NAIROBI, KENYA (NYTIMES) - A tiny farming community on a plateau in northern Mozambique was holding an initiation rite to induct teenage boys into manhood when it was struck by ISIS militants, several accounts stated.
Armed with machetes, the attackers beheaded as many as 20 boys and men in the village of 24 de Marco, according to a local media report that was confirmed on Wednesday (Nov 11) by ACLED, an American crisis monitoring group that maps the exploding insurgency in Mozambique.
The atrocity in early November was just one episode in a brutal conflict unfolding in Cabo Delgado, a remote, resource-rich province of northern Mozambique. Insurgents who pledge allegiance to ISIS or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have grown dramatically in strength this year - seizing territory, capturing a port and stepping up brutal attacks on civilians that often involve beheadings.
The deepening humanitarian crisis has displaced at least 355,000 people according to the United Nations - up from 90,000 in January.
The militants' success is also a sign of a worrisome trend: As ISIS' influence wanes in the Middle East, it is surging in pockets of Africa, with brazen offshoots gaining ground in western, central and, now, southern corners of the continent.
In a statement late on Tuesday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was shocked by reports from news agencies that up to 50 people, including women and children, had been beheaded in the district of Muidumbe, where the village of 24 de Marco is located, and he called on Mozambique to mount an immediate investigation.
There was no immediate response from the government of President Filipe Nyusi, whose Makonde ethnic group comes from the same region.
"These decapitations, which remind people of Syria and Iraq, scare everyone," said Dr Eric Morier-Genoud, a professor of African history at Queens University Belfast, who specialises in Mozambique. "It's a grim situation that is worsening quickly because the militants' capacity seems to be growing."
The insurgency, which started in 2017 with a group known locally as Al-Sunna wa Jama'a, originally drew on a stew of local grievances in Cabo Delgado, a province of vast forests and immense mineral reserves, including graphite and ruby mines, along Mozambique's border with Tanzania.
Exact details on attacks are hard to establish because Mozambique has barred journalists and human rights researchers from the conflict zone, and most international aid agencies have fled.
After the Muidumbe attacks, Pinnacle News, a local news service, reported that militants had gathered the 20 bodies, along with victims from other sites, at a soccer pitch in Muatide village in a gruesome display intended to strike fear into the local community.
Days after the attack, an Agence France-Presse report cited a local aid worker who described the funerals for 15 boys who were killed in the initiation ceremony.
Of the 355,000 civilians displaced by conflict, about 100,000 have poured into the regional capital, Pemba, which has avoided the fighting. Others have taken shelter in a chain of islands off the coast of Cabo Delgado, an area that until recently was a destination for high-end tourism. Even there, though, they are not safe from attack.
Last month, according to local news reports, ISIS fighters raided the island of Matemo, which has seen a major cholera outbreak, and attacked or kidnapped displaced people as they searched for food and other provisions.
Other refugees have drowned at sea after their overcrowded boats capsized, including 54 who died on a craft bound for Pemba on Oct 29 according to independent news service Zitamar that follows the insurgency closely.
And on Aug 13, at least 40 refugees were killed after government forces opened fire on their boat, apparently mistaking it for an insurgent craft, ACLED reported.
The exact nature of the relationship between the insurgents and the ISIS in the Middle East is unclear.
ISIS publications often carry accounts of operations in Mozambique, as well as photos, and there have been reports of ISIS trainers travelling to Mozambique.
But experts say it is unclear whether the insurgents in Mozambique are being directed from the outside, or if they are merely exploiting the power of the ISIS brand in a franchise-style arrangement.
And while the militants claim to be targeting Christians, in practice they make little distinction between their victims, said Zitamar News' contributing editor Sam Ratner.
"ISIS propaganda says they burned a Christian village or killed Christian soldiers," Mr Ratner said. "But on the ground, we're not seeing a lot of differentiation between Christians and Muslims. They do not appear to be targeting churches in particular, for instance."