in Cape Town Fears are growing that an Islamist insurgency under way in Mozambique's war-torn northern province could spread to new areas because of recent military defeats the jihadists have suffered at the hands of foreign forces.
Rwandan troops and soldiers attached to a Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) military mission have been in Cabo Delgado since June and July respectively to help the Mozambican army restore peace and stability to the resource-rich province.
The extremists, known locally as Al-Shabaab – "the youth" – have attacked and occupied towns and villages across the province with increasing frequency and brutality since they first launched the insurgency in 2017.
The group has aligned itself with the international terror group Islamic State and is seeking to establish a caliphate in the region.
In March, Al-Shabaab made global headlines when its fighters attacked Palma, a strategic town located near a multibillion euro liquefied natural gas project being developed by French energy company Total, killing dozens of people including foreign contractors.
According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (Acled), a not-for-profit organisation that tracks political violence, 3,382 militants, soldiers and civilians had died in the Cabo Delgado conflict as of early October.
The Palma attack prompted a reluctant Mozambican government to finally seek outside assistance, and since the arrival of foreign troops Al-Shabaab has been on the back foot, suffering defeats in the battlefield that have led to its partial or complete withdrawal from areas under its control.
On October 2nd the SADC force deputy commander, Brig Dumisanai Ndzinge, told South Africa’s public broadcaster, the SABC, that its special forces had attacked three insurgent bases located in dense forests in September, killing 20 fighters and capturing two more.
“We have recovered a lot of material at the bases: weapons, vehicles, and computers,” Ndzinge said, adding, “we have not established a link between the insurgents and external support for now, but through their communications material there is a good chance we will come across links to their financiers.”
The SADC Mission in Mozambique (Samim), which comprises combat troops from Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa and Tanzania, has confirmed it suffered three fatal casualties in these recent engagements.
Military experts say Samim’s on-the-ground strength is currently only about a third of the 2,916 soldiers the mission’s original plan allowed for, and that its regular infantry, artillery and frigates had yet to be deployed.
However, a 1,000-strong Rwandan force has also been conducting counter-terrorism operations in Cabo Delgado's Afungi Peninsula and other strategic areas, at the request of Mozambican president Filipe Nyusi.
The Rwandans have reportedly done a lot of the fighting to date, including being at the front of efforts to retake the port town of Mocimboa da Praia in August, which the insurgents had held for nearly a year.
Jasmine Opperman, a South Africa-based terrorism expert, believes the Samim and Rwandan forces have done well so far as they are preventing large-scale attacks against towns, villages, transport corridors and infrastructure.
However, she insisted Al-Shabaab was far from defeated but rather its fighters were lying low as they had time on their side. Conversely, Samim must make an impact quickly as it is not financially sustainable in the long run.
“Prior to the Rwandan force’s arrival in June Al-Shabaab withdrew most of its fighters from the areas they occupied, leaving a few groups behind to conduct attacks and atrocities to keep the militants visible. The bases that Samim targeted were already deserted or just overnight camps.
"While it is not clear exactly where the militants have retreated to, our intelligence suggests some have moved to Niassa, Nampula, and even Ancuaba, which are towns in the province they had not attacked before. So,the fear is they are regrouping to attack new areas," she said.
Mozambican historian Yussuf Adams, who has worked extensively in Cabo Delgado, said the information he was receiving was that the insurgents had split into small groups that had dispersed all over the province.
“For Al-Shabaab, the best time to conduct guerrilla-style operations is the rainy season, which begins in December. This wet weather makes it very difficult for regular troops to respond effectively. So, we will have to wait until then to see what their plans are,” he told The Irish Times.
While it is unclear how long the Rwandan troops will remain in Cabo Delgado, the Samim force appears intent on staying in Cabo Delgado for the short-to-medium term at least.
Last week Southern African leaders extended Samim’s mandate beyond its initial October 15th withdrawal deadline, which suggests they believe Al-Shabaab remains a significant regional threat even though the militants have been forced to retreat.
The communique from the SADC summit held in Pretoria, South Africa, did not give a timeline for the military extension, or address whether the troop numbers at Samim would be increased.
However, South Africa's president, Cyril Ramaphosa, who chaired the summit, told his regional counterparts that "the coming few months will be critical in shaping the trajectory of the SADC intervention in Mozambique".