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Mozambique’s Islamist insurgents are on the run. Integrating former rebel fighters could help usher in peace.

Bringing ex-insurgents into a government’s security forces can win over locals and improve intelligence — but only if it is done well.

- August 26, 2021

Islamist insurgents in northern Mozambique are retreating for the first time since 2017. Mozambican security forces have struggled to contain the insurgency since it emerged in Cabo Delgado province; even employing foreign military contractors didn’t help. In March, rebels briefly and destructively captured Palma, a hub for Mozambique’s burgeoning oil and gas industry, sparking security fears around the region.

But last month, 1,000 Rwandan combat troops and police arrived. More forces from the Southern African Development Community, the regional intergovernmental organization, will soon be arriving. On Aug. 8, Rwandan and Mozambican forces captured the key city of Mocimboa da Praia, almost exactly one year after insurgents took control. The insurgents have split into smaller groups while fleeing larger towns and cities, and have proven highly adept at blending into the population. Islamist insurgencies are particularly difficult to defeat, but more insurgents and their supporters soon may fall under the control of government forces.

Rwanda’s military has a history of integrating former insurgents into its forces, a successful tactic in its fight against rebels in the country’s northwest after ending the 1994 genocide. Integrating former rebels has helped security forces around the world improve intelligence capabilities in counterinsurgency and in post-conflict environments. Better intelligence could help the government remain in control in Cabo Delgado, especially when foreign troops leave.

Understanding the Cabo Delgado insurgency

Like with Boko Haram and other African Islamist insurgencies, it has been difficult to untangle the ideology and membership of northern Mozambique’s rebels. Outsiders have called the insurgents many names. Locals now refer to them as al-Shabab — although they have no apparent links to the Somali group — or as the Islamic State. The insurgents pledged allegiance to “Islamic State Central” in Iraq and Syria in 2018, but ISIS has not sent any significant material aid or offered strategic direction. Those fighting in Cabo Delgado include some African foreign fighters and some dedicated Islamist militant locals, who adopted brutal tactics such as beheadings. But most Mozambican fighters are motivated by more local concerns: government neglect and locals’ exclusion from the wealth resulting from oil, gas, and rubies extracted from their own region.

Northern Mozambicans have long perceived Frelimo, Mozambique’s ruling party since independence in 1975, as serving southern ethnic groups. Frelimo’s base was among Tsonga-speaking ethnic groups and mixed-race and more Europeanized or assimilated Mozambicans in the south, excluding central Shona-speaking ethnic groups and northern Makonde and Makua groups. Frelimo therefore struggled for legitimacy in the country’s north and center.

When white-ruled Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa wanted to destabilize Frelimo’s leftist government, they built up a rebel group in central Mozambique, Renamo, which fought from 1976 to 1992. After the war, Renamo became the main political opposition party, but its fighters never fully demobilized or disarmed. In 2012, Renamo began a new low-intensity insurgency, fed up with losing every election and not getting a larger piece of the economic pie.

A peace deal ended Renamo’s uprising, and Frelimo reasserted control in 2019’s contentious and allegedly unfair elections. But with Renamo staying on the sidelines, a new Islamist insurgency quickly overwhelmed Mozambique’s security forces. Government forces were not very effective at fighting in a remote, forested region they did not know well and where they were outsiders. Nor did they have intelligence networks among Cabo Delgado’s population or knowledge of locals’ needs.

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Integrating ex-rebels helps improve government forces’ intelligence

Government security forces integrating former rebel fighters — whether they’ve been captured, deserted or are joining after a peace agreement — can bolster government intelligence capabilities in three key ways. First, insurgencies tend to develop in areas and among communities with limited government presence. Rebels take advantage of this to evade security forces and get aid from civilians, either through persuasion or coercion. In Mozambique’s case, the state had little administrative reach or security presence in Cabo Delgado. The predominantly Christian government also had few ties to Muslims in the region. Mozambique’s Muslim population is concentrated along the northern coast, and their sense of marginalization helped the insurgency take root. If the military can integrate ex-rebels, they may know where their former comrades are hiding. They can also work more sensitively with locals to get information, the key currency in insurgencies.

Integration also brings with it former rebels’ social networks and local informants. Locals are more likely to trust them than outsiders, since they’re ethnic brethren from the region. Ex-rebels can sometimes flip informants who are aiding insurgents. Without knowledge of the area, Mozambique’s government was previously in the dark about insurgent leadership and organization, leaving journalists and academics to pick up the investigative slack. Integrating ex-rebels could deepen Mozambican forces’ sources in Cabo Delgado.

Finally, integration can add ex-rebels’ understanding of insurgent strategies and tactics, and of why government counterinsurgency strategies were failing. Mozambican forces, even with help from foreign security contractors, had been losing ground for the past two years. Figuring out how the insurgency was growing and evolving, and which if any government efforts were effective, can help prevent the government from repeating past failures.

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Making integration work

Military integration doesn’t always improve intelligence or ensure successful peace-building. It requires trust among the government, its commanders and newly integrated former rebels. That comes in part from addressing rebel grievances. Most observers consider the government’s 1990s integration of Renamo forces into the Mozambican military a success — and yet Renamo remobilized in 2012.

Cabo Delgado provided fertile ground for an Islamist insurgency. The government failed for years to listen to the local Muslim population or serve its needs. It developed oil, gas and mining projects whose jobs and profits did not go to impoverished, unemployed locals. One can look west to the Niger Delta’s long-running civil conflicts to see what might happen in Cabo Delgado if the government continues extracting resource wealth without serving local populations: Nigeria’s government cooperated with oil corporations to profit from the Delta’s resources, but locals have not received jobs, benefits or political representation, breeding lasting resentment and rebellion.

Beyond better intelligence to defeat the insurgency, integrated ex-rebels could help the government address grievances and rebuild legitimacy in Cabo Delgado in the long term — provided Mozambique’s leaders are willing to listen.

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Kai M. Thaler (@KaiMThaler) is an assistant professor of global studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara.