Cabo Delgado province in northern Mozambique has been witnessing an escalation in attacks by Islamic State (IS) since March 2020 at a time when the government is mobilizing its efforts and resources to fight the corona epidemic and counter its possible consequences. This raises a number of questions about the limits of control by IS and its capacity to expand, the challenges facing the government in combating terrorism, the possible risks of the expansion by the terrorist organization in Mozambique and neighbouring countries, and the possible scenarios for the efforts of combating IS.

Causes of the spread of corona epidemic in Mozambique

  • Despite the small number of infections with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in Mozambique so far, not exceeding 200 cases, since the government announced the first confirmed case on 22 March 2020, the recent return of 14 thousand migrants from South Africa, which recorded more than 17 thousand infections so far, increases the potential of the spread of the epidemic.[1] Despite social distancing and other measures to combat the virus, the crisis comes after Mozambique was exposed to two cyclones that left nearly 2.2 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.[2]
  • Fragility of the health care systems. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), only 36 percent of the population have access to a health facility within 30 minutes of their homes. The country has only 24 ventilators and one doctor per 15 thousand people. Many diseases such as AIDS and malaria and malnutrition are widespread. In a country where 46 percent of the population live below poverty line, a strict implementation of social distancing measures could generate social unrest[3] and create a suitable environment for the expansion of IS.

Rising IS activity in Mozambique

  • IS has intensified its attacks, reaching more than 30 attacks since June 2019. The intensity of the attacks indicates the increasing number of IS fighters (nearly 1,500 fighters) and the organization’s growing combat,[4] tactical and offensive capabilities after it recruited defecting and former military staff, the expansion of its financial network and illegal trade in timber, topaz, ivory and coal, and its development of a logistical support network and reconnaissance teams that monitor the movements of security forces,[5] and coordination of its attacks with the attacks by insurgents (Renamo Military Junta) in Sovala province.
  • The organization is characterized by its flexibility and increasing capability to move and coordinate between its cells that are dispersed in the region, and its increasing capability to control cities and military bases, which indicates its improved arms capabilities after it obtained arms and equipment through raids against military targets. In March 2020, IS attacked the capitals of provinces, particularly Mocímboa da Praia, close to the border with Tanzania, from the air and the sea, controlled it for one day, and flew IS’ flag over the police headquarters. The organization then took control of the city of Quissanga, thereby threatening the development of the Rovuma Basin gas fields.[6] In April 2020, IS attacked the Muidumbe district, occupied Meangalewa, and set a Catholic church there on fire.[7]
  • The geographical control of IS is still limited, but it practices a semi-regional control over parts of Cabo Delgado, allowing it to impose taxes, recruit fighters, build permanent camps close to the areas it attacks, allowing it to re-occupy and control them, and win the loyalty of the Muslim population through the distribution of food and money. The organization’s direct goal seems to be isolating areas and controlling roads where five sub-groups take the initiative in carrying out attacks on Mocímboa da Praia, Muidumbe and Quissanga, and along the coast between Macomia and Mocímboa da Praia districts, in the areas between Mucojo and Quiterajo.[8]

Counter-terrorism challenges and their implications for government efforts

  • Poor combat readiness and low morale among security forces to stand up to terrorist threats, in addition to the challenges related to the implementation of the social distancing measures in an environment that nurtures insurgency. The lockdown of Cabo Delgado in case of increased infections with the corona pandemic is expected to lead to public protests. Indeed, protests against the practices of security forces have been organized in some areas (such as Palma).[9]
  • The challenge of resorting to private military companies. After the failure of the military operations carried out by the Russian Wagner Group (August 2019-March 2020), the government hired the Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), which is based in South Africa and provides air cover to the movements of the security forces. It attacked IS bases in Pemba in Mocímboa da Praia and Muidumbe (9 April 2020), but the terrorists managed to shoot down one of its helicopters.[10] The government faces several difficulties in continuing to resort to those companies as the DAG Advisory Group did not obtain a legal permission from its government.
  • Challenges of implementing the Peace Agreement signed in August 2019 with the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO), particularly after the defection of the so-called Renamo Military Junta, which has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks in the central parts of the country.[11]
  •  Weak regional coordination in counter-terrorism efforts in light of the preoccupation of countries of the region with the efforts to combat the corona epidemic and the tension in the Mozambican-Tanzanian relations which continues to constitute a major challenge for cooperation between the two countries in combating terrorism.[12]

