While You Weren't Looking
Mozambique’s Growing Insurgency Takes Strategic Port
While the Islamic State-linked militants may not hold on to Mocimboa da Praia, the attack underscores their growing sophistication.
Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly newsletter focused on non-coronavirus news.
Here’s what we’re watching this week: Mozambique’s military is battling a growing Islamic State-linked insurgency, tensions escalate in Bolivia after another election delay, and Ethiopia’s prime minister may be resorting to repressive tactics to contain unrest.
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Islamic State-Linked Insurgency Surges in Mozambique
Militants aligned with the Islamic State seized a key port in gas-rich northern Mozambique on Wednesday after days of fighting. The attack was the fourth assault on Mocimboa da Praia this year. The Mozambican military, which suffers from low morale and a lack of resources, has struggled to contain a growing insurgency in the north that has killed almost 1,000 civilians since it began in 2017, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). The military reportedly ran out of ammunition while trying to push back the latest assault.
Analysts doubt that the militants will be able to maintain control of the port. The Defense Forces of Mozambique said operations to retake the area were ongoing but that their efforts were complicated by the militants’ use of civilians as human shields. The attacks underscore the insurgency’s growing sophistication as well as the security forces’ inability to repel the militants from points of strategic infrastructure.
The attack on Mocimboa da Praia was “the biggest congregation of insurgents that we’ve seen so far,” said Jasmine Opperman, an Africa analyst with ACLED.
The port in Cabo Delgado province has served as a key hub for a $23 billion natural gas project developed by the French energy company Total. Under a deal struck in July, Mozambique will receive $14.9 billion in debt financing from Total, one of the largest single investment projects on the continent. The project is one of several under development in the region after large natural gas fields were discovered off the coast. Together, the projects are thought to be worth $60 billion and could revolutionize Mozambique’s $15 billion economy.
The predominantly Muslim Cabo Delgado province, one of the poorest regions in Mozambique, has high rates of illiteracy, child malnutrition, and poverty. The insurgency was originally fueled by local grievances, with the first attack taking place in October 2017. In 2019, the Islamic State announced that the local militants were part of its Africa franchise, Islamic State Central Africa Province, which is also known to have a presence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “The Islamic State is using its expansionary strategy, war of attrition, adjusted to local conditions in an attempt to hijack the local insurgency to their own benefit,” Opperman said.
Evaluating the ISIS links. In a briefing for reporters on Aug. 4, Maj. Gen. Dagvin R.M. Anderson, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, said the Islamic State had leveraged local grievances to expand its reach in Mozambique. “The reason we believe that is we have seen them over the last 12 to 18 months develop in their capabilities, become more aggressive, and use techniques and procedures that are common in other parts of the world—in the Middle East—that are associated with the Islamic State,” he said.
Regional risk. Mozambique shares borders with six other countries, making the rising violence a regional problem, as Tonderayi Mukeredzi wrote for Foreign Policy last month. “Northern Mozambique now risks becoming a regional center of Islamist extremism, and the security threat requires a coordinated response before it spills into the other SADC states,” he wrote, referring to the Southern African Development Community, a regional economic bloc.
What We’re Following
A mounting crisis in Bolivia. Tensions escalated in Bolivia this week as the unelected caretaker government enacted a law mandating that presidential elections be held on Oct. 18, despite calls from the opposition to move the date forward. The government has twice delayed the vote, originally scheduled for May 3, citing the coronavirus pandemic, but left-wing supporters of former President Evo Morales, who was ousted in November 2019 amid allegations of vote-rigging, fear that the delay is a bid to extend the power of interim President Jeanine Áñez, a conservative.
Protests broke out across the country in response to the new delay, with labor unions and Indigenous groups blocking some of Bolivia’s main highways, as well as carrying out strikes and marches. Tensions intensified on Monday, when the Áñez administration opened an investigation into senior socialist leaders—among them presidential front-runner Luis Arce, a former Morales minister—for allegedly organizing the blockades. Government Minister Arturo Murillo said the country is “trying to avoid a civil war.”
A report published last month documented a “surge” in human rights violations since Áñez took office, including the arrests of over 100 members of the Movement for Socialism political party and the killings of 23 civilians, all Indigenous, by state forces. “These abuses create a climate where the possibility of free and fair elections is seriously undermined,” said Thomas Becker, an international human rights attorney and co-author of the report.
Repression in Ethiopia. Over 9,000 people have been detained in Ethiopia after the death of a popular singer in June sparked violent clashes, raising fears among rights groups that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is resorting to the oppressive tactics of previous governments. The assassination of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, whose music became the anthem of the protests that toppled the previous government in 2018, sparked ethnic clashes that left over 178 people dead.
After coming to power in 2018, Abiy released tens of thousands of political prisoners and began opening up the country after decades of political repression. His reforms helped him win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, but they have also lifted the lid on simmering local power struggles.
Keep an Eye On
More powers to the Lebanese military. Lebanon’s parliament approved a state of emergency on Thursday that grants sweeping new powers to the country’s military, raising concerns about a crackdown on protesters who have taken to the streets in droves after last week’s deadly port explosion. The blast has fueled public anger about government corruption and mismanagement and led to the resignation of the cabinet. The move gives the military the power to impose curfews, ban mass gatherings, and curb press freedoms. The measures will be in place until Aug. 21 but can be renewed.
Taliban prisoners freed. Authorities in Afghanistan have begun releasing 400 “hardcore” Taliban fighters, a final precondition for peace talks between the militant group and the Afghan government. The decision was approved during a three-day meeting of Afghanistan’s grand assembly, known as the Loya Jirga. Eighty fighters were released on Thursday, even as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani warned that they were a “danger to the world.”
The Trump administration pushed Ghani’s government to release the fighters, the last of 5,000 to be freed, which was a condition of the U.S.-Taliban deal struck in February. The Afghan government was not party to the agreement. Some of the fighters set to be released have been accused of orchestrating major attacks, including a 2017 truck bombing near the German Embassy in Kabul that killed over 150 people, the deadliest attack in the 19-year insurgency.
Former Colombian president detained. Álvaro Uribe, the former president of Colombia, has been under house arrest since Wednesday after the Supreme Court last week ordered him to be detained amid an investigation into alleged acts of fraud, bribery, and witness tampering—a historic first in a country still ruled by impunity. Considered by some Colombia’s most powerful politician, the far-right former president gained prominence for his hard-line approach to the country’s armed conflict—although he is also reported to have ties to criminal groups.
Uribe, who could face up to eight years in prison if convicted, was placed under house arrest over concerns that he might try to manipulate witnesses in the case. On Thursday, Colombian media reported that Uribe was self-isolating after being diagnosed with COVID-19.
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On Friday, the open-source investigative group Bellingcat published a mammoth investigation into the inner workings of the Wagner Group, Russia’s quasi-private military contractor bankrolled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin indicted for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Leaked email archives from the network and an analysis of eight months of Prigozhin’s phone records reveal the group’s deep ties to the Russian Defense Ministry, further undermining the Kremlin’s efforts to maintain plausible deniability about Wagner’s operations. Thirty-three Wagner fighters were recently arrested in Belarus. Moscow claimed they were using the capital, Minsk, as a transit point to travel on to Africa or the Middle East.
That’s it for this week.
Augusta Saraiva contributed to this report.
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack