The Men and the Machines: Mozambique's Elite Motorized Infantry

Part 1: The Machines

This is the first installment in a two-part series profiling units in the Mozambican military equipped with Chinese armored fighting vehicles. Part 1, The Machines, is below and focuses on the vehicles and how and where they are used. Part 2, The Men, will follow next week and will focus on the soldiers deployed with the units, their roles, and their training.

In the first half of 2020, ISIS-aligned militants in Mozambique released two sets of photos showing armored fighting vehicles captured from the Mozambican Armed Forces (FADM). Open-source investigation reveals that these vehicles, in nearly pristine condition, belong to a series of little-known FADM units dedicated to fighting the ISIS insurgency in the north of the country.

The research for these articles draws almost exclusively on Facebook accounts of FADM soldiers. In particular, I built a database of over 50 appearances of these vehicles in Mozambique posted by dozens of different soldiers. I have taken pains to only use first names and obscure faces in pictures, but if you notice any private data that could be better concealed, please do reach out.

The Chinese Connection

In June 2014, China’s Shaanxi Baoji Special Vehicles Company sent a group of 20 older, low-tech models of armored vehicles to Mozambique. The company was clearly proud of the deal, even posting a press release about the vehicles. The release went into explicit detail about the exact composition of the cargo sent to Mozambique: it explained that the detachment consisted of five armored vehicles, five command vehicles, five rescue vehicles, and five armored ambulances.

This shipment was the beginning of a robust arms relationship between the FADM and the Shaanxi Baoji company. Since 2014, the older vehicles became workhorses of the FADM’s mechanized infantry. They were seen in well-publicized exercises outside Mozambique, riot control operations, and counter-insurgency efforts. These vehicles were no secret and were correspondingly well-used.

The next shipment was kept under wraps.

In early September 2018, elite FADM soldiers began appearing in Facebook photos in northern Mozambique with a new type of armored vehicle. These trucks, while superficially similar to the ones sent in 2014, were far more advanced. The 2014 shipment, with their small, boxy frames, sirens, and unarmored windows, were more suited to riot control and policing duties.

Part of the 2014 shipment from the Shaanxi Baoji Special Vehicles Company

The 2018 vehicles, on the other hand, were loaded for bear. They displayed armored panels and windows, mounted machine guns, more air intakes, and eliminated the lights and sirens of the 2014 model.

One of the first appearances of a vehicle from the 2018 shipment in Mozambique

The vehicles are Shaanxi Baoji Special Vehicles Company Tiger 4x4 armored fighting vehicles. Comparing the 2018 vehicles to images on the Shaanxi Baoji website (below), it appears that Mozambique is fielding the ZFB05-G model:

China Tiger” armored personnel carrier-Shaanxi baoji special ...

The FADM’s vehicles have been slightly modified from the factory versions to include separated running boards, improved exhaust venting, up-armored back windows, and enhanced communications equipment (bottom right to top left):

The ZFB05-G Tiger also appears to be a common export model for the company. Similar versions were exported from China to Tajikistan, Bolivia, Somalia, and the Bahamas between 2016 and 2018.

It may have been a common export model to other countries, but not only was there no press release from Shaanxi Baoji about the 2018 shipment to the FADM, there appears to be no news coverage whatsoever about these vehicles and their appearance in Mozambique. Until ISIS, that is.

The Claims

ISIS Central Africa’s February 1, 2020 claim about the capture of one of the Tigers in Cabo Delgado broke a news embargo on these vehicles that had been carefully maintained by the Mozambican government.

Unfortunately, there are very few significant visual details in the claim (below), which makes confirming the exact location of the capture difficult. However, news reports from late January indicate that a serious clash between the FADM and ISIS-aligned militants took place near Mbau. 

