The Weaponry of IS Central Africa (Pt 1): Insurgents in Mozambique
The presence of the Islamic state in Mozambique is something that is widely discussed and almost as widely denied until recently.
However at this stage, following the devastating onslaught of ISIS "Central Africa Province" on multiple towns including that of Mocímboa da Praia in August 2020 and Palma most recently in March 2021, even more eyes are on the current situation, especially given the recent United States designation of "ISIS-DRC" and "ISIS-Mozambique" and their leaders, even though the insurgency in Cabo Delgado has been developing for years. (IS determine for media/organisational purposes that their affiliates in both DRC and Mozambique are part of a single entity; although actual links are much less clear.)
The group pledged allegiance to ISIS Central in roughly the 2018-19 period, originating as a radical faction in the local Salafist movement with networks in Northern Mozambique, Tanzania and further afield. Known locally as al-Shabaab or Ansar al-Sunna Wa Jamma (ASWJ), the group is a rural insurgency based on the barely paved rural northern province of Cabo Delgado, with presence in other areas, such as the province of Niassa, where roving groups of fighters have been pushed into by SADC (Southern African Development Community) and Rwandan forces, who have intervened in the conflict since July 2021. These forces have retaken key urban locales such as Mocímboa da Praia, Awasse, and areas crucial for the operation of the local Total Gas facilities.
IS CA have shown improving tactical ability and surprising acumen for timing, resource management, and media management. This includes a long stretch from October 2020 until March 2021 in which no local or international media was released, but as the group continued to grow in strength despite measures taken against it by both the military and DAG (Dyck Advisory Group) helicopters/mercenaries. It is likely that IS CA have benefited from IS Central guidance, moving from simple machete attacks to much more complex operations, such as the successful capture of Mocímboa da Praia in August 2020.
The insurgents have shown their strategic ability by being able to marshal key assets in a way superior to those of the Mozambique security forces and private military contractors in order to focus on weak points, bottlenecks and to cut off supplies to areas they wish to target. This has enabled them to control large stretches of territory with Government advances usually being temporary and limited. There is no indication the group would be able to stand up to a sustained Western military offensive and as expected, the group has been unable to withstand a focused military offensive by the SAMIM (Standby Force Mission in Mozambique) force & Rwandan troops, and have instead retreated into the bush and over the Northern Border into Tanzania, where the group has had a presence for a long while, and where some fighters originate from. However, it retains a capability for deadly attacks, with a surge of activity in November 2021 and a deady ambush against South African Special Forces just two days ago; clearly organisational and tactical skills remain. The recent successes and failures of the group demonstrade a flexible organisation.
This piece aims to provide identification and analysis of military arms and equipment held by ISCA in Mozambique to determine the extent of military force that the group can bring to bear.
The Insurgency, like most, is broadly sustained by battlefield capture, specifically capture from local army outposts, barracks, police stations, and other locations where material is stored. It can be seen in the little media released from Mozambique that IS CA forces have had no issue in capturing hundred of small arms and thousands of rounds of ammunition, as well as heavier weapons such as mortars, Automatic Grenade Launchers, RPGs and so on.
Below is a broad summary of weapon types used & captured by IS forces in Mozambique since the first official mention of the Islamic State province in 2019, since which it has steadily expanded in complexity and size of attacks.
The insurgency is well equipped with captured weapons. Primarily, these are the composed of large quantities of AK variants; mostly Chinese Type 56, Type 56-1 and Type 56-2 rifles (Fixed, under folding and side folding stock variants respectively). These are cheap, common and used by local army units and police forces in both Mozambique and Tanzania. Available imagery shows that there are hundreds of these rifles captured, alongside Russian or Polish AKM(S), Bulgarian or Russian Type 3 AKs and East German MPi-KMS-72. The Type 81 rifle is also used locally and has been seen in by insurgents.
Also notable is the Chinese Type 80 machine gun that is regularly captured. This is a derivative of the Russian PK design with some features that are closer to the newer PKM. It has been exported almost as widely as the Type 56, and as the FADM (Mozambique Armed Defense Forces) are an enthusiastic user of Chinese small arms they use this platform in great quantities. Other PK variants, such as the original or the PKM, are also seen.
