The March 2021 Palma Attack and the Evolving Jihadi Terror Threat to Mozambique.

AuthorLister, Tim

On March 24, 2021, about 200 fighters of Ahl al-Sunnah wa al Jamma'ah (ASWJ) (a) attacked the northern Mozambican town of Palma. For four days, they were rampant, killing at least dozens of local people and destroying much of the town's infrastructure, including banks, a police station, and food aid warehouses. The attack reverberated around the world because Palma was home to hundreds of foreign workers, most of them contractors for the Total liquefied natural gas (LNG) project on the nearby Afungi Peninsula. Dozens of foreigners were trapped at a hotel in the town and under fire for at least 36 hours. The attack was another stunning failure for Mozambique's security forces, which proved unable to hold a town of 70,000 against a couple of hundred young militants.

This article builds on research and reporting for a previous study published by this author in CTC Sentinel in October 2020. (1) That piece explored the origins of the insurgency and the factors that enabled it to flourish: a traditional Islamic leadership out of touch with younger Muslims; economic and social deprivation in northern Mozambique amid a wealth of natural resources; and corruption and ineffective governance. The insurgency in Mozambique officially became part of the Islamic State's Central Africa province (ISCAP) in June 2019. In a short video the following month, a group of Mozambicans are shown pledging allegiance to then Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but there has been no public pledge from any purported ASWJ leader to the central leadership of the Islamic State. (2)

This article focuses on the attack on Palma after a lull in activity during the rainy season--and what it portends for the insurgents, the security forces, and Mozambique's economic future, which is tightly bound to the exploitation of its LNG potential. It examines the tactics and goals of the attack, the involvement of private military contractors in the response, and the failings of the security forces. The analysis draws from a range of sources, including witnesses to and survivors of the attack, local sources, regional analysts who follow the insurgency, and officials with aid organizations who are based in Mozambique. (b) Some have preferred to speak on background.

The article also explores the possible consequences of the United States' designation of ASWJ and its identification of the group as 'ISIS-Mozambique.' It examines the extent to which foreign fighters play a role in ASWJ and cross-fertilization with militancy in southern Tanzania but finds few organizational links with Islamic State 'Central.' It also reviews the current and potential assistance to Mozambique's flagging counterterrorism efforts.

The article is split into six sections. The first examines the attack on Palma. The second looks at the significance of the attack and how it underlines the threat posed by the insurgency and the failings of the Mozambique government to deal with the insurgency. The third section examines the relationship between the Mozambique militants and the Islamic State and ASWJ's foreign fighter recruitment. The fourth section examines the so-far failed regional and international efforts to counter the threat. The fifth section examines the economic fallout. The final section looks at the potential future trajectory of the insurgency.

The Attack on Palma

The attack on Palma, a town of some 70,000 people swollen by thousands of civilians already displaced by the conflict, began on March 24, 2021. According to witnesses and the Mozambican Defense Ministry, it was a sophisticated operation launched from three directions simultaneously, (3) and from inside the town itself by fighters who had previously infiltrated the area. (4) Analysis of aerial photographs suggests the attack was accompanied by an ambush of trucks heading north from the town. (5)

The attack began hours after the French energy giant Total had announced an agreement with the Mozambique government to restart work on the nearby Afungi Peninsula project,(6) which had been suspended since January 2021 after a series of insurgent attacks on the perimeter of the complex. However, the preparations for such an assault must have begun before the announcement.

The attack on Palma appears to have had specific targets: the airfield to the north of the town, the army barracks, the town's banks, and a food storage warehouse.(7) There are indications that the insurgents had intelligence about recent deliveries of food aid to Palma, as well as cash to its banks, which may have influenced the timing of the attack. (8) Several food supply trucks were attacked and their drivers killed. (9) Cellular communications were quickly cut, although it is not clear this was done by the insurgents. (10)

There were also indiscriminate attacks on civilians, with dozens and maybe more killed in their homes and on Palma's streets during the initial attack. Residents reported that some of the dead had been beheaded, their bodies left in the streets. (11)

