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ISM licks its wounds after defeat at Mbau

Insurgents may be forced to reassess their strategy after losing more than 50 fighters in a failed attack in May

Mbau in Mocímboa da Praia province. Credit: Google Earth
First published as part of the Cabo Ligado Monthly: May 2024
Cabo Ligado Monthly: May 2024 — Cabo Ligado
May At A Glance Vital Stats ACLED records 31 insurgency-related political violence events in Cabo Delgado and Nampula provinces in May, resulting in at least 55 fatalities Of these events, 30 were incidents involving ISM, almost half of which targeted civilians Vital Trends IS

May was a turbulent month for ISM. After scoring a victory against the Mozambican Defense and Security Forces (FDS) with a surprise raid on Macomia town on 10 May, its fortunes quickly reversed. An attempted assault on Mbau on 29 May ended in disaster, with the RSF routing the insurgent fighters, killing at least a dozen fighters and possibly more than 50. The insurgency’s ranks are likely still quite thin, despite its renewed offensive energy this year, and these are losses that it cannot easily afford. 

ISM clearly had big ambitions for its Mbau attack, judging by the scale of its operation. As many as 150 insurgents may have been involved, according to a Rwandan spokesperson quoted by state broadcaster TVM. At dawn, this force launched simultaneous assaults on Mbau and the nearby village of Limala but ultimately was unable to overpower the RSF presence. By the end of the morning, President Filipe Nyusi had announced to reporters that the attack had been repelled and “dozens” of insurgents were dead.

The exact number of insurgent casualties at Mbau is yet to be firmly established. In the immediate aftermath of the battle, local sources told Cabo Ligado that at least a dozen were confirmed killed. Islamic State (IS) itself admitted via its newspaper Al-Naba that it had lost “about ten of the Mujahideen.’” However, other reports suggest the figure could be much larger. 

TVM reported a Rwandan spokesperson’s claim that Rwandan troops killed at least 70 of the 150 insurgents that attacked around Mbau, where the RSF maintains a significant forward operating base. Local sources have also corroborated this claim, reporting at least 50 insurgents dead.

This would be a catastrophic result for ISM. A report to the UN Security Council in February 2023 estimated that there were just 280 active male fighters in the insurgency, and while this figure may have changed, it is unlikely to be substantially higher. Insurgents have sustained a fairly consistent rate of activity since the start of the year, but in the weeks following the Mbau attack, they have hardly been seen. One exception was a raid on the village of Nacoba in Quissanga district on 11 June, in which insurgents looted a health center, perhaps suggesting they still had casualties that needed treatment.

It’s unclear why ISM would choose to target such a heavily militarized position as Mbau. It’s possible that they have been emboldened by their successes this year, flying the IS flag over two district capitals - Macomia and Quissanga - and striking as far south as Chiúre and even Nampula province. 

This setback may force the insurgents to adopt a less aggressive strategy, but it is far from fatal. They remain entrenched on the coast of Macomia district around Mucojo and in the Catupa forest, which they have held uninterrupted since February. Rwandan reinforcements are arriving to replace outgoing SAMIM forces, but it remains to be seen how proactive they will be beyond their traditional areas of operation in the districts of Palma, Mocímboa da Praia, and Ancuabe. For now, the front is quiet. Both sides may take some time to consider their next moves.