METUGE, Mozambique — Teresa Joaquim’s husband tried to escape into the bush when the militants arrived in their village in the Quissanga district of Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique.
When the hiding place was discovered, he and dozens of other residents were killed, she said. Her 16-year-old son was kidnapped, and Mrs. Joaquim and her 15-year-old daughter were raped and tortured.
“They treated us like animals,” said the 35-year-old mother of five, breastfeeding her youngest child outside of a tent at the Metuge refugee camp she now calls home. “I will never forget what they did to us. They killed every old man they saw, kidnapped the young men and mercilessly raped the women.”
Mrs. Joaquim is one of the estimated 670,000 people displaced by the shadowy, brutal Islamist militant organization linked with the Islamic State group known as al-Shabab, or “The Youth.” The Mozambique force has no known link to a similarly named group affiliated with al Qaeda in Somalia but has quickly earned a reputation as a growing threat to stability in Mozambique and other parts of the region.
If Islamic State leaders see themselves as a global brand for anti-Western jihadi terrorism, then Mozambique’s al-Shabab ranks as the brand’s hot new franchise.
Mrs. Joaquim’s husband, meanwhile, is one of the estimated 2,700 people killed by the militants in a growing insurgency that began in 2017 in the country’s northern coastal region. Because of the violence, about 1 million people are facing severe hunger, United Nations aid officials say.
The militants are growing more brazen. Late last month, tens of thousands of civilians fled as militants began a siege of the northern coastal town of Palma, a hub for nearby international gas projects worth $60 billion. Dozens died as militants ambushed a convoy of vehicles. Witnesses told Reuters that bodies, some beheaded, lay in the streets for hours after a dayslong rampage through the city.
Regional officials said a government counteroffensive reclaimed the city this week, the Agence France-Presse news service reported, but there was skepticism about those claims. Mozambique has been criticized for its reluctance to accept outside help in the struggle against al-Shabab, apparently for fear it would be seen as a sign of weakness.
The situation has become so unstable that the Mozambican government has appealed to the Biden administration and other outside governments for help. The U.S. designated the local al-Shabab branch a terrorist organization last month and dispatched a small contingent of Army Green Berets to spend two months training Mozambican security forces on how to combat violent extremists.
Portugal, the former colonial power before the southeast African nation achieved independence in 1975, is sending 60 soldiers to train local forces, Portugal’s Lusa News Agency reported.
Washington recognizes the danger but appears reluctant to deepen its military commitment in another distant country as it tries to wind down lengthy wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“I know of no potential involvement by the United States military in the political struggles that are going on in Mozambique,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said this week when asked about the U.S. training mission. “And I certainly know of no request for support in that regard” from Mozambican officials.
Attacks such as the one on Palma, claimed by Islamic State group, underscore the foothold militants are gaining across Africa and illustrate their increasing confidence. Islamist-related terrorism across the continent set a record in 2020, with attacks surging 43%, according to a Pentagon Africa study group. Even as the core of the Islamic State group tries to rebuild operations in its home base in Iraq and Syria, Africa is emerging as one of several places where the once-reeling terrorist group has found new opportunity.
“Mozambique is not an anomaly. Salafi-jihadi insurgencies are co-opting local conflicts and making them more brutal across sub-Saharan Africa,” said Emily Estelle, an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute. “These insurgencies have spread into neighboring countries and delivered an enduring haven to extremist militants with regional and global ambitions while exacting a steep humanitarian toll.
“On current course, the Islamic State will have a permanent enclave in northern Mozambique, including two ports,” she added. “This enclave will strengthen a Salafi-jihadi network active along the East African coast. Attacks on other countries, including Tanzania and South Africa, are likely.”
Militant organizations affiliated with al Qaeda and the Islamic State group are becoming more entrenched in Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Somalia, Mali, Niger, Tunisia and Nigeria. Somalia’s al-Shabab insurgency has spilled over into Kenya and threatens to gain a foothold in Ethiopia, which is consumed by its own civil conflict.
Rolling back the militant enclave on the Mozambican coast will almost certainly require an international effort because the Mozambican government lacks the resources and firepower to carry on the fight alone. Officials in Maputo have had to rely mainly on poorly trained soldiers, private contractors, mercenaries and armed vigilante groups, which has brought complaints from local activists and international advocacy groups such as Amnesty International.
Stopping the militants also means addressing the underlying economic and social grievances that lead locals to sometimes welcome these armed groups, analysts say.
Those grievances include being marginalized amid the vast wealth of Cabo Delgado province, said David Salimo, a retired Mozambican soldier who fled to the refugee camp after militants invaded his village. The region, with more than 2.3 million people, has enormous natural wealth, including oil and gas reserves, ruby deposits and other gems and minerals.
Meanwhile, residents, most of them Muslim, live in one of the poorest districts, with a per capita income of $503 a year before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the World Bank. The region is marked by high illiteracy and unemployment rates.
“This wealth has only benefited a few corrupt politicians and angered residents who are mostly young,” said Mr. Salimo. “These youths have organized militarily to challenge and control this natural wealth.
“They are already benefiting by engaging in the illicit economy,” he added. “And they have the support of local population who are poor and feel marginalized.”
He was referring to people like Claudio Holande, another displaced resident.
“It’s not fair at all. We have lived in poverty for a long time, yet we have a lot of natural resources,” said Mr. Holande, 45, of the Quissanga district. He detailed how militants attacked his village and looted and burned homes and crops, forcing him to flee. “This wealth needs to benefit our people, not corrupt and selfish government officials. The government [must] address this issue so that our people can enjoy their resources.”
Mr. Salimo said a military-only approach will only escalate the problem and prolong the instability. “The government should stop using the military to find a solution to the conflict and seriously address these concerns if they want peace in the region, because the youth are willing to die to protect their natural wealth,” he said.
Some outside analysts warn that the situation is more precarious than the government lets on. They say the province’s main port and capital city could soon be in the jihadis’ sights.
“Unless the security situation changes significantly in the next six months, insurgents are likely to attempt to capture Pemba,” Eva Renon, a senior analyst with the London-based risk and research firm IHS Markit, warned in an analysis this week, the Voice of America reported. Al-Shabab “will likely target beachfront hotels, government facilities, and the personnel and assets of non-governmental organizations, the Catholic Church, and the United Nations.”
If the jihadis manage to gain control of valuable mineral and energy resources, she said, it would provide a steady source of funding for further attacks.
Civilians like Mrs. Joaquim find themselves trapped among militants, mercenaries and government soldiers.
At the dusty, sprawling Metuge camp, home to 16,000 refugees and growing by the day, women sit outside their makeshift homes and feed their children, grind corn and occasionally reminisce about how life used to be, before they saw their family members and friends butchered, before they were attacked and forced to flee.
Mrs. Joaquim said she misses her husband and her son. She is wistful when remembering their former home and the grocery kiosk that she and her husband ran. The militants took all that away, she said.
In the aftermath of the attack, she said, she and her four remaining children walked for seven days to reach the camp. She is grateful for the haven but acknowledges that life is hard.
“We are suffering. Food is already scarce at the camp, and our children are not going to school,” she said. “There’s a lack of safe water at the camp.”
She and the other women don’t care about grievances over mineral rights or who is right and who is wrong.
“We want peace in our region so that we can go back home,” she said. “The government should find ways to end the attacks so that we are able to live without fear.”
• David R. Sands contributed to this report from Washington.
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