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A well-planned attack on Palma in Cabo Delgado cost dozens of lives, raising questions about the future of the $20 billion gas project nearby
Although government forces claimed definitive victory on 27 March over the Ahlu Sunna Wal Jammah (ASWJ) fighters who had seized control of Palma, on the northern tip of Cabo Delgado province, just four days earlier, clashes around the city were continuing as Africa Confidential went to press.
On 28 March, Islamic State claimed via its Amaq news agency that its fighters in ASWJ had taken control of Palma from government forces after days of clashes. For now, the claims of liaison between ASWJ and ISIS/Da'ish suits both sides but evidence of their close cooperation on the ground is thin. Much of ASWJ's military knowhow, and equipment, seems to come from neighbouring Tanzania and further up the coast (AC Vol 61 No 22, Insurgents cross border).
The ASWJ coordinated attacks on Palma on three axes, chasing over half the city's 75,000 residents from their homes and killing at least 40 people. Although the fighting was less than ASWJ's capture of the Mocimboa da Praia port in August, which they still hold, it sent a stronger message to the government and France's Total and the United States's ExxonMobil, the lead investors in the country's natural gas export project.
It highlights the hollowness of assurances from President Filipe Nyusi, who hails from the region and is a former defence minister, that his country's armed forces had the situation under control. Nyusi had tried to keep the Cabo Delgado insurgency off the agenda of the security organ of the Southern African Development Community but President Mokgweetsi Masisi of Botswana and Zimbabwe's Emmerson Mnangagwa were hurriedly covening regional consultations just days after the Palma attacks (AC Vol 62 No 3, Nyusi's loyalty test).
Earlier in the year, insurgents had attacked around the Palma and Nangade districts, cutting the road from Mueda through Nangade and Pundahar to Palma for extended periods. Armed convoys had delivered some supplies but faced ambushes along this route.
Plan of attack
The ASWJ sent several hundred fighters in a three-pronged attack from the west, north and south to take Palma on the evening of 24 March. They were joined by an advance contingent that had infiltrated the town several days earlier, some pretending to be displaced people.
Local reports suggest they did not meet much resistance from most of the government soldiers in the city who were quickly overwhelmed or fled. The military's main compound in Palma held out longer in the hope of reinforcement and resupply. Some government soldiers may have been lured to the west in a false flag operation ahead of the main assault. The fighters targeted communications and security infrastructure, as well as banks, food and medical repositories. We hear most of the looted materials were trucked out of the town by late on 26 March.
International news agencies and cable television stepped up coverage when it emerged that several foreigners were caught up in the fighting and that one of the world's biggest natural gas projects might be in the balance. Several hundred people, including over 50 foreigners, sought refuge at the Amarula Hotel close to the airport.
At first, the ASWJ fighters didn't target the hotel but changed tack when they learned that the Palma District Administrator had holed up there. The Dyck Advisory Group (DAG, see Box, Military business) launched several helicopter rescue missions from Vamizi Island, off the Afungi Peninsula. Afungi, just 7km from Palma is the headquarters of Total's gas project and guarded by 700 government troops but the company had been demanding 1,000.
The fight for Palma has triggered recriminations on all sides. DAG officials complain that Total refused to supply fuel for the helicopter rescue missions and wrongly advised people to stay in the Amarula hotel from where they would be rescued. Total deny all that.
Yet it's evident that neither Total nor the regional government forces has developed a security and evacuation plan despite the city and neighbouring villages being at the epicentre of a smouldering insurgency for the past three years.
When it became clear that neither forces stationed at Total's base in Afungi, nor any around Palma, were going to rescue the stranded contingent at the Amarula, a 17-vehicle convoy was organised to run to the port. Insurgents ambushed it almost immediately. Just seven vehicles made it through.
Total are said to be reviewing all aspects of their project, which is likely to be delayed but not cancelled. The company had ordered a partial evacuation of its workers in early January after several attacks near the perimeter of its compound at Afungi.
Just hours before the attack on 24 March, Total announced that it was restarting operations only to announce that it was putting them on hold as fighting raged in Palma.
President Nyusi and his ministers will try to assuage Total and ExxonMobil by promising to regain control of security. Military training teams from the US and Portugal have arrived to beef up the effort.
Government strategy will focus on security rather than on any political track to address the insurgents. Until now ASWJ had steered clear of the gas project and attacking foreigners, insisting that its quarrel was with the Nyusi government. A week after the attack, the stakes are now far higher on all sides.