Source

In particular, an RFI article mentioned that nearly 300 sergeant-trainees from the FADM sergeants’ school in Boane and two “BTRs [armored cars]” were near the site of the attack but were unable to respond. It is likely that these BTRs were actually the Tigers. As we will see in greater depth in Part 2, Tigers are primarily staffed by sergeants and senior non-commissioned officers - it is entirely possible that these NCOs and their Tigers were targeted by ISIS in Mbau.  

The second ISIS claim is easier to pin down. The Arabic text in the claim (below) refers to a small town called Awasse in Cabo Delgado. With some searching, we can pin down exactly where in Awasse the picture was taken.

Note that I didn’t mark on the overhead shot the red roofed building seen in the first picture above. All public satellite images of Awasse are, at minimum, several years old. In the interim between the satellite image dates and the claim’s date, construction was done on the building framed by the palm trees marked in green. The renovation must have rebuilt the building’s silver roof with red material.

For further proof, a later video showed the Tiger driving down the same street in Awasse: more similarities between the satellite images and features in the video are apparent near the end of the video. Note that despite what the tweet says, the video was taken in Awasse, not Macomia.

Source

Whether on a lonely street emptied by fighting or a grassy field out in the brush, ISIS captured both Tigers in Cabo Delgado province. That said, aside from Cabo Delgado’s Mbau and Awasse, where exactly did these vehicles operate?

O ZFB05-G Tiger 4x4, Where Art Thou?

As mentioned above, ISIS captured two Tigers, one in late January or early February 2020 and one in late May 2020. The areas in which they were captured are in keeping with the vehicles’ other appearances on Facebook since September 2018. In fact, the Tigers appeared exclusively throughout the northern province of Cabo Delgado.

Using the database of Tiger photos on Facebook, I identified several areas in which these vehicles were seen most often. By far, the Tigers appeared most often in Mocimboa da Praia, a city whose military barracks were briefly captured by insurgents in March. The vehicles first appeared in Mocimboa da Praia in January 2019 and popped up pretty consistently in or near that city over the next 18 months.

Two FADM soldiers pose with a Tiger in Mocimboa da Praia in 2019

After Mocimboa da Praia, the Tigers showed up a few times each in Pemba and Palma, the capital of Cabo Delgado province and a town in that province, respectively. The Tigers also appeared in a town near Pemba called Ancuabe, which hosts the Macarara Barracks, an FADM base built in 2014. Although Tigers were only seen at the base once, they were in the company of other armored and support vehicles.

Mozambique government budget document showing spending on the construction of the Macarara barracks in 2014.

FADM soldier seen at the Macarara Barracks with two Tigers, a light vehicle, and one of the armored vehicles sent in the 2014 Shaanxi Baoji Special Vehicles Company shipment (left to right).

Aside from these relatively large towns, the Tigers were also seen at field camps and on operations in the brush. Although I wasn’t able to geolocate any of the field camps, they were probably established in Cabo Delgado province as well because FADM soldiers often said they were fighting “Al Shabaab”, the local name for ISIS-aligned militants active in that province.

FADM soldiers examining supplies at a field camp with a Tiger in the background

Tiger seen with FADM squad on operations in Cabo Delgado in 2019

The exact number of Tigers deployed with the FADM is unknown. Using Facebook photos of Tigers with their serial numbers visible, I recorded eight separate vehicles, with serial numbers 1, 2, 5, 11, 17, 18, 21, and 23. Unfortunately, the serial numbers of the majority of the machines seen on Facebook were obscured, blurred, or too far away to be identified. Adding in the vehicle captured by ISIS that has a clear serial number (number 15 - the number on the second one captured by ISIS is not visible) makes at least nine distinct vehicles.

On the higher end of the spectrum, the serial numbers on the Facebook vehicles go up to 23, which implies that the FADM could be fielding in the area of two dozen Tigers. Nine Tigers would be a sizable investment alone, 23 Tigers would represent millions of dollars worth of equipment.

PCO Mueda

On December 21, 2019, an FADM Fuzileiro (an amphibious soldier similar to a US or UK marine) posted a Facebook picture with a Tiger at “PCO Mueda”. PCO stands for Posto do Comando Operacional - the Mueda Operational Command Post.

