ISIS fighters terrorize northern Mozambique

R.A., 16, bears the scars of his torture by Islamic State militants after they overran his village near Pemba, Mozambique, a few years ago. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

PEMBA, Mozambique — The boy’s scars streak under his ears and circle his neck, dark razor marks left by the Islamic State militants who overran his village. The fighters tried to recruit him. When he refused, the torture began. He was 13.

But the boy’s deepest trauma surfaces when he talks about what happened to his uncle. His eyes dim and his voice gets low, almost disappearing in the breeze.

“They beheaded my uncle that day, along with others,” recalled R.A., who is now 16 and living in a refugee camp. “He was begging for help, but I could do nothing. I was too scared. I could hear the machete striking him. I could hear his screams.”

In northern Mozambique, one of the Islamic State’s newest branches is fueling a brutal insurgency that has raged out of sight in small villages and remote forests since late 2017. Women are kidnapped and kept as sex slaves, boys are forced to become child soldiers, beheadings are weapons of terror. The conflict has claimed about 4,000 lives; nearly 1 million people have fled their homes, separating countless families.

Victims shared their stories with The Washington Post on the condition that they be identified only by their first names, and, in R.A.’s case, by his initials, because his first name is uncommon. They still live in fear of the militants.

The violence and instability also threaten one of the world’s most lucrative deposits of natural gas. As Russia’s war in Ukraine drives up gas prices, fueling fears of scarcity across Europe, northern Mozambique’s reserves of liquefied natural gas, or LNG — the third largest in Africa — are viewed as vital.

Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, the U.S. government approved nearly $6 billion in loans and risk insurance to help get Mozambique’s nascent natural gas industry off the ground. American and European oil and gas companies, including ExxonMobil and French giant TotalEnergies, have multibillion-dollar projects in the resource-rich province of Cabo Delgado, in the country’s far north. But the five-year-old Islamist insurgency there has halted most production.

The U.S. and European governments are trying to help Mozambican forces fight the militants — and get the gas flowing.

“They have completely stopped LNG operations from moving forward,” said a U.S. Embassy official in the capital, Maputo, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the situation freely. “There certainly is a new urgency for LNG with Ukraine.”

Africa has become a new frontier for Islamist militant groups in recent years, with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State spreading rapidly across the continent. Though the groups still claim global aspirations, they are engaged here in local conflicts, capitalizing on weak governments and exploiting old grievances and inequities.

Al-Qaeda and Islamic State are on the rise in Africa

Last year, the State Department designated the Islamic State of Mozambique, or ISIS-Mozambique, as a foreign terrorist organization, though the group is believed to have fewer than 500 fighters. The United States also imposed sanctions on the group’s leader, Abu Yasir Hassan, though it’s unclear whether he is still in charge, or is even still alive.

The Pentagon’s Africa Command is training Mozambican troops to improve their counterterrorism capabilities. The European Union is spending $89 million to train and equip 11 rapid-reaction units of the Mozambican army, in part because Portuguese and Italian oil companies also operate here alongside TotalEnergies.

The militants “are in a key area, so their influence has been quite large,” the U.S. official said. “In order to create terror, you don’t need that many people.”

ISIS-Mozambique has always been small in relative terms, but the weakness of the Mozambican armed forces allowed the group to make rapid gains in recent years, seizing towns and cities, and exacting a terrible toll on communities across the north.

R.A. said the militants beheaded his uncle and other men in his village for not disclosing the positions of Mozambican forces. After the executions, two fighters beat him with the butts of their rifles as he sat in the sun, hands tied. When he refused to take up arms for them, he said, they brought out the razor blade.

“I was tortured for two hours,” recalled R.A., who is tall and slim, and wore cutoff blue jean shorts and red slippers. As he spoke, his words slowed and his eyes drifted to the ground.

R.A.’s ordeal could not be independently verified, but similar claims were made by other victims interviewed by The Post in northern Mozambique last month, and corroborated by accounts from aid workers and community activists. The Post also reviewed graphic social media footage showing the aftermath of militant attacks in the region.

When the extremists tired of torturing him, R.A. said, he was forced to walk several hours to their jungle base, the blood still running down his chest.

The roots of the rebellion

The insurgency began in October 2017, fueled by a complex and combustible mix of poverty, inequality and Islamist radicalization. In Cabo Delgado, residents have long felt politically and economically isolated, even after natural gas and minerals were discovered here.

“This is first and foremost a rebellion of local youth who have been frustrated and marginalized, the fishermen and local miners who saw their businesses extinguished,” said Dino Mahtani, former deputy Africa director for the International Crisis Group (ICG).

The economic exclusion dovetailed with growing Islamist extremism in the region.

“The war came from outside,” said Sheikh Nasrullahi Dula, a leader of Mozambique’s Muslim community, pointing to ultraconservative clerics from Kenya and Tanzania who started madrassas here in 2010 that began to radicalize young men in Muslim-majority Cabo Delgado. “They taught the opposite of what we preached. They taught that women were nothing and the government is not to be respected.”

Militant local youths began to denounce more moderate religious leaders like Dula and pushed to ban alcohol and stop women from working. Their resentment grew as elites drawn from President Filipe Nyusi’s Makonde ethnic group secured business deals in the province at the expense of the Mwani and Makua ethnic minorities, the ICG said in a report last year. The ethnic tensions have simmered since the Portuguese colonial era.

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Local discontent deepened with the discovery of ruby and gas deposits. The government cleared many residents off their lands to make room for foreign concessions. Prices for rents and commodities soared. The extremists “found a very fertile place to recruit unemployed, frustrated youth,” said João Feijó, a Mozambican sociologist who has studied the roots of the war.

In early 2017, the government sent police to eject thousands of artisanal miners from a commercial ruby mine. The police “burned houses, they raped women and men. They beat, they tortured,” Feijó said. “Suddenly, they broke all these possibilities for the youth to get some earnings. But they didn’t provide an alternative.”