The designation by the US of ASWJ as 'Islamic State Mozambique' – not previously referred to by ISIS media channels – and the naming of its leader as Tanzanian national Abu Yasir Hassan, has pointed to the lack of reliable information about the group.
Almost certainly the US identification of the Hassan-ISIS link will mean it will step up intelligence, if not remote military operations against the ASWJ. For President Nyusi, it's useful as it fits well with his insistence that insurgents are part of an externally-driven destabilisation effort.
Government security forces failed badly in Palma, reinforcing concerns that the military is in a parlous state (AC Vol 62 No 4, General confusion). The police and military are meant to operate in tandem, but have separate command structures that do not trust each other and have failed to develop a coherent security strategy.
Government forces in Palma were surprised by the ASWJ onslaught, pointing to serial intelligence failures and perhaps infiltration of state structures. New plans have to be put place in rapidly.
DAG's contract to train emergency police units and run helicopter missions expires on 6 April. It is unlikely to be renewed following a 'difficult' meeting between the company and state officials in Maputo this week.
For some time there will be a vacuum in air support as the Mozambican airforce is not yet ready to fill the gap. Pilots trained for at least four new Gazelle helicopter gunships are not operational and require integrated training with ground force security forces to maximise their effectiveness. The pilots are fully trained but have no combat experience.
As the insurgency gathered pace in Cabo Delgado over the past three years, so did the number of companies lobbying for defence and security contracts. Most are based in neighbouring South Africa, including Ivor Ichikowitz's Paramount Group, a defence and aerospace business, which is reported to have agreed to provide aircraft and other equipment to the Mozambique armed forces. It has taken a 'strategic shareholding' in Burnham Global in Dubai, which provides military and training and advisory services to governments fighting insurgencies. Also in the frame for contracts is likely to be Eeben Barlow, whose Specialised Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection International company helped counter an insurgency in north-eastern Nigeria during the Presidency of Goodluck Jonathan.
Both companies have close relations with the South African National Defence Force, especially its Special Forces. For now, the SANDF cannot assemble a combat-ready force to send into Cabo Delgado but that could change in the coming weeks now it has become a regional crisis.
Since the end of apartheid, South African officials have had an ambivalent attitude to private military companies. On paper, sending South Africans abroad as mercenaries has been illegal since the Prohibition of Mercenary Activities and Regulation of Certain Activities in a Country of Armed Conflict Act passed in 2006. They should come under close political scrutiny; in practice, the companies enjoy logistical and diplomatic help from the government in Pretoria, and its top military brass.
At the centre of attacks on Palma was the Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), founded by ex-Rhodesian Special Forces officer Colonel Lionel Dyck, whose group of 40 special police fought their way into Palma on 27 March (AC Vol 61 No 21, Frelimo flounders in north).
This team is part of a 120-strong contingent trained by former military men from South Africa with extensive experience of fighting and training on African terrain. The training was part of an extended contract that DAG secured in mid-2020 and part of a plan to develop a strike force within the national police to mount counter-insurgency operations (AC Vol 61 No 13, Frelimo's belated cry for help).
Mozambican and Zimbabwean critics of DAG have targeted Dyck's military record, first in the Rhodesian forces and then as part of the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) after independence.
Over the last year in Cabo Delgado, however, the DAG-trained unit significantly strengthened the government's options according to security analysts.
The government in Maputo doesn't share this view. The police, who until January were playing a central role in counter-insurgency efforts, were replaced by the Forças Armadas de Defesa de Moçambique (FADM), who were spectacularly caught off guard by the attack on Palma.
This challenge has been compounded by the turnover of senior officers. The army commander, General Eugénio Mussa, died from Covid-19 in early February, weeks after taking the helm (AC Vol 62 No 4, General confusion). The new commanders have been reshuffled from old positions as President Filipe Nyusi ensures men loyal to him are in charge.
The police have been pushed to one side. The DAG contractors will be packing their bags and going home on 6 April, after a decision not to extend their contract.
Seeing a vacuum emerging, some rival companies have been denigrating DAG's record. Some have been using Amnesty International's recent reports of alleged human rights abuses by DAG, along with government personnel, to win a competitive advantage. DAG says it will investigate Amnesty's findings.
• The first paragraph of this article was amended on 15 April to clarify the roles of companies named in it
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