WASHINGTON - Militants affiliated with the Islamic State terror group have increased their attacks in recent weeks against security forces and civilians in the restive northern region of Mozambique.
This week, IS announced via its Amaq News Agency that its affiliate in Central Africa had killed nine soldiers from the Mozambican army in the province of Cabo Delgado.
Local news also reported clashes between Mozambican security forces and Islamist insurgents near a village in the Muslim-majority region.
Since 2017, Islamist militants have carried out deadly attacks against the military and local residents in Cabo Delgado, killing hundreds of people and displacing thousands others.
But U.N. officials say there has been a dramatic increase of such attacks in recent months.
“Armed groups have been randomly targeting local villages and terrorizing the local population. … We have reports of beheadings, kidnappings and disappearances of women and children,” said Andrej Mahecic, spokesperson of the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), during a recent news briefing. “The attacks have now spread across nine out of the 16 districts in Cabo Delgado.”
In total, the U.N. says, at least 28 attacks have been carried out in Cabo Delgado since the beginning of the year.
The violence has displaced more than 100,000 people throughout the province, UNHCR said.
Several radical militant groups have been active in Cabo Delgado in recent years, including 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 links to IS, little is known about Ansar al-Sunna and its political objectives.
In April 2019, IS declared its so-called Central African Province, known as ISCAP. Attacks attributed to its Central African Province affiliate have been limited to Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Experts say 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.
In March 2019, IS was declared defeated after U.S.-backed forces in Syria captured the last piece of land under the group’s control.
Colin Clarke, a senior fellow at the Soufan Center, a New York-based research group, said that since then, IS has been attempting to rebuild its networks and increase its operational tempo.
“IS militants will continue to seek out weak states with subpar security forces, and Africa is a continent ripe for IS expansion,” he said.
“IS may view Cabo Delgado as a launching pad from which to spread throughout the rest of sub-Saharan Africa,” Clarke told VOA.
No direct control
Other experts, however, believe that the core leadership of IS doesn’t have direct control over its African affiliates, including Ansar al-Sunna.
“The strongest kind of linkage between the two groups is the fact that Islamic State claims attacks committed by al-Sunna, and al-Sunna seemingly provides the Islamic State’s various media channels with imagery and videos of its attacks conducted against the Mozambican military,” said Ryan Cummings, director of Signal Risk, a security risk management firm based in Cape Town, South Africa.
And while its local affiliate has also targeted civilians, many of whom were Muslims, IS has not necessarily claimed responsibility for all militant attacks carried out in northern Mozambique.
“The Islamic State is quite discriminant in terms of which attack it claims,” Cummings told VOA, adding that “what it seems to limit its claims to has been violence targeting military interests.”
The United States has recently signaled a possible troop withdrawal from parts of Africa, particularly the Sahel region. The U.S. has between 6,000 and 7,000 troops in Africa, mainly stationed in West Africa.
The possible reduction of U.S. troops in Africa is reportedly part of a worldwide review by the Pentagon, which is looking for ways to tighten the focus on China and Russia.
Such a move could embolden groups like IS to expand their terrorist activities on the continent, experts said.
“IS likely realizes that certain African countries rank quite low on the list of U.S. priorities, and attacks in these countries are unlikely to draw a full-throttle American response,” Clarke said.
“Accordingly, IS can seek out ungoverned spaces and expand its network at little cost, while laying the groundwork for future operations,” he added.
But U.S. military officials say Washington will continue its support for African governments in their efforts to secure and stabilize their countries.
“We have been focused on the roles Africa’s land forces chiefs and senior leaders have in developing defense system institutions that are trained, capable professional forces that respect the rule of law and human rights, a contributor to greater security and stability on the African continent,” said Roger Cloutier, U.S. Army Africa commanding general.
Cloutier assured his African counterparts during a summit last week in Ethiopia that the U.S. was not abandoning them.
“The review is focused on making sure that the resources we have in Africa are in line with the national defense strategy,” he said. “We are trying to make sure that we are efficient with our resources and we are not duplicating efforts, and whatever it is doing on the African continent is complementary.
“So, the bottom line is the United States is not walking away from Africa. We are committed, and we remain engaged.” Cloutier said.
VOA’s Anabela Guedes from Washington and Mohammed Yusuf from Nairobi contributed to this report.