When Mozambican insurgents known as Al-Sunna captured the port of Mocimboa da Praia in early September this year it meant the ISIS-inspired group added a maritime dimension to the conflict in northern Mozambique.
By controlling the port and making the coastline insecure, the group that has killed over 1 000 people and displaced over 250 000 can now prevent and counter maritime operations against it.
The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Africa recently hosted a webinar to determine just how important seaborne operations are to the insurgency and what implications the Mozambican government losing control over the Cabo Delgado coastal area could have.
The first of two speakers, Kelly Moss, African maritime security researcher at Stable Seas, opened the webinar to explain how violent non-state actors (VNA) exploit the sea to cause violence on land, in what she calls “The land-sea nexus”.
Moss says that VNAs use the sea in two operational ways and three ways for financial gain. The first is tactical support, which is using the sea to transport fighters, weapons and other operational assets. The second operation is targeting ships or ports. VNAs get financial revenue through trafficking, trade, taxes and extortion. VNAs take assets for their gain through piracy and armed robbery at sea. They traffic and trade illicit goods and services, typically liaising with organized criminal networks in their region. Taxation and extortion are also known streams of revenue for VNAs, obtaining payments from local communities or businesses.
Al-Sunna has evolved to use all five modes. Tactically, Al-Sunna uses small boats to transport fighters and supplies as well as carry out attacks on not only Cabo Delgado but the islands in that area as well. The group is using the sea for targeting, seen when fighters sunk a Mozambican Armed Forces patrol boat, or when they attacked and captured Mocimboa da Praia, with some fighters entering through land and sea.
The group has kidnapped people and taken land along with the local population’s assets. Moss states there is little evidence to suggest that the group is involved in the illicit trade in the region but reports do suggest that the group does have some control over landing sites in northern Mozambique. “If this is true, they [Al-Sunna] could levy taxes on illicit products… This is something we need to track since there are a slew of illicit trades operating in the region from heroin to rubies,” said Moss.
While it is still unclear what the group’s maritime strategy is, Moss pointed out that as of right now, it includes controlling significant maritime infrastructure for operational support. Additionally, it includes using this control to leverage into illicit trades in the region for financial longevity. “The island hopping campaign” Moss said, is how the group is methodically moving from island to island in the Quirimbas Archipelago, off the northern coast of Mozambique, conducting attacks and short-term occupations. These islands, inhabited by people who rely on fishing, provide Al-Sunna with fishing boats to procure. It also grants the group access to fish and livestock. Weak maritime security enforcement capacity from the Mozambican government allows the group to move between islands and the main land with impunity. The last benefit of this campaign is power projection, as attacking the islands allows Al-Sunna to showcase their capabilities on land and sea, boosting recruitment and intelligence. “I see this as a strategic messaging campaign that allows the group to attack certain strategic targets with little fear of reprisal,” said Moss.
There are three factors that have allowed Al-Sunna to exploit the sea, according to Moss, such as the inability of the Mozambican government to control and monitor their seas, providing incentive for the insurgents to attack, knowing there will be little repercussion. The second factor is the lack of response from external actors. It is still unclear what kind of response, if any, will be decided on by either the Southern African Development Community or the African Union or if bi-lateral engagements will take place. The third factor is coastal welfare, which is harsh and poor as the region’s socio-economic climate and insecurity make for a bleak outlook.
Moss concluded in providing three possible maritime scenarios that could play out in the future. The first scenario is the group successfully connects to transnational criminal networks that are operating in the region and they start earning revenue on illicit trades, which could potentially open the gate for piracy and armed robbery. On 23 November, the first instances of piracy occurred. According to Cabo Ligado Weekly and the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), insurgents dressed in Mozambican security force uniforms arrived on Ilha Quifuque, Palma District, via canoe and attacked civilians. Three deaths were reported with an unknown number of people taken hostage. Sailboats in the waters of Palma and Mocimboa da Praia were also attacked by insurgents during this raid, which captured seven boats and 20 passengers.
The second scenario is the group starts attacking commercial vessels for a myriad of reasons. The third scenario is the group circumvents Palma and focuses on the north, continuing to attack southern Tanzania by sea. This possibility could include the kidnapping and hostage-taking of foreign nationals.
Moss concluded in saying, “I do think that Ansar Al-Sunna remains a formidable maritime threat and it is one that we really should not be underestimating. They have clearly demonstrated the ability to rapidly adapt and evolve at sea and this is a situation we will be keeping our eyes on going forward.”
The second speaker during the ISS Africa webinar, Jasmine Opperman with the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, took a closer look at what was happening in Cabo Delgado. “When we start talking about solutions to the problem, I think we need to be extremely realistic. Both from a regional perspective and from an international perspective.”
