1 December 2021
Risk Level: Serious Concern
3,000+ people killed and nearly 800,000 displaced since October 2017

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 destroying civilian infrastructure. More than 3,000 people have been killed and nearly 800,000 displaced since October 2017. Both Al-Shabaab and government security forces have perpetrated extrajudicial executions and other International Humanitarian Law violations 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. Following a period of relative calm at the start of 2021, on 24 March hundreds of Al-Shabaab fighters raided Palma and captured the city. At least a dozen civilians were killed, including foreign workers. More than 90,000 people have fled Palma since late March. Although the government regained control of the majority of the city in early April, Al-Shabaab attacks continued in surrounding areas, including in Muidumbe, Mocímboa da Praia and Nangade districts.

During July 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. On 8 August Rwandan armed forces helped reclaim Mocímboa da Praia, which Al-Shabaab had occupied for a year.

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.


Although Al-Shabaab was formed in 2017, their attacks intensified during 2020. The group’s willingness to indiscriminately attack civilians increases the risk of further atrocities. The violence in Cabo Delgado has triggered a massive displacement and humanitarian crisis. Tanzania has been accused of blocking or forcibly returning thousands of civilians attempting to flee the violence.

The discovery of liquified natural gas off the coast of Mozambique brought hope for a boost to the country’s economy, but several companies announced they would halt work on the project, citing growing insecurity following the attack on Palma. Al-Shabaab has exploited popular discontent over corruption and poverty in Mozambique to recruit fighters.

Despite the security forces’ failure to adequately protect populations in Cabo Delgado, for years the government resisted international offers to provide logistical support or troops. Recent agreements to bring regional forces into the country have resulted in military gains, but could also lead to further displacement.

The government of Mozambique is struggling to uphold its responsibility to protect and requires international assistance.


During April 2020 the European Union (EU) expressed concern regarding the situation in Cabo Delgado and called upon the government to protect civilians and hold perpetrators of atrocities accountable. On 1 July 2021 the EU agreed to send a military training mission to the country. The United States and Portugal deployed small forces in early 2021 to conduct counterinsurgency training.

On 23 June 2021 SADC approved the deployment of a standby force to assist Mozambique for a period of three months. On 5 October SADC agreed to extend the mission. On 9 July, following a request by the Mozambican government, Rwanda also 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.”


Security forces should ensure the protection of civilians and internally displaced persons in Cabo Delgado. Neighboring states must respect international refugee law and provide protection to populations fleeing atrocities. 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. 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.


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