Islamist insurgents on Wednesday captured a second town within 48 hours in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province on Wednesday, prompting fears that they are gaining a foothold in the area and could jeopardise the huge natural gas industry that is poised to take off there.
On Wednesday they attacked the district capital of Quissanga, defeating security forces and causing residents to flee. This followed their successful assault by land and sea on Monday on the strategic port town of Mocimboa da Praia which they held for most of the day.
This port town is just 60km south of liquid gas installations under construction on the Afungi peninsula. The risk analysis firm Control Risks said in a report that it did not believe the jihadists would yet venture an attack on Afungi because of the significant military presence there. But it added that “other commercial operations across these districts are likely to pose attractive targets to the group”.
Some reports on the attack on Mocimboa da Praia – the biggest military operation in the 30 months of the insurgency – said the fighters had destroyed barges which oil and gas corporations had been using to offload equipment at the port for the construction of the gas facilities.
And there are growing concerns that the insurgents are starting to win over the local population as the latter lose faith in the government and its security forces. After capturing Mocimboa da Praia the insurgents robbed banks and shops and handed out money and food to residents, many of whom cheered them, according to local reports. When the security forces took control of the town in the evening after the insurgents had retreated, the security forces assaulted several civilians in retaliation for their show of support for the insurgents.
Another worry is that the insurgents seem to be converting some members of the security forces. Social media posts in Mozambique are claiming that the attack on Mocimboa da Praia was led by Daitão Jamal Tevula, a former officer in the Marines, who had defected to the insurgents recently.
The insurgents, who launched their first attack, also in Mocimboa da Praia, in October 2017, don’t generally claim responsibility for their operations nor do they issue any other propaganda, so their identity remains murky. However they have mostly been identified as Ahlu Sunnah wal Jamaah, and some analysts believe they are an affiliate of Islamic State through its Central Africa Province (Iscap).
Photographs of the attack on Quissanga, circulating on social media, show masked men in camouflage uniforms posing triumphantly in front of the Quissanga District Police Command and other buildings, waving the black flag of the Islamic State/ISIS terror group. One of the men is holding a bazooka, and two have AK-47 assault rifles.
Other photographs depict a large number of spent cartridges and several dead bodies, one of them burnt. Most seem to be of civilians, though one is wearing the uniform of the Mozambican armed forces (FADM) and another victim seems to be wearing police boots, according to the official Mozambique news agency AIM.
The authenticity of all these photographs could not be independently verified as having been taken in Quissanga on Wednesday but since the one taken in front of the district police headquarters shows the name of the building they do seem genuine.
The Portuguese news agency Lusa reported that residents of Quissanga had fled the village by boat to the island of Ibo, 14km away or by land to the major town Pemba, less than 100km away.
The Control Risks report said the attack on Mocimboa da Praia, “marks a significant strategic shift by al-Sunnah, involving the coordination of a large number of militants to conduct a complex attack. The militants were well-armed and supplied, evidenced by their ability to hold off security forces for most of the day.
“After entering the town, the militants barricaded all roads leading into Mocimboa da Praia before breaking up into groups of approximately two-to-three fighters, stretching the security forces across several neighbourhoods. These groups then patrolled Mocimboa da Praia for several hours before distributing food to local residents, some of whom applauded them.
“The attack underscores al-Sunnah’s rapidly evolving tactics and growing willingness to engage in extended skirmishes with the security forces,” the report said.
“Moreover, apparent support for the group among the local community marks a shift in relations that is likely to bolster both recruitment and logistical supply lines to the group in the coming months.
“Businesses in Mocimboa da Praia district are exposed to an increased threat of attacks by militants and unrest driven by sympathetic members of the local community.
“Vehicles remain most vulnerable to being targeted. Nonetheless, the latest attack signals al-Sunnah’s ability to stage complex attacks on fixed assets without adequate security provisions.” DM
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