The first capture claimed by IS CA via official ISIS channels came on June 5th, 2019, after an attack against an army post. During that attack, multiple Type 63 60mm mortar bombs, a PK-pattern machine gun (Most likely a Chinese Type 80), 2x DZP1C-40 HEAT RPG projectiles, 2x 40-HEI (HEI-AP bounding) projectiles, an RPG-7 launcher, an AKMS rifle, and an MPi-KMS-72 rifle were captured, along with much kit, magazines, etc. However, the scale of IS attacks were to grow and this was the beginning of a period during which claims from Mozambique sporadically appeared.
Another capture by the insurgents in early December 2019 was much more significant: 13x Type 56-1/2 rifles, an Chinese (Also named Type 56) RPD MG, 3x T80/PK MG, ~50 AK Mags, hundreds of rounds of ammo, 2x Type 69 RPG, 2x 40-HEI projectiles, around 15 grenades (Chinese Type 86 and Type 82-2), and a P226/NP22 handgun.
Throughout 2020 IS published media from two of their takeovers of the key town of Mocímboa da Praia, each time capturing hundreds of AK type rifles, and likely very large quantities of other materiel.
However, in particular since foreign intervention reversed the territorial fortunes of the insurgents, much materiel was recaptured, although the quantities seen (at least in open sources, such as press statements) aren't close to those verified to have been captured. The recapture composed of large quantities of Chinese & Eastern bloc materiel, precisely as the insurgents had captured from the FADM and Police.
As can be seen, the commonality between FADM equipment and ISCA equipment is outstanding. It is also possible that the group (particularly in the early stages of armed conflict) procured weapons from the local black market, but it appears that since the armed conflict started most dramatically in October 2017, ghanimah (Battlefield capture) has been sufficient to equip IS CA formations.
Most of this materiel is distinctly pedestrian. However, a few less common types have appeared also, and in at least one case have apparently been deliberately concealed in images released by IS Central.
One particularly notable example of unusual capture was when an army barracks in the town of Kitaya in Tanzania (Just over the border) was attacked, along with other facilities. During this attack, a Chinese WZ-551 APC was captured. (Later burned, as it would be unusable for the insurgents), Also seen was a common Bulgarian AKK rifle. However, a Galil ACE 21 w/ Night Vision/Thermal optic was also captured; this seems to have been issued to Tanzanian special forces and if captured in usable quantities the capacity for low-light operations by the insurgents would be greatly increased. This doesn't seem to have been the case, with just a single carbine captured.
Images that emerged were strictly unofficially released, and the Islamic State itself never showed off what could conceivably be a major status weapon for a commander in the group.
Another fascinating event with possible important implications for insurgent capabilities was in August 2019, when 2 separate automatic grenade launcher systems (One off camera apart from Tripod mount)- both AGS-17 (30x29mm) and the modern QLZ-87 (35x32mm) from Russia/China respectively were captured. AGL systems are very popular with other insurgent groups; they provide rapid firepower at range in an easily transportable package. For example with the case of ISGS (Now ISWA) in the Sahel, a QLZ-87 was captured and immediately put to use against a transmission center & ammo depot. This 35x32mm launcher was specifically designed to provide lightweight fire support, and can be carried and fired by just one individual in its "light" configuration- it is much lighter than the Russian AGS-17 or American Mk19. The 35x32mm round is comparable to the NATO-standard 40x46mm and hence represents a real step up in mobile firepower for fast-moving militants compared to HMGs. The AGS-17 is also very effective, though much less portable. It is possible that these systems were used during the final takeover of Mocímboa da Praia in June 2020 to overwhelm defenders using indirect fire.
In another attack in May 2020, 2x DZP1C-40 RPG projectiles, 11x AKM/Type 56 (48+ magazines), Chinese T56-pattern RPD with drum mags, and RGD-5 & F-1 pattern grenades were captured. However, most significant by far was the 4x W97 82/1mm mortar bombs and the W87 mortar that were also captured. These extended range mortar bombs are able to be used at ranges of approximately 5.6km, giving the insurgents substantial indirect fire capability if usable quantities were captured. Whilst there has only been one sighting of this system (and ammunition for it) captured in Cabo Delgado, IS media has been remarkably sporadic and it is likely that others were also seized unseen.
