The rebels have expanded their area in a campaign that has lasted for more than two months since June. The new offensive follows a period of relative calm when the commander-general of Mozambique's national police had declared that “the war against terrorism is almost at an end.”
But rebels have stretched further south than ever before, burning villages and beheading civilians in Ancuabe, Chiure and Mecufi, districts which had previously been untouched by the conflict since it began in October 2017.
The latest violence brings the total number of people displaced in Cabo Delgado to just under 950,000, according to estimates by the International Organization for Migration.
Despite military support sent to Mozambique by neighboring countries and Rwanda, the rebels have pressed forward. Foreign troops were deployed in Cabo Delgado a year ago following the extremists' seizure of the strategic town of Palma in March last year.
“The prevalence of attacks a year after the beginning of the foreign military intervention confirms what was already clear" that the government is wrong to say the insurrection has been caused by an external invasion, said Albino Forquilha, executive director of FOMICRES, an independent peacebuilding organization in Mozambique.
“The truth is that the conflict has internal origins due to bad governance and a poor relationship between the state and the local population,” Forquilha continued. “As long as the government ignores this fact, the attacks will not stop.”
Mozambique's security forces and the allied foreign troops have succeeded in driving insurgents from the main towns of Cabo Delgado into the forests, but this has effectively put rural civilians on the frontline.
Since June, the insurgency has been characterized by relentless hit-and-run assaults on undefended villages, forcing the military and police off-balance as they rush to respond from one incident to the next.
“The increase in the number of attacks across dispersed areas will limit the pursuit of armed groups by government forces and their partners,” said João Feijó, a researcher at the Mozambique-based Observatory of the Rural Environment. “It is a strategy that aims to increase the difficulties for government forces and their partners."
The Southern African Development Community is due to decide in August whether to further extend its military intervention, which originally had a mandate for three months beginning in July 2021.
The experience of the last year suggests that more than just military force is needed to bring the insurgency to heel, say analysts.
“I do not see a quick end to these attacks,” said Forquilha.