Attacks by armed extremists from “Al-Shabaab” leave populations in Mozambique at risk of further atrocity crimes.
Since October 2017 an armed extremist group, known locally as “Al-Shabaab,” has engaged in a violent insurgency in Cabo Delgado, a northern province of Mozambique. Al-Shabaab, which is loosely affiliated with the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, has perpetrated indiscriminate attacks against civilians, including beheadings, sexual and gender-based violence, sexual slavery, abductions, recruitment of child soldiers and destruction of civilian infrastructure. More than 5,600 people have been killed and at least 744,000 displaced since October 2017. Both Al-Shabaab and government security forces have perpetrated extrajudicial executions and other violations of International Humanitarian Law that may amount to war crimes.
Since August 2020 fighting between Al-Shabaab and security forces has taken place near Mocímboa da Praia, Palma and other port towns where several major offshore liquified natural gas projects are under development. In July 2021 regional forces, including troops from Rwanda and members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), began deploying to Cabo Delgado to assist the Mozambican government in confronting the group.
Although the government has regained control of many cities, insurgent activity is continuing in Macomia, Nangade and Ibo districts, where fatalities and kidnappings have increased since January 2022. Approximately 6,000 people have been recorded as newly displaced in 2022. Between April and May violence intensified in Macomia district, with insurgents reportedly beheading over 6 people and torching and raiding villages. Insecurity in northern Mozambique has prevented UN agencies and humanitarian aid from accessing people in need. Despite ongoing violence, the government is encouraging displaced people to return to their places of origin.
Mozambique has a history of atrocities stemming from its 1977-1992 civil war, during which approximately 1 million people died. War crimes and crimes against humanity were perpetrated by the armed rebel group, RENAMO, who carried out massacres of civilians and systematically killed teachers and health workers. Government armed forces also perpetrated war crimes.
Al-Shabaab was formed in 2017 and has sporadically intensified their attacks since 2020. The group’s continued willingness to indiscriminately attack civilians increases the risk of further atrocities. The violence in Cabo Delgado has triggered a massive displacement and humanitarian crisis.
The discovery of liquified natural gas off the coast of Mozambique brought hope for a boost to the country’s economy. While several companies announced they would halt work on the project, citing insecurity following the attack on Palma, TotalEnergies has indicated it is planning to resume operations toward the end of 2022. Al-Shabaab has exploited local grievances and popular discontent over corruption and poverty in Mozambique to recruit fighters.
The government of Mozambique is struggling to uphold its responsibility to protect and requires continued international assistance.
In July 2021 the European Union agreed to send a military training mission to Mozambique. The United States and Portugal deployed small forces in early 2021 to conduct counterinsurgency training.
In June 2021 SADC approved the deployment of a standby force to assist Mozambique for an initial period of three months. SADC has subsequently extended the mission and in April 2022 revised the operation, shifting away from a force with rapid deployment capabilities to a multidimensional operation with greater focus on peacebuilding and strengthening governance.
In July 2021, following a request by the Mozambican government, Rwanda deployed 1,000 troops and police to Cabo Delgado. According to the government of Rwanda, the deployment is “grounded in Rwanda’s commitment to the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and the 2015 Kigali Principles on the Protection of Civilians.”
Mozambique’s security forces and their regional partners should ensure the protection of civilians and internally displaced persons in Cabo Delgado. All government and regional forces must ensure military operations against Al-Shabaab are carried out with strict adherence to international law and utilize tactics that mitigate civilian harm. Neighboring states must respect international refugee law and provide protection to populations fleeing atrocities.
As Al-Shabaab retreats from previously held territory, it is essential to provide psycho-social support to civilians who were abducted or subjected to sexual violence and to engage in demobilization, disengagement and reintegration efforts for children recruited into conflict.
Authorities should prosecute high-level Al-Shabaab members. The government should more effectively address the local and political roots of the insurgency.