On March 24, 2021, about 200 fighters of Ahl al-Sunnah wa al Jamma’ah (ASWJ) 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. 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.
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. Some have preferred to speak on background.