How an Insurgency Threatens Mozambique’s Gas Bonanza

1. Who is behind the attacks?

Most of the insurgents are poor, disenfranchised local youths, although some have come from Tanzania and other nearby states. They started out as an Islamic sect in 2007 and refer to themselves as al-Shabaab, as do locals, but they don’t have any known links to the Somali group that goes by that name and is allied to al-Qaeda. In 2018, they aligned themselves to Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks staged in the far northern Cabo Delgado province.

2. How bad is the violence?

The insurgency began with an assault on the port town of Mocimboa da Praia in 2017 and has since ramped up significantly, with Mozambique experiencing the sharpest rise in Islamist attacks globally in 2019. The sophistication, scale and frequency of incursions continued to escalate in 2020, with the attackers utilizing rocket-propelled grenades and other powerful weapons seized from the military. More than 2,600 people have died and about 700,000 have been displaced since the violence began. A March attack on Palma town, less than 8 kilometers (5 miles) from Total’s site, prompted the company to halt work and evacuate staff for the second time in 2021. At least some foreigners working for companies involved in the projects were among the dozens reported dead.

3. How important are the projects to Mozambique?

The nation could be transformed into one of the world’s largest gas exporters when the new projects come on stream. The government hopes to reap as much as $100 billion in revenue over the next quarter-century — more than six times the current annual gross domestic product. Mozambique is still struggling to emerge from a 16-year civil war that ended in 1992 and badly needs the income. Money is expected to start flowing from Total’s $23 billion project in 2024. Gas production is set to galvanize the development of other local industries, including the production of electricity, fuel and fertilizer.

4. Could they be derailed?

It’s unlikely, given that the oil majors involved are attuned to operating in conflict zones and have already made substantial investments. The drilling sites that lie about 40 kilometers offshore are relatively easy to protect and the onshore projects are well secured within a vast compound that has its own airport and direct access to the ocean to bring in supplies. Still, ongoing violence could result in logistical delays and the killing of workers may have a bearing on Exxon’s final investment decision. Insurgents occupying Palma in March could also prove a turning point for the projects.

5. How is the government managing the threat?

The army has struggled to contain the violence as the insurgents’ ranks swelled and they gained access to better weaponry and other resources. Advocacy groups Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International accuse the security forces of resorting to extra-judicial killings and other heavy-handed tactics against suspects. The government has hired Russian and South African mercenaries to quell the attacks, but they too have had limited success. More recently, the state has also started social programs targeting vulnerable youths in Cabo Delgado in a bid to address widespread discontent over a lack of jobs and other economic opportunities in the predominantly Muslim area.

6. How have other countries responded?

The 16-nation Southern African Development Community, a regional trading bloc, has said it is committed to helping Mozambique combat terrorism and violent attacks — assistance the government has so far resisted. The U.S. is helping to train troops. Mozambique’s Defense Minister Jaime Neto has urged the country’s neighbors to strengthen their border controls to prevent fighters from entering Cabo Delgado, but says other outside help isn’t needed. Islamic State has warned that it would be “delusional” to think that Mozambique’s government could protect the investments and threatened to stage attacks in South Africa, the regional powerhouse, if it intervenes.

(Updates with information on the latest violence near the LNG projects)

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