NAIROBI, Kenya — The Islamic State militants, by several accounts, struck the tiny farming community on a plateau in northern Mozambique during an initiation rite to induct teenage boys into manhood.
Armed with machetes, the attackers beheaded as many as 20 boys and men in the village of 24 de Marco, according to a local media report that was confirmed on Wednesday by ACLED, an American crisis monitoring group that maps the exploding insurgency in Mozambique.
The atrocityin early November was just one episode in a brutal conflict unfolding in Cabo Delgado, a remote, resource-rich province of northern Mozambique. Insurgents who pledge allegiance to the Islamic State have grown dramatically in strength this year — seizing territory, capturing a port and stepping up brutal attacks on civilians that often involve beheadings.
The deepening humanitarian crisis has displaced at least 355,000 people according to the United Nations — up from 90,000 in January.
The militants’ success is also a sign of a worrisome trend: As the Islamic State’s influence wanes in the Middle East, it is surging in pockets of Africa, with brazen offshoots gaining ground in western, central and, now, southern corners of the continent.
In a statement late Tuesday, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said he was “shocked” by reports from news agencies that up to 50 people had been beheaded in the district of Muidumbe, where the village of 24 de Marco is located, including women and children, and he called on Mozambique to mount an immediate investigation.
There was no immediate response from the government of President Filipe Nyusi, whose Makonde ethnic group comes from the same region.
“These decapitations, which remind people of Syria and Iraq, scare everyone,” said Eric Morier-Genoud, a professor of African history at Queens University Belfast, who specializes in Mozambique. “It’s a grim situation that is worsening quickly because the militants’ capacity seems to be growing.”
The insurgency, which started in 2017 with a group known locally as Al-Sunna wa Jama’a, originally drew on a stew of local grievances in Cabo Delgado, a province of vast forests and immense mineral reserves, including graphite and ruby mines, along Mozambique’s border with Tanzania.
In 2019 the group became identified with the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province, which also has a presence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and this year escalated its campaign with increasingly brutal assaults on civilians and by snatching territory from the government.
Its biggest exploit came in August with the capture of the port of Mocimboa da Praia. Farther north, the group seized territory around Palma, a port that is the main base for international energy companies hoping to exploit Mozambique’s untapped offshore gas reserves, estimated to be the world’s second largest.
Beheadings are a common feature of Islamic State attacks in Mozambique, said Zenaida Machado, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, who estimated that the majority of over 2,000 civilian victims of the conflict had been decapitated.
“They use machetes,” she said, referring to the militants. “Initially they had specific targets when they attacked a village — state officials, teachers, nurses, local chiefs. Now it’s random.”
Exact details on attacks are hard to establish because Mozambique has barred journalists and human rights researchers from the conflict zone, and most international aid agencies have fled.
After the Muidumbe attacks, Pinnacle News, a local news service, reported that militants had gathered the 20 bodies, along with victims from other sites, at a soccer pitch in Muatide village in a gruesome display intended to strike fear into the local community.
Days after the attack, an Agence France-Presse report cited a local aid worker who described the funerals for 15 boys who were killed in the initiation ceremony.
Of the 355,000 civilians displaced by conflict, about 100,000 have poured into the regional capital, Pemba, which has avoided the fighting. Others have taken shelter in a chain of islands off the coast of Cabo Delgado, an area that until recently was a destination for high-end tourism. Even there, though, they are not safe from attack.
Last month, according to local news reports, Islamic State fighters raided the island of Matemo, which has seen a major cholera outbreak, and attacked or kidnapped displaced people as they searched for food and other provisions.
Other refugees have drowned at sea after their overcrowded boats capsized, including 54 who perished on a craft bound for Pemba on Oct. 29 according to Zitamar, an independent news service that follows the insurgency closely.
And on Aug. 13, at least 40 refugees were killed after government forces opened fire on their boat, apparently mistaking it for an insurgent craft, ACLED reported.
The pandemic has exacerbated the crisis, with Cabo Delgado reporting the highest number of Covid-19 cases in Mozambique. The province’s infrastructure had been hit by tropical cyclone Kenneth in April 2019 — the strongest ever to hit the African continent — destroying key bridges that have been only partially rebuilt.
The beleaguered Mozambique security services have turned to foreigners to help fight back, with mixed results. In 2019 several Russians with the Wagner Group, a private military company linked to the Kremlin, were captured and killed, according to several reports, precipitating Wagner’s exit from Mozambique.
More recently Mozambique has turned to a South Africa-based military company, which introduced armed helicopters to the fight but has struggled to make inroads against militants hiding in the area’s dense forests.
Divisions inside Mozambique’s security services, which human rights groups have frequently accused of abuses against civilians in Cabo Delgado, have further hampered the counterinsurgency effort. Last month, some police officers in Pemba were disciplined after they refused to patrol following complaints the army was paid more.
The exact nature of the relationship between the insurgents and the Islamic State in the Middle East is unclear.
Islamic State publications often carry accounts of operations in Mozambique, as well as photos, and there have been reports of Islamic State trainers traveling to Mozambique.
But experts say it is unclear whether the insurgents in Mozambique are being directed from the outside, or if they are merely exploiting the power of the Islamic State brand in a franchise-style arrangement.
And while the militants claim to be targeting Christians, in practice they make little distinction between their victims, said Sam Ratner, a contributing editor at Zitamar News.
“ISIS propaganda says they burned a Christian village or killed Christian soldiers,” Mr. Ratner said. “But on the ground, we’re not seeing a lot of differentiation between Christians and Muslims. They do not appear to be targeting churches in particular, for instance.”
Meanwhile the insurgency has begun to spill over Mozambique’s borders, alarming its neighbors.
In late October, Mozambique-based Islamic State militants attacked several villages in southern Tanzania, Tanzanian authorities said. Days later, residents of two villages in Mozambique reported rocket fire from inside Tanzania that injured 12 civilians.
The Mozambican government, at odds with Tanzania over its handling of the insurgency, did not publicly comment on the episode.
On Tuesday the president of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa, condemned the reported “acts of barbarity” in northern Mozambique and offered Zimbabwe’s help with the fight.
“The security of our region is paramount to the protection of our people,” he said.
Monica Mark contributed reporting from Johannesburg.