Map of Cabo Delgado Mozambique
Cabo Delgado Mozambique

MAPUTO - A shadowy Islamist group that has terrorised northern Mozambique for more than two years has suddenly become more brazen, unmasking its fighters and openly declaring its goal of turning the gas-rich region into a caliphate.   

In recent weeks, the jihadists have seized government buildings, robbed banks, blocked roads and hoisted their black-and-white flag over towns and villages across Cabo Delgado province. 

"We want everyone here to apply Islamic law," a Kalashnikov-wielding group member told terrified residents in a video that appeared to have been shot in Mocimboa da Praia after a recent attack. 

Mocimboa da Praia is where the militants staged their first attack, back in October 2017.  

Until recently, the identity of the assailants had remained unclear and their declared intentions unknown.

But the latest videos, the jihadists no longer bother covering their faces.

"We don''t want a government from unbelievers, we want a government from Allah," the group member added, speaking in the local Kimwani language to residents rounded up for a rally.

For more than two years the jihadists mainly targeted isolated villages, killing more than 700 people, according to the French aid group MSF, and displacing at least 200,000, according to a local Catholic archbishop, Dom Luiz Fernando.

Last month the group grew bolder and ventured back into Mocimboa da Paia, bursting into the town before sunrise to ransack government and military institutions.

They have since emerged from their hideouts and openly taken control of three Cabo Delgado districts.

Locally they are known as al-Shabab, although they have no known links to the ruthless jihadist group of that name operating in Somalia.

Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP), affiliated with the Islamic State group, has claimed the Mocimboa attack, as it has in a few previous attacks since last year.

"From the images and from what the insurgents said, we know that these men are from the town of Mocimboa da Praia and that they belong to the group that made the first insurgents attack in October 2017," said African history expert Eric Morier-Genoud, a senior lecturer at Queen's University Belfast in Northern Ireland.

"We hear them again lay out their ultimate objective: the establishment of an Islamist state regulated by Shari''a rule." Thousands of people have escaped to the port city of Pemba, the capital of Cabo Delgado, seeking refuge among friends and relatives.