More recently, in July 2021, ISCA claimed to repel the FADM on the Mueda-Mocímboa da Praia road, capturing 2 vehicles & 4 rifles. Images of 1 vehicle were posted: a 2014-era as yet unnamed armoured car from Shaanxi Baoji Special Vehicles Company with a W85 HMG. This is reminiscent of the "Tiger" APC captured in May 2020, which can be seen below also.
Unfortunately, images of fighters in the field are uncommon. Those released align precisely with capture from both sides- mostly Chinese Hardware, with a mix of other eastern bloc platforms.
In March 2021, video was released of the IS CA militants preparing for the takeover of Palma. They can be seen to be heavily armed with AKM/Type 56, PK/M/Type 80 MG, and RPG-7/Type 69 laucnhers with PG-7V, PG-7VM & others RPG projectiles. Possible HMG and 60mm mortar are also glimpsed. This is one of the best examples to date of ISCA infantry prior to the successful assault. For a highly mobile force, moving mainly on foot and motorbike due to the local conditions, they are well armed.
Another video was leaked in July 2021. A large insurgent grouping can be seen, heavily armed with PK/Type 80/Zastava M84 machine guns (Again showing that IS media has been very selective in reporting captures; the M84 have never been in ghanimah photosets), rocket-propelled grenade launchers with OG-7V/T69-1/PG-7V pattern projectiles and. W85 HMG. Once again, the insurgents can be seen with red headbands; this is most likely for IFF purposes but can also signify "Special Forces" amongst Jihadist groups.
Despite the scarce media from the region it is possible to determine how the insurgents use the abundant firepower that they have captured over several years of fighting. It seems that the group operates using large quantities of light manpower, with rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns, and assault rifles. This is sufficient in many cases to overwhelm FADM positions, particularly after repeated assaults. This is not as easy with more professional opponents, such as the SAMIM (Standby Force Mission in Mozambique) force & Rwandan troops.
The group is also likely to have access to limited heavier firepower; 60mm and 81/82mm mortars, heavy machine guns (Typically W85, although it's likely that some DShK(M) variants are also used) and automatic grenade launchers can be visually verified; anything larger, such as 107mm rockets, SPG-9 recoilless rifles, or launchers such as the M79 Osa have been alluded to in local reports but not verified or captured. As the Islamic State has chosen to simply not ignore (or actively conceal) many insurgent attackers, it is likely that some of these questions will only be answered when or if a second full-length video release that covers the activity of group arrives. (Note: The former ADF in the DRC is also considered part of the "Province" although the two organisations operate in very different areas and are only vaguely linked. It's very likely that any media released under the branding of "Wilayah Central Africa" will contain footage from both branches.) Indications of likely guidance from Islamic State "Central" (The group's core in Iraq and Syria) are sparce also, and clarity on the TTPs (Tactics, Techniques and Procedures) used by insurgent cells is also lacking.
At this point the argument as to whether the groups respectively previously known as Allied Democratic Forces in the Congo and al-Shabaab (Not to be confused with the Somalian group with the same name) in Mozambique are actually ISIS affiliates is immaterial; the military crisis in Mozambique has become so acute that a military solution has become essential. That said, a military solution is not the only thing that is required. It is imperative that remedial action that is taken includes actions that address not just the military side of the conflict but the stark inequalities and repression experienced by those living in Cabo Delgado, the Northernmost province of Mozambique which has been so badly affected by this rising crisis.
IS CA is at present forced into a defensive position and reportedly has shortages of foodstuffs and other supplies; but the long term fortunes of the group are dependent on whether the Mozambican state is willing or able to resolve the structural issues of inequality that provide manpower to the insurgents.
As ISCA attempts to grapple with multiple threats to its murderous expansion, from regional intervention to food insecurity, it seems that at least at present one area that it certainly doesn't lack in is stocks of weapons.
Stay tuned for Part 2 in this series, where I cover ISCA in the Democratic Republic of the Congo!