In being realistic, Opperman stated that the Islamic State’s (IS) affiliation with the insurgency is something to be taken seriously but their position, presence and global expansion strategy in the insurgent’s operations needs to be better understood.
Opperman dispelled perceptions that the drug trafficking in the area is sponsoring the insurgency in saying, “The insurgents do not have the capacity, in this point and time, to provide protection for trade routes.” The maritime area has a long history in drug trafficking with established networks. Cross pollination between the insurgency and criminal networks is a possibility but Opperman said no evidence suggests organized crime is funding the group. If the group were to become involved in the illicit trade, it is most likely that they will become involved in rubies, gold and diamonds instead of the other main illicit options (drugs and timber) due to ease of sale and transport.
“We can come up with as many solutions and recommendations as we want. It is a regional risk, there is no denial but this is a Mozambican problem that needs a Mozambican solution,” pronounced Opperman. Convinced that the immediate solution lies in a response from the Mozambican government, recommendations by conflict experts, analysts, researchers and governing bodies are not being taken seriously by the Mozambican government. Hard power by the government with the assistance of private military contractors (PMCs) like Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), whose involvement in Mozambique started with combating poaching in 2013, should be the focus of the government’s response.
One of the more significant thresholds crossed, according to Opperman, is the involvement of Russia through private mercenaries. “Not in terms of their successes but how the insurgents have gained capacity, weapons and sophistication following their [Russian private mercenaries] intervention,” said Opperman, who went onto say that DAG, while better than nothing, is not making a substantial difference.
In considering an international response, Opperman assured that the oil companies in the region do have security forces on an island in the case of Mozambique not being able to provide security to the companies. “The interests at play in Cabo Delgado from the international perspective is diverse, conflicting, and we are talking massive amounts of money,” said Opperman. The attacks on Tanzania could spark a response from the state as more of the insurgent’s operations in the southern part of the country should come as no surprise.
South Africa’s involvement is still yet to be seen. Opperman said there is evidence outstanding to suggest a South African PMC was involved in the conflict. She also dispelled the idea that Al-Sunna has offices in South Africa. Aside from a diplomatic nod of support against the insurgency, nothing has been done so far.
“I do believe we are underestimating the impact of foreigners in the insurgency,” said Opperman. Letting the insurgency capture Mocimboa da Praia for an extended period of time was a huge mistake, according to Opperman, because it has allowed the insurgency to bring in new recruits, especially youth. Contacts have also reported to Opperman that training is taking place and that foreigners are getting this training. “One of the pieces of information that is quite disturbing is that the Islamic State has sent a person to Cabo Delgado to direct the training,” added Opperman.
Opperman said it is vital to acknowledge the group’s sudden increase in sophistication. To counter the insurgency, she said it is vital to understand it. What can be understood about Al-Sunna is that there is a certain level of cohesion. Fighters are prepared to pay the ultimate price for their cause.
The internal cohesion is being driven by their extreme violence as Opperman stated that the violence not only draws civilians out of Cabo Delgado but also sends a message to new recruits.
The kidnapping in Cabo Delgado, Opperman said, largely consists of young males, notably easier to indoctrinate. This coupled with time can lead to a community entrenched in the insurgents’ operations, “especially with the insurgency beyond three years, coercive moulding becomes behavior, where being part of the group is far better than any alternative in Cabo Delgado.”
The insurgency has moved beyond the phase of indiscriminate brutality and the motivations of Al-Sunna are clear: they are Islamic extremists that want to implement Sharia Law. As they clear out Cabo Delgado villages and people flee, those still in Cado Delgado now have only one option: to live under the insurgents’ rule.
Opperman highlighted that as long as there is one identity in Al-Sunna, no deradicalization or development programme will work. There is massive social disintegration in Cabo Delgado that the government and external actors refuse to acknowledge. Money is not the solution as the identity of Al-Sunna is not about greed. “It is about a specific belief system to achieve a certain objective,” said Opperman.
The community want their land back, above most else. Opperman said that when Mozambican president Filipe Nyusi visited communities affected by the insurgency, the message was that residents do not want the aid, security and support that the government is attempting to provide, but that they want their land back.
Opperman said the Mozambican government “needs to look at the security infrastructure, its communication, its capacity, and needs to open up for cooperation. And I want to apply with caution, there is a war economy we cannot ignore, there are hardcore circles around Nyusi that we cannot ignore, those are the realities.”
Looking to the future, Opperman worries that in five years’ time herself and colleagues will still be discussing this insurgency if the grievances and cohesiveness within Al-Sunna are continually underplayed and not recognized.