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, abductions, recruitment of child soldiers and destroying civilian infrastructure. More than 3,000 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 who were beheaded or dismembered when 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.
Following a period of relative calm 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. Although the government regained control of the majority of the city in early April, sporadic clashes continued. More than 90,000 people have fled Palma since late March. Al-Shabaab attacks have continued in surrounding areas, including in Muidumbe, Mocímboa da Praia and Nangande 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. The government’s armed forces were also responsible for war crimes.
Although Al-Shabaab was formed in 2017, their attacks have intensified since 2020. The group’s willingness to indiscriminately attack 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 several companies announced they would halt work on the project, citing growing insecurity following the attack on Palma.
The violence in Cabo Delgado has triggered a massive displacement and humanitarian crisis. Tanzania has been accused of blocking or refouling thousands of civilians attempting to flee the violence.
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 already 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. Several SADC members have already deployed troops as part of the agreement. 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.