We saw the headlines. We heard of the horror.
Contrary to what we were told about last month’s attack (March 24) in Mozambique, the assertion that ISIS committed the recent attack in Palma (located in the region of Cabo Delgado)—which ISIS did claim responsibility for—has been debunked.
Instead, it was local insurgents, mainly Muslims, who were responsible. The group usually goes by the name al-Shabaab and has no affiliation to the Somalian group. Here is a description of what happened from Joseph Hanlon, a scholar of Mozambique:
“On Wednesday 24 March three groups arrived in the afternoon and coordinated attacks started at 16h00. The normal model of was followed. The three incoming roads were closed. Mobile phone communication was cut by 16h30. The district administrative offices were destroyed and burned, including records and documents. Police and military units were attacked. Banks, shops and warehouses were raided. The prominent catholic church was not touched, and foreigners were not targeted.
In effect, al-Shabaab simply walked in to the town and took over – there was little resistance.
More insurgents arrived in vehicles on the Thursday and there was serious looting. Al-Shabaab took 80 civilian vehicles; 30 tonnes of food from the World Food Programme warehouses; fuel, food and other goods from shops; money from banks; and army munitions.”
In the same article, Hanlon points out that there was simultaneous one in the city of Macomia with reports of civilian deaths, though official numbers are hard to come by.
There have been other reports of civilian deaths as well, none of which I’m trying to diminish in this article.
Rather, I’m trying to bring to light the other aspects of this story that were not told. This includes the story of the local Muslim population as well as the way in which this news story was misreported.
It’s important to point out that, even in some of these reports (like in the one linked above), exactly how these civilians were killed is unclear. That doesn’t mean they were not killed; it means that we do not know exactly who did what.
When you’re reporting the news, who did what is an essential part of the story. That “who” and “what” became even more confused when it was uncovered that the ISIS claims were false.
Apparently there were signs early on that the claims were possibly false:
“In Palma, mobile phone connections went down just 30 minutes after the attack started. So IS and Amaq had no information on the raid. As well as false pictures, the only claims were vague ones that had already been published in international media.”
But vague turned out to be clear enough for many media outlets.
What’s come out recently, though, is a clearer picture. Here is what the BBC is reporting:
“The insurgents are primarily Muslims from the coastal zone of Cabo Delgado, recruited by local fundamentalist preachers with a basically socialist message – that Sharia, or Islamic law, would bring equality and everyone would share in the coming resource wealth.”
The conflict between al-Shabaab, the government, and portions of the local population has been going on for around two decades now and has grown over the past decade.
The situation is somewhat confusing to follow, as the group has gone by different names and has had ties with others, ISIS in particular. That affiliation, however, was reportedly gone by March 2020, when al-Shabaab cut ties with ISIS. This is what has made the March 11 announcement to add “ISIS-Mozambique” to the US’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations so curious.
In terms of why ISIS would claim responsibility for the attack, if the goal is clashes with Western forces, then staking claim to the attack clearly helped with that goal, as the US is now giving the situation in Mozambique more attention and is expressing some willingness to combat forces that oppose the government there.
It could be the case that the US knows more than they’re willing to share about the alleged ‘ISIS-Mozambique’ group (there are some reports of insurgents filming attacks for later use and that some of what was filmed before the Palma attacked appeared in the ISIS claim), or it could be the case that the label is one of convenience. That way, it could aid the US in justifying future intervention where it would otherwise be seen as meddling in a country’s domestic affairs.
It is hard to verify with certainty what the truth is in this case, but Hanlon insists:
“…there is simply no evidence of more than informal links with IS, and those appear to have been cut. The US claims to have secret evidence, but the quality of US intelligence in Mozambique is highly variable.”
While intelligence on such matters are typically highly protected secrets, Hanlon’s assertion comes from scholarly work on the matter. The variability he speaks of also seemed present in the government’s press conference on “US efforts to combat terrorism in Africa,” when a reporter from The Economist asked how the government was sure about ISIS—al-Shabaab ties and then pointed out that he was not really given an answer.
Things began to change in the relatively quiet (and impoverished) area of Cabo Delgado about ten years ago. After gas was discovered in the area in 2010, the French oil and gas company Total made an inroad, investing $20 billion in a liquified natural gas (LNG) project there in 2021. They have partnered with a number of foreign oil and gas companies on the project. ExxonMobil also has a project in the area.
It’s clear that these gas ventures are a source of serious concern for the local population and hence a major reason for violence. Even this past January, Total had to pull out its staff over security concerns with al-Shabaab. They then demanded a 25 km safety zone from the Mozambican government, which was announced on March 24. The attack began that afternoon, with Total pulling out its staff once again two days later.
Such a project would give reason for the West to be all the more concerned about an attack in the area. If an international group (e.g., ISIS), rather than a local one, had been to blame, then this could make it easier for foreign countries to intervene with force.
It’s important to bear in mind that any intervention will likely lead to more civilian deaths than we’ve already seen. After all, the war with ISIS was not one that played out with very few civilian deaths (anyone with any doubts: consider this, this, and this).
