Mozambique Insurgency: Islamic State Group’s Maritime Activity Poses Potential Threat to Regional Shipping
The jihadi insurgency in Mozambique has only gained momentum since it began in 2017, culminating in an unprecedented multi-pronged attack on the gas-rich northeastern coastal town of Palma just weeks ago. During the course of the offensive, insurgent forces demonstrated notably enhanced capabilities and increased strategic sophistication.
Mozambique, a littoral state located on the southeast coast of Africa, spans the length of the Mozambique Channel — a transit route and chokepoint facilitating 30 percent of the world’s tanker traffic. Reports of the insurgents’ expanded offshore footprint have raised international concern over the potential risk posed to adjacent maritime trade flows.
Deteriorating regional security conditions are already having a tangible impact on offshore commercial activity. Lloyd’s of London and the International Underwriting Association (IUA) designated a segment of the Mozambique-Tanzania coastline as a “Listed Area,” meaning shipowners will have to inform their underwriters before voyaging said waters. According to the Maritime Executive, “Insurance costs for vessels plying this route are expected to rise as tensions run high” due to the escalating insurgency in Cabo Delgado province. The listing comes on the heels of French energy giant Total’s decision to declare force majeure on a $20 billion liquefied natural gas (LNG) project in northern Mozambique.
The Islamic State (IS) in Mozambique is commonly referred to as Ahlu Sunnah wa-l-Jama’ah (ASWJ) and is known locally as al-Shabab, though not to be confused with the Somalia-based militant organization. ASWJ’s move towards Islamic State association was defined by a pledge of allegiance to the caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in May 2018 and IS’s first official communiqué claiming a Mozambique operation in June 2019.
The insurgency is largely concentrated in Mozambique’s natural resource-abundant and predominantly Muslim northeastern province of Cabo Delgado. However, militants have traversed the Ruvuma River to make incursions into Tanzania where they have raided villages and assaulted military targets. Furthermore, Islamic State media has officially claimed multiple attacks on Tanzanian soil.
Although ASWJ is foremost a local and regional phenomenon, the group’s capacities are buttressed by transnational dynamics including links to external Islamic State structures, foreign fighter inflow, and involvement in illicit trade networks.
Yet there is contentious debate among researchers over the actual extent of the group’s formal connections to Islamic State entities abroad and the entailing degree of operational, financial, media, and ideological coordination with such actors.
In February 2021, the United Nations (UN) reported,
“some Member States observed that operatives in Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo had received reinforcement of trainers, tactical strategists and financial support remitted from the ISIL core through ISIL networks and enablers in Somalia and other East African countries.”
In addition, the organization has drawn recruits from countries such as Tanzania, Uganda, and South Africa, while former female captives spoke of a “number of foreigners coming from the East African coast and from Arab countries.”
Cabo Delgado has been described as a “smuggler’s paradise” due to its weak governance, abundant natural resources, long coastline, and multiple ports. Detailed evidence of ASWJ’s role in the region’s illicit economy is very limited, but there are reports of the group’s involvement in trafficking “heroin, rubies and gold” and of the organization benefitting from “the export of timber, gemstones and wildlife products and the large-scale import of narcotics.”
Dino Mahtani of the International Crisis Group raises the possibility of an expanded maritime dimension to the group’s illicit activities:
“There are fears that [the insurgents] are already beginning to take a slice of illicit coastal smuggling, including taxing drugs cargoes that transit through waters and land they control … It stands to reason they might take a cut of the trade, either by transit fees or taxes, or from facilitating transport and landing of cargoes.”
ASWJ’s Maritime Activities
There is a growing body of documentation on the Islamic State’s maritime activity and its ability to conduct amphibious operations in the area. Maritime security analysts warn of the perils of sea blindness, a term used to describe the “tendency to ignore the maritime environment.” ASWJ has conducted attacks on maritime infrastructure, has committed armed robbery at sea, and has used boats to assault coastal territory and islands of the Quirimbas Archipelago.
Islamic State affiliates have a varied history of offshore activity that may portend certain threads of the Mozambique branch’s operational maritime trajectory. In Southeast Asia, Philippine-based Abu Sayyaf has committed armed robberies and kidnappings at sea, while IS militants in the Sinai have reportedly commandeered and attacked Egyptian navy vessels. Likewise, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) has made occasional use of small craft in the Lake Chad Basin.
(Islamic State-affiliated militants captured Nigerian Navy patrol boats)
Mocímboa da Praia:
ASWJ’s August 2020 offensive on the key port town of Mocímboa da Praia was preceded by a series of “small probing attacks” along the coast. Much like the raid on Palma, this operation signified a new phase in the group’s tactical evolution, which saw them incorporate amphibious attacks into their strategy. Insurgents successfully overran the town and caused security forces to retreat. As the Mozambican Navy was defending the port, an HSI32 High-Speed Interceptor boat was sunk by a rocket-propelled grenade.
Tyler Lycan, Christopher Faulkner, and Austin C. Doctor described the group’s expanded maritime footprint in the months following the Mocímboa da Praia attack:
“In addition to raids against coastal villages and the capture of Mocímboa da Praia, ASWJ is increasing their attacks against islands off the coast of Cabo Delgado and utilizing maritime routes to move fighters and loot resources. The recent string of island-hopping attacks embody a strategic effort by ASWJ to expand the group’s area of maritime control, secure free movement, and establish a zone of power projection.”
Kelly Moss and Maisie Pigeon of Stable Seas assessed, “Attacking the surrounding islands of the Quirimbas Archipelago has also become part of ASWJ’s broader maritime strategy, which has helped the group acquire assets and food, move freely, and project power,” further noting their ability to “carry out multiple surgical strikes in a single attack and return to shore fairly quickly.”
The March 2021 assault on the gas-rich coastal town of Palma, a regional economic hub of approximately 70,000, marked another monumental development in the northern Mozambique insurgency. Militants successfully took control of the town in a three-pronged offensive and remained active in the locality for four days, seizing funds and food aid. The attack received mass international media attention and was lauded by the Islamic State’s official propaganda organs. The operation was “the first insurgent attack to target so many foreigners working in Mozambique” and caused approximately 30,000 people to flee according to the most recent UN estimate.
In a new study for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Tim Lister determined:
“The insurgents have a basic maritime capability, frequently commandeering small vessels for coastal raids. In late March 2021, they used motorboats to attack two fishing villages 100 kilometers south of Palma. After the Palma raid, they attacked the coastal village of Pangane from the sea. They also appear to have taken possession of a larger freighter off the coast of Palma for several days.”
Potential Maritime Threat
The conflict in northern Mozambique has exacerbated regional insecurity and has fuelled a dire humanitarian crisis. Since it began in 2017, the insurgency has reportedly caused the deaths of over 2,000 civilians and the displacement of 670,000 others. In addition to the considerable human suffering caused by the conflict, the insurgency has significantly disrupted economic and commercial activity in the region.
The growing instability, as well as an increasingly ambitious and capable insurgent movement, does not bode well for Cabo Delgado’s future. Recent events have heightened international concern about the potential for greater spillover into the maritime domain.
Dryad Global, a maritime risk intelligence firm, recently published a regional threat assessment warning about the possibility of ASWJ translating its onshore success into improved offshore capabilities. The spectre of such a development, they claim, “could severely destabilize the maritime domain and raises serious concerns about the potential of Cabo Delgado becoming the next global hotspot of piracy.” In the near term, Dryad identifies LNG assets as being subject to the “immediate risk of being targeted,” specifying threats to “offshore gas fields and installations as well as LNG tankers, offshore supply vessels (OSVs) and drilling vessels.” While in the medium-term, “ASWJ could … target assets that are related to countries involved in the conflict, such as Portugal, the United States, and South Africa.” They conclude their assessment by raising the long-term possibility of ASWJ conducting advanced piracy operations in the Mozambique Channel.