Attacks by armed extremists from “Al-Shabaab” leave populations in Mozambique at imminent risk of 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, abductions, recruitment of child soldiers and destroying civilian infrastructure. More than 2,800 people have been killed and nearly 700,000 displaced since October 2017. Both Al-Shabaab and government security forces, as well as a government-contracted private military company, have perpetrated extrajudicial executions and other violations of International Humanitarian Law that may amount to war crimes.
The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project recorded over 365 violent incidents in northern Mozambique during 2020, resulting in at least 650 civilians killed, including dozens of civilians beheaded or dismembered while Al-Shabaab temporarily occupied several towns in Cabo Delgado.
Since August 2020 significant 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. Thousands of displaced civilians have arrived in Pemba since October.
Following a period of relative quiet at the start of 2021, on 24 March hundreds of Al-Shabaab fighters raided Palma and took control of the city. At least a dozen civilians were killed, including foreign workers, as militants fought with the security forces. More than 54,000 people have since fled the city. Fighters also reportedly kidnapped at least 150 children. Although the government regained control of the majority of the city in early April, sporadic clashes continued throughout the month.
While Al-Shabaab has been the main perpetrators of violence against civilians, government forces have also been implicated in grave violations and abuses, including arbitrary arrests of individuals suspected of affiliation with Al-Shabaab. On 9 September Amnesty International verified video footage of security forces engaging in the torture and abuse of prisoners, the dismemberment of the corpses of alleged Al-Shabaab fighters, possible extrajudicial executions, and the transport and disposing of corpses into apparent mass graves.
Mozambique has a history of atrocities stemming from its 1977-1992 civil war, during which approximately one 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. The government’s armed forces were also responsible for war crimes. A peace agreement was signed in 1992, but low-level conflict resumed from 2013-2018.
Although Al-Shabaab began as a small armed group in 2017, their attacks have intensified since 2020. The group’s willingness to perpetrate indiscriminate attacks on civilians increases the risk of further atrocities. Al-Shabaab has exploited popular discontent over corruption and poverty in Mozambique to recruit fighters. The discovery of liquified natural gas off the coast of Mozambique brought hope for a boost to the country’s economy, but following the attack on Palma several companies announced they would halt work on the project, citing growing insecurity.
Despite the security forces’ failure to adequately protect populations in Cabo Delgado, the government has resisted regional offers to provide logistical support or troops.
The government of Mozambique is struggling to uphold its responsibility to protect and requires international assistance.
During April 2020 the European Union (EU) expressed its growing concern regarding the situation in Cabo Delgado and called upon the government to protect civilians and hold perpetrators of atrocities accountable. The EU has agreed to assist the government in confronting the threat of armed Islamist groups and has considered sending a military training mission to Mozambique at the end of 2021. The United States and Portugal currently have forces deployed to the country to conduct counterinsurgency training.
During June 2020 the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs launched a $103 million humanitarian appeal to assist Mozambique’s response to the dual threat of COVID-19 and escalating violence.
During a summit of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) on 8 April the regional organization noted its concern regarding the situation in Cabo Delgado and agreed to deploy a technical team to assess the need for a regional response to the conflict. On 21 May South Africa announced its intention to call upon SADC to authorize a military force.
Security forces should ensure the protection of civilians and internally displaced persons in Cabo Delgado. All military operations against Al-Shabaab must be carried out with strict adherence to international law. The government should welcome external support from the African Union, EU, SADC, UN and neighboring states as it attempts to combat Al-Shabaab and the threat of violent extremism.