ISIS attack on Mozambique raises prospect of greater US involvement

US special forces could bolster efforts to prevent spread of terrorism

This satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows the Amarula Palma hotel, center, with its helipad below left, in Palma, Mozambique, on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021.  An estimated 200 Mozambicans and foreign workers had been sheltering at the hotel but by Monday, March 29, 2021 the hotel was empty as fierce fighting for control of Mozambique's strategic northern town of Palma persisted into its sixth day with heavily armed rebels fighting army, police and a private military outfit in several spots. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)
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ISIS poses a "serious and growing threat" across Africa that must be confronted, a top-level meeting of the global coalition to defeat the group was told on Tuesday.

Concern is increasing that despite its defeat two years ago, the terrorist group was able to regroup in the parts of Middle East and develop power bases across Africa.

An online meeting of foreign ministers from the 83-country Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS was held on Tuesday and senior diplomats warned that the deadly extremist attack in northern Mozambique last week could mark the beginning of a broader offensive across the country.

The meeting was led by Tony Blinken, US Secretary of State, and a joint statement was issued highlighting concern over the group's resurgence.

“A comprehensive and collective effort remains necessary to achieve a full and enduring defeat of ISIS worldwide,” it said.

The assault on the town of Palma, in which an estimated 60 civilians were killed, showed the “increased brazenness” of ISIS in Mozambique, said John Godfrey, US special envoy for the coalition.

With the announcement of 60 troops from Portugal and the potential for greater involvement from US special forces, Mozambique could become the next major battleground in the fight against ISIS.

Britain, which alongside the US and France led the fight against the group in Syria and Iraq, also affirmed its commitment to eradicating the extremists.

"Two years on from the territorial defeat of Daesh and liberation of nearly eight million people from its cruel grip, we remain committed to preventing its resurgence," said Dominic Raab, UK Foreign Secretary.

While the ministers expressed worries over the rise of ISIS affiliates in West Africa and the Sahel region, Mozambique could become the new test of the coalition’s resolve.

There are concerns that the country could become a breeding ground for ISIS, with The National reporting in October that there appeared to be assistance provided from commanders in Iraq and Syria.

With the end of Mozambique's rainy season, the terrorists have used the past six months to recruit as the group prepares for the cool, dry weather of the "fighting season" that lasts until October.

Mr Godfrey said there was now “quite a lot of concern about the potential for the situation in Cabo Delgado to spread further”.

The US is in discussions with other countries in the area worried that the extremist threat could spill over, especially after ISIS incursions from Mozambique into Tanzania last year.

“That threat became not just an academic but a very real one, and so that’s something that is the subject of quite a lot of discussion out in the region,” Mr Godfrey said.

After its defeat in Iraq and Syria in 2019, ISIS "intensified its focus on the activities of its branches and networks" and this had been "most clearly demonstrated by the events that occurred this past weekend", he said.

Human rights groups reported extensive destruction across northern Mozambique by the militants, with major atrocities including one incident in which 50 people were beheaded in a football field.

Mr Godfrey compared the "sheer brutality of the events on the ground" in Palma this week to incidents elsewhere. He also issued a warning about the "increased brazenness of ISIS-Mozambique" that had gone from hit-and-run raids four years ago to "take-and-hold" operations, such as the one conducted last August at the northern port of Mocimboa da Praia, where terrorists used boats to attack holiday islands.

The take-and-hold strategy demonstrates the group’s strength to the local population, allowing ISIS to conduct protracted atrocities and attract recruits.

Last year, the extremists carried out 570 attacks, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project said.

The assault last week was only 10 kilometres from the $20 billion site for a major gas energy project, led by the French company Total.

The assault raised the likelihood of increased US involvement after the country's embassy announced two weeks ago that US special operations forces, with Mozambique government approval, would “support efforts to prevent the spread of terrorism and violent extremism".