Although the Tigers were seen fighting throughout Cabo Delgado, the Fuzileiro’s photos and other Facebook content revealed that many of the Tigers are based at a former Portuguese military facility in Mueda. The vehicles appeared in Mueda, a small district capital in Cabo Delgado, on eight separate occasions. Unlike in Mocimboa da Praia, they were seen in Mueda in the company of aircraft, support vehicles, other armored personnel carriers, and many, many troops, including several high-ranking officers.

Two, possibly three, Tigers seen on tarmac of airstrip at PCO Mueda with two FADM soldiers and South Africa-registered helicopter

Several Tigers and heavy support vehicles seen in same location on tarmac at PCO Mueda.

Within the base, the Tigers are most often parked inside the roofless, walled bunkers near the airstrip seen in the photos above. The thick walls protect the vehicles from artillery fire while the wide, spacious bays allow for quick entry and exit from the base. On recent satellite imagery, several Tigers are visible in the southernmost bunker here:

While the vehicles were seen more often in Mocimboa da Praia, only a single vehicle and a small number of soldiers typically appeared in each image from the city. The numerous vehicles and groups of Tigers in each shot from Mueda support the theory that Tigers have been based in Mueda since they arrived in Mozambique in 2018.

The Mechanic

To bridge the gap between the advanced armored vehicles of the counter-ISIS FADM units and the second part of this investigation on the men attached to the units, I used the database of Facebook photos to explore the Tigers’ logistical support.

The Tigers have repair workshops at large bases throughout Cabo Delgado, including one in Mocimboa da Praia. An FADM mechanic deployed with the vehicles has taken several photos over the months at a shop used to repair the Tigers in Mocimboa da Praia, which I was able to geolocate to near a gas station in the center of town.

The pictures taken by the soldier do not offer much in the way of distinct features; however, further social media research showed that the repair shop the soldier posted the pictures at is next to the Expresso service station in the third photo. The third photo has enough features to confirm the building’s location as this shop in the middle of Mocimboa da Praia.

To be sure, these vehicles badly needed the technological support the FADM afforded. Across social media, Tigers were not only seen after being captured by ISIS, but were also seen hitched to tow trucks, flipped over on country roads, missing tires, and undergoing engine work. Whether damaged in combat or on Mozambique’s rural dirt lanes, these vehicles have taken beating after beating and consequently spend plenty of time in the shop.

Tiger after rollover crash in Quionga

Tiger undergoing repairs to tires and electrical systems

For a military that usually fields standard, ex-Soviet weaponry, establishing a dedicated repair base (and training the men to staff it) for a batch of new, advanced armored fighting vehicles is an expensive and risky undertaking, albeit one made necessary by the heavy damage suffered by the Tigers.

In Sum...

This part of the investigation was able to confirm that the FADM uses advanced Tiger armored vehicles secretly sent from China to Mozambique in the summer of 2018. ISIS captured two of the vehicles in Cabo Delgado province, one in Awasse and one probably in Mbau. Facebook research illustrated that the Tigers and their FADM units operate exclusively in Cabo Delgado and primarily in that province’s towns, such as Mueda, Pemba, Palma, Ancuabe, and, most frequently, Mocimboa da Praia. The vehicles are based at the Posto do Comando Operacional in Mueda, where they were often seen with other important military assets like aircraft, heavy vehicles, and high-ranking officers. To keep the Tigers up and running, the units have support and logistical capabilities, including dedicated mechanics and a repair facility in Mocimboa da Praia.

While the technical aspects of these vehicles are interesting, the Tigers are simply complicated hunks of metal without the men who operate them. Who are these FADM soldiers? Where did they train? Where are they based and where do they operate? Are they a dedicated unit or from a mish-mash of units across the Mozambique military? I’ll explore all these questions and more in part two of this investigation: The Men.