A March 2021 report by Cabo Ligado, an organization that has been monitoring the situation in Cabo Delgado, states that one of the most significant changes that took place last month is the US’s increased involvement in the situation. Along with the “ISIS-Mozambique” proclamation, they report:
“…the US also announced a Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) program that brought US Green Berets to Mozambique to train Mozambican troops in counterterrorism tactics. The 2021 JCET was not the first such mission during the Cabo Delgado conflict, but it was the first to be publicly acknowledged, indicating the expanding working relationship between the US and Mozambican governments.”
We can only hope this doesn’t lead to more violence, as we’ve seen before in Muslim Africa. Along with that, a quick read of the type of agreements being made between the Mozambican government, these corporations, and the International Monetary Fund should cause even more concern for anyone thinking about locals in the area.
How Misreporting Feeds into the Precarious Position of Locals
In terms of the sensationalized burst of media coverage that we witnessed, as Hanlon has pointed out, part of the problem was that journalists who knew nothing of Mozambique and its internal problems heard about the attack—brought to their attention in part because of the $20 billion-dollar Total LNG project and the foreign workers in the area—and got to writing.
“They contacted terrorism ‘experts,’ many of whom had not been following Mozambique’s small war.”
Surely the US’s announcement about alleged ISIS-Mozambique a week and a half earlier added to the hype.
But, again, despite ISIS’s claim to the attack and the media’s acceptance of that claim, the evidence (e.g., the manner of the attack, the cutting of phone lines thirty minutes after the start) simply did not support it. Simply buying into the claim without investigating further was easy; ISIS has been the enemy and the reason for violence for years now. Readers—voters—won’t question it.
Without condoning violence against civilians, it’s important to acknowledge that this isn’t a simple story of pure carnage, as it was made out to be. Locals are under serious threat from the LNG projects underway off their shores. This part of the story was absent from a lot of the reporting last month, like in this article. There was concern about the gas, and the foreign workers (again, it’s understandable to be concerned about civilians), but less was said about why the gas would be a focal point of attention for insurgents. This must be part of reporting, or this pattern of neo-colonialism (often directed towards Muslims) will continue even more easily.
What’s at Stake: Beyond the $20 Billion for Total and Its Friends
A Feb-April 2018 study (published 2019) by Shared Value Foundation and Landac discusses the types of challenges faced by the local population due to Totals LNG project. One challenge, for example is resettlement. Totals LNG project requires moving residents—556 households from their homes to other areas. Another 952 households will likely no longer have access to agricultural lands or fishing grounds.
The ‘compensation’ they are given, however, is often insufficient because they are given far less agricultural land, for example, than they originally had. Because the government was so eager for this project to come through, they basically strong-armed residents into accepting this deal.
With this in mind, we get a deeper sense of why there is such unrest in the region and why residents are frustrated by the ‘wealth’ that has been bestowed on their region but not on them. Looking for solutions to this problem, particularly from an Islamic perspective, are for us a no-brainer. Does that mean killing civilians? No. But it does mean not buying into this sensationalized, false story of “extremism.”
Concerns that Remain
There are three main areas of concern when it comes to the attack in Palma: 1) that the media quickly jumped on this story, without providing the public (and perhaps themselves) with ample information on what was actually going on and who was to blame for what; 2) that these basic problems of local corruption and neo-colonialism from external powers like the West, China, and their multinational corporations continue to plague Africa, including Muslim Africa; 3) that the continued exploitation of resource-rich Africa is reason for governments to use excuses, of which ‘ISIS-Mozambique’ is potentially one of them, to justify intervention and exploitation.
This sad truth remains, predicted in that report published on Cabo Delgado and Total’s project in 2019:
“If the promises by the project are unmet, as has been widely documented in other large-scale investment cases in Mozambique and other African countries, where communities lose their land and livelihood with the expectation of socio-economic proceeds that do not materialise, affected communities in Palma could be worse off than they were before.”
The people of this region—the Mawani people of Cabo Delgado—fought against the Portuguese during the independence struggle (1964-1974). They now have another struggle before them.
- Here’s an example of what the organization Cabo Ligado says about potential relationships between ISIS and the attack: “The footage — both what was released and what was missing — is an important marker of the state of the relationship between IS and the Cabo Delgado insurgency. On one hand, it indicates the continued closeness of the two groups. Insurgents are clearly still working to produce propaganda for IS. Women who had escaped insurgent captivity and were interviewed by the Rural Environment Observatory reported that there were dedicated communications specialists among the insurgents who ‘record everything.’ Their footage rarely reaches the outside world, but one insurgent told a woman that the films are ‘very important, because we can use it later.’ The footage shot before the Palma attack was put to use in the IS claim, and it appears very likely that it was meant to be paired with footage of the attack itself or its aftermath, as has been included in some earlier IS claims of Cabo Delgado attacks.” ↑
- http://www.landgovernance.org/assets/final-edits-20190313-Infobrief.pdf, p.2. ↑
- Ibid., p.5. ↑
- Ibid., p.3. ↑
- Ibid. p.5. ↑