Insurgent attack on Macomia town and surrounding villages
30 May 2020
Early on the morning of 28 May 2020 a group of between 120 – 150 insurgents, equipped with vehicles including the captured YangJin YJ2080C Defender Protected Assault Vehicle – a 4×4 vehicle equipped with a W85 heavy machine gun (12.7 x 108mm) – launched a series of simultaneous attacks on the town of Macomia, capital of Macomia district, and surrounding villages.
Details regarding the attack on Macomia town are as follows:
- A group of between 90 – 120 insurgents conducted the attack on Macomia town.
- They divided into three groups that deployed to different areas of the town whilst at the same time, blocking the three main entrances to the town.
- After a brief but intense exchange of fire with the FADM elements deployed in defense of the town, the military was forced to withdraw.
- The insurgent groups then embarked on a spree of looting and destruction, burning down houses and businesses and raiding the Macomia Health Centre. Government buildings were specifically targeted, with the ISIS Black flag subsequently hoisted in the town center. The insurgents then went to pray at the local mosque, after which they stole / took vehicles in the town and loaded it with goods looted from the shops and medical centre. The spree continued during the day and culminated in the early evening destruction of the EDM power station outside Macomia by the insurgents, whilst withdrawing from the town.
- Note: Macomia town is some 160km north of the town of Pemba and is on the main road (N380) that connects the north and south of Cabo Delgado. It is a large sprawling town and strategically located. Due to the insurgency it became a haven for IDPs that had to flee from the outlaying villages in the district. There is a large Government Security Forces (GSF) presence, both Police and Military.
In response to these attacks the GSF immediately called for reinforcement from the military units deployed at Quissanga, Bililibiza, Nacate, Namaluco and Muaguide. In addition, the helicopter gunships of the Dyck Advisory Group (DAG) Private Military Contractor (PMC) were scrambled from Pemba, whilst additional military elements based in Pemba were also redeployed by vehicle to the area.
A series of firefights ensued between Government ground forces and the insurgents across the area and on arrival of the helicopter gunships in the area, the insurgents changed their attire from military uniforms to civilian clothing, to confuse the helicopter gunship gunners. The effectiveness of the helicopter gunships was hampered by the limited time over target (ToT), as they constantly had to return to Pemba to refuel. The effectiveness of the PMC helicopters was further hampered by problems that were experienced at Pemba Airport regarding payment issues pertaining to the fuel. Since the initial attack on 28 May 2020, the DAG helicopters flew continuous missions over the conflict area in Macomia firing on ad hoc targets.
Most of the residents of Macomia town, on receiving word of the attacks in progress, abandoned their houses and businesses fleeing into the surrounding bush. Note: Several sources in Macomia are reporting bombardment raids conducted by the helicopter gunships. There is currently confusion regarding this issue, as the DAG helicopters are not equipped with standard 32 x 57mm rocket pods, although the Mozambique Airforce Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunship has these pods. Its currently unclear whether this is being used in actions against the insurgents.
According to sources in Macomia, many villagers were killed by the helicopters and that the insurgents simply hid in houses and villages whenever the helicopters were overhead. It was also reported that three insurgents were captured by residents of the Machova and Bangala II village and handed over to the GSF.
Latest indications are that the insurgents are still present in the areas around Macomia (Macomia Sede, Songeia, Machova and Bangala II). Many Macomia residents are still hiding and sleeping in the bushes around Macomia and, since the attack on Thursday, have not had anything to eat. There is palpable tension in the area and great uncertainty amongst the residents whether they must relocate / flee to safer areas or whether there might be a possibility of returning to their houses.
The humanitarian situation in the Macomia town area is dire, especially as Macomia was, generally, regarded as a relatively safe area, mainly by virtue of its size and the GSF component deployed there. It was not expected that the insurgents would or could realistically stage an attack against the town. The number of Internally displaced people (IDP’s) in Macomia has, especially since beginning of the year, increased significantly, often having four families living together in one house. People from outlying affected villages are seeking refuge in the relative safety of larger towns such as Macomia, putting a strain on already scarce resources. Most of those displaced by the armed violence are living with local families, who are generously sharing their homes and what resources they have. In addition, the GSF was at a heightened state of alert, as possible actions by the insurgents, to coincide and celebrate the end of Ramadan, have been expected.
