Maputo & Bournemouth, UK — They are known for beheading dissenters and torching homes in grisly attacks that have uprooted more than 150,000 people. But when Islamist militants stormed three key towns in northern Mozambique in March and April, they offered residents something different: looted food and friendly meetings.
And having shied away from showing their faces or publicising a message since launching their revolt in October 2017, members of the group - known by some as Ansar al-Sunnah - have suddenly become much clearer about what they want.
Prior attacks have been claimed by so-called Islamic State, and in videos released during the raids they demanded Shari'a law and raised IS flags, leaving little doubt as to their allegiance, though it remains unclear if they are receiving direct material support.
Analysts of the country said the incursions, in gas-rich Cabo Delgado province, show how a once shadowy insurgent group is seeking to broaden its appeal among local residents, while launching bigger and bolder attacks that are overwhelming demoralised soldiers and triggering a humanitarian crisis in Mozambique's poorest corner.
As the insurgents gain ground and pick bigger targets - the strategic town of Macomia appeared to be under attack on the morning of 28 May - local authorities are abandoning their posts in increasing numbers, creating what aid officials described to The New Humanitarian as a "no man's land".
Since March, the few international aid groups working in Cabo Delgado have mostly pulled back to the province's capital city, Pemba, leaving behind a growing number of internally displaced people with little support.
Though many analysts say the handing out of looted goods indicates a strategic attempt to win "hearts and minds", residents and witnesses of recent attacks said the group has no mercy for those who step out of line. Last month was the deadliest since 2017, according to the conflict monitoring group ACLED.
"Maybe they want to show something, an ideal, a concept," said Liazzat Bonate, a Mozambican lecturer at the University of the West Indies. "But they can kill mercilessly if they feel threatened."
When the militants launched their first attack in Cabo Delgado more than two and half years ago, residents recognised them as members of a local Islamist sect that had emerged in the province a few years earlier.
As attacks escalated in the months that followed, the violence became harder to understand: the group had no visible leadership and made no public statements outlining any religious objectives.
Analysts said there were multiple groups or cells acting autonomously. Unemployed youths, army defectors, common criminals, and adventure seekers had all joined their ranks.
The discovery of one of the world's biggest untapped offshore gas fields off the coast of Cabo Delgado has added intrigue, with conspiracy theories fuelled by the government arresting journalists and researchers working in the region.
But the recent incursions suggest the group is now keen to go public, with fighters clearly denouncing a "government of unbelievers" in one video recorded in April - and calling for an Islamist one in its place.
"There is little doubt as to what is going on by now," said Eric Morier-Genoud, an expert on Mozambique who has conducted research trips in Cabo Delgado. "These people have a jihadi programme; they want to establish an Islamic state."
The clearer messages have been accompanied by increasingly brazen attacks - on the capitals of Cabo Delgado's main districts rather than on the more remote rural villages the militants had previously targeted. Soldiers have put up little resistance, as government buildings, schools, and banks have been set alight, and towns occupied for days at a time.
The group's propensity to lash out at civilians has been tempered by a willingness to communicate: at public meetings where looted food is handed out, residents have been lectured on how the government "humiliates the poor".
In one incident in March, residents of Mocímboa da Praia were filmed clapping and cheering as militants sauntered through the town, removing symbols linked to the state and hoisting black-and-white flags.
"They said they weren't there to attack the people," said a Mocímboa da Praia resident who asked not to be named. "They attacked the police station and military barracks."
Nowhere to run
But the so-called "hearts and minds" campaign has not stopped tens of thousands from fleeing their homes in recent months, nor gruesome attacks on dissenters - including 52 people reportedly killed in April after refusing to be recruited by the insurgents.
The same Mocímboa da Praia resident told TNH they fled in fear to nearby Muidumbe district, before being caught up in another attack. After four days in hiding, they travelled to Pemba, where most international organisations are based but many fear could soon be attacked.
Bibiana Simão from Quissanga district also spent four days hunkered down with her mother and daughters as insurgents burnt down houses in her village. "The militants didn't change," said the 42-year-old, who now lives with 16 others in her cousin's house in Pemba. "They're still decapitating people."
Other residents described a province that is becoming harder to live in: markets that close early and lack gas or goods because cars don't dare travel; hospitals empty because medical workers have fled.
Displaced people have left remote rural villages convinced that larger towns offer safety, but the string of recent attacks has thrown that into question. Even little islands of refuge off the coast of Cabo Delgado have been attacked by militants in boats.
Many of the displaced have now headed to Pemba, but a cholera outbreak, a growing number of COVID-19 cases, and twitchy soldiers suspicious of insurgent infiltration are making their lives difficult.
Aid officials said the government was initially hesitant to let them assist displaced people before easing up around February as the numbers fleeing spiralled. But the recent attacks caused most organisations to withdraw to Pemba, putting relief efforts on hold.
"People will really suffer," said Rotafina Donco, Oxfam's country director in Mozambique. "There is no one to provide shelter [outside Pemba] or any other things because everyone has withdrawn."
Twelve-month emergency funding for Cyclone Kenneth - which ploughed through Cabo Delgado in April 2019 - has mostly dried up, causing the few aid groups working in the province to draw down their staff. Lacking funds, Oxfam has closed down its office altogether.
"This response is clearly underfunded," said Donco.
The insurgents' position as one of Islamic State's emerging African franchises is made clear in recent videos, but local grievances and dynamics are thought to be shaping the group far more than any international connections.
Links between the militants and Cabo Delgado's myriad criminal economies - from ruby mining to ivory trafficking - remain murky, though there is growing evidence that the group is taxing heroin traffickers who ship drugs through the province.
As the militants change strategy, Paolo Israel, a researcher at the University of the Western Cape, said the government is changing its approach too. "For the first time, the government has acknowledged the problem," he said.
At a meeting between Southern African leaders in Harare last week, President Filipe Nyusi appealed for regional help in fighting the insurgents - and South Africa said it might step forward - though analysts and rights groups cautioned against more militarisation given the army's poor human rights record.
"People have to not see the military as the enemy, but [as] an institution they can trust," said Sérgio Chichava, a researcher at Mozambique's Institute for Social and Economic Studies.
The government has also announced the creation of an economic development agency in northern Mozambique - a move it hopes can provide employment opportunities for local youth.
But Bonate, from the University of the West Indies, pointed out that high levels of corruption in Mozambique - the country is still struggling with the fallout of a massive government debt scandal - means promises like this are rarely kept.
Having ignored the humanitarian implications of the violence for months, according to aid officials, the government is only now reportedly setting up the first of its own camps for displaced people.
Weeks after fleeing their homes, residents who spoke to TNH in April said they had not received any support from authorities. "I don't know what the government is going to do," said a 29-year-old teacher from Muidumbe. "Right now there's people who don't know what they're going to eat."