The U.S. program is modest in size and scope: a dozen Army Green Berets are to train Mozambican marines for the next two months. But it signals the entry of the United States military into a counterinsurgency effort that has been aided so far mainly by South African mercenaries, who have faced accusations of human rights abuses.
The war in Mozambique is part of an alarming expansion of insurgencies believed to have ties to the Islamic State group in several parts of Africa. In the past year, militants have captured swaths of territory in the northern province of Cabo Delgado, including a port on the Indian Ocean, and beheaded hundreds of civilians, according to human rights groups.
“I don’t think anyone saw this coming,” Col. Richard Schmidt, the deputy commander of U.S. Special Operations Forces in Africa, said in a telephone interview from Maputo, Mozambique’s capital. “For this to crop up so quickly is concerning.”
Last week the United States formally designated the group, known locally as Al-Sunna wa Jama’a, as a global terrorist entity and imposed sanctions on its leader, named by U.S. officials as Abu Yasir Hassan.
But it is unclear how strong the ties are between the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and this group, as well as some others in Africa.
The insurgency in Mozambique includes some fighters from Tanzania, but most come from the local area, a place of deep poverty and endemic corruption. The main Islamic State publications have not mentioned operations in Mozambique since last fall.
Some experts worry that the U.S. designation of the group as tied to the Islamic State could hamper future efforts to end the insurgency through negotiation.
“There are concerns that this designation could complicate the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Cabo Delgado, and possible dialogue with insurgents there,” said Dino Mahtani, deputy director of the Africa program at the International Crisis Group, who recently visited Mozambique.
Still, the ferocity of the insurgency in Cabo Delgado, the northernmost province of Mozambique, has taken U.S. military officers, diplomats and counterterrorism officials by surprise.
A group that numbered perhaps a couple of dozen fighters in 2017 has grown to as many as 800 fighters, with the ability to carry out strikes in neighbouring Tanzania, where analysts believe the group is tied to smuggling and criminal networks that provide weapons and other equipment.
Mozambican counterinsurgency efforts have been hampered by divisions between the country’s military and its powerful police, so it has turned to private soldiers for help.
In 2019, an estimated 160 contractors from Wagner Group, a Kremlin-linked private military company, flew into Cabo Delgado. But they quickly withdrew after at least seven Wagner personnel were killed by insurgents, U.S. officials say.
Then Mozambique turned to mercenaries from South Africa, specifically the Dyck Advisory Group, which have come equipped with small helicopters armed with side guns.
But Amnesty International recently accused the mercenaries of possible war crimes, including killings of civilians. More broadly, their effectiveness against the insurgents has been limited.
John T. Godfrey, the State Department’s acting coordinator for counterterrorism, told reporters last week the United States was “concerned” by the presence of private contractors who have “not demonstrably helped” to win the battle against the Islamic State.
“It’s frankly a feature of the landscape in Cabo Delgado that complicates rather than helps efforts to address the terror threat there,” Godfrey said.
A senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said the military training program, which will focus on basic soldiering skills, could lead to more ambitious U.S. help for Mozambique’s military including combat casualty care, planning and logistics.
The United States is also looking to step up intelligence assistance for Mozambique, the official said.
Last week, the State Department also imposed sanctions on a reported ISIS arm in Congo and its leader, Seka Musa Baluku. Islamic insurgents affiliated with the Islamic State are also active in Libya, Mali, Niger and other parts of West Africa.
Regional experts, though, say some of those groups may be using the Islamic State name to sow fear and attract funds, while prosecuting conflicts that are essentially local in nature.
“They may be cloaked in the black flag,” said Mahtani, the Crisis Group analyst. “But what is motivating them to kill? It could be global jihad, but it could also be local conflicts and grievances.”