In the densely forested, oil-and-gas-rich northeast corner of Mozambique, a local Islamic insurgency has steadily escalated with a growing allegiance to the Islamic State and the arrival of foreign fighters using operational techniques similar to those from conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Insurgents decapitated as many as 50 people in attacks on several villages earlier this month in Cabo Delgado province, according to Police Commander Bernardino Rafael.
The attacks in the mainly Christian area of Muidumbe were condemned by the United Nations, which this week called for an investigation into the reports that militants had massacred villagers and beheaded women and children.
The beheadings reflected the continuing expansion of the insurgency that began in earnest in October 2017 along the northern coastal area of Cabo Delgado but has moved to the interior into the heartland of the Makonde tribe of Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi.
Nyusi and Mozambican Defense Minister Jaime Neto have accused the insurgents of being armed from outside the country.
“In this terror threat, we have signs of involvement of foreigners who are recruiting and training local youth, and also equipping them, because we don’t know how they get their equipment,” Nyusi said on Aug 10.
The United States is also seeing the hallmarks of the Islamic State on the conflict. In August, Maj. Gen. Dagvin R.M. Anderson, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, said in a briefing to the State Department that the core Islamic State provides fighters in Mozambique “training, it provides them education, and it provides them additional resources.”
The group, known by locals as al-Shabab, but with no affiliation to the Somali group of the same name, carried out its first major incursion into southern Tanzania last month, raising alarm in a region where four countries — Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia — intersect with Mozambique.
The Islamic State formally adopted al-Shabab as the Mozambican wing of its Central Africa Province in June last year. Images released by the Islamic State on behalf of its Central African Province branch, known as IS-CAP, this year show fighters in Cabo Delgado armed with AK-47s, machine guns and rocket propelled grenades.
U.S. counter-terrorism officials expressed alarm this week over the group’s swelling ranks and military prowess. What once was regarded as a locally rooted insurgency now shows a clear intention of aligning itself — ideologically and tactically — with the Islamic State’s main branch.
“It is a significant threat from a terrorism point of view, whatever its origins,” said Nathan Sales, appointed earlier this week as the U.S. special envoy to the global coalition against the Islamic State. “It is now a committed ISIS enterprise that is using violence to gain — and in some cases maintain control over — territory.”
The mass beheading of men and boys in northern Mozambique was “not the sort of thing you associate with a low-grade insurgency,” Sales said, “but it’s the sort of behavior we saw from ISIS at the height of its so-called caliphate.”
Last week, insurgents captured the district capital of Muidumbe in Cabo Delgado and by Wednesday were pushing toward the strategically important town of Mueda, where the national government runs its military operations for the province, several security analysts said.
A spokesman for the Mozambique Defense Force, Col. Omar Saranga, did not respond to requests for comment on the surge of militant activity.
“The loss of Mueda would have a major impact on the government’s ability to operate in northern Cabo Delgado,” said Johann Smith, an independent security analyst based in the capital Maputo from where he advises companies on the security situation in Mozambique. He estimated the insurgents number somewhere between 3,000 to 3,500 fighters.
— Washington Post