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In Mozambique, jihadists demand the capture of an entire city

The city of Palma in Mozambique, February 16, 2017. Illustrative photo. (JOHN WESSELS / AFP)

We are in southern Africa, on the coast, at the edge of the Indian Ocean, just in front of the Comoros archipelago. A small port in the region in Mozambique, Palma, with 75,000 inhabitants, has turned into a ghost town in a few days since the jihadists took control of the city. Its inhabitants fled by the tens of thousands, some on foot, to take shelter in the bush, others in canoes. There are decapitated bodies left in the streets, several dozen, even several hundred dead, impossible to give a precise assessment, the authorities have lost control.

Neither the army or the police, who are under-equipped, nor the self-defense militias who were preparing for an invasion, could not resist the jihadists who surrounded the city and launched their first attacks last Wednesday. Several thousand people have nevertheless managed to take refuge on the gigantic gas site managed by Total about ten kilometers from Palma, transformed into an ultra-secure “sort of Fort Apache”.

The jihadists come from a group of Mozambicans and Tanzanians who call themselves “Al-Shabab” (“young people” in Arabic) and who advocate the establishment of Sharia law. We do not know precisely who their leaders are. The authorities underestimated their nuisance capacity. They stayed in the shadows for a long time before gaining momentum and for the past three years. They claim no less than 700 ultra-violent attacks that have left 2,600 dead and more than half a million displaced. Their method: fires, looting, beheadings and kidnappings. Their radius of action is located in this predominantly Muslim province of Cabo Delgado, one of the poorest in Mozambique despite its immense natural resources.

It is in this region that the jihadists recruit by relying on the anger and the idleness of young people, who see their gas export revenues slip away. The shebabs, who recently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State organization, took control of a port last August, and are now masters of much of the coastal zone. Since December, the attacks had also approached the gas site. A zone “at least 25 km around the complex“had to be secured by the authorities, without success.

The Islamist threat in Africa is seen to be mainly concentrated in the west of the continent, in Mali and Burkina Faso. It is in this region that its most powerful branch is, it has almost raised an army of professionals. It also has its franchises on the shores of Lake Chad, in Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon. But East Africa and Southern Africa are not spared.

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We know the movement “Al Shabab”, linked to Al Qaida, which has existed for a long time in Somalia. Now here are the shebabs of Mozambique, one of the biggest challenges of the entire sub-region in recent years. Conquering a territory is one thing, administering it is another, we do not know what these fighters are going to do precisely. The country is so overwhelmed that it has had to call on private companies and mercenaries to try to regain control of its northern region, without success.

So far neighboring states, first in South Africa, have refused to consider any military intervention. Mozambique was just beginning to recover from a long civil war that ended in the early 1990s – this guerrilla warfare could jeopardize development hopes.

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