South Africa needs to take the spectre of terrorism in Mozambique seriously but must be very cautious about intervening or trying to assist its northern neighbour, experts have warned.
Speaking at the Sovereign Security 2020 conference held virtually on 6 August, Jasmine Opperman from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) said South Africa should be concerned about the growing insurgency there. On the question of becoming involved, she said “we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. If we set foot on that soil we will be part of the problem.”
South Africa needs to be careful about intervening because there is a lot of anger towards Mozambique’s security forces, whose abuses in trying to control the insurgency are resulting in sympathy for the insurgents and increased recruitment by Ansar al-Sunna. Mozambique has also indicated it will protect its sovereignty itself and has been hesitant to call for outside assistance.
Another thorny issue is the use of South African mercenaries in Mozambique. “Are we going to be in contravention of our own laws with [South African private military contractor] Dyck Advisory Group making use of helicopters, providing air support…and there’s debate about their efficiency – how many civilians and terrorists are being killed?”
Opperman suggested the solution must go beyond a military response and said more bilateral engagements are needed between Mozambique and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
This was echoed by Lieutenant General Fannie Masemola, Chairperson, NATJOINTS (National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure), who said that although Mozambique’s neighbours should be worried about the insurgency, “we can’t interfere in a country’s sovereign matters but we make sure we are keeping our forces ready.” He added that Mozambique has access to the SADC and African Standby Force should it need it.
Solutions need to be found urgently as there is an “immediate need for security…The area [of Cabo Delgado] is devastated,” Opperman said. “Since June last year we have seen a massive increase in sophistication by these [terrorist] cells which shows foreign influence to direct the insurgency.” Islamic State is affiliated with Mozambique’s insurgents.
Wimpie van den Berg, Chief Engineer: Product Development, GEW Technologies, said that since 2017, at least a thousand people have been killed in Mozambique’s insurgency and between 100 000 and 200 000 displaced. The insurgency in Cabo Delgado province is affecting the regional stability of the area, disrupting humanitarian aid and promoting organised crime, including the smuggling of drugs, wildlife, timber, gems and gold.
He said the primary drivers of terrorism in Mozambique are lack of socio-economic opportunities, marginalisation and discrimination, poor governance, the violation of human rights, lack of rule of law, radicalisation and pursuit of economic gains. Many of the locals feel they have been left out of oil and gas exploitation ventures, for example.
Opperman added that many Mozambicans are unhappy with the government and its response to the insurgency and fear security forces and mercenaries as much as the insurgents.
Although the whole SADC needs to be wary of Mozambique’s insurgency, Opperman believes Tanzania is most at risk as it neighbours the volatile Cabo Delgado province. She said it is unlikely there will be attacks beyond Tanzania and unlikely there will be attacks in South Africa due to the geographically localised area of the insurgency.
However, van den Berg cautioned that although terrorism has seen only isolated incidences in southern Africa, it has been increasing over the last several years. For instance, when police arrested five people part of an alleged kidnapping syndicate in Kliprivier south of Johannesburg last month, they began investigating them for links to Islamic State. Some security analysts believe the Kliprivier group was involved in raising finances, mainly through kidnapping, for terrorist operations elsewhere, including in Mozambique.