On March 24, more than a hundred Islamist fighters affiliated with the Islamic State seized the northern Mozambican town of Palma. They held it for 10 days, looting it and terrorizing its inhabitants. The attack provoked the French oil giant Total, which uses Palma as a base, to declare force majeure – meaning it declared itself free of its contractual obligations – and suspend a natural gas project estimated to be worth billions of dollars.
The group in question, known locally as Al-Shabaab and more formally as Ahl al-Sunnah wa al Jamma’ah (ASWJ), has only been in existence for a few years. It was largely unheard of outside Mozambique until August 2020, when it overran the town of Mocímba da Praia, which it still controls. ASWJ now appears to act with impunity throughout the province of Cabo Delgado, where it has been responsible for thousands of deaths and displacement of more than 700,000 residents, many of them children, provoking an “epic” humanitarian crisis.
All this begs for explanations regarding the nature of ASWJ, its ties with Islamic State, and its rapid success in a part of the world few would associate with Islamist violence.