Johannesburg – ISIS claimed responsibility for the bloody siege on a town in the east African nation of Mozambique last week that forced tens of thousands of people to flee the area, and left dozens dead. The assault lasted almost a week, with heavily armed insurgents violently taking control of the northern port town of Palma. Many foreign nationals working on natural gas projects in the region were killed or captured.
In an interview you’ll see only on CBS News, correspondent Debora Patta spoke with a South African contractor who made a daring escape with his father and brother.
As Patta has reported, the rapid rise of the new ISIS franchise has taken everyone by surprise. Last month, the United States formally designated the ISIS group in Mozambique, known locally as Al-Sunna wa Jama’a, a global terrorist entity and imposed sanctions on its leader, named by the U.S. as Abu Yasir Hassan. American officials are watching developments in the country with concern, and U.S. special forces are training Mozambican troops in counterterrorism tactics.
But that training only started several weeks ago, so when ISIS fighters escalated their insurgency in the northeast region of Cabo Delgado with the brazen assault on the city of Palma, Mozambique’s army was out-gunned, out-manned, overwhelmed, and no match for the militants.
As the insurgents laid siege to Palma, building contractors Greg Knox and his two sons Adrian and Wesley Nel sought refuge with colleagues at the Amarula Palma hotel.
When the fighting drew closer, with the sound of mortars and gunfire cracking outside, they would bunker down in the hotel bar.
“We started getting shot at,” Wesley told Patta. “They were shooting at us over the wall. So, we [were] all lying on the floor and just keeping our heads down.”
The festering insurgency in Cabo Delgado began three years ago, but has escalated dramatically in recent months. At stake is a $50 billion natural gas project being developed by French and American companies just a few miles south of Palma.
The ISIS group’s new, more sophisticated weaponry was on full display in the attack on Palma, with gunfire, grenades and mortars pounding the town relentlessly for days.
Worried the militants would storm the hotel, Adrian risked his life to retrieve a gun stashed in an abandoned vehicle outside. Wesley kept a watchful eye, and grew increasingly frantic that his brother was taking too long. Adrian eventually made it back with the AK-47, but it would be of little use against the well-armed militants.
“There was maybe a period of an hour where it quieted down,” Wesley recalled. “Other than that, it was nonstop… There was gunshots right around us. We were surrounded by probably in the region of about 15 insurgents that was shooting at us over the wall.”
They knew the walls weren’t high enough to keep the ISIS fighters out for long, so along with everyone else holed up at the hotel, they made infinite frantic calls for any help they could get, but none came.
Wesley kept trying to reassure his dad and his brother that they’d all make it out of the ordeal.
“One thing I said to them is that, ‘I’m glad that I’m here with you, and not somewhere else watching what’s happening on the TV. I’m thankful that I’m with you guys in this.’ So, yeah just to look after each other,” he told CBS News.
By the third day trapped in the hotel, their only hope of rescue was helicopters circling overhead — flown in by a private South African security company.
They listened for hours as the aircraft fought off jihadists and evacuated survivors. But as night approached, the helicopters were running out of fuel and they had to turn back.
As ISIS insurgents encircled the hotel, those inside faced a terrifying choice: Stay put and hope to be rescued, or make a run for it.
“We knew that by Friday night… We won’t survive another night,” Wesley told CBS News. “If they get in… we’d be slaughtered.”
They decided to make a run for it. They planned a bid to escape Palma in a 17-vehicle convoy.
There was only one armored vehicle with space for passengers, so they put all the women and children from the hotel into that, said Wesley, “and the rest of us were all in unarmored vehicles.”
His brother Adrian got behind the wheel of one of them.
“You keep your head down, yah?” Wesley can be heard warning his brother on video he shot on his cell phone. “It’s going to be the drive of your life, bro.”
Wesley stopped filming as the vehicles pulled out of the hotel gates. They sped along a road flanked by thick vegetation, but within minutes they came under fire. In a second ambush Adrian took bullets in his shoulder and leg, but he kept driving as Wesley tried to stop the bleeding.
“I was just shouting to him, ‘I love you,'” he told Patta, choking back tears. “Eventually, the car came to a stop and I jumped out the back seat to the front and lifted him up and pushed him to the back where my dad was holding him and holding his wounds to stop the blood.”
“We drove as fast as possible,” recalled Wesley. “Another vehicle in front of us had gone into a corner too fast and had rolled and the — just bodies everywhere. I continued to drive, just shouting back to try and save his life… I just kept telling him how much I love him, and that I’ll look after his family.”
Eventually they reached the agreed upon rallying point, a quarry.
“I got out the car and tried to save my brother some more, but he was already gone… I took his belongings and took his ring, his bangles, his wallet, and his phones,” recalled Wesley, breaking down at the still-raw memory. “Covered him up and I said goodbye to him, and thank you for saving all of our lives and, we then left him in the car and we ran into the bush.”
They hid in the dense undergrowth for two days.
Eventually, the longed-for help did come. The harrowing ordeal was over, and they flew home to Adrian’s family — bringing with them the body of a beloved son and brother, and the heartbreaking images on their phones of his final days.
A senior U.S. State Department official told CBS News that the battlefield tactics of ISIS in Mozambique mirror those used in Iraq and Syria, and experts fear this may be another land-grab by the terror group which, if successful, could give it a new launch pad for attacks on the West.