Mozambique: The Moving Goalposts of the War on Terror
Last week, hundreds of militant members of Al Shabaab, an Islamic group based in northern Mozambique (unrelated to the Somali group of the same name), stormed the city of Palma. This caused 10,000 people to flee the city, stranded hundreds in a hotel, and left dozens dead. According to the United Nations, this attack was a part of the larger conflict in the northern province of Mozambique, which has displaced about 700,000 from the region since fighting began in 2017. The fighting is primarily between Al-Shabaab and the Mozambican ruling party (FRELIMO), but with the recent deployment of the U.S. Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) troops to the country, the conflict is beginning to look like a repetition of the War on Terror in the Middle East. The interests of the United States and its allies’ corporate interests stand on one side, and extremists vie for control on the other.
Palma has been the center of the conflict because of the large amount of foreign money coming into the country to build a $20 billion liquid natural gas (LNG) facility for the French transnational Total near the town. Total began planning this project at the height of natural gas prices as it seemed the world was shifting to the cheaper and cleaner burning natural gas. The attack was done in order to obtain supplies for Al-Shabaab; they did not try to hold the town and left shortly after they robbed three international banks and a World Food Program warehouse, taking 90 tonnes of food. They seized at least 80 civilian vehicles, including two fuel bowsers, and stole army munitions. Efficiently extracting LNG from Mozambique could turn it into one of the top 10 oil producers in the world, which could prove valuable as the West tries to secure natural resources in Africa against a wave of Chinese investment as part of its “Belt and Road” initiative.
To counter being locked out of African resources, the U.S. is stepping up its presence in the country, sending troops to the southern African nation to train and support the Mozambican government. They are there to support government security forces against “the spread of terrorism and violent extremism.” Just days before deploying these troops, the State Department labeled Al-Shabaab, The Youth, as ISIL-Mozambique to justify intervention on behalf of the War on Terror. Most major outlets report that the group is working with ISIS, but there is little evidence that they are still in communication with the Islamic State. Previously, the Mozambican government also relied heavily on a South African-based private military contractor, the Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), which has been condemned by Amnesty International for crimes against humanity including firing on hospitals.
The United States and FRELIMO are pushing this narrative as the multi-billion dollar oil project stands to put significant change into their pocket. Though it is incredibly resource-rich with oil and rubies, Mozambique is one of the poorest regions in Africa, as its citizens do not reap the benefits of these industries. The extreme ideology of Al Shabaab has been a manifestation of the failure of the government and industry to meaningfully improve living conditions in Cabo Delgado. It is also a reaction to the clear divide between the French workers and the Mozambicans. When Al-Shabaab attacked the town, the construction site closed its door with Total employees on the inside and native workers and contractors left on the outside to fend for themselves and hide in the woods.
With Washington increasingly worried about competing with China for strategically important markets and sources of raw materials, even if Total pulls out, the military presence in the country is a sign of things to come. As the SOCAFRICA arm of the Department of Defense and religious extremism in Africa grows stronger, one can only hope the mistakes of Middle East intervention are not repeated.