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.