern area. The message and the promise of jobs and money led many young men to join the insurgency, and it won the support of local communities.
The war spread to six districts, and five district capitals – all except Palma – were attacked and occupied for some time. The insurgents have controlled Mocimboa da Praia and the only paved road for a year.
A report based on interviews with women who escaped insurgents in Palma was released on April 12 by João Feijó, technical director of the Mozambique Rural Observatory (OMR) and one of the most knowledgeable Mozambican researchers.
The women revealed that some of the leaders are Tanzanians, some of whom claim to be ISIS, and Somalis, who have firmly stated that they are not ISIS, but rather that they are part of another unidentified group.
City plundered by the army
The consensus is that the insurgency started locally and that foreign and ISIS involvement came later. The disagreement is over the importance of this.
The US view is that ISIS hijacked the insurgency and took it over. The opinion of most Mozambican scholars is that there is foreign and perhaps ISIS involvement, but that al-Shabab is still locally run and retains local goals.
This split leads to a huge division over the answer.
Insurgents marched and drove to Palma with virtually no opposition, despite clear two-month warnings of an attack after the rains had ended and a government pledge to Total to defend Palma.
The paramilitary army and police are ill-trained and ill-equipped, demotivated and extremely corrupt.
The insurgents had largely not attacked the facilities of Total’s contractors, and in the first week of April, after the attackers left Palma, the army looted the city, breaking into the contractors’ facilities.
This has been shown in both aerial photos and firsthand reports from contractors, and even angry local officials.
Foreign interest in the IS link
There is great pressure for a military response.
At a press conference on March 11, John T Godfrey, acting United States special envoy for the World Coalition to Defeat Isis, said: “We have to face Isis in Africa.” The United States wants to get involved in Cabo Delgado to deal with ISIS “terrorist activities”.
Portugal is sending trainers and, as current head of the EU Council, is pushing for EU involvement. The South African army is already patrolling the Mozambican coast and would like boots on the ground.
This is where the role of the IS becomes central.
No country can provide the Mozambican government with military support to fight its own peasants. But fighting a global enemy like ISIS provides the rationale.
In other words, ISIS and the United States appear to have a common interest in promoting the importance of the jihadist group.
For South Africa, promoters of the liaison with ISIS warn that with similar poverty levels in Cape Town, ISIS could use Cabo Delgado as a base to move south, South Africa should therefore send troops. But if the insurrection is only a local peasant uprising, it does not hold water.
Mozambique’s Frelimo government is extremely worried that foreigners, and even local media, are not looking at the roots of the war and highlighting how a Frelimo elite got rich while the ordinary people of Cabo Delgado grew more. poor.
On April 7, President Filipe Nyusi said Mozambique needed help “to fight terrorism”. But he added: “Those who come from abroad will not replace us, they will support us. It is a feeling of sovereignty.”
Interviews with women who escaped the insurgents in Palma offer another view of the government.
They said the fighters resent the authorities very much and their motivation was mainly material – jobs and money. But many would like to leave the armed group if there was an alternative.
Learn more about the conflict in Mozambique:
Dr Feijó, who conducted the interviews, argues that economic development, intensive agriculture and fishing should be used to attract the discontented.
The government seems happier to blame ISIS rather than its own political failures for the continuation of the conflict. But more and more Mozambicans argue that creating thousands of jobs would end the war sooner and cost much less than huge international military involvement.
Joseph Hanlon is a Visiting Senior Fellow in International Development at the London School of Economics (LSE) and has written on Mozambique for many years.