On March 24, Ansar al-Sunna, a militant group linked to the Islamic State, launched a bloody attack on the coastal town of Palma, in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, leaving at least 61 dead and scores more unaccounted for. The assault, which lasted more than a week and took place near a major liquefied natural gas plant under construction by the French energy giant Total, made global headlines and shined a spotlight on a fast-growing insurgency.
Though the group has since been pushed out of Palma by Mozambican security forces, the attack highlights the danger should the insurgents expand their ability to conduct amphibious operations. In a similar raid last year, al-Sunna managed to briefly capture the key seaport of Mocimboa da Praia in a coordinated attack from land and sea. Mocimboa da Praia lies along the Mozambique Channel, the stretch of water between Mozambique and Madagascar through which 30 percent of the world’s tanker traffic passes each year.
Both attacks were well-planned for maximum impact. In the Palma attack, for instance, militants deliberately waited until Total brought its foreign staff back after a two-month hiatus in operations over security concerns. Ongoing al-Sunna operations indicate that the militants are growing more capable and sophisticated. In addition, Mozambican security forces arrested 12 Iraqi nationals last November on suspicion of aiding the insurgents, suggesting they could be receiving transnational support and guidance.
Given its increased capabilities and proximity to nearby maritime trade routes, the insurgency now poses a serious maritime security threat. In fact, all the right elements appear to be in place for the Mozambique Channel to follow the Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Guinea in becoming the next hotspot for piracy. There is no shortage of potential targets, as over 5,000 tankers and more than half of the total trade in goods for the 16 member states of the Southern African Development Community transit the channel every year.
There are three major categories of sea piracy: armed robbery, cargo theft and kidnap for ransom. The first is already occurring in the Mozambique Channel, and the militants are proving they possess the coordination to conduct the other two.
Armed robbery at sea, in which the intention is to steal valuables from the ship’s safe as well as shipboard IT equipment and/or personal items belonging to the crew, is traditionally the most common form of piracy. It is opportunistic and violent, and occurs where vessels are approaching, drifting or anchoring off ports. Four instances of such armed robbery were reported in the waters off northern Mozambique last year, although it is not known whether the al-Sunna insurgents were responsible for them.
Should the insurgency continue to spread transnationally, the most likely direction will be out to sea, where millions of dollars in potential ransom and extortion fees await.
Political and economic instability onshore often leads armed groups to conduct ever more sophisticated maritime attacks. It does not take long for organized militant groups to recognize that cargo theft and kidnap for ransom are far more lucrative forms of piracy than armed robbery. These attacks involve hijacking the vessel, whether to offload its cargo for resale or to hold the crew hostage, usually onshore at a secret location, while a ransom payment is negotiated. Though countries like the U.S. and U.K. do not negotiate with hostage-takers, others, such as Germany, Switzerland and Japan, have been known to. Depending upon the nationality of the hostages, ransom payments can run into the millions and have been used by insurgency movements as a funding strategy in the past.
It is not yet certain that al-Sunna will turn to piracy and, if they do, whether they will opt for stealing cargo or taking hostages for ransom. At present, judging from their on-land attacks, it seems they are intent on killing at will, with over 2,600 deaths from the insurgency in the past four years. And similar to the Islamic State, from whom al-Sunna takes inspiration, the group is developing a reputation for beheading and maiming members of the Mozambican security forces and civilians alike, reportedly even children as young as 11.
Onshore attacks by groups like al-Sunna are often driven by commercial interests. Islamist militants in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Somalia have been known to seek control of local hydrocarbon resources to fund their operations. Northern Mozambique has some of the world’s largest natural gas reserves, with planned investments of some $50 billion to extract an estimated 100 trillion cubic feet of gas, including Total’s offshore exploration projects in the area and its construction of the $20 billion gas liquefaction plant, which it has now suspended indefinitely. Even without controlling the supply itself, though, the ransom value of cargo shipped from the region and the large number of foreign contractors involved present a valuable source of potential income to the militants.
Though the channel is not subject to an international policing mechanism by foreign navies, its strategic importance makes it more likely that the situation can be mitigated should it deteriorate further. The channel’s legal status as an international waterway, rather than one state’s exclusive territorial waters, ensures that foreign private or state security forces will have more scope to operate in the region than in the Gulf of Guinea, for instance, where Nigeria prevents access to foreign naval vessels or the use of foreign security guards by privately owned vessels.
The nature of the threat—a militant Islamist insurgency—provides an additional incentive for external powers to become involved. Portugal is lobbying the European Union to launch a coordinated response as part of its rotating EU presidency, with Defense Minister Joao Gomes Cravinho calling the fight against al-Sunna an extension of the battle against Islamist terrorism taking place in Somalia. Both France and South Africa have already announced additional naval patrols of the channel.
Combined, these factors make it more likely that a maritime security situation similar to what has emerged in the Gulf of Guinea can be avoided. Yet this is by no means assured. The Mozambican government continues to see the insurgency as a national issue rather than a regional or international one. It has reacted to the deteriorating security situation haltingly, even initially denying the existence of the insurgency. Only after al-Sunna threatened to overwhelm northern Mozambique did the government call for external military assistance. This initially meant Russian and then South African private security contractors. In late March, U.S. special operations forces deployed to train local security forces, several years after the launch of the insurgency and when the insurgents’ numbers are thought to have swollen into the thousands.
For now, efforts to beat back al-Sunna with military force have remained unsuccessful and foreign assistance appears uncoordinated. Although the insurgency remains mainly a Mozambican national security concern, the violence has already spilled over into bordering regions of Tanzania. Should it continue to spread transnationally, the most likely direction will be out to sea, where millions of dollars in potential ransom and extortion fees await.