The increasing use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Cabo Delgado highlights the growing threat that the method of attack has to change the conflict dynamics in the ongoing insurgency. While rare, half of the recorded IED attacks since 2020, which utilize “homemade” bombs and/or destructive devices to destroy or incapacitate security personnel and their assets, have been reported in the last seven months, with two incidents in March 2023.

IED attacks in Mozambique

In an edition of Islamic State’s online Al Naba magazine published on Saturday 18 March, the terrorist organization welcomed the use of IEDs in Cabo Delgado, lauding the method of insurgency as “a remarkable field development in the quality of attacks [in Mozambique]. The magazine was referring to the 09 March detonation of an IED under an armoured personnel carrier (APC) operated by the Botswana Defence Force, which took place along a dirt road in between Namacule and Mandava villages, Muidumbe district. The Islamic State (IS) later claimed the IED wounded two soldiers and damaged the vehicle, whereas a security source disputed the information and indicated there were no reported injuries or significant damage to the vehicle but noted that the IED was more sophisticated in its usual construction than usual. On 24 March, a second APC operated by Botswanan forces ran over an IED near Mandava, injuring two soldiers, but the vehicle was able to return to its base. 

Historical use of this weapon in conflict zones

The insurgents’ use of IEDs in Mozambique is not new, albeit an uncommon method of attack by militants in Cabo Delgado compared to Islamic State (IS) affiliates in East and Central Africa, notably the DRC. Insurgent usage of IEDs in Mozambique has been largely rudimentary in the past, often relying on impact rather than a remote system to trigger detonation. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) indicates that the first recorded incident of the deployment of IEDs in Mozambique was in September 2021, when an armoured Rwandan patrol column detonated a device on a dirt road between Mbau and Indegue, Mocimboa de Praia district. With this said sources conflict as to whether the device was an IED or an anti-vehicle mine stolen from Mozambican forces. ACLED recorded a further five incidents between May 2022 and April 2023, with none causing casualties to allied forces. It is understood that other IEDs have been detected and disarmed, perhaps reflecting the insurgency’s limited experience in both making and using the devices. Elements of the Rwandan Defence Forces have also received counter-IED training from the US military as recently as 2019. 

Nonetheless, the most recent report on IS and al-Qaeda by the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team of the United Nations (UN), published in January 2023, noted that the insurgents’ emerging IED capability is important as it illustrates levels of external support in ways not seen with small arms, which are largely obtained during ambushes on military positions and outposts. Indeed, in the second half of 2022, ACLED data indicates 19 incidents in which insurgents clashed with security forces and seized weapons and/or ammunition, which include small arms, machine guns, mortars shells and rock-propelled grenades. 

The Monitoring Team suggests that IED development suggests an active regional network, possibly reliant on technical support from East African IS networks in northern Somalia and the DRC, noting that the introduction of IEDs in Cabo Delgado in 2021 coincided with their increased use by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), the core affiliate of the IS Central Africa Province in the DRC. Indeed, ACLED data shows two such incidents attributed to ADF in 2020, compared to 12 in 2021 – a staggering increase of 600%. 

Security sources also highlight the substantial threat of insurgents in Mozambique forging closer ties with Al-Shabaab factions in northern Puntland and acquiring the technical skills to build more sophisticated, remotely detonated roadside bombs. According to the 2023 Global Terrorism Index, almost 63% of terrorism deaths attributed to Al-Shabaab in 2022 were the result of IED attacks, demonstrating the group’s high capabilities in constructing and utilizing the devices, which take many forms, ranging from small pipe bombs to sophisticated devices attached to vehicles, personnel or concealed on roadsides and other packages. 

Map of IED attacks across Eastern Africa conflict zones between 2020 and 2023. For an interactive version click here.
Source ACLED
Graph of IED attacks across Eastern Africa conflict zones between 2020 and 2023. Source ACLED

Risk outlook

If insurgents grow their supply and expertise in bombmaking, their capacity to threaten allied forces will be greatly expanded, particularly as insurgents have already shown tendencies to launch hit-and-run ambushed ambushes on military columns on the N380, N381, R762 and R763 roads. Moreover, the underdeveloped road infrastructure in Cabo Delgado favours IED usage. The N380 and R762 roads, which connect the southern district of Ancuabe to the strategic LNG district of Palma approx. 343km northwards, are the only paved roads which connect these regions. However, due to the security situation in Cabo Delgado, large sections of the road are poorly maintained, with potholes and shoulders offering opportunities to conceal IEDs. Indeed, in May 2022, allied forces reportedly engaged a group of insurgents attempting to plant an IED on the N380 between Macomia district headquarters and Awasse, a main commercial route. The same stretch of road was closed in February due to flooding and the widening of existing potholes because of heavy rainfall. Accordingly, damage caused to roadways in Cabo Delgado by the rainy season will offer further windows of opportunity to conceal IEDs. 

In conclusion, the risk of IED proliferation and increasing usage by insurgents in Cabo Delgado is substantial. In an asymmetrical conflict, the impact of IEDs could have a substantial psychological effect on the allied forces, as the devices act as a force multiplier due to their element of surprise and ability to cause grievous injury or death. Commenting on the use of IEDs in Mozambique in 2021, retired South African Defence Force Colonel PC Manser noted that the “psychological impact of an IED on soldiers who have to do the fighting on the ground is enormous” and that increased use of the devices will require an armoured vehicle in the lead of patrol columns at all times.

Al Naba’s recent praise of IED usage as a “remarkable field development” illustrates that the method of insurgency remains in its infancy, despite being sporadically used in the last three years. While IED attacks have yet to become a preferred method of attack in Mozambique, the uptick in incidents in the last seven months indicates that insurgents may be increasing their IED capabilities, heightening the threat to allied forces and the security of foreign investment in Cabo Delgado in the short to medium term. Moreover, the effectiveness in other insurgencies in central and eastern Africa demonstrates the significant threat that the devices can have to security forces, heightening the necessity of creating strategies to counter cross-border terrorist networks and knowledge-sharing. 

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