Islamic State claims responsibility for attack in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique

Islamic State claims first attack in Cabo Delgado Province on June 4; unlikely to impact local insurgency – Mozambique Analysis

Executive Summary

The Islamic State published a claim of responsibility for an attack in Mocimboa da Praia district, Cabo Delgado Province, likely in an effort to portray their global reach and operational resilience despite losses in the Middle East.

However, an IS connection to the ongoing insurgency in Mozambique is likely to be very limited, if it exists at all, and is not expected to impact the pace or scale of attacks in Cabo Delgado, where the insurgency appears motivated by local grievances rather than IS ideology.

Attacks are expected to continue in Cabo Delgado, particularly affecting Mocimboa da Praia, Macomia, and Palma districts, as insurgents expand their tactics to include not only police and village raids but abductions and roadside ambushes on major highways.

The government is likely to launch further security operations in response to the public coverage of the IS claim, though they will remain hindered by difficult terrain and a general lack of capabilities.

Avoid nonessential travel to Cabo Delgado Province in light of the threat from the ongoing Islamist insurgency.

Please be advised

The Islamic State (IS) claimed that its forces conducted an attack on the Mozambican military in Mocimboa da Praia district of Cabo Delgado Province on June 4, during which “several” soldiers were killed and wounded and they captured weapons during the battle.

Subsequently, IS released two photographs of the items they captured, which include mortar shells, a machine gun, an RPG, several rifles, and ammunition.

The claim of responsibility, as well as the photographs, were released under the administrative division of IS’s “Central Africa Province”.

Sources from June 5 cite the Mozambican police as denying that the incident took place.

 Islamic State’s claim of responsibility for attack in Cabo Delgado on June 4Islamic State’s claim of responsibility for attack in Cabo Delgado on June 4

Assessments & Forecast

IS claim is reflective of IS’s aims to showcase its global resilience, with little to indicate a substantive connection to the local Islamist insurgency

With further details of the purported attack remaining unclear, and no independent corroboration of the events thus far, the IS claim nonetheless is highly notable as it is the first time that IS has announced a presence in Mozambique. This evokes a similar announcement on April 18 when IS released its first claim of an attack in DRC, also under the banner of a new “Central Africa Province”. This was followed by an April 29 video of IS emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in which he reviewed notebooks detailing the names of various IS affiliates, including an array of those located outside of the group’s traditional sphere of influence in Iraq and Syria. In this context, it is likely that given the large-scale loss of territory and influence in the Middle East, IS is attempting to showcase its resilience and global operations by announcing connections to previously unconnected insurgencies in far-flung locations.

There have been some previous indications that there may be IS sympathizers among the insurgents in Mozambique, with a photo circulating in May 2018 among IS supporters that purported to show Mozambican jihadists who would allegedly promise to pledge allegiance to al-Baghdadi. However, this photo did not garner much traction, and even now, there is little to indicate that the IS connection is substantive, if it exists at all, and would likely only involve a small faction of the wider insurgency in Cabo Delgado. Such a connection would likely have been developed through the contact between the Mozambican insurgents and militants operating in DRC, where they were reportedly discovered to have trained in 2018. In that sense, any link to IS would be fairly limited and does not indicate a change in the situation on the ground.

To that point, the insurgency in Cabo Delgado Province has persisted since it initially began in October 2017 with little information regarding the identities or affiliations of its fighters. Local sources usually refer to the group as al-Sunnah or al-Shabaab, and it appears to be comprised of local Muslim youths who were following both local and foreign imams, said to be from Kenya and the Gambia. The group’s attacks do not appear to be ideological and have targeted a wide range of villages and people. Moreover, while multinational oil and gas operations off of the coast of Cabo Delgado have been affected, with multiple fatalities among its personnel, these deaths have been incidental rather than a deliberate effort to target a foreign or Western entity.

