When the imam heard the gunshots from the side of the Mocimboa da Praia police station, he did not panic: “No one then understood that it was a declaration of war”, he says today. October 2017, around thirty armed men, known locally as ’“Al-Chabab”, are launching a dawn raid against three police stations in this port city in the far north of Mozambique.
“It was thought that they wanted to free their comrades accused of belonging to a radical religious sect calling on the population to disobey the laws”, tells AFP the imam, who now belongs to the 300,000 displaced by this crisis and insists on his anonymity.
It is in fact the start of a bloody jihadist insurgency that is ravaging the province of Cabo Delgado, gaining ground every day. Three years later, it has already claimed more than 2,000 lives, according to the UN and NGOs, in a strategic area for the exploitation of huge reserves of liquefied natural gas. The assaults began on isolated villages along the Indian Ocean coast. Spaced attacks in which a dozen attackers spread panic, cutting heads, burning houses.
“Several coordinated fronts”
In June 2019, the group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS). And in fact, their logistics are sophisticated in terms of weapons, tactics and firepower, note several experts, even though IS claims less than 10% of their attacks.
“The hypothesis of a convergence between jihadists and criminal networks exists: the traffickers provide aid and the jihadists rid them of a number of controls, suggests a French security expert in the region, who wants to remain anonymous. What is certain is that the elevation of the modus operandi was not by the operation of the Holy Spirit. “
In the spectacular “Escalation of violent incidents” For a year now, attacks like the one in August against Mocimboa da Praia which resulted in the capture of this strategic port are now carried out by “Hundreds of attackers on several coordinated fronts”, notes Piers Pigou, researcher at the non-governmental organization (NGO) International Crisis Group (ICG). It is difficult to estimate the scale of these armed groups. But military intelligence sources on the ground say they could number 2,000 fighters. They have claimed responsibility for a total of more than 600 attacks organized over the past three years, the latest report from the NGO Acled said.
Despite the deployment of thousands of soldiers, the authorities are unable to regain control. “The government failed to contain the attacks, it is clear to everyone”, comments Sergio Chichava of Eduardo-Mondlane University in Maputo. “At first he thought they were bandits. Three years later, he has completely lost control ”, notes the political scientist who studied this violence.
Total in “Fort Apache”
The state “Has been providing a more concerted counterinsurgency effort since April”, but he “Does not have the capacity, resources or a strong enough strategy to effectively engage in combat” against armed groups, says Piers Pigou of the ICG.
The military are “Poorly equipped”, notes Chichava, and rely on “Weapons from another age” when, for example, they would need drones to do surveillance.
Some 2,000 km to the south, President Filipe Nyusi promised last weekend in Maputo to “Continue to mobilize all resources” for “To guarantee public order and security”.
Since the capture of Mocimboa da Praia, sixty kilometers from a major gas development project, the jihadists have attacked “To road and sea routes”, putting “De facto in place a blockade” around the site, underlines the French expert. The Afungi peninsula, the nerve center of gas installations which represent one of the largest investments in Africa and in which the French group Total participates in particular, “Is a secure bubble, a sort of besieged Fort Apache”, he emphasizes.
Total CEO Patrick Pouyanné admitted last week that the security situation in the area was “Serious”. “Protecting our site is our responsibility”, he advanced, but “Western powers realize that an ISIS-led enclave is being established within Mozambique”.