 Risks of IS expansion in Mozambique and the region

  • There are increasing indications of the possible integration of organizations loyal to IS in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique and Somalia within a single structure (Islamic State’s Central Africa Province, IS-CAP), including the growing links between those organizations through networks of smuggling, recruitment, finance and training (the role of Kenyan Waleed Ahmed Zein in transferring funds to IS in the Democratic Republic of the Congo), in addition to links with extremist networks in Kenya and Tanzania.[13]
  • The integration of those organizations helps in the wider expansion of IS-CAP in eastern and southern Africa and the coordination of the organization’s operations and the enhancement of its military capabilities. It also provides a wider regional appeal as it helps to draw remaining pockets of extremist individuals in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.[14]

Possible scenarios for IS expansion and counter-terrorism efforts

First scenario: control by IS over the Cabo Delgado province and declaring it an IS province. IS benefits from the limited presence of the army and security forces, their preoccupation with countering the spread of the corona epidemic, the continued expansion by RENAMO party of its operations in the country’s central areas, the implications of the spread of coronavirus that threaten natural gas and mining projects, and the state of emergency that threatens the occurrence of large-scale social troubles. This helps IS recruit more unemployed people. However, the security re-deployment operations, backed by private military companies, continue to pose a challenge to IS’ control over vast areas. Besides, IS currently focuses on enhancing its arms and combat capabilities and driving government forces from the region.

Second scenario: resorting to private military companies to weaken IS and re-negotiating with the insurgents, especially that IS’ geographical control continues to be limited. Besides, the government is increasingly interested in reaching a peace deal, and there is international and regional support for those efforts. However, this scenario faces the difficulty of continued defection among insurgents and the rejection by some factions to negotiate with the government. In addition, continuing to resort to private military companies faces legal challenges and local criticisms that fuel the environment of insurgency and terrorism.

Third scenario: request for regional and international intervention to combat terrorism. During the UK-Africa Summit in January 2020, President Filipe Nyusi had called for an international intervention. He also attended a special meeting of the Organ of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) on Politics, Defence and Security on 15 May 2020, which released a statement in support of counter-terrorism efforts in Mozambique. According to sources, the South African military’s 43 Brigade is undertaking a planning effort to conceptualize how the South African military might assist Mozambican security forces.[15] However, preoccupation by western countries and countries of southern Africa with countering the COVID-19 crisis continues to pose a significant challenge to counter-terrorism efforts in the region.

References and sources 

[1] "UNICEF Mozambique COVID-19 Situation Report No.3, 14 MAY 2020," available at:

[2] Miguel Angel Jimenez and Egas Daniel, "Mozambique’s response to COVID-19: Challenges and questions," The International Growth Centre (IGC), available at:

[3] United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research, "Is Mozambique prepared for a lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic?," available at:

[4] Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), Cabo Ligado Weekly: 10-17 May 2020, 20/5/2020, available at:

[5] Salvador Forquilha and João Pereira, Faced with the Conflict in the North, what Can Mozambique learn from its civil war (1976 – 1992)? An Analysis of the Dynamics of the Insurgency In Cabo Delgado, Informação sobre Desenvolvimento Instituições e Análise Social, 12 May, 2020.

[6] Mohamed Abdel-Karim, “An Eye on Africa (1-8 April 2020): Rise of Hidden Violence in Mozambique, Qiraat Africa. Available at:

[7] Sérgio Chichava, ”Who is “the enemy” attacking Cabo Delgado? Short presentation of the hypotheses of the Mozambican government”, Informação sobre De senvolvimento, Instituições e Análise Social, 28 de Abril de 2020.

[8] Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), op. cit, available at:

[9] Ideam.

[10] Shannon Ebrahim, "The AU must act against Mozambique’s very real IS threat," 19/4/2020, available at:

[11] "New threats to peace in Mozambique," PSC REPORT, 24/11/2019, available at:

[12] Alex Vines OBE, "Why The Insurgency in Northern Mozambique Has Got Worse," 1/4/2020, available at:

[13] Brian M. Perkins, "The Emerging Triad of Islamic State Central Africa Province," Terrorism Monitor, Volume Xviii, Issue 5, March 11, 2020, pp.7,8.

[14] Ibid, p. 8.

[15] Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), Cabo Ligado Weekly: 18-24 May 2020, May 26, 2020.


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