Fighters stormed the strategic town of Palma in northern Mozambique last week in a dramatic escalation of an armed campaign that has wreaked havoc in the gas-rich Cabo Delgado province since 2017.
The government on Sunday said “dozens of defenceless people” were killed in the coordinated raid that saw the attackers fire indiscriminately at people and buildings in the coastal town. Among the victims were seven people caught in an ambush during an operation to evacuate them from a hotel where they had fled to in order to escape Wednesday’s attack.
Palma – home to some 75,000 people, as well as to many who had already been internally displaced due to the worsening violence in the province – was deserted on Monday after residents fled by road, boat and on foot “in all directions”, according to aid groups.
Here is what we know about the attackers and the conflict in Cabo Delgado.
When members of the shadowy armed group Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama, also known locally as al-Shabab (no established links to the armed group of the same name in Somalia), began launching attacks in northern Mozambique in October 2017, security agencies dismissed it as isolated acts of banditry.
But the fighters, who later pledged allegiance to ISIL (ISIS), continued staging attacks in Cabo Delgado, burning villages, killing civilians and even targeting military positions.
Last year, they captured the town of Mocimboa da Praia, which still remains out of the government’s hands. Mocimboa da Praia’s port is strategically important for liquefied natural gas projects led by Total and ExxonMobil that are being developed on a fortified peninsula a short way up the coast, just off Palma.
The escalating violence has killed more than 2,600 people, half of them civilians. It has also caused a serious humanitarian crisis, forcing almost 700,000 people from their homes.
Zeinada Machado, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said while there are still many questions surrounding the strength of the group and the amount of territory they control, what is certain is that over the past three years, it has grown in size and in its ability to stage big attacks.
“It started by doing a game of cat-and-mouse with security forces, going to villages, attacking civilians, destroying property and then running away once security forces arrive,” Machado told Al Jazeera. “They’ve moved into being a serious enemy to security forces and even targeting military posts.”
Jasmine Opperman, of the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, agreed about the group’s increasing strength.
“There is a voice of discontent against the government that is fighting credibility among specific groups of people,” Opperman told Al Jazeera, estimating the group’s fighters number at least 2,500 people whose ages seem to mostly range from 20 to 35 years.
The conflict entered a particularly gruesome new phase last year, prompting United Nations chief Antonio Guterres to express shock at reports of massacres, including the beheading and kidnapping of women and children.
On Monday, ISIL claimed responsibility for the attack on Palma, which hosts several international companies and their staff working on gas projects in the region. In a statement on its Telegram channel, ISIL said its fighters had seized the town after days of fighting.
The raid came two weeks after the US State Department labelled al-Shabab a foreign “terrorist” organisation over its links to ISIL.
But Fernando Lima, a Maputo-based journalist and political commentator, said there were “serious doubts if this is really a religious confrontation, or a cover” for social grievances in a region where poverty and unemployment are still rampant despite the promises of wealth linked to the development of the multibillion-dollar worth gas projects.
“I think that the main problem is in fact poverty and inequality,” he said, adding the government has not been able to communicate to Cabo Delgado’s residents “that they are there to reverse the situation”.
“I would [add] bad management of expectations related to oil and gas, because it creates this idea that there are other Mozambicans living in the south that are benefitting from oil and gas – in fact, there is no oil and gas at this point, yet.”
Earlier this month, the US embassy in Mozambique said US military personnel will train Mozambican forces for two months.
The US government said it will also provide medical and communications gear to help the government in its fight against the armed group, which, analysts say, has steadily increased its military capacity and the ability to stage sophisticated attacks.
“[Palma is] a town that was heavily guarded and everybody knew could be targeted at any moment – how was it possible for this group to enter this town, fire indiscriminately, kill people and make others flee,” asked Machado.
“The absence of soldiers to help the population was very clear, and that is an embarrass[ment] for the government of Mozambique that has been fighting this group for the past three years. By now, they should have learned how to help their population and how to lead them to safety in a moment of danger,” she said.
“It’s not just about [the government] giving us a press conference in which they are going to tell us how many people died – it’s also about explaining what exactly happened, what failed and what measures they are taking for a situation like Palma not to be repeated ever again.”
Some analysts have suggested that the authorities had been warned of an imminent attack on Palma but failed to act.
“The question has to be raised: why no action was taken,” asked Opperman.
“For the last two years, we’ve warned that there are some influencers within the insurgency at play. They are people with clear, deep level experience in guerilla warfare fighting that has been transmitted back into Cabo Delgado,” she said. “Mocimboa de Praia’s occupation for a prolonged period gave them the ideal opportunity not only for training but for recruitment.”
The government has deployed thousands of soldiers to Cabo Delgado to tackle the armed group. But analysts have long cautioned that Mozambique’s army has historically been weak, poorly trained and underequipped.
Mozambique has also hired Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), a South African private military firm. Reports say DAG are being discreetly helped by mercenaries from Russia.
Earlier in March, global rights watchdog Amnesty International accused the fighters, government security forces and private military companies of “war crimes”.
“The longer the insurgency continues, the risk to the region increases,” said Opperman. “The issue of weapons, the issue of sympathy, the issue of IDPs fleeing, the issue of movement of illegal goods; this is an area where there is simply no governance, where there is no ability to control anything,” she added.
“What is interesting about the Palma incident, and that is the tragedy of Cabo Delgado, is when expats get targeted, everyone goes crazy. What about the [tens of thousands of] people that had to flee and find a home somewhere quite quickly, or safety quite quickly? I think it’s a sad case but we cannot neglect in terms of Cabo Delgado.”