As the attack unfolded, thousands of local people fled into the bush or mangrove swamps along the coast. The more fortunate reached nearby beaches and were taken off by small boats. "On the beach we had support from small boats who carried us out and we were rescued by cargo ships," one survivor said. (12) Thousands more fled toward the Total compound to seek protection, taking shelter in a village at the edge of the complex. (13) By some estimates, more than 20,000 people arrived at Total's perimeter. (14)

Some 10,000 people arrived in the town of Pemba, mainly by boat, in the days after the attack, while others headed west through the bush to the garrison town of Mueda, which is now the military's northernmost outpost. (15) Several hundred others arrived at the border with Tanzania but were not allowed to enter the country; (16) a full week after the attack, many more were still believed to be in the forests around Palma. (17) Aid agencies believe some 40,000 people were displaced, of whom some 18,000 had arrived in other parts of Cabo Delgado by April 14, 2021. (18)

The attackers appear to have included many teenagers, according to witness accounts. A short video later released by the Islamic State's Amaq news agency appears to corroborate the youth of many of the fighters. (19) Some insurgents appear to have worn police or military uniforms, which confused the small army detachment based in Palma. (20) Clashes continued into March 25, 2021; about 20 Mozambique soldiers were reported killed. (21) However, no reinforcements were dispatched to defend Palma despite there being a capable force guarding the Afungi complex--about 10-15 kilometers away. (22)

The attackers took advantage of Palma's isolation. Many routes from the town to other parts of Cabo Delgado were already blocked due to the prevailing insecurity. (23) The arrival of the dry season may also have been a factor, according to Lionel Dyck, who runs the Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), a South African military contractor working in northern Mozambique. "As the rain stops, they call it the fighting season, and this is the start of the fighting season when [the insurgents] can actually come out and attack and do this, and it's been on the cards for a long time," Dyck said. (24) Much of Cabo Delgado, which is prone to hurricanes, is impassable in the rainy season.

By the morning of March 25, 2021, the insurgents had surrounded a hotel--the Amarula Lodge--north of Palma, where some 200 foreigners and Mozambicans, including local government employees and the District Administrator, had taken shelter. A few of them were evacuated in DAG helicopters. (25)

In the ensuing 36 hours, several expatriate workers who lived in the Palma area or were staying at the Amarula were among those killed, including a Briton, a South African, and a Zimbabwean. (c) Among them were people at the Lodge who decided to form a convoy in an effort to escape northwards to the Tanzanian border. This convoy was ambushed soon after leaving Palma. (26) Mozambican authorities said seven people were killed in this ambush. Other estimates put the number at between 40 and 50. (27) The bodies of 12 white men were later exhumed close to the Lodge. A local police commander, Pedro da Silva Negro, showed visiting journalists where the bodies had been discovered but could not provide their identities. He said the insurgents had entered the hotel and abducted the men, and then beheaded them. (28)

By March 28, 2021, DAG helicopters had airlifted some 120 people from the area and the insurgents had left the town, though were still present for several days in the surrounding forest. (29) Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi insisted the following week the insurgents had been "chased out" of Palma, (30) but other reports suggest they left at will. As noted by Mozambique analyst Joseph Hanlon: "The insurgents do not initially try to hold towns, but drift away as the military response increases."(31) As has been evident in previous attacks, such as the seizure of Mocimboa da Praia and those close to the Afungi Peninsula in late December 2020, the insurgents showed tactical awareness in Palma. (32) After overcoming the small number of troops in the area, they avoided being trapped by military reinforcements. They were also well enough equipped to hit at least one DAG helicopter that fired on them. (33)

In the final analysis, the insurgents were able to remain in Palma for four days. They used explosives to attack and rob two banks, with some reports suggesting they seized about $1 million because military salaries for the area had recently arrived. (34) By March 28, 2021, their objectives had been achieved: seizing cash and food aid, while putting Total and the government on notice that Afungi was not safe. The military did not secure the airstrip to the north of the town until April 3, 2021, when officials also declared the area safe. (35) However, sporadic attacks...

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