Malawi and Zimbabwe’s Improbable Interventions Against Islamic State in Mozambique
Amid Islamic State (IS) fighters’ continued insurgency in northern Mozambique, which has extended into southern Tanzania since October, questions remain about who will support the country in impeding the insurgency (Terrorism Monitor, December 3). The major Western powers, including the United States and France, are busy elsewhere in Africa, while Russia’s employment of the Wagner Group in Mozambique was short-lived due to bureaucratic delays and the mercenaries’ insufficient knowledge of the local terrain and “bush warfare” techniques (The Moscow Times, November 19, 2019). China may also have interests in Mozambique, but its strategic culture in Africa does not involve counter-terrorism interventions. Moreover, with Ethiopia recently experiencing civil war in Tigray, global geopolitical attention is presently not focused on Mozambique.
For the foreseeable future, Mozambique, therefore, will likely be forced to go it alone against IS fighters, who, along with the group’s fighters in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), are called Islamic State in Central Africa Province (ISCAP). Rumors circulated in early November, however, that Malawi might send soldiers to support Mozambique. According to the local Nyasa Times, for example, Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera promised at a Southern African Development Community (SADC) meeting in Botswana that the Malawi Defense Forces (MDF) would be dispatched to Mozambique by December 15 (Nyasa Times, December 3).
Four days later, however, Malawi’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called that report “fabricated” while acknowledging that the SADC meeting focused on “peace and security affairs” in DRC and Mozambique (Twitter/MalawiGovt, December 7). SADC, whose membership includes 16 southern African countries and is based in Gaborone, Botswana, had been diplomatically involved in DRC earlier in 2020 (sadc.int, July 27; southerntimesafrica.com, December 7). However, SADC was not focused on the areas near Beni where ISCAP operates and instead dealt with a Zambia-DRC border dispute (southerntimesafrica.com, August 7). In sum, there are no imminent signs Malawi or SADC more broadly will take a more assertive approach towards ISCAP in either DRC or Mozambique at the moment.
In contrast to Malawi, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa stated in November that, “Zimbabwe is ready to assist in any way we can” in Mozambique (chronicle.co.zw, November 11). On the strategic level, Mnangagwa noted Mozambique was Zimbabwe’s outlet to the sea because the country is landlocked. Given SADC’s inaction on Mozambique, Mnangagwa also stated Mozambique was approaching countries like the United States and France for support. At the same time, Mnangagwa reportedly sought for the United States to end sanctions against Zimbabwe in exchange for assistance in combating ISCAP in Mozambique (business.co.za, November 11). Zimbabwe’s Defence Ministry further asserted on December 15, after a day-long SADC meeting in Maputo to discuss the conflict, that Zimbabwe would contribute troops to a “subregional response against Islamist insurgency” once SADC leaders sanctioned such an intervention (The East African, December 1). However, it remains unclear if or when that deployment will ever occur.
Until U.S. Ambassador-at-Large Nathan Sales stated on December 8 that the United States “wants to be Mozambique’s security partner of choice in strengthening its capacity to counter terrorist activity,” there were few indications that the country would become involved (translations.state.gov, December 8). However, with President Trump’s reported order to move all U.S. troops out of Somalia and into other countries in the region, such as Kenya, the United States might become better situated to deal with threats on the southern part of the Swahili coast, including Mozambique (stripes.com, December 4). Either way, Mozambique seems unable to combat ISCAP on its own, while any broader subregional or international intervention could even become a recruitment generator for ISCAP and lead to it carrying out external attacks. A clear or ideal solution is not present, but at least diplomacy to address the conflict is gaining momentum.
Islamic State Beheadings Revive Jihadism in Poso, Indonesia
Jihadism had found inroads into Indonesia before 9/11. It began with Indonesians’ immersion in the 1980s Afghan jihad, localized Muslim-Christian tensions on the island of Sulawesi in the late 1990s, and short-term instability caused by the government’s shift from authoritarianism to democracy from 1999 to 2002. Although the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiya’s major attacks occurred in Bali in 2002 and 2005 and in Jakarta multiple times throughout the 2000s, one of the main areas where Afghan jihadist veterans imported al-Qaeda’s ideology was Poso (liputan6.com, December 17, 2001). Poso is the largest town in the Central Sulawesi province and was the site of the beheadings of three young female Christian students in 2005 by a cell led by militants who had trained with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines. They considered the beheadings an “act of charity” before Ramadan (The Australian, November 9, 2006).
Poso later became the base of Mujahidin Indonesia Timor (MIT), which was led by the singularly named Santoso, who trained under Jemaah Islamiya founder Abubakr Baasyir and eventually pledged loyalty to Islamic State (IS) “Caliph” Abubakar al-Baghdadi in 2015 (Terrorism Monitor, May 30, 2013; Jakarta Post, December 1, 2015). However, Santoso was killed in 2016 and his following became weakened in Poso in the ensuing years (Jakarta Post, July 19, 2016). It was not until the beheading of one Christian and throat-slitting of three other Christians on November 27 near Poso that the specter of jihadism again became front and center in Sulawesi (smh.com.au, November 30). Prior to this incident, Indonesia’s counter-terrorism unit, Densus 88, had succeeded in breaking up jihadist cells throughout the country, including arresting Upik Lawanga, who had operated in the Philippines and masterminded the bombing of the JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta in 2009 (Antara news, May 13; Militant Leadership Monitor, September 29, 2011).
The four Christian victims on November 27 belonged to the Salvation Army and were a husband and wife and their daughter and son-in-law. IS claimed the beheadings on November 30 and noted that they were revenge for the Muslim-Christian clashes in Poso in 2000. Police have yet to catch the suspects (smh.com.au, November 29). However, IS’ recalling of the jihadist violence in Poso from two decades ago and the attack’s occurrence near Poso indicates the suspects are likely among the one dozen or so remnants of Santoso’s fighters in Sulawesi. The attack does not necessarily indicate the expansion of jihadism in Poso or the reviving of Santoso’s network, but does indicate that those remnants still retain a line of communication to IS, which explains the IS claim. Moreover, the attack claim as well as mention of the attack in IS’ al-Naba newsletter indicates IS still desires to convey its presence in Indonesia. If Densus 88 continues its momentum, however, it can be expected that Densus 88 will track down the attackers and any repeat beheadings or similar incidents will be unlikely to recur near Poso.