- On March 24, 2021, operatives of ISIS’s Central Africa Province (actually, these are operatives of the local Ansar al-Sunna organization that pledged allegiance to ISIS) mounted a large-scale attack against Palma, a Mozambican coastal city with about 75,000 inhabitants, and took it over. The city is located in the Cabo Delgado Province, in northeastern Mozambique, the hub of the organization’s activity, near the largest natural gas field in Africa, where foreign companies are involved in the operation.
- According to ISIS, the operatives mounted the attack from Mocímboa da Praia, a port city that ISIS took over on August 12, 2020. During the attack, which ISIS claimed lasted three days, ISIS operatives killed over 50 soldiers and Christian civilians, including citizens of Western countries, and there were reports of hundreds of people missing. ISIS operatives took over government and military buildings, government facilities and banks. They also seized large quantities of weapons and ammunition (Al-Naba’ weekly, Telegram, April 1, 2021).
- On April 5, 2021 (i.e., 12 days after Palma was taken by ISIS), the Mozambican army regained control of the city, killing many ISIS operatives. The city suffered considerable damage, which was documented in a Sky channel report (Sky News, BBC, April 5, 2021).
- ISIS’s attack against the city of Palma, the second city taken over by ISIS in Mozambique after Mocímboa da Praia, took place not long after the US Department of State had announced the imposition of sanctions on ISIS’s branch in Mozambique and its leader, Abu Yasir Hassan (US Department of State’s website, March 10, 2021), and after a period in which Mozambican security officials reported a decrease in ISIS’s terror activity.
- The attack on Palma reflects a preferred modus operandi of organizations affiliated with ISIS in Africa and other zones of ISIS activity. The organization terrorizes a population that does not support it, taking advantage of territory controlled by ISIS to concentrate a limited-time effort against adjacent population centers, causing heavy casualties. This goes on until the government deploys enough troops, forcing the ISIS operatives to retreat. Another prominent modus operandi is carrying out pinpoint attacks against the government forces in the various countries. To this end, ISIS takes advantage of the intelligence gaps of the local armies which prevent them from deploying ahead of time to thwart ISIS’s attacks. The takeover of Palma indicates ISIS’s increasing boldness and highlights the risks inherent in ISIS’s taking over parts of the province. There are concerns that ISIS’s success in taking over Palma, albeit temporarily, may lead to attempts to take over other cities in this province, strategically located on the border with Tanzania, enjoying access to the sea and rich with minerals, thus setting an example for other organizations operating under ISIS.
The city of Palma taken over
The city of Palma (Google Maps)
- ISIS’s Central Africa Province (actually, these are operatives of a local organization called Ansar al-Sunna that pledged allegiance to ISIS) reported that on March 24, 2021, it had carried out a large-scale attack against the city of Palma, a coastal city in the northern Cabo Delgado Province. The city, with a population of about 75,000, is situated near the largest natural gas field in Africa, where foreign companies operate (Al-Naba’ weekly, Telegram, April 1, 2021; www.theafricareport.com, March 24, 2021; The New York Times, March 27, 2021; ABC News, March 30, 2021; www.ndtv.com, March 30, 2021).
- According to ISIS, its operatives mounted the attack from the seaport of Mocímboa da Praia (situated about 70 km south of Palma), which was taken over by ISIS on August 12, 2020. During the attack, which lasted three days, ISIS operatives killed over 50 soldiers and Christian civilians, including citizens of Christian-Western (“Crusader”) countries. Dozens of others were wounded. The ISIS operatives took over government and military buildings, government facilities and banks. They also seized weapons, ammunition and equipment of the Mozambican army and police (Telegram, March 29, 2021; Al-Naba’ weekly, Telegram, April 1, 2021).
- According to local sources, the attack was carried out by hundreds of ISIS operatives moving along three routes simultaneously. The operatives initially took control of a police station near the coast. From there, they advanced to the city’s business park and robbed two banks. At the same time, fighting was taking place in the area of the Amarula Hotel in the north of the city, which is frequented by foreigners. Twenty of them were evacuated by helicopter. After the takeover, about 200 people were left besieged in the city, including dozens of foreign workers. Many residents managed to flee, leaving the city on foot, traveling on the roads, or by sea. Thus, apart from the besieged people, all residents left the city.
- Communications lines in the city were cut off. ISIS operatives surrounded four hotels frequented by foreign workers. On March 26, 2021, the third day of ISIS’s takeover of the city, several civilians attempted to escape from one of the hotels (Amarula Hotel). The ISIS operatives killed some of those attempting to escape and wounded several dozen others (www.theafricareport.com, March 24, 2021; The New York Times, March 27, 2021; ABC News, March 30, 2021; www.ndtv.com, March 30, 2021).
Right: ISIS operative in Palma. Left: Helicopter evacuating Western citizens (Al-Naba’ weekly, Telegram, April 1, 2021)
Amarula Hotel (in red) and the natural gas project (in blue), located about 10 km southeast of the city (Google Maps)
- ISIS’s Al-Naba’ weekly published an infographic entitled “Soldiers of the Caliphate Controlling the Strategic City of Palma,” summarizing the events. According to the infographic, ISIS operatives attacked Mozambican army camps and government buildings in the city. A total of 55 soldiers, Christian residents and foreign citizens, and several dozen others were wounded. The ISIS operatives took control of government buildings and plants and seized large quantities of army and police weapons. The infographic ends with a quote by ISIS’s spokesman Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, in which he praises the operatives in Central and West Africa for their courage and calls on them to continue their jihad operations against the “Crusaders” (i.e., the West) and the local regimes supporting them (Al-Naba’ weekly, Telegram, April 1, 2021).
The infographic summarizing ISIS’s activity in Palma (Al-Naba’ weekly, Telegram, April 1, 2021)
ISIS’s Amaq News Agency released photos and a video documenting the takeover of the city. They show the organization operatives walking around in the city, many of them with unmasked faces, which indicates the extent of their sense of security and self-confidence (Telegram, March 29, 2021).
Photos from ISIS’s video showing ISIS operatives in Palma (Telegram, March 29, 2021)
Photo released by ISIS’s Amaq News Agency, showing ISIS operatives after taking over Palma (Telegram, March 29, 2021)
Mozambican army regains control of the city
- On April 5, 2021, after 12 days, the Mozambican army reported that it had regained full control of the city. According to its reports, many ISIS operatives were killed fighting against the army forces. According to the army spokesman, the city and the adjacent gas field are secured. The city suffered considerable damage, and communications remain cut off. Despite reports on residents retuning to the city, the streets are still empty. The province governor, who visited the city, promised to assist the residents and rebuild the city (Sky News, BBC, April 5, 2021).
 For further details on ISIS’s activity in Mozambique, see the ITIC's publication from March 25, 2021, “Analysis of the activity of ISIS’s branches in Congo and Mozambique following the imposition of US sanctions” ↑