After suffering humiliating defeats in the Middle East, the Islamic State has turned to Africa to reestablish its power and prove that it nonetheless has prevailed. At this stage, the group remains a mere shadow of the threat it once cast, but the Mozambique government’s petty corruption and ineptitude may present the greatest opportunity for the Islamic State to reassert itself.
Despite pledging allegiance to the Islamic State in 2019, Mozambique’s al-Shabaab is primarily a local Islamist insurgency born out of local grievances, but their growing presence already is preventing the country from developing itself and soon could pose a security risk to neighboring countries.
Total’s recent announcement that it was officially suspending work on its $20 billion gas project in Cabo Delgado has dealt a blow to the Mozambican government, which has proved to be incapable — and at times, apparently, unwilling — to seriously address the growing threat of the Islamist insurgency. The three mega-gas projects in Cabo Delgado could provide nearly $100 billion in revenue over 25 years to Mozambique. For a country with a GDP of $15 billion, this has the potential to transform Mozambique and massively improve the living conditions of its population, but continued disruption in the region could suspend all three projects indefinitely.
The decision came after a brutal attack in the town of Palma, located near Total’s Afungi plant, which resulted in more than a dozen deaths. The insurgency started in 2017 and the crisis has deteriorated since. During those four years, more than 700,000 civilians have been displaced and 2,500 have died.
While the region of Cabo Delgado is resource rich — especially in natural gas and rubies — government corruption has prevented the country and the local community from reaping the benefits. Nearly half of the Mozambican population lives below the poverty line and the unemployment and illiteracy levels in Cabo Delgado remain staggeringly high. Islamists exploit these socioeconomic conditions to try to radicalize the community and expand their presence.
Furthermore, Cabo Delgado is a significant trafficking route for illicit markets such as ivory, timber, rubies, arms and, most importantly, heroin. Heroin is largely produced in Afghanistan and then trafficked into Iran and Pakistan; from there it follows various routes to accommodate the international market. Over the past three decades, northern Mozambique has become increasingly significant in the southern trafficking route, where heroin is then transported to South Africa and shipped off to Europe. According to a recent study, roughly $600 million to $800 million worth of heroin is trafficked through northern Mozambique, with several high-level members of the Frelimo party reportedly taking money from the syndicate.
Reports suggest that the Islamists have imposed a form of tax on illicit trade conducted in the region where, in exchange, they ensure that trafficking networks are not disrupted. Not only does this represent a significant source of revenue for them but it also allows them to use the same routes and camps to conduct their operations and evade authorities.
The government’s apparent involvement in trafficking explains its reluctance to accept foreign aid or even acknowledge the severity of the situation. Certain security forces and members of the ruling party reportedly have a vested interest in ensuring that trafficking networks are not disturbed and in keeping Cabo Delgado lawless.
Mozambican forces are ill-equipped and lack the knowledge and training to combat the Islamist insurgency. Without decisive and imminent action, al-Shabaab’s increased presence in Cabo Delgado risks endangering neighboring Malawi, Tanzania and South Africa. To prevent the rise of the Islamic State to its former glory, the international community must put political and economic pressure on the Mozambican government to crack down on trafficking networks and improve the socioeconomic conditions of Cabo Delgado.
A foreign military intervention should be avoided at all cost; it would only be an expensive advertisement for global jihad in southern Africa. Instead, certain countries with experience in combating terrorism could provide substantive support by training Mozambican forces on the ground and increasing security cooperation with Mozambique, especially along the Tanzanian border.
Kelly Alkhouli is a political consultant and the Director of International Relations at the Center of Political and Foreign Affairs (CPFA).