Cabo Delgado is broadly conducive for extremism to expand, irrespective of the lack of a well-defined doctrine or ideology. The militants are aided by other factors such as poverty and unemployment, a lack of development or government services. Furthermore, following the 2010 discovery of major oil and natural deposits, the government has been willing to grant concessions to major foreign energy companies to develop the area. This led to the resettlement of thousands of farmers and fishermen, who view themselves as deprived of their land by large corporations backed by the government. Moreover, security forces have cracked down on illegal mining and unregulated sales of rubies and timber, which further exacerbated resentment among locals, who perceive such activities as essential to their survival given the lack of government services. In connection, in March and April 2017, police arrested several religious leaders who were accused of stoking public discontent by urging villagers not to pay taxes, not to seek medical care in public health clinics, and to exclusively send their children to Islamic schools, seemingly in response to the government’s actions, which likely helped create the conditions for the insurgency to grow.

Militant Attacks in Cabo Delgado, October 2017 - May 2019

Insurgency slowly growing in Cabo Delgado as modus operandi begins to shift, while the government struggles to curb the attacks

Although the overall pace of attacks has not been consistent month-to-month, it has nevertheless increased over the past year. The variety of modus operandi has also expanded, particularly in recent months. While the militants have frequently raided remote villages, burning down homes and shops, and killing residents with machetes and occasionally firearms, these incidents have now begun to include abductions. This could indicate an aim to forcibly expand their numbers, or to use local labor to carry supplies or do other tasks while the fighters carry out attacks. Moreover, the insurgents have increasingly targeted vehicles along major roads in the province in ambushes using firearms, likely suggesting a growing confidence among the militants in that they can venture beyond poorly-protected villages into open areas where they could face security forces.

Security forces have been active in Cabo Delgado from the early days of the insurgency, with the government announcing a number of counterinsurgency operations and mass arrests. Hundreds of people remain in custody for alleged links to the group. The government has deployed troops into the region in large numbers particularly due to the oil and gas reserves in the region, which makes Cabo Delgado a critical center for economic growth at a time when the country is mired in deep debt and corruption scandals. However, while security forces have largely been effective in protecting oil infrastructure, there has otherwise been little effect in halting the insurgency. They are likely hindered by the difficult terrain, though this is aggravated by the government’s overall low levels of support in the region and thus poor intelligence collection and surveillance. Furthermore, the area also borders the lightly fenced area with Tanzania, which has allowed militants to periodically escape into Tanzania when security operations intensified, only to return at a later time.

FORECAST: Moving forward, the security forces are likely to launch comprehensive operations in order to portray their recognition of the threat. However, their continued difficulties have been further compounded by the destruction brought by Cyclone Kenneth in April as much of the province’s infrastructure has been damaged or washed away. This has made further areas vulnerable to insurgent attacks, which then also targeted food aid, while hindering security operations. With the coverage of the IS claim likely to be widespread and raise alarm, the government may use the heightened attention on the militancy in Mozambique in hopes of gaining additional funding to combat the jihadist threat. This would be viewed as particularly crucial given the massive funding gaps the authorities already face to address two deadly cyclones that hit the country in the same month.

FORECAST: In terms of the insurgent group’s operations, it is unlikely that the IS claim will have any impact on the group’s operational capabilities or otherwise shift the status quo on the ground. Publishing the claim will likely have achieved a particular goal of IS, such as wide international coverage of the event and IS’s global reach. However, the situation within Cabo Delgado is likely to remain precarious due to the continued insurgency, regardless of IS’s statements. The militant group’s efforts largely affects Mocimboa da Praia, Macomia, and Palma districts, but it is possible that the group will slowly expand beyond these areas in other parts of the province as the government struggles to stop them. Thus, attacks are likely to continue steadily over the coming weeks and months and the security environment in Cabo Delgado is poised to remain unstable for the foreseeable future.


Avoid nonessential travel to Cabo Delgado Province in light of the threat from the ongoing Islamist insurgency.

Foreigners, particularly Westerners, should maintain a low profile, and exercise heightened vigilance in the vicinity of locales frequented by foreign nationals, including foreign commercial interests, due to the increased potential for militant attacks.

Remain cognizant of your surroundings and ensure that places of stay are properly secured, alter travel routes, and avoid disclosing sensitive itinerary information to unknown individuals