Last week, militants affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) terror group stormed into a Christian village in northern Mozambique, burning houses and forcing residents to flee their homes, local reports said.
A few days before that, militants entered another village in the same province, torching houses throughout the region.
IS has claimed responsibility for both attacks via its social media outlets.
The recent attacks in the southeast African country signals a growing presence of IS militants who have carried out similar attacks against the military and local residents in the Muslim-majority northern part of Mozambique.
“We were no longer safe in the village,” said Mariamo Assy, a resident of Ntuleni village in Cabo Delgado, who was displaced due to last week’s violence.
She told VOA that they sought refuge in a nearby village to avoid getting caught up in the militants’ onslaught.
Since 2017, such attacks in northern Mozambique have increased, killing more than 200 people and wounding hundreds more, local sources said. Militants also have burned or destroyed over 1,000 homes over the past two years.
Experts say that economic grievances, which have particularly increased in recent months following tropical cyclones that have struck Mozambique, have made many young Mozambicans more prone to terrorism and criminal activities.
The U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says the situation in the northern part of the country, especially in the Cabo Delgado province, “has been deteriorating at a rapid pace.”
“Terrorist and organized crime groups are taking advantage of the precarious situation for their illicit trade or recruit locals who are desperate to compensate for their losses,” Cesar Guedes, the UNODC Representative in Mozambique, said in a statement in July.
Several radical militant groups have been active in Cabo Delgado in recent years. One of such group is Ansar al-Sunna, which has been responsible for dozens of terror attacks against civilians and government forces in northern Mozambique.
The group is known locally as al-Shabab and also goes by Ahlu al-Sunna and Swahili Sunna.
With suspected links to IS, little is known about Ansar al-Sunna and its political objectives.
“Usually groups such IS, Al Shabab [in Somalia] and others have a clear purpose, but in the case of Cabo Delgado, we don’t know what these militants are fighting for,” said Liazzat Bonate, a Mozambican lecturer at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago.
However, she added that ill-treatment by local authorities in northern Mozambique has led many young Muslims to pick up arms against government forces.
There is a “narrative of suffering [from government policies] among the rural population there and some groups have resorted to armed violence as a response,” Bonate told VOA.
After losing all the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria, IS seems to be shifting its strategy and focusing on local militant groups in Africa and elsewhere that have pledged allegiance to the terror group.
IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared in a video in April, encouraging his followers to wage attacks on behalf of IS throughout the world. He referenced IS affiliates that have been active in several African countries.
“There is absolutely a link between ISIS’s territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria and the rising threats in Mozambique and elsewhere,” said Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center in New York, using another acronym for IS.
IS “is expanding as a way of hedging its bets, seeking to build redundant and resilient networks in areas where the group previously did not maintain a presence. Mozambique is one example,” he told VOA.
Violent attacks carried out by radical militant groups in Mozambique could have an impact on neighboring countries such as Kenya and Tanzania, which have their own struggles with terrorist groups in recent years, some experts warn.
“I’d be particularly concerned about IS in Mozambique making inroads or connections to jihadists in Kenya, especially as IS might look to poach fighters from al-Shabab,” said analyst Clarke.
And “if [what’s happening in northern Mozambique] is in fact jihadism, then it could take years to fight them, because these militants can get financial support from [jihadist networks] to continue the fight,” Bonate said.
U.S. officials also have acknowledged that Mozambique has been facing challenges in dealing with violent extremism in the northern part of the country.
“The United States and other regional and international partners have been engaged in helping the government develop a holistic security, community engagement and communication approach,” Stephanie Amadeo, director of the Office of Southern African Affairs at the U.S. State Department, said in June during a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
“The goal for this approach is to address governance and development issues and provide increased training to build the capabilities of Mozambican security forces,” she added.
But analyst Clarke says “the U.S. seems to be reducing its military footprint in Africa even as [the U.S. military is] highlighting the threat to the continent posed by jihadist groups.”
“A pivot toward great power competition will inevitably mean that the U.S. will have fewer resources to dedicate to the counter-terrorism mission in Africa,” he said.
“This could lead to a resurgence of jihadist violence in sub-Saharan Africa which will have destabilizing effects in already weak states,” Clarke added.