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ISIS-Affiliated Fighters Take Control Of A Strategic Port In Mozambique

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

While the Islamic State has receded from the headlines in Syria and Iraq, it is getting attention in southern Africa. What had been a small insurgent group claiming links to ISIS has now taken control of a strategic port in Mozambique. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: At the beginning, Islamists in Mozambique used to make news for raiding tiny villages along the country's northern coast. But this year, they started posting online videos of militants in uniform with machine guns attacking bigger towns.

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PERALTA: In March, they released a video of three militants standing in front of a burning village. One of the men is seen holding the black flag of the Islamic State.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: The group calling itself Ansar al-Sunna was now an affiliate of ISIS. Salvador Forquilha has been tracking the group at Mozambique's Institute for Social and Economic Studies since its first major attack in 2017. At the time, he says...

SALVADOR FORQUILHA: It was a kind of religious group which decided to preach the rhetoric of Islam.

PERALTA: Mozambique is mostly Christian but with a large Muslim population along the coast. The locals there started calling the militants al-Shabaab after the al-Qaida-affiliated group in Somalia. But when Forquilha looked at their recruiting methods, he found the messaging was local. Young men were recruited based on promises of jobs.

FORQUILHA: It's not very much based on the ideology. But they try to exploit the socio-economic conditions of young people.

PERALTA: Emilia Columbo at the Center for Strategic and International Studies says in their videos, Ansar al-Sunna talks about local politics, how FRELIMO of the ruling party, which has been in power since independence in 1975, is corrupt and has to go, about how it's time to protect poor Muslims. They are not talking about global jihad.

EMILIA COLUMBO: While they're waving the black flag in the background, they're not talking about broader ISIS goals or how they're going support the broader ISIS project at this local level. It's all about what's happening at home.

PERALTA: Last week, the group pulled off a huge coup. They marched into the coastal city of Mocimboa da Praia. They fought off South African mercenaries and sank a Mozambican military vessel. A group that once killed with machetes now controlled a hugely strategic port. To Colombo, it raises questions.

COLUMBO: Why are they so good? Like, are they just naturally blessed with some amazing leaders, or did these people go abroad to learn some tricks then came home and applied them?

JASMINE OPPERMAN: They are not bandits anymore. They are well-trained fighters.

PERALTA: That is Jasmine Opperman, a South African analyst at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. She says the militants have likely picked up their moves and weapons locally. But now that they're successful, she says...

OPPERMAN: The opportunities for the Islamic State to start influencing and taking lead can not be ignored.

PERALTA: Now that Ansar al-Sunna has become a serious insurgency, Opperman says they've become a hot commodity on the global jihadist market. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMPRESARIOS'S "SIESTA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.