At dawn the following morning, Thursday March 25, Max Dyck watched the Battle of Palma unfold on a row of screens in Langebaan, a tourist town known for oysters, whale watching and kitesurfing, at 2,000 miles away on the South African Atlantic. coast. There was no nameplate on the door of the Dyck Advisory Group office, a few blocks from the beach, and the company’s website listed its address as a post office box in a town 25 miles away. DAG’s services, the website added, included anti-poaching, mine clearance, dog squads, and “tailored…security-based operations,” drawing on “a large pool of ex-military personnel.” for a variety of high-level clients “in several conflict and post-conflict environments. Over the past five months, DAG had trained a small Mozambican police combat unit to do the army’s job and pursue Al Shabab. Now he had a new mission: to save the thousands of people trapped in Palma.
If civilian rescue was an unusual mission for a private military contractor, it suited Max Dyck just fine. Old-school mercenaries in Africa tend to be former soldiers of white supremacist regimes in South Africa and what was once Rhodesia, or communist veterans from Russia and Eastern Europe, who “kill everyone in sight, figure out who’s who next and leave”. go back to the bar and tell war stories,” as one South African military contractor put it. The DAG was created by Max’s father, Colonel Lionel Dyck, who had served in both white-ruled Rhodesia and black-ruled Zimbabwe, to be explicitly of the new school, avoiding political baggage and being picky about customers, employees, ethics and methods. Max, who took office in 2017, had had a previous career not as a soldier but as a UN security officer, traveling to conflict zones like Libya and making contacts before the war. arrival of aid workers. This context explained DAG’s code of conduct, which prohibited its men from violating human rights, engaging in sexual harassment, and accepting gifts or entertainment. Also prohibited are traditional war dog activities such as “drinking, gambling, fighting”. [and] swearing” – although, in truth, the latter was probably more of a restriction to Max than any of his men.
In Mozambique, Max wanted to put as much distance as possible between DAG and the “fucking Russians” – around 160 mercenaries from a Kremlin-linked 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 gaining little. DAG’s approach emphasized African agency, a light footprint and precision. It deployed just 14 counterinsurgency specialists, who accompanied their students into combat as air support, piloting the senior police officer in a command helicopter. DAG’s restraint was evident in its insistence on taking orders from local police and in its choice of aircraft: five-seat helicopters and two-seat microlights, equipped with machine guns, chosen for their ability to fly low and slow, allowing accurate ground readings. targeting through the jungle canopy. Its effectiveness emerged from a year of skirmishes in which the DAG and police pushed Al Shabab back within 15 miles of Pemba to bases deep in the hinterland. When news of the attack on Palma reached the DAG in Pemba, 150 miles to the south, on Wednesday night, Dyck said: “There wasn’t even a discussion. It was just shit hit the fan – let’s go 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 an observation plane took off from Pemba and headed north. Tracking his aircraft in real time using GPS trackers and gathering reports and snapshots of his pilots and gunners once they were over Palma, Dyck quickly pieced together a picture of an attack well organized. Incoming fire as DAG men flew over the three highways leading into the city, from the south, north, and west, indicated that the insurgents had roadblocks on every entry and exit route. Some of them bore Omar’s signature. Five miles north of Palma, the drivers found three quarry trucks stopped in the road, the bodies of the drivers in front of their vehicles, their heads in pools of blood several yards away. Five miles further on, on a track leading to Lynn’s Beach, were five more trucks, some of whose drivers had also been decapitated.
Once the jihadists isolated Palma, they swept through it like a cyclone. DAG pilots saw a dozen headless corpses on the main east-west thoroughfare through the city. Much of the place was either on fire or blown away, with roofs torn off and walls turned to blackened rubble. Police and army barracks were lifeless, indicating that the few dozen police and soldiers in Palma were either dead or had taken off their uniforms and fled. The DAG gunners opened up whenever they took cover from the insurgents, but pockets of civilians often made this risky. “A lot of times when we were taking shots we would say, ‘We’re leaving this part of town and going somewhere else’ because because of the civilian presence there was nothing we could do,” Dyck recalled. Accuracy of insurgent fire was another problem. When DAG’s helicopters touched down to refuel and reload, several were found with bullet holes in their rotors. A large caliber shell had slammed into the windshield of the command helicopter, somehow missed the three men inside, and exited through the roof.
At Langebaan, Dyck quickly deduced that DAG’s overall mission was unachievable. There was no way for seven pilots and six gunners in six small helicopters and an observation plane to kill what appeared to be hundreds of insurgents while saving tens of thousands of civilians. Much more could be possible with the help of the 700 troops at Afungi or the three large gunships stationed there. Russian helicopters, in particular, could be a game-changer. Equipped with rockets and heavy machine guns, they could also carry 30 people at a time.
But when the DAG moved into Afungi, they found themselves in the middle of a turf war between the Mozambican army and its police. The Resident General of Afungi wanted no interference in his ground rescue plan of 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 circling through the side of a helicopter they “got on the ground and said, ‘We’re not going there. Too dangerous.’ Useless fucking.
The police commander ordered Dyck’s men to keep stealing, but it was clear they would do it alone. Dyck says his request to commandeer a fourth large army helicopter went nowhere. A call for Ukrainians to share facilities at Afungi was also rejected. Dyck says a message has been sent to Total officials overseas to the effect: “We will fly from first to last light. The guys are going to sleep in the helicopters. But give us your fuel, we need food, and if one of our birds goes down, or someone gets shot, can we use the clinic? According to Dyck, their response was basically, “You can fuck off.” Sort your own shit.
The refusal to give fuel to rescuers trying to save civilians was staggering and crippling. Afungi was a three-minute flight from Palma. Based there, each DAG helicopter could have flown 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. As limited as they are, the DAG crews would be lucky enough to rescue a few dozen people a day. By early afternoon of March 25, 24 hours after the attack began, Dyck had reached several troubling conclusions. “We are the only people in the area who are ready to help,” he said. “We’re never going to get them all out. We have to make decisions, and the effect of our decisions is that someone is going to live and someone is going to die.