South Africa’s Moment to Combat ISIS

Joseph Dana

AFP photo: Jerome Delay

The brazen attack at the heart of Mozambique’s natural gas projects by ISIS-linked militants this month demonstrates the need for regional intervention against terrorism. As southern Africa’s military and economic powerhouse, South Africa perhaps is the only country suited to lead such efforts and negotiate the complicated politics for a regional intervention against the militants. To be sure, economically crippled by the Covid-19 pandemic and facing massive infrastructure challenges of its own, it will not be easy for Pretoria to rise to the occasion. But given the potential cost of ISIS’s resurgence, it does not have much choice.

After five days of heavy fighting, on August 12 ISIS-linked insurgents occupied the port town of Mocimboa da Praia in Mozambique’s northernmost province. The town is a critical link to the country’s growing natural-gas sector, worth roughly $60 billion. It is also considered integral to a $23 billion natural-gas project run by the French energy giant, Total. According reports from the isolated province, insurgents have attacked the city several times since 2017. But this time was different, thanks to the sophisticated weaponry on display, including heavy artillery and drones.

While South Africa has been mostly immune from ISIS attacks, recent events have raised the prospect of trouble from ISIS’s second wave in Africa. In July, Durban police raided a kidnapping ring that led to the arrest of five foreigners linked to an ISIS cell responsible for attacks on South African mosques in 2018.

In the latest ISIS newsletter, the group warned South Africa that Europe and the United States were attempting to persuade the country to start a war, and such a decision would lead to ISIS activating its soldiers against Pretoria. The degree to which ISIS is capable of making good on its threats is unclear. Still, the risk of significant destabilization as a result of the Mocimboa da Praia attack is undeniable. The primary roadblock to intervention is not ISIS’s threats of violence, but rather the regional diplomatic struggles and hurdles.

The first challenge involves politics in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a regional organization focused on economics and security. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has faced increasing domestic and international pressure to use the SADC to pressure Zimbabwe over its human-rights violations. Such pressure would likely dissuade Zimbabwe from joining any regional coalition against ISIS.

Yet, despite its internal problems, Zimbabwe has said it would participate in regional action to stabilize Mozambique. Mozambique’s president, Filipe Nyusi, has repeatedly refused to support regional intervention while also holding back critical intelligence from neighbors and allies. He has even barred journalists from the conflict zone amid widespread reports of human-rights abuses by the military. These actions underscore just how out of its depth Nyusi’s government is in handling the ISIS threat. In a desperate attempt to save face and protect natural-gas agreements with foreign companies, Nyusi is attempting to strike bilateral deals with Zimbabwe to drive a wedge into a unified SADC or African Union intervention.

The situation is, in a word, untenable. Given the sophistication of the latest assault on Mocimboa da Praia, ISIS is not going away. If ISIS is allowed to create a statelet in the area, the effects will be disastrous for Mozambique and the region as a whole. The Mozambique attack comes as ISIS is growing its footprint in West Africa and clashing with governments and security forces across the Sahel. Despite setbacks in the Middle East, the group’s extremist ideology is flourishing in pockets of Africa. While this might seem a world away to the international community, the reality is that this fire could blaze out of control if neglected.

South Africa, with its international clout and current chairmanship of the Africa Union, is one of the last hopes to lead a regional intervention. If Ramaphosa can negotiate the politics of the SADC and lead a viable response, it will be a significant boost for South Africa’s standing in the continent and across the world. Such decisive leadership also will prove valuable in smoothing over his controversial approach to the Covid-19 pandemic and reaffirm the position of the African National Congress as a party that thinks beyond the narrow confines of South Africa’s borders to the greater wellbeing of the continent as a whole.

The ISIS threat in southern Africa is strengthening. Now is the time for Ramaphosa to demonstrate South Africa’s ability to lead the continent.

Joseph Dana, based between South Africa and the Middle East, is editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact.