Jihadists launch assault on Mozambique's luxury tourist island

Peta Thornycroft
·3-min read
View of the fire that tore through the island, and which was started by jihadists seeking to grow their influence in Africa
View of the fire that tore through the island, and which was started by jihadists seeking to grow their influence in Africa

A group of Islamic State extremists plotting an insurgency in Africa have burned to the ground a luxury tourism resort on one of Mozambique's picturesque islands.

Sita is one of two pristine Indian Ocean island resorts that have been turned into a war zone by militants linked to IS.

The raids are the latest chapter in a horrific bush war that has been raged across Mozambique's northern Cabo Delgado province since October 2017.

Fighting between the insurgents and security forces has displaced more than 250,000 people and cost the lives of at least 1,500 men, women and children.

People fleeing the conflict speak of mass Islamic State-style beheadings, summary executions by security forces, rape and torture.

Among those affected by the most recent assault were Tessa and Craig McDonald, who manage a resort on Sita, the most southerly island in Mozambique's Quirimbas archipelago.

When they then saw a fire raging in the distance, she and her husband ran to get the guests and called a mercenary group who were hired earlier this year by the Mozambican government to provide air cover against the insurgents.

Image shows aftermath of the fire 
Image shows aftermath of the fire

Soon after, a helicopter from the Dyck Advisory Group arrived and hovered overhead, as terrified guests, hotel workers and children boarded a boat.

The helicopter then escorted the boat to the port city of Pemba, the provincial capital on the mainland.

The situation is still developing, but it is believed Islamists were responsible for the fires on Sita. In a conflict that is one of the least understood in the world, insurgents who claim allegiance to IS in the Middle East have tried to dominate the northern province.

British businessman Henry Pitman, one of the investors who won a 50-year lease for Vamizi Island some 15 years ago, said the recent attacks had been "devastating".

For more than a decade he has spent vast amounts turning Vamizi into a luxury tourism conservation centre, providing jobs for locals and protecting the surrounding coral reef and marine life.

View of Vamizi Island in less troubled times
View of Vamizi Island in less troubled times

In 2006, Nelson Mandela stood by the Mozambican president as he opened Mr Pitman's resort. A-list celebrities including Tom Hanks, Daniel Craig and Emma Watson have visited. Now, Mr Pitman has said he will return to rebuild the luxury lodge that was burned down last Friday after invaders raided food stocks on the island.

Kevin Record, a South African investor, has 14 rooms on Ibo Island, an old trading post. But the war means the tourists no longer come to watch dolphins and sip cocktails in the sun.

"I don't know how we will survive. I invested everything I had here," Mr Record said. "Every single island has been closed by the war since the British issued a travel advisory 18 months ago."