The insurgent attack on Macomia followed a relatively quiet period for the GSF. This prompted the Mozambique Minister of Interior, Amade Miquidade, to state during a press conference on 27 May 2020 that the GSF has been successfully retaliating against the armed insurgent group, declaring, ‘…The enemy is on the run, and constantly on the move in search of safe havens, but we are in pursuit, especially in remote areas of the districts of Quissanga and Mocímboa da Praia,…’.
During the days leading up to the end of the Holy month of Ramadan, no attacks were initiated by the insurgents, clearly using the period of relative ‘calm’ to plan and prepare for the major onslaught on Macomia, on 28 May 2020.
Despite the GSF being on a heightened ‘state of alert’ in expectation of possible insurgent actions, the ferocity of the insurgent actions against the GSF deployed in defense of Macomia was unexpected. Video images showing the insurgents in action during the attack on Macomia showed well equipped fighters dressed in uniform, using the APC that was captured from the GSF in Awasse, Mocimboa da Praia District on 12/13 May 2020. [NOTE: Corrected on 2/6/2020 having originally said Awasse is in Quissanga district]
The current insurgent strategy seems to be focused on widening their sphere of influence, in the process spreading the GSF defensive effort over a wide front. Attacks on villages further south in previously unaffected districts can also be expected, forcing the GSF to react. It can be expected that the insurgents will continue attacks on villages further south, as well as to the north, towards MdP and Nangade. The insurgent actions / planning is being directed by a competent and experienced core of leadership that is allowing the insurgents to maintain the initiative and keep the GSF on the backfoot, so they are reactive rather than pro-active.
The GSF ability and capacity, from an operational point of view, is under pressure. There is a shortage of well trained and combat experienced soldiers, while battlefield losses, in terms of soldiers killed and wounded, must also be mounting and of concern. Battle fatigue must also, by now, have a negative impact, especially as most of the GSF units have been in almost constant combat over the last 12-month period. Actionable intelligence is also a major problem, and needs to be addressed urgently, especially as the insurgents are expanding the areas where the population are generally supporting the insurgents’ cause, albeit due to fear, ideology or family ties.
Since the beginning of May 2020, there have been several high intensity battles, ranging from successfully stopping a large insurgent offensive against Metuge in the Pemba district, forcing the insurgents back, the subsequent battle for control over the Quissanga district, including in and around Ibo, and finally, the current offensive in Macomia and surrounding areas. At the same time, DAG PMC only has three Helicopter gunships available, with the GSF using their Mi24 (suspect/questionable serviceability issues) and Mi17 in an offensive role. These air assets are, against the backdrop of the increase in insurgent actions and the large area of operation, limited in their deployment in support of the combat units on the ground. These combat missions must have placed a massive drain on the GSF logistical system, putting it under severe pressure, especially regarding the procurement, funding, delivery, and supply system. At the best of times there were gaps in the supply lines and making sufficient funding available is, and was always, a major challenge. It must also be kept in mind that, since the Peace Agreement (though not signed) with Renamo in 2016, the Mozambique Defense Budget suffered cuts every year, the impact quantifiable only now.
It can, furthermore, be expected that ISCAP should issue an official claim for the insurgent action against Macomia within the next day or two.
To conclude, against the backdrop of the above, it is critical that additional support must be made available to the GSF as a matter of utmost urgency, albeit from SADC, in terms of manpower or equipment, (preferably both), or the emergence of a new or additional PMC. If not, it cannot be foreseen that the GSF, even with the continued support of DAG PMC in the current configuration, be successful in dealing with the insurgent threat.
Johann Smith is a former Senior Officer in the South African Defence Force and served as SA Defence Attaché in Luanda, Angola. He acted in an advising capacity on security issues to several African Heads of State and is currently an independent security analyst on the South African Region, and specifically the security situation in Cabo Delgado Province. He holds a Masters Degree in Security Studies.
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