In early November 2020, fifteen boys and five adults were decapitated with machetes by Islamic State (IS) insurgents during an initiation rite for teenage boys. Following the attack in the small farming village of 24 de Marco in Muidumbe district, the jihadists brought the victim’s bodies to a football pitch in the village of Muatide.[1] Later, a further 30 youths and adults in the same district were beheaded by jihadists in a similar assault, and their bodies were also brought to Muatide “in a gruesome display intended to strike fear into the local community”.[2]

These massacres followed on the heels of an earlier mass attack in April 2020, in which an estimated 52 men were killed in the village of Xitaxi in Muidumbe district, after refusing to join the ranks of the jihadists.[3] In a statement to the public broadcaster TVM, police spokesman Orlando Mudumane explained: “The criminals tried to recruit young people to join their ranks, but there was resistance. This provoked the anger of the criminals, who indiscriminately killed, cruelly and diabolically, 52 young people.”[4]

These examples highlight an intensifying trend of extreme violence and killing in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province, in which it is calculated that over the last three years the fundamentalist group Ahlu-Sunnah Wa-Jama (locally known as Al Shabaab), affiliated with IS, has killed more than 2,500 civilians and displaced over 570,000 people.[5]

The rise of Islamist extremism in northern Mozambique is a complex and multi-causal phenomenon. Factors enabling the rapid spread and recruitment capacity of the jihadist networks include: poverty and corruption; weak state structures; a lack of education and employment opportunities; the arrival of transnational criminal networks benefitting from the illicit trade in timber, gems, gold or drugs; frustration among the local population at their exclusion from mineral profits; grievances generated by repressive actions committed by security forces; a lack of land rights; and fundamentalist influences from countries such as Saudi Arabia and Somalia. These roots, spurring the rise of groups like Al Shabaab, reflect a similar pattern and dynamic of Islamist radicalisation and extreme violence to those seen in regions such as the Lake Chad Basin, the Sahel and Somalia.

Despite the fact that all actors recognise the need to prioritise responses to the socio-economic roots of the conflict, the reaction so far has been deeply militarised, contributing to a further spiral of violence. For Luis Fernando Lisboa, the former Catholic Bishop of Pemba, the capital of Cabo Delgado, the only sustainable answer to counter violent extremism in the province is social justice.


[1] “By the Numbers: Cabo Delgado, October 2017-November 2020”, 10th November 2020, Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED);

[2] “With Village Beheadings, Islamic State Intensifies Attacks in Mozambique”, The New York Times, 11th November 2020;

[3] “Mozambique villagers ‘massacred’ by Islamists”, BBC News, 22nd April 2020; (accessed 12th January 2020).

[4] “Dozens killed in Mozambique for refusing to join terrorists”, DW News, 22nd April 2020;

[5] “Mozambique Insurgents Attack in Total’s LNG Concession Area”, Bloomberg News, 2nd January 2021;