Mozambique: Reports Indicate Islamic State Beheading Children as Young as 11

islamic state fighters
GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images

British-based charity Save the Children said Tuesday children as young as 11 years old have been beheaded by the savage ISIS-affiliated Islamist insurgency in Mozambique.

The terrorists are reportedly murdering children before the eyes of their helpless mothers.

Sky News quoted horror stories related to Save the Children by civilians in Mozambique, including a mother who hid in terror with three of her children while the insurgents murdered her 12-year-old eldest son, and a woman who watched the death of her 11-year-old boy.

The Mozambique insurgency calls itself Ahlu-Sunnah Wa-Jama, a name it borrowed from Somalia’s Al-Shabaab terrorist organization; some of the killers, and many terrified local citizens, simply refer to the militants as “al-Shabaab.” The insurgency grew out of a popular movement against corrupt government and foreign exploitation of Mozambique’s oil and gas resources, but its loyalties lie with the Islamic State.

The U.S. State Department formally designated the militants and their leader Abu Yasir Hassan, a Tanzanian national, as a terrorist organization last week. The designation identified them as “ISIS-Mozambique” and noted they pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in the spring of 2018. The State Department held them responsible for the deaths of over 1,300 civilians and the displacement of some 670,000 Mozambicans.

A dozen U.S. Army Green Berets arrived in Mozambique this week on a two-month mission to train local troops. The New York Times (NYT) on Monday described it as “the entry of the United States military into a counterinsurgency effort that has been aided so far mainly by South African mercenaries, who have faced accusations of human rights abuses.” 

The NYT quoted a State Department insider who said the Green Beret training program “could lead to more ambitious American help for Mozambique’s military including combat casualty care, planning and logistics.”

“I don’t think anyone saw this coming. For this to crop up so quickly is concerning,” said U.S. Special Operations Africa deputy commander Col. Richard Smith. 

The ferocity of the Mozambican insurgents may have intensified this year, but their appearance on the scene should not have come as a sudden surprise to anyone. After years of increasingly bloody activity, they launched their first major offensive in 2017, attacking the port city of Mocimboa da Praia, which they finally managed to conquer in 2020. The Islamic State began claiming responsibility for Mozambican atrocities in the summer of 2019. 

The long-held strategic objective of the insurgency is taking control of the gas-rich province of Cabo Delgado, or at least making it so dangerous that foreign energy companies can no longer operate there. Beheadings have been a staple of their tactics for years; they reportedly beheaded 50 people in a mass atrocity in November 2020 and then hacked the bodies into pieces.

The BBC on Sunday described northern Mozambican villages as “cut off from the outside world by roving gangs of machete-wielding Islamist fighters” with a habit of hanging their butchered victims from trees, their severed heads balanced atop the bloody corpses. The jihadis generally behead male villagers while taking the women and girls as slaves, much like Boko Haram in Nigeria.

When one man escaped a village massacre and then tried to phone his brother to see if he was all right, a jihadi answered and said, “We killed your brother. We are afraid of nothing. We are al-Shabaab and we kill as we please.”

“We came here by foot with nothing. We were afraid. We saw al-Shabaab killing others with knives. There are many women I know who were abducted. There are many children in the camp here whose mothers were taken,” another refugee told the BBC.

The intensity of the ISIS-Mozambique campaign should come as no surprise to informed observers. The New York Times noted that 160 gunmen from the Wagner Group, the notoriously brutal Russian mercenary organization, flew into Cabo Delgado to protect its energy operations in 2019 and then flew right back out again after the insurgents killed seven of them. 

South African mercenaries proved to have more staying power, but also more indiscriminate firepower, as international human rights groups accuse them of killing civilians while having little significant effect on the insurgency. The U.S. State Department this week dismissed the use of mercenaries as “a feature of the landscape in Cabo Delgado that complicates rather than helps efforts to address the terror threat there.”

Another complicating factor is the Mozambican government, which is almost as corrupt as the jihadis accuse it of being, and has a distressing habit of interfering with humanitarian aid shipments to the starving refugees of Cabo Delgado. Local residents told the BBC the police expect bribes before allowing them to eat. Factions within Mozambique’s political class accuse each other of supporting the insurgents.

Money for food and medicine sent by well-meaning foreign donors wound up supporting the corrupt government instead, with little visible effect on Mozambique’s grinding poverty, which helps the Islamists recruit fighters and market itself as a popular revolutionary movement. 

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