The Enduring Counterterrorism Challenge in Mozambique.

AuthorColumbo, Emilia

The conflict in northern Mozambique reached a turning point in March 2021 when the ASWJ insurgency launched its most audacious attack to date against the town of Palma, widely considered by locals and the international community alike as an island of relative security amid a spreading conflict. While the group achieved short-term material gains and a boost in notoriety as a real threat to the state, the first part of this article outlines how this escalation also proved to be the final straw that would push the Mozambican government into accepting foreign boots on the ground to bolster its own counterinsurgency efforts, turning this short-term win into a strategic error that presented the group with a more hostile battlefield environment.

The second part of the article outlines how, after a period of reduced activity, the group last year began to rebound, leveraging its move into new areas of the province to find new opportunities to undermine the state, obtain new supply sources, and reconsider its relationship with the civilian population more broadly.

As the third part of the article details, these shifting dynamics on the ground have elevated the importance of the information space as both sides seek to persuade their constituencies that the conflict is progressing in their favor.

The fourth part of the article provides an outlook on the terrorist threat environment in Mozambique. Security improvements along the coast belie long-term counterterrorism challenges as the government struggles to develop and implement a comprehensive strategy that addresses the underlying social, economic, and political grievances driving this conflict. As displaced people return to their homes, the urgency for effective governance and a security strategy that goes beyond areas of highest economic value becomes more acute--a need that third parties are beginning to fill--further weakening the social contract between the state and the public and lending credence to insurgent propaganda about a government focused on self-enrichment and indifferent to the plight of the poor.

Part One: Strategic Error Introduces New Phase in Cabo Delgado Conflict

In retrospect, the March 2021 ASWJ attack on the northern Mozambique city of Palma (1) represented a poor strategic choice and overreach that was likely predicated on the assumption that as with other high-profile attacks, the consequences to the group would be minimal. In the months leading up to this event, the group had succeeded in controlling the primary paved north-south road as well as the key port town of Mocimboa da Praia, and was responsible for the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians. (2) Reports of a meager 200 fighters taking over the town of 70,000 that had been serving as a base for international liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects made headlines worldwide, (3) directly impacting the international community for the first time as foreign nationals suffered firsthand the effects of this attack.

In the short term, the attack on Palma provided the insurgents with supplies and a reputational boost. The town had just received a shipment of goods that the government and TotalEnergies had arranged and that the insurgents looted, (4) and the Islamic State wasted little time in praising the operation in its media outlets. (5) However, this attack also forced Maputo to come to terms with the growth and impact of this armed group and to accept foreign assistance, albeit on its own terms. In July 2021, just over four months after the Palma attack, roughly 1,000 Rwandan police and military deployed to hotspots along the Cabo Delgado coast through a bilateral arrangement, (6) while the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Mission to Mozambique (SAMIM) consisting of roughly 2,000 troops (7) from eight member states arrived the following month to provide security in other areas. (8)

The introduction of these foreign forces for the first time posed a serious threat to ASWJ, temporarily halting the momentum it had been building in the years prior. Rwandan forces, in collaboration with their Mozambican counterparts, launched operations against Palma first, driving out any remaining insurgents from the town before undertaking a two-pronged attack to retake Mocimboa da Praia, (9) a key port town that the group had occupied for nearly two years. (10) The operation to reclaim Mocimboa da Praia town began with joint Rwandan-Mozambican operations in the district of the same name in order to disrupt insurgent movements and access to Mocimboa da Praia town, an effort that the insurgents were unable to effectively counter given the Rwanda Defence Force's (RDF's) ability to resist insurgent ambushes. This extensive movement to Mocimboa da Praia culminated with an RDF-FADM (a) attack on the town itself, which lasted roughly three days as the insurgents put up enough resistance to facilitate the evacuation of their personnel, who ultimately retreated to remote, forested areas of the province where foreign forces--particularly the RDF, who had proved themselves a formidable challenge--were absent. (11)

Having secured Mocimba da Praia and Palma, these joint forces continued pushing toward strategically important towns in southern Mocimboa da Praia district, further restricting insurgent activity in an area that had served as its base. (12)

Follow-on operations by the RDF, SAMIM, and Mozambican forces resulted in the capture of insurgent bases and materiel in these areas, (13) seemingly denying ASWJ a reliable safe haven and access to supplies. Indeed, a U.N. report published in February 2023 stated that after foreign intervention, the total number of fighters dropped, with the remaining group of hardened fighters splitting into small groups and returning to guerrilla warfare and attacking isolated villages and civilians. (14)

Part Two: The ASWJ Rebound

Evolving Strategic Approach to Targets and Civilians

ASWJ's area familiarity; ability to navigate gaps among Rwandan, SAMIM, and Mozambican forces; and ability to maintain access to supplies likely helped the group rebound and adapt, allowing it to carry on its fight albeit at a smaller scale than before foreign intervention. While the group retains a presence in its previous strongholds, the move into new geographic areas brought with it an opportunity to improve logistics, adjust its target set, and rebrand its relationship with civilians. The group's relationship with the Islamic State, which has evolved from being a part of the Islamic State-Central Africa Province to being its own wilayat, (15) has helped to bolster the impact of the group's recovery in the media space, highlighting its successes to global audiences despite the presence of additional counterterrorism forces.

A Geographic Shift Provides Access to New Resources

The absence of a credible force to counter ASWJ beyond its coastal bases created space for the group to split up, relocate, and procure resources and recruits from areas that had experienced relative stability during the previous four years. Insurgent attacks in late 2021 and into 2022 spread southward, into Ancuabe and Balama districts (16) and into neighboring Niassa Province, Nampula Province, and southern Tanzania, (17) areas that had seen little to no...

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