As dawn broke the next morning, Thursday, March 25, Max Dyck was watching the battle of Palma unfold on a row of screens in Langebaan, a tourist town known for oysters, whale-watching, and kitesurfing, 2,000 miles away on South Africa’s Atlantic coast. There was no nameplate on the Dyck Advisory Group’s office door, a few blocks back from the beach, and the company’s website listed its address as a P.O. box in a town 25 miles away. DAG’s services, the website added, included anti-poaching, demining, dog squads, and “bespoke… security-based operations,” drawing on “a large pool of ex-military personnel” for a variety of high-profile clients “in several conflict and post conflict environments.” For the past five months, DAG had been training a small Mozambican police-combat unit to do the army’s job and pursue Al Shabab. Now it had a new mission: saving the thousands trapped in Palma.
If civilian rescue was an unusual mission for a private military contractor, that suited Max Dyck fine. Old-school mercenaries in Africa tend to be former soldiers from white-supremacist regimes in South Africa and what once was Rhodesia, or communist veterans from Russia and Eastern Europe, who “just kill everybody in sight, work out who’s who afterward, and go back to the bar and tell war stories,” as one South African military contractor put it. DAG was set up by Max’s father, Colonel Lionel Dyck, who had served both white-ruled Rhodesia and Black-ruled Zimbabwe, to be explicitly new-school, avoiding political baggage and being picky about clients, employees, ethics, and methods. Max, who took over in 2017, had had a previous career not as a soldier but as a UN security officer, dropping into conflict zones like Libya and making contacts in advance of aid workers’ arrival. That background accounted for DAG’s code of conduct, which prohibited its men from abusing human rights, engaging in sexual harassment, and accepting gifts or entertainment. Also forbidden were traditional dog-of-war pursuits like “drinking, gambling, fighting [and] swearing”—though, in truth, that last was probably more of a restriction on Max than any of his men.
In Mozambique, Max wanted to put as much distance as possible between DAG and the “fucking Russians”—about 160 mercenaries from a Kremlin-connected group, Wagner, who had deployed to Cabo Delgado in September 2019, only to withdraw a few months later after losing at least seven men and achieving little. DAG’s approach stressed African agency, a light footprint, and precision. It deployed just 14 counterinsurgency specialists, who accompanied their students into battle as air support, flying the police’s lead officer in a command chopper. DAG’s restraint was evident in its insistence on taking its orders from local police and in its choice of aircraft: five-seater helicopters and two-seater microlights, mounted with machine guns, picked for their ability to fly low and slow, allowing for accurate ground targeting through the jungle canopy. Its efficacy was apparent from a year of skirmishes during which DAG and the police beat Al Shabab back from within 15 miles of Pemba to bases deep in the hinterland. When word of the attack on Palma reached DAG in Pemba, 150 miles to the south, late Wednesday, Dyck said, “There wasn’t even a discussion. It was just, The shit has hit the fan—let’s get in there and do what we can. You don’t even think about it, because it’s the right thing to do.”
At first light on Thursday, six small DAG helicopters and a spotter plane took off from Pemba and headed north. Following his aircraft in real time using GPS trackers, and collating reports and snapshots from his pilots and gunners once they were over Palma, Dyck soon assembled a picture of a well-organized attack. Incoming fire as DAG’s men flew over the three highways into town, from the south, north, and west, indicated that the insurgents had roadblocks on every route in and out. Some of these bore Omar’s signature. Five miles north of Palma, the pilots found three quarry trucks stopped in the road, the drivers’ bodies in front of their vehicles, their heads in pools of blood several yards away. Five miles farther along, on a track leading to Lynn’s Beach, were five more trucks, some of whose drivers had also been beheaded.
Once the jihadis isolated Palma, they tore through it like a cyclone. DAG’s pilots saw a dozen more headless corpses on the main east-west drag through town. Much of the place was either on fire or blown apart, with roofs ripped off and walls turned to blackened rubble. The police and army barracks were lifeless, indicating that Palma’s few dozen policemen and soldiers were either dead or had stripped off their uniforms and fled. DAG’s gunners opened up whenever they caught the insurgents out of cover, but pockets of civilians often made that risky. “Lots of occasions when we were taking fire, we’d say, ‘We’re peeling out of this part of town and going somewhere else,’ because due to the civilian presence, we couldn’t do anything,” Dyck recalled. The accuracy of the insurgents’ fire was another problem. When DAG’s choppers touched down to refuel and reload, several were found to have bullet holes in their rotors. One large-caliber round had crashed through the windshield of the command helicopter, somehow missed the three men inside, and exited through the roof.
In Langebaan, Dyck soon deduced that DAG’s big-picture mission was unachievable. There was no way for seven pilots and six gunners in six small helicopters and a spotter plane to kill what seemed like hundreds of insurgents while also rescuing tens of thousands of civilians. A lot more might be possible with the assistance of the 700 soldiers at Afungi or the three large gunships stationed there. The Russian choppers, especially, could be a game changer. Equipped with rockets and heavy machine guns, they could also carry 30 people at a time.
But when DAG set down at Afungi, they found themselves in the middle of a turf war between the Mozambican army and its police. Afungi’s resident general wanted no interference in his plan to conduct a land rescue from the Amarula. For their part, the Ukrainians seemed happy to have a reason not to fly. They had made a single sortie over Palma, Dyck said, but after taking a round through the side of one helicopter, they “put themselves on the ground and said, ‘We’re not going. Too dangerous.’ Fucking useless.”
The police commander instructed Dyck’s men to keep flying, but it was clear they would be doing so alone. Dyck says his request to commandeer a fourth large army helicopter went nowhere. An appeal to the Ukrainians to share facilities at Afungi was also rejected. Dyck says a message was sent to Total’s managers overseas to the effect of, “We will fly from first light to last light. Guys will fucking sleep in the helicopters. But give us your fuel, we need food, and if one of our birds goes down, or somebody is shot and injured, can we use the clinic?” According to Dyck, their response was, essentially: “You can fuck off. Sort your own shit out.”
The refusal to give fuel to rescuers trying to save civilians was stunning, and crippling. Afungi was a three-minute flight from Palma. Based there, each DAG helicopter could have made dozens of sorties per day, potentially picking up hundreds. Instead, they would now be forced to fly an hour to Pemba or Mueda, deep in the interior, to refuel, then fly an hour back again. Limited as they were, the DAG crews would be lucky to rescue a few dozen people per day. By early afternoon on March 25, 24 hours after the attack began, Dyck had reached several unsettling conclusions. “We are the only people in the area that are willing to help,” he said. “We are never going to get them all out. We have to make decisions, and the effect of our decisions is that somebody is going to live and somebody is going to die.”