Media Mystery Surrounds Islamic State Conquests in Mozambique
On March 25, the Islamic State in Central African Province (ISCAP)’s Mozambique branch raided the town of Palma in northeastern Mozambique and was reported to have slaughtered civilians and killed several dozen soldiers. The attack would not have been unprecedented for ISCAP, which has consistently captured towns along Mozambique’s northern Swahili Coast since 2018 and has even ventured into Tanzania for attacks (Terrorism Monitor, December 3, 2020). What was unprecedented, however, was ISCAP’s continuing from Palma toward the lodge where international employees of Total’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) site were located and attacking the employees’ escape convoy. Altogether, 21 Mozambican soldiers and 40 civilians were killed during the Palma raid, and several international workers remain missing and were possibly beheaded (timeslive.co.za, March 29).
IS-affiliated Amaq news agency claimed the Palma raid and released a photo of several dozen ISCAP fighters convening in what appeared to be a pre-combat meeting (news24.com, March 29). However, street signs in the photo indicated the fighters were in Mocímboa da Praia, not Palma, and almost certainly at a date much earlier than the attack on Palma. The subsequent IS al-Naba weekly newsletter also included details on the ISCAP’s latest assault (Twitter/@unofficialmossad, April 2). However, it was generic and did not include any unique insider information about the raid. Further, IS released an Amaq video of ISCAP fighters after the attack. The video did not appear to be from the Palma incident, however (news24.com, March 29). It was likely video footage from sometime before the raid, and IS was reviving it to take advantage of the international media focus on the attack.
Considering that IS had not released any claims of ISCAP attacks since October 2020, until its claim of the Palma raid, and IS did not provide any clear proof of communications with ISCAP after the attack, there is reason to believe IS and ISCAP have broken their line of communications. This could have occurred either because key media leaders on either side, but more likely ISCAP’s, have been killed and contacts were lost. Alternatively, ISCAP and IS may have strategically sought to reduce public evidence of their relationship to prevent greater international counter-terrorism pressure on the organization, especially after U.S. Green Berets were reportedly deployed to Mozambqiue and the U.S. designated ISCAP’s Mozambique and Congo branch leaders as terrorists (dailymaverick.co.za, March 17). If the latter is correct, however, it would seem inconsistent that IS would claim the Palma raid, rather than allow it to occur, but remain silent. The IS claim only served to bolster the narrative that IS itself was behind the Palma raid and that international counter-terrorism forces would be justified to attack ISCAP on the grounds that it was operating on behalf of IS.
While the exact nature of IS’ relationship with ISCAP’s Mozambique branch can only be considered somewhat mysterious at this point, the same cannot be said of IS’ relationship with ISCAP’s Congo branch. IS has continued releasing evidence, such as photos, from the Congo branch’s attacks, including in al-Naba weekly newsletter (Twitter/@CalibreObscura, April 2). Clearly, no cut in communications between the Congo branch and IS has taken place.
ISCAP’s Mozambique branch, or al-Shabaab or Ahl as-Sunna wal-Jamaa as it is locally known, is no less lethal and tactically effective as a result of the apparent communications break with IS. At the same time, Mozambique’s army has proven to be woefully unprepared for combatting ISCAP, let alone protecting the Total LNG site, which has only facilitated the militant group’s consistent conquests. The follow-up attack on the LNG site on April 2 further demonstrated the Mozambican army’s complete unpreparedness and ISCAP’s growing confidence (dailymaverick.co.za, April 2).
Indonesian Female ‘Inghimasi’ Attacker Continues Southeast Asian Jihadist Trends
On March 31, a woman wearing black Islamic women’s clothing entered the national police headquarters in Jakarta, Indonesia and began shooting at police officers. After firing six shots, the police returned fire and killed her. Video clips of the back-and-forth gunfire were later featured on social media (jakartapost.com, March 31). It turned out that she had posted the image of an Islamic State (IS) flag on her Instagram account and left a will and Whatsapp messages for her family (straitstimes.com, March 31). She, therefore, fits the mold of an IS “inghimasi” (immersion by death) attacker, rather than a “suicide attacker.”
This attacker, who was 25-years old, continues a relatively unique trend of IS-influenced Indonesian female attackers. Only several months earlier, in October 2020, the Philippines also arrested an Indonesian woman planning a suicide attack in the southern Philippines (abc.net.au, October 10, 2020). That arrest also came after two other women, including one Filipino and one Indonesian, conducted a double-suicide bombing at a Jolo, southern Philippines church that killed 14 people and was attributed to Abu Sayyaf (aljazeera.com, August 25). More recently, in February, the Philippines announced that it arrested nine women who were preparing to conduct suicide bombings. Moreover, three of them were daughters of an Abu Sayyaf leader, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, and two others were widows of an Abu Sayyaf member (inquirer.net, February 23).
Abu Sayyaf as an organization has largely dissolved and has become IS’s Southeast Asian branch, and Sawadjaan himself is considered to be a leading IS representative in the Philippines. The trend of Indonesian and Filipino female suicide bombers also appears to be related to their being wives, or more specifically widows, or daughters of IS members and partaking in “family radicalization.” This latter phenomenon also occurred in Surabaya, Indonesia in 2018 when a husband, wife, and four children in one family carried out attacks on churches and, ultimately, a suicide attack bombing with two other families, killing 12 other people. The children had been home-schooled in order to allow the parents to influence them without any outside interference (Jakarta Post, May 15, 2018).
Although IS in Syria and Iraq was hesitant to employ women in attacks, the group and its supporters have praised women attackers elsewhere, including in Mombasa, Kenya in 2018 and, most recently, in Jakarta at the national police headquarters (africanews.com, September 11, 2016). This distinguishes IS “provinces”, or branches, abroad, from the “core,” but, as evidenced by the Jakarta attacker, there is a shared ideology. At the same time, the employment of widows and daughters in attacks does not necessarily indicate IS’ strength in Indonesia and the Philippines. After taking over the city of Marawi in the southern Philippines in 2017, there has been no similar revival by IS in the country, and the attempt by Santoso (known by only one name) to establish a formidable IS presence in Sulawesi, Indonesia was thwarted. Santoso was killed in 2018 (jakartapost.com, December 29, 2016). Therefore, resorting to widows or daughters could indicate an overall lack of fighters to conduct attacks for these IS-loyal jihadist groups, which is also why there have been few attacks generally in Indonesia or the Philippines aside for sporadic incidents in recent years.
The latest attack in Jakarta, however, appears unique because the attacker is not reported to have had familial ties to any jihadists. She even left behind a note to her family requesting forgiveness for her actions and urging her relatives to pray, wear the hijab, and remember that God comes before anything else. In contrast to other female suicide bombers, who were part of “jihadist families,” this “inghimasi” attacker was instead mostly self-radicalized.