MOZ-InsurgencyMapBy Ameen Auwalii

Metuge, Mozambique—When the militants arrived in Teresa Joaquim's village in the Quissanga district of Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique, her husband tried to escape into the bush. 

Found, he and dozens of other residents were killed, she recounted. Her 16-year-old son was kidnapped. And Joaquim and her 15-year-old daughter were raped and tortured.

"They treated us like animals," said Joaquim, 35, mother of five, while breastfeeding one child outside of the tent at the Metuge refugee camp she now calls home. "I will never forget what they did to us. They killed every old man they saw, kidnapped the young men and mercilessly raped the women."

Joaquim is one of the estimated 670,000 people displaced by the Islamist militant group linked with Islamic State known as al Shabaab (The Youth) – it has no link to a similarly named group affiliated with al Qaeda in Somalia. Her husband, meanwhile, is one of the estimated 2,700 people killed by the militants in a growing insurgency that began in 2017 in the country's northern coastal region. The violence has already left about 1 million people in need of food aid, the UN says.

And the militants are growing more brazen: Last week, tens of thousands of civilians fled as militants began a siege on the northern coastal town of Palma, a hub for nearby gas projects worth $60 billion. Dozens died as militants ambushed a convoy of vehicles. Witnesses told Reuters that bodies, some beheaded, lay in the street.

The situation has gotten so unstable that the Mozambique government appealed to the US government to send help. In response, special forces – Army Green Berets – are to spend two months training Mozambican security forces to combat violent extremists. The US official designated the group as a terrorist organization in March.

Meanwhile, Portugal is also sending 60 soldiers to its former colony to train local forces, Portuguese state news agency Lusa reported.

Attacks such as on Palma – claimed by Islamic State – underscore the foothold militants are gaining across Africa, and illustrate its increasing confidence, said analysts.

"Mozambique is not an anomaly – Salafi-jihadi insurgencies are coopting local conflicts and making them more brutal across sub-Saharan Africa," said Emily Estelle, an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute. "These insurgencies have spread into neighboring countries and delivered an enduring haven to extremist militants with regional and global ambitions while exacting a steep humanitarian toll."

"On current course, the Islamic State will have a permanent enclave in northern Mozambique, including two ports," she added. "This enclave will strengthen a Salafi-jihadi network active along the east African coast. Attacks on other countries – including Tanzania and South Africa – are likely."

Currently, militant groups affiliated with al Qaeda and the Islamic State are getting more entrenched in Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Somalia, Mali, Niger, Tunisia and Nigeria. Somalia's insurgency has spilled over into Kenya and threatens to get a foothold in Ethiopia, which is currently fighting its own civil conflict.

Meanwhile, preventing the militant enclave on the Mozambican coast requires an international effort because the Mozambican government lacks the resources and capabilities, and to date has mainly relied on poorly trained soldiers, private contractors, mercenaries and armed vigilante groups, all of which have come under fire for human rights abuses, according to Amnesty International and other watchdog groups. But besides a military solution, stopping militants also means addressing the underlying grievances that lead locals to sometimes welcome these armed groups, say analysts.

Those grievances include being marginalized from the vast wealth of Cabo Delgado province, said David Salimo, a retired Mozambican soldier who fled to the refugee camp after militants invaded his village. The region with more than 2.3 million people boasts enormous natural wealth including oil and gas reserves, ruby deposits and other gems and minerals. Meanwhile, local residents, most of them Muslim, live in one of the poorest districts of a country that has a per capita income of $503 a year before the pandemic, according to the World Bank. The region is marked by high illiteracy and unemployment rates.

"This wealth has only benefited a few corrupt politicians and angered residents who are mostly young," said Salimo. "These youths have organized militarily to challenge and control this natural wealth."

"They are already benefiting by engaging in the illicit economy," he added. "And they have the support of local population who are poor and feel marginalized."

He's referring to people like Claudio Holande, another displaced resident of the region.

"It's not fair at all – we have lived in poverty for a long time yet we have a lot of natural resources," said Holande, 45, of the Quissanga district, who detailed how militants attacked his village, looted and burned homes and crops, forcing him to flee. "This wealth needs to benefit our people, not corrupt and selfish government officials. The government (must) address this issue so that our people can enjoy their resources."

Meanwhile, Salimo believes a military solution will only escalate the situation and prolong the instability.

"The government should stop using military to find solution to the conflict and seriously address these concerns if they want peace in the region because the youth are willing to die to protect their natural wealth," he added.

Civilians like Joaquim, meanwhile, are caught in the middle, between militants, mercenaries and government soldiers.

Here at the dusty, sprawling Metuge refugee camp, home to 16,000 and growing, women sit outside their makeshift homes, feeding their children, grinding corn and occasionally, reminiscing about how life used to be, before they saw their family members and friends butchered, before they were attacked and forced to flee.

Joaquim misses her husband and her son. She is wistful when remembering their former home and the grocery kiosk that she and her husband ran. The militants took all that away, she says.

She recalls how in the aftermath of the attack, she and her four remaining children walked for seven days to reach the camp. She's grateful for its safety. Even so, she says life is hard here.

"We are suffering – food is already scarce at the camp and our children are not going to school," Joaquim said. "There's a lack of safe water at the camp."

She and these other women don't care about grievances over mineral rights or who is right and who is wrong.

"We want peace in our region so that we can go back home," she added. "The government should find ways to end the attacks so that we are able to live without fear."

Photo: A map of Mozambique's Cabo Delgado region detailing which areas Islamic State-linked insurgents have attacked and occupy.
Credit: Courtesy of PolGeoNow's Twitter account (04/26/21)

Story/photo published date: 04/07/21

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.