Islamic State claims capture of coastal city in Mozambique

Screen grab from today’s Islamic State video purportedly showing its fighters inside Palma, Mozambique.

The Islamic State, through its Central African Province, has claimed to have captured the coastal city of Palma in northern Mozambique. This comes almost a week after the initial assault on the town began.

Mozambique and the South African private military company contracted by the state, Dyck Advisory Group, says the fighting still rages for control over the town.

In a statement released earlier today, the Islamic State reported that “as part of their continuous jihad, soldiers of the Caliphate began a large-scale assault on Thursday on the coastal city of Palma in the Cabo Delgado region of Mozambique.”

The jihadist group goes on to state that “the attack was upon military barracks and government headquarters and the attack resulted in the capture of the city after killing at least 55 soldiers from the Mozambican army and Christians, among them subjects of Crusader states, and wounding dozens others.”

Little additional information is provided outside of what has already been reported by local and international media outlets.

In addition to the statement, both a photo and a video purporting to show its men inside Palma were released. Independent analysts have called into question the veracity of the Islamic State’s assertion that the photo (and parts of the above video) were actually within Palma. It is possible, however, that the photo shows the militants staging away from the city prior to mounting the assault.

The assault on Palma began on March 24 when hundreds of militants stormed the city. The jihadists targeted shops, banks, civilian houses, and attacked the local military barracks. Thousands of people then fled the city, while hundreds more, including expatriates and Western employees of natural gas companies, were trapped.

Dozens of people, including expatriates, are believed to have been killed after being ambushed attempting to flee a hotel within the city. According to the Associated Press, the militants also “left beheaded bodies strewn in the streets.” Meanwhile, a hodgepodge flotilla of civilian boats and ships rescued hundreds of people trapped on Palma’s beaches.

The total number of people killed in the offensive is still currently unknown.

If the Islamic State’s capture of Palma is indeed confirmed, this would make it the second major town in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado region to come under its control since last summer. In Aug., it launched a similar assault on the coastal town of Mocimboa da Praia and captured the city from local security forces. The group is still believed to control the locale.

Given Palma’s location next to natural gas projects worth billions of dollars, its capture would be much more strategic for the jihadists than Mocimboa da Praia. The current offensive has already forced France’s Total to suspend its operations in Cabo Delgado, stopping a project worth an estimated $20 billion.

Islamic State in Mozambique

The Islamic State’s wing inside Mozambique is known locally as Ansar al-Sunnah. In the US State Department’s recent designation of both IS-Mozambique and IS-DR Congo, it noted that Ansar al-Sunnah “reportedly pledged allegiance to ISIS as early as April 2018, and was acknowledged by ISIS-Core as an affiliate in August 2019.”

Ansar al-Sunnah officially began its insurgency in late 2017, but originated from a local radical sect in Cabo Delgado in 2007 according to scholar Eric Morier-Genoud.

Since 2017, the group has greatly expanded and increased the rate of its attacks across the province. In early 2018, Islamic State supporters online circulated a photo alleging that Ansar al-Sunnah pledged allegiance to then-Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

This information was not confirmed until June 2019 when the Islamic State claimed its first official operation inside Mozambique. It remains unclear, however, if all of Ansar al-Sunnah or just certain segments of it, represents the Islamic State’s local outfit.

Since its communique, the Islamic State has claimed at least 43 operations inside Mozambique according to data kept by this author. Many of these claims can be tied to attacks reported in local media.

In remains unclear as to what explains the relatively small number of claims compared to the overall size of the insurgency in Cabo Delgado.

That said, the Islamic State in Mozambique has been responsible for some of the most significant attacks in the country. This includes several mass casualty raids, including the beheading of at least 50 people in two villages in Nov. 2020.

Additionally, the group has threatened to expand out of Mozambique as it was also responsible for an attack inside southern Tanzania last October.

As noted by the most recent report from the UN’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, ISCAP in both the DRC and Mozambique is proving to be one of the group’s most successful ‘provinces.’

The UN report describes ISCAP as “evolving into a dependable [Islamic State] affiliate, a development discernible in the adoption of sophisticated tactics and recent operational successes.”

Caleb Weiss is an editor of FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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