Attacks by armed extremists from “Al-Shabaab” leave populations in Mozambique at 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 2,000 people have been killed and 670,000 displaced since October 2017. According to a report by Amnesty International, 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 amount to war crimes.
According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, over 365 violent incidents took place 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 the group 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. Fighting between Al-Shabaab, government forces and local militias, as well as Al-Shabaab raids on villages, have resulted in thousands of displaced civilians arriving in Pemba since October.
While Al-Shabaab combatants have 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. Despite a 2019 agreement, a breakaway group, the “Renamo Military Junta,” continues to wage a minor insurgency.
Although Al-Shabaab began as a small armed group in 2017, their attacks intensified during 2020. The group’s willingness to perpetrate indiscriminate attacks on civilians increases the ongoing risk of atrocities in Cabo Delgado. Al-Shabaab has exploited popular discontent over widespread poverty in Mozambique, as well as allegations of government corruption, to recruit fighters.
Recent government offensives and the impact of Tropical Cyclone Eloise resulted in decreased fighting during January and February, but the threat to local populations remains.
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.
During June 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.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) announced plans to host a January 2021 summit on armed violence in Cabo Delgado, but the event was postponed due to COVID-19.
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.