"External actors” are exacerbating the Islamist insurgency in gas-rich Cabo Delgado, Mozambique but it is too early for Washington to intervene militarily, according to Dagvin Anderson, who heads the US Special Operations Command Africa (Soca).

The Major-General spoke just before Islamic State claimed it attacked two army bases in Mocimboa da Praia town, killing and wounding 50 soldiers, with Mozambique’s defence and security forces saying they killed 12 Islamist terrorists in operations in Quissanga district.

IS 'having an influence'

In a digital briefing held by the US Department of State, Anderson, speaking from Soca’s headquarters in Germany on 4 August, said there are local grievances in Cabo Delgado being leveraged by Islamic State.

“We believe Islamic State is engaged and they are having influence. We don’t know to what extent, so we are assessing that and working with our embassy and the government of Mozambique to look at what we can do to further assess and understand how that threat’s developing and what that means to the region.”

Explaining what lies behind Soca’s belief that Islamic State is influencing events in Cabo Delgado, Anderson described how the insurgents’ capabilities have developed over the last 12 to 18 months, how they have become more aggressive and how they use techniques and procedures that “are associated with Islamic State”.

Outside actors are influencers

“We’ve also seen (the insurgents say) they’re affiliated with Islamic State (and) have seen media releases and media engagements that have been very well produced (with) the fingerprints and hallmarks of Islamic State," he said.

Anderson, who is Soca's Commander, said outside actors in northern Mozambique are influencing the insurgency, making it “more virulent and more dangerous” by providing training, education and resources.

What once were local grievances that could perhaps have been handled by the regional authorities have now transformed into a situation which has to be addressed by multiple nations.

“Mozambique needs to take the lead on this but... countries in the region will need to engage — Tanzania, Malawi and others will need to help because terrorists will cross borders, they will engage, they will seek safe havens and refuges where they can continue to disrupt the region,” said Anderson.

Aid and assistance crucial

He also pointed out that “this is not solely a military engagement; this is also law enforcement, it’s economic development and these are areas where the US government has been engaged in and has provided support to Mozambique.".

Expanding on this issue, Anderson said: “If we don’t provide that aid and assistance and the international community doesn’t come together to help provide a way forward …violent extremists will seek to exploit (the situation) and turn the populace away from the government and provide an alternative narrative."

Governments must give opportunities and economic development for Cabo Delgado’s population and “then, if required, the military can come in and assist,” he said.

In particular, Anderson stressed it is important to provide opportunities to restive youths in areas such as Cabo Delgado.

“Youth brings energy; that energy needs to be harnessed. You need to give them education and opportunity. That’s a whole-of-government solution and that’s an international solution.”

'We will keep away from military option - for now'

Anderson said providing military assistance would mean “things have gotten very bad” and should be considered as a "last resort".

“We like to keep away from the military (option) as much as possible because there are multiple other means to engage with violent extremism to eliminate those underlying conditions.”

In this context, he was critical of foreign mercenary groups such as Russia’s Wagner and the South Africa-based Dyck Advisory Group getting involved in Cabo Delgado.

“I am very concerned about private military contractors (PMCs) that do this (because) how do you work with the human rights component and the law of armed conflict, and who is providing the supervision and oversight of them?”

“I don’t believe what we’ve seen with the Wagner Group has been responsible at all (because) Russia is directly engaged with them.”

Anderson sees mercenary forces “as being very corrosive (and) detrimental to what should be a common international threat”.

He highlighted how the type of military equipment being deployed by the Russian company in Libya, for example, strongly suggests that calling Wagner a PMC “is a bit of a stretch because they’re bringing in weapons systems that... private companies just don’t have access to... those are state-provided weapons systems”.

'Opaque' security groups

“So, when you see something like that, that raises concern of what is your true purpose. Are you trying to provide stability or are you trying to fuel a greater fight?”

It is hard to get answers to these questions, said Anderson, because many of these PMCs, including Dyck, “are very opaque... it’s hard to understand who exactly they are, what they are doing and what their motives are... so that’s concerning”.

“I understand why countries are turning to where they can to get assistance (but) I think they need to be very careful as they invite these actors to come in, about what baggage they bring and what corrosive effects may be brought in with them.”