The stinging success of Mozambique’s Islamic extremist rebels in seizing and holding a northern port city signals to the government, neighboring countries and the world that Africa has yet another insurgency hotspot.
A battle looms as the government is expected to launch its forces to regain control of Mocimboa da Praia, a strategic port in northeastern Mozambique that was captured by the extremists earlier this month.
The Islamic State Central African Province showed new levels of organization, strategy, manpower and weaponry in the days-long battle to win control of the port earlier this month.
The extremists’ victory in Mocimboa adds to the obstacles facing the multi-billion dollar international investments to exploit the massive deposits of liquified natural gas in northern Mozambique.
Mocimboa, in Mozambique’s northernmost Cabo Delgado province, is a centuries-old port on Indian Ocean trade routes and close to the border with Tanzania. It’s the third time this year that the rebels have taken control of Mocimboa and the longest time that they have held the city of an estimated 30,000 people.
The rebels started as a ragtag group near Mocimboa in 2017 and since then have grown in strength to carry out a campaign of violence in villages in coastal districts of Cabo Delgado, killing more than 1,500 people, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. They have now pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group.
This year, the insurgents have repeatedly attacked — and taken — the city center of Mocímboa da Praia, first in March, then in June, and now in August. This time, on August 10, they also won control of the port.
“The fall of Mocímboa da Praia is a major strategic victory for the insurgents,” said Eric Morier-Genoud, a historian at Queen’s University Belfast, “as well as a personal victory. Many insurgent leaders come from this town and made a comeback on their own terms,” he said. “They took five days to capture the town and its port, showing determination, organization and good planning.”
The attack on the town was “highly sophisticated,” according to military analyst and former South Africa army colonel Johann Smith. Before starting their five-day assault at the beginning of August, the extremists carried out preliminary “attacks on government forces’ positions around Mocímboa da Praia,” Smith said, and they cleared out “suburbs of the town to get most civilian residents to leave the area.”
Then from August 5 through 10, the insurgents fought with government troops in Mocímboa. They ambushed a convoy of reinforcements traveling to Mocímboa from the garrison town of Mueda. More than 50 young army recruits were killed by insurgents in the ambush that happened at the village of Awasse, according to several sources.
The government forces were supported by helicopter gunships flown by the South African mercenary company Dyck Advisory Group, but their efforts were hampered by the need to return to the provincial capital, Pemba, to refuel. The helicopters also dropped supplies – including ammunition – too far from where it was needed, according to the Zitamar news agency.
By August 11, the port had been taken by the insurgents, who also fired on government vessels, preventing them from bringing reinforcements to hold the town, Defence Minister Jaime Neto said in a press conference.
The extremists have held the port city for nearly two weeks, setting up what will likely be a bruising battle.
“The Mozambican military will recapture Mocímboa da Praia. The question is when and how,” said expert Morier-Genoud. “Once they do, the question will also be how will the army hold onto the town. The present organization and logistics of the army clearly failed to secure the town this time round.”
With all phone lines and internet access cut to Mocimboa, it is hard to guess what the insurgents will do, he said.
”We know they told the population that they were planning on staying in Mocímboa da Praia for good,” he said. “If this is indeed their plan, then they will militarily secure the town and neighboring areas and start developing something of an administration – presumably along Shariah rule lines.”
tHowever, Professor Yussuf Adam, a Mozambican academic with decades of research in Cabo Delgado, reckons the insurgents may not focus on holding Mocimboa but instead “will continue with their strike-and-run tactics, and will select targets which will contribute to lock down the logistics of the northern part of Cabo Delgado.”
He said the rebels may avoid trying to control areas where they can be bombarded by air.
“They will attack again and again,” said Adam. “It will depend on the capacity of the government forces to transform a war of movement of the guerrillas, into a war of positions.”
Beyond getting continued help from the mercenaries of the Dyck group, Mozambique has avoided asking for outside assistance and looks to continue that stance even as it takes over the rotating presidency this month of the regional bloc, the 16-nation Southern African Development Community.
Defence Minister Jaime Neto said recently that the only help Mozambique requests of its neighboring countries “is vigilance at the borders to prevent bandits from entering our territory.”