Comment on 'terrorism'

By Joseph Hanlon

"Terrorism" is what the word says: creating terror and fear in your opponent and demonstrating your unchecked power. Aerial bombing of London and Berlin during the second world war, and in Aden now, in intended to terrorise the civilian population. But it is a common tactic of war and does not need an air force. It is particularly important for weaker guerrilla forces to establish their power and image.

In the 1981-92 war, Renamo used terrorism extensively and strategically. For example, an aim was to stop travel, so buses were attacked and passengers burned alive. But Renamo always allowed some passengers off the bus first, so there were people who would tell the story and spread the word. And the horror built Renamo's image as a serious opposition force. It also proved to be a safe strategy from Renamo. Peace involved talking to terrorists, as it always does. And the peace accord included no prosecutions and Renamo becoming the main political opposition. People who organised and took part in terror are now in parliament and honoured citizens, and no one mentions that they were once terrorists who did terrible things.

Cabo Delgado's insurgents began small, and used terror selectively - killing identified members of the local elites and those who were known to oppose them. And it worked, winning over young people as recruits and supporters.

The war started in coastal areas where they had support, and executions were mostly selective. When they moved inland to Muidumbe, they faced a more serious Makondi Catholic opposition which successfully resisted. Now it appears tactics have changed, killing larger numbers of people to terrorise civilians to not resist. Like Renamo terror four decades ago, it is structured. Many of the victims are part of the state apparatus, like teacher Damiao Tangassi, and his family were forced to watch and then let go to tell the story.

In early November an estimated 50 people were killed on the local football pitch in Muatide village. The massacre was first reported on 5 November by the Nacala-based Pinnacle News, which has the best sources on the ground, and later confirmed by other local media. It was picked up by the BBC and then other global media, and then condemned by UN Secretary-General António Guterres and French President Emmanuel Macron. It was, however, curiously denied by Cabo Delgado governor Valige Tauabo.

Macron was criticised for calling the massacre "Islamic terrorism" in a tweet (11 Nov). As Islamic State has been made the global enemy, it is convenient for Macron to use that label, but we should be careful. First of all, nearly every person in rural areas has a sharp machete because it is one of the few farm tools they have, and is used for everything from cutting trees to harvesting to cutting open coconuts. The initial insurgent groups had only one or two guns and a few bullets, but all the young men had their machetes, which was used to attack and kill. Of necessity, that became the insurgent symbol.

Second, we have not given religious labels to earlier terrorism. Renamo was taught its terror tactics by the apartheid South African army, but this was never labelled "Afrikaner Christian terrorism". And the massacres in Mueda in 1960 and Wiriyamu in 1972 were never described as "Portuguese Catholic massacres". jh

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