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Even with reinforcements in the form of Russian and South African mercenaries, the Mozambican armed forces seems powerless and incapable of holding back the advance of jihadist fighters from al-Shabab, an insurgent group that has an unclear affiliation with the Islamic State (IS) and is not related to Al-Shabab in Somalia.
On 24 March, its militants seized the key port of Palma in the province of Cabo Delgado, near Tanzania, in north-eastern Mozambique.
The latest dramatic offensive has cast a harsh light on al-Shabab’s ultra-violent modus operandi and led the Mozambican government to call on the international community for assistance as it continues to confront the militant group’s insurgency, which has been on the rise since 2017.
Portugal pledged to send a team of military personnel to help train Mozambican forces, while the United States said it is “determined” to cooperate with the government of Mozambique. On 1 April, the African Union (AU) called for an “urgent and coordinated regional and international action”.
The origins of al-Shabab
Al-Shabab, or “the Youth” in Arabic, burst on the scene in Cabo Delgado, a predominantly Muslim province, sometime around 2007. This group, despite its name, is not affiliated with the Al-Shabab group in Somalia.
This network of young preachers and Salafi students, born of a schism within the Islamic Council of Mozambique (Conselho Islâmico de Moçambique, or CISLAMO) – a government-recognised organisation – is opposed to local Sufi Islam.
Taking inspiration primarily from the fundamentalist doctrine of the Kenyan cleric Aboud Rogo, who was shot dead in 2012 in Mombasa, al-Shabab focused on creating Qur’anic schools and building mosques. The militant group gradually gained ground by exploiting the sense of ethnic, economic and political exclusion that reigns in this disadvantaged region.
Al-Shabab members sought to impose sharia law in the areas under its control. Clashes with Mozambican security agencies grew in number while the insurgents further militarised their ranks. On 5 October 2017, al-Shabab launched its first offensive, an attack on police checkpoints in the coastal city of Mocimboa da Praia. Thus began a cycle of violence that has continued to escalate ever since.
Natural gas deposits
Though Cabo Delgado is one of the country’s poorest regions, it has substantial natural gas deposits.
Their discovery at the beginning of this century has attracted foreign investors, including the US oil and gas corporation ExxonMobil, via Rovuma LNG, and the French oil giant Total, which sunk $23bn into a liquefied natural gas (LNG) project in 2019.
In December 2020, however, an escalation in jihadist attacks forced Total to suspend construction work at its site on the Afungi peninsula, located 10 kilometres outside Palma.
This past 24 March, the Mozambican government agreed to reinforce security around the site and Total decided to resume construction. It proved to be bad timing, as just a few hours later, al-Shabab launched an assault on Palma.
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