Putting the spotlight on issues following from disasters

Mozambique: A Cyclonic Insurgency?

Anthropocene Intel


Destruction caused by Cyclone Idai. (Source: UK Department for International Development)

An analysis of the role which Cyclone Kenneth played in intensifying the Islamist insurgency in northern Mozambique.

By Michael Cruickshank


The East African state of Mozambique has long suffered from political violence, as well as environmental problems. However, in 2019 it suffered a historically unprecedented triple blow.

In March, Category 4 Cyclone Idai slammed into the country’s 4th largest city, Beira, killing hundreds of people, and leaving thousands more missing. The World Food Program subsequently declared the disaster a “level-three emergency” on par with the wars in Yemen, Syria and South Sudan.

Then, just over a month later, Mozambique was hit again. Intense Tropical Cyclone Kenneth, the strongest to make landfall in Mozambique since modern records began, hit the far north of the country, killing fewer people than Idai, but devasting remote areas far from the country’s capital in the south.

The intensity and back-to-back nature of the two cyclones suggests that these disasters should be viewed as so-called ‘climate disasters’ (ie. disasters caused or intensified by anthropogenic climate change).

The third blow came in the form of an increasingly violent Islamist insurgency in the northern Cabo Delgado province. A number of pre-existing groups officially joined the global ‘Islamic State’ franchise, under the Wilayat Wasat Ifriqiya (Central African Province, IS-CAP). These Islamists waged a campaign of escalating violence against military and civilian targets in the region, with the deteriorating situation drawing in Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, who themselves suffered significant casualties. Eventually, in March 2020, IS-CAP captured the strategic port city of Mocímboa da Praia, declaring it the capital of their new ‘province’.

Despite these events happening in secession, and in overlapping geographical areas, little analysis has looked at the impacts which the former had on the latter. A case can be made that the destruction caused by the two cyclones, especially Cyclone Kenneth, caused significant destabilisation in the country and allowed for Islamists to gain the upper hand in the fighting in the northern Cabo Delgado province.

Using data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Database (ACLED) we can visualise the impact that the storms had on Islamist violence in Mozambique.

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Graph showing the frequency of Islamist attacks in Mozambique. The two vertical red lines mark Cyclones Idai and Kenneth. (Data Source: ACLED)

From this data, we can see that the second cyclone, Kenneth, had a much more significant impact on the insurgency than the more-deadly Idai. We can also observe confirmation of media reports that Islamist groups halted their attacks for a short period of time directly after Cyclone Kenneth, before resuming them at a more intense rate. In the years following, the number of attacks continued to increase, representing a larger, more capable group, or conversely a degradation in the level of security provided by government forces.

But could this be a coincidence? Can it really be said that these Islamists took advantage of the damage caused by Cyclone Kenneth to strengthen its position in Cabo Delgado province?

To answer these questions, a more granular analysis of the data needs to be taken into account.

Firstly, we need to examine the track which Cyclone Kenneth took when it came ashore in April 2019, in order to establish which areas were worst-affected.

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Tracks and intensity of Cyclone Idai (lower) and Cyclone Kenneth (top).

Zooming in on the area hit by Kenneth, we can make use of another dataset from the WFP. This dataset shows us locations which have been logged as having ‘access constraints’ in the wake of the cyclone — effectively areas which have been so damaged to make access difficult.

Notable areas with ‘access constraints’ in the wake of Cyclone Kenneth (Data Source: WFP Geospatial Support Unit, Division of Emergencies)

Returning to the ACLED dataset, we can then overlay these areas damaged by the cyclone with the locations of Islamist attacks in Cabo Delgado province in the three months directly after the cyclone.

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Heatmap overlay of Islamist attacks in the three months post-Cyclone Kenneth. (Data Source: ACLED)

Looking at this visualisation it can be seen that, immediately following the cyclone, Islamist groups directed a number of attacks against areas devastated by the cyclone, particularly around the town of Mucojo. This area was noted in the WFP data as having “nothing left on the ground” with some villages “completely destroyed”.

Moreover, in their first week of operations after Kenneth, these Islamists conducted five attacks in the administrative regions of Meluco and Macomia. These areas were also reported to have suffered “major infrastructure damage”, with road access difficult and a loss of electric power. Given this information, we can see evidence that these groups did indeed take advantage of the destruction caused by Cyclone Kenneth.

Over time, however, these attacks spread further to the north, focussing on the areas around Mocímboa da Praia, where large-scale battles were fought with government forces in 2020 for control over the city. This shift in attack locations can be seen below:

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Heatmap of all Islamist attacks in Cabo Delgado province from Cyclone Kenneth-present. (Data Source: ACLED)

Taking all of this together, we are presented with evidence that the Islamist insurgency took advantage the destruction caused by Cyclone Kenneth to opportunistically conduct attacks during a period in which the government response could be expected to be degraded. Following this, these Islamists began conducting more frequent attacks not just in the areas directly affected by the cyclone, but also to the north, where they achieved considerable success. Large swathes of Cabo Delgado province are now effectively controlled by IS-CAP and the situation continues to deteriorate over a long-term trend. The role which Cyclone Kenneth played in setting off this deterioration cannot be fully ascertained, but data suggests the possibility that it could be one of several catalysing events.

More broadly speaking, the situation in Cabo Delgado province, Mozambique, is illustrative of the security problems caused by climate disasters. Especially in weak states in the developing world, armed actors can take advantage of disrupted or degraded state capabilities to launch attacks and strengthen their positions. This can compound with other factors to set in motion a long-term death spiral for the region, making it effectively ungovernable, and causing a deeper humanitarian crisis.

Michael Cruickshank is an Australian freelance journalist and Master’s student at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, focussing on the security impacts of climate change and disinformation.


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