Video of the military using violent methods divides public opinion and highlights gravity of the attacks in northern Mozambique

Homes destroyed by fire during the attacks. Photo: Borges Nhamire, 2018. Used with permission.

A video being shared on social media (WARNING: graphic imagery) shows men dressed in the uniform of the Armed Defence Forces of Mozambique (FADM) torturing and humiliating a presumed civilian. This incident takes place in the context of the fight against attackers who have been terrorizing the northern Cabo Delgado province since October 2017.

The video shows the men beating a victim apparently for not having given a satisfactory answer when questioned about what he was doing in the vicinity of the military position. One of the uniformed men even suggests that the victim be shot, while another looks for water, possibly for the torture practice known as waterboarding.

The Mozambican newspaper CanalMoz wrote on Facebook that the video was recorded by one of the soldiers during a patrol against the extremist attackers and that this is in fact their modus operandi:

Cidadãos são torturados sem que ninguém lhes defenda, numa cruzada de brutalidade sem paralelo.

Citizens are tortured without anybody defending them, in a campaign of unparalleled brutality

Scenes like these are repeated daily, according to Omardine Omar, a journalist with Carta de Moçambique, who has criticized the kidnapping of traders in the areas hit by attacks, allegedly because they are thought to be supplying the attackers.

In late 2018, Human Rights Watch reported arbitrary arrests, ill-treatment and summary executions of dozens of individuals suspected of belonging to armed groups.

Online reactions have varied, with one side condemning the military’s aggressive methods, while another backs it, arguing that the attackers have also been barbaric and have been been responsible for the deaths of more than 200 people, the majority them civilians, as well as burned homes, ambushed vehicles, and looted public and private property.

Recently, the Mozambican president, Filipe Nyusi, called the attacks acts of terrorism and promised the military would continue the combat on the ground and would not rest until peace is restored.

Meanwhile, in their messaging the Mozambican Minister of National Defence, Atanásio Ntumuke, and the police have been conveying the impression that the situation is under control. This, though, is contradicted by local reports. Journalists trying to cover the conflict are being intimidated and arrested by government forces, as reported by Human Rights Watch.

In a letter written in the context of Pope Francis’ visit to Mozambique, the Bishop of Cabo Delgado Diocese, Dom Luiz Fernando Lisboa, questioned the effectiveness of the government's policies in combatting the terrorist group, as well as the reasons for the secrecy around the subject:

A imprensa fala do encontro de autoridades com jornalistas, como um encontro de intimidação e ameaça. Fala-se de agentes que estão infiltrados entre a população para não deixar passar nenhuma informação. O que pretendem as autoridades civis e militares, criando este clima de secretismo e silêncio? Qual é o segredo que não querem revelar nem que seja revelado? Porque não se deixam ajudar nas investigações por jornalistas corajosos, sérios e responsáveis?

The press speaks of the interaction of authorities with journalists as an interaction of intimidation and threats. There is talk of agents infiltrating the population in order to prevent information from passing through. What do the civil and military authorities intend by creating this climate of secrecy and silence? What is the secret they do not want to reveal, or to be revealed? Why don’t they let themselves be aided in their investigations by courageous, serious and responsible journalists?

Authorities struggle to determine possible ties to religious extremism

As part of their efforts to combat the attacks, government forces have arrested various national and foreign citizens suspected of belonging to the extremist group. The Cabo Delgado Provincial Court sentenced 37 people in April and 23 more in June. Now, 26 accused are facing trial pending the conclusion of the public prosecution's investigation of three more cases.

The charges laid describe the crimes as being motivated by the group’s aim of destabilization and preventing people from availing themselves of the national education and health services. The public prosecutor's accusation as cited in the Jornal Savannah newspaper, says that the attackers intended to create an independent state, politically aligned with radical Islamism, which would annex districts of the province’s northern region and southern parts of Tanzania.

Meanwhile, Mozambique’s Muslim community is distancing itself from the attacks claiming the label of Islam. President Nyusi described the attackers are men who afraid to show their faces, and who are trying, through their messaging, to confuse public opinion so as to pass themselves off as defenders of Islam.

Cabo Delgado province borders Tanzania and shares the same local language — Swahili. In an attack on the night of 26 June, at least 11 people died, two Mozambicans and nine Tanzanians. The situation prompted the two countries’ security forces to agree to conduct joint operations in the border area to deal with the attacks.

An interactive map tracking ISIS activities marked the extreme north of Mozambique as another point of conflict after the jihadist organization claimed responsibility for at least two attacks.

However, the alleged presence of ISIS in Mozambique has been questioned. The consultancy Risk Advisory, which follows the group's attacks, considered the claim on the first attack to be “misleading”, as their presence in the country is not proven. The Mozambican police also denied the claim’s veracity.

In the second case, the security specialist of Zitamar News, Samuel Ratner, noted a discrepancy between the reported attack and the claim made by ISIS.

Gas exploitation projects under threat

Cabo Delgado province is rich in timber forests, graphiterubies and gold. Attacks have taken place near one of the world‘s largest natural gas reserves, located in the deep waters of the Rovuma basin, which straddles the northern border of Mozambique with Tanzania.

Several large oil companies, notably the Italian ENI and Anadarko and ExxonMobil from the US, are preparing to extract natural gas, which is predicted to spark sharp economic growth.

Mozambique’s National Petroleum Institute admits it is concerned about the violence, saying that the situation should be controlled “as soon as possible” to facilitate the projects’ development. Meanwhile, media have revealed that the multinationals have hired security companies with reconnaissance, information gathering, and combat capabilities in order to protect their business interests.

It is not clear whether this was done in partnership with the Mozambican government, but President Nyusi has confirmed the use of “extraordinary measures” by multinationals to deal with the attacks.

During his recent visit to Mozambique, the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres assured the government of the UN Counter-Terrorism Unit's availability to help the country combat the armed groups.

In mid-July this year, security ministers of the member states of the Southern African Development Community, including Mozambique, approved its policy and action plan to combat terrorism:

The meeting deliberated on the alarming threats posed by terrorism and transnational cross border crime, and approved the SADC Regional Counter Terrorism Strategy and its Action Plan, and Member States were urged to implement the Terrorism Strategy and Plan, and to continue devising preventive interventions against, radicalisation, terrorism and transnational organised crime.

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