Counter-Insurgensea in Northern Mozambique

Mozambique islands no-go zones
Fishing boats in the sea outside Ilha de Mozambique. Photo: Stig Nygaard.

Thanks to the most recent edition of Cabo Ligado Weekly, new information has emerged about a maritime-oriented government counteroffensive against Ansar al-Sunna (ASWJ) in the Cabo Delgado province of northern Mozambique. According to the report, Mozambican security forces have established a civilian no-go zone stretching from the northern city of Palma to the southern Ibo district in the hopes of restricting ASWJ’s movements and procurement of assets. To enforce this, helicopters owned by private military companies (PMCs) are patrolling the area and targeting insurgents’ vessels. While these tactical developments are critically important to degrading and disrupting ASWJ’s capabilities on land, doing so through a no-go zone that is effectively a “free-fire zone against coastal marine traffic” could have significant impacts for coastal civilians. Concerns revolve around the ability of security forces to discriminate between civilians and insurgents, corruption, constrained civilian movement, and a disproportionate impact on fishers and traders. 

Given ASWJ’s exploitation of the sea to wage violence on land, it is encouraging to see the Mozambican government taking proactive actions to counter the insurgency at sea. In fact, Stable Seas has gone on the record arguing for Maputo to do just that, in A Hop, Skip, and a Jump: Ansar al-Sunna’s Island-Hopping; Making Waves: Militant Maritime Operations Along Africa’s Eastern Coast; Crippled Capacity: How Weak Maritime Enforcement Capacity Emboldened Ansar al-Sunna; and East African Terrorist Groups are Exploiting the Seas. Disrupting ASWJ’s use of the sea—including their freedom of movement, the transiting of fighters and supplies, and their procurement of assets—is necessary. However, the means by which these goals are achieved matter and cannot be enacted at the expense of civilians. Thus, while Maputo’s objectives are spot-on, creating a no-go zone at sea raises serious concerns.

Concern 1: Distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants

The foremost question pertains to the ability of government security forces to effectively distinguish combatants from non-combatants at sea. The use of PMC-operated helicopters further complicates the operational environment, as does the size of the no-go zone. Mozambican security forces are already stretched thin; adding a new patrol zone that spans more than 80 nautical miles could result in the inadvertent prioritization of efficiency over accuracy. If this area really is a “free-fire zone,” then civilians fleeing the conflict area could be mistaken for insurgents, especially if they have not been properly informed about the zone. The same applies to coastal fishers in the area. 

Past incidents in Mozambique and Yemen point to the legitimacy of these concerns about civilian targeting. On August 13, Mozambican government forces sank a boat carrying refugees who were traveling from Ilha Nhongue to Nkomangano, Mocímboa da Praia. In Yemen, fishers have long voiced concerns over being mistaken for Somali pirates and Houthi rebels by private security actors and multilateral coalitions in the region. From 2018 to 2019, Human Rights Watch alleged that more than 47 Yemeni fishers had been killed or detained by Saudi-led coalition naval forces. Similar to ASWJ, Houthi rebels exploit the sea for operational purposes, albeit in much more sophisticated ways. Further convoluting this situation are the tendency for ASWJ to dress in military uniforms and occasionally civilian clothing and the loose command-and-control structure of Mozambican security services. 

Concern 2: Corruption 

Enhanced security measures could become a pretext for corruption in government security services. Corruption has been, and continues to be, a significant problem for Mozambique. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Mozambique ranks 146th out of 198 countries, indicating high levels of perceived corruption in the public sector. The corruption scandal involving former Mozambican Finance Minister Manuel Chang and other officials in an alleged $2 billion maritime-oriented money-laundering and investment scheme is one example of corruption penetrating high levels of the government. An incident last month further validates this concern; some security service members patrolling the coast were demanding illicit payoffs from fleeing civilians. It is unclear whether these payments were made under threat of violence or threat of denied passage for the civilians. 

Concern 3: Constrained civilian movement

Given ASWJ’s control of transportation corridors on land, the sea has become a vital escape route for civilians fleeing violence in northern Mozambique. Cutting off access to these routes through a unilateral no-go zone leaves these individuals with few options. The choice ultimately boils down to risking a confrontation with government security forces or with ASWJ insurgents. Notably, this concern would be diminished if civilians could safely assume there would be government protection, including secure access to adequate escape routes on land via roads and public transportation. 

Additionally, if licit civilian movement is restricted, civilians could turn to illicit means of travel in pursuit of safety. This carries with it the risk of human trafficking, as individuals may begin transit voluntarily, but later be held or transported elsewhere involuntarily. This is a tragic but not uncommon experience for civilians fleeing conflict by sea. 

Concern 4: Disproportionate impact on fisherfolks and traders

Restricting access to the sea disproportionately impacts fishers and traders who have remained near the no-go zone, either voluntarily or out of necessity. Behind agriculture, fishing is the second largest economic activity in Cabo Delgado, providing physical sustenance and income to many. According to the 2018 census carried out by the National Institute of Small-Scale Development, Cabo Delgado hosts 61 inland fishing centers and 136 in marine waters, involving an estimated 14,261 fisherfolks. Restricted access to the sea could make it harder for civilians to access food and supplies while simultaneously reducing their income and ability to afford food and supplies. This was again evident in Yemen, where local fishers were faced with a decision between hunger or high-risk ventures to sea, due to the sweeping sea-based countermeasures targeting Houthi rebels. Thus, a large no-go zone at sea could have socioeconomic and food security implications. Given that women comprise an estimated 47 percent of the 120 million people who earn money from fishing and related processing, including the pre-financing and preparation of fishing outings, this policy may have excessive negative effects on women in Cabo Delgado’s fisheries sector.

Final Thoughts

Incorporating the maritime domain into ongoing and future counterinsurgency efforts is critical, but how this is executed matters. If Mozambique’s command-and-control structure were stronger and the capacity of its security services higher, perhaps this could mitigate some of the above concerns. Regardless, a high degree of caution is necessary. Terrorism inherently seeks an overreaction by the state in order to foster and sustain anti-government narratives. Poor execution of this no-go zone could ultimately fuel civilian grievances towards the state, inadvertently aiding ASWJ in the long term.