Mozambique: Toward an escalation of Islamist violence

Date first published: 05/07/2018

Key sectors: energy

Key risks: terrorism; conflict

A series of gruesome attacks by jihadist group Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah (ASWJ) in Cabo Delgado province in May and June sent shockwaves through Mozambique, a country not usually associated with Islamist militancy. On 29 May, the extremists beheaded ten villagers in Quissangana district after the local chief revealed their hiding place to police. The onslaught marked the beginning of a wave of violence that has cost the lives of at least 39 civilians. If allowed to fester, Mozambique’s nascent Islamist insurgency risks spiralling out of control and threatens to derail plans to develop the region’s recently discovered gas reserves.

ASWJ made its first appearance October 2017, when it attacked three police stations in Mocimboa de Praia district. While some of its fighters have reportedly received training in Tanzania and Somalia, giving rise to the local moniker al-Shabaab after the Somalian extremist organisation of the same name, the group is not known to maintain meaningful ties with international jihadist networks. Rather, the entrenched marginalisation of Mozambique’s Muslim minority – accounting for 22 per cent of the population but largely absent from government – and extreme poverty in one of the country’s most underdeveloped provinces have provided a fertile soil for a home-grown uprising.

Somewhat ironically, the violence threatens to perpetuate the underdevelopment that has produced it. Massive natural liquefied gas deposits discovered since 2010 in the Rovuma Basin on and off Cabo Delgado’s coast, at 180 trillion cubic feet the largest such find in decades, are Mozambique’s best hope of reviving its ailing economy after the revelation of US$1.4bln in undisclosed debt in 2016 and a subsequent exodus of international lenders and investors sent the country into default. Multinational companies including ENI, ExxonMobil, Total and Anadarko have since returned to stake their claims and are looking to invest a combined US$30bln over the next few years.

Desperate for the cash, President Filipe Nyusi’s government has sought to nip the emerging Islamist threat in the bud by employing maximum force. Since late 2017, government forces have raided mosques, detained hundreds without charge and reportedly carried out extrajudicial killings. Predictably, this heavy-handed response has backfired. The indiscriminate targeting of Muslims has driven many young men and women into ASWJ’s arms, allowing it to expand its geographic reach and likely explaining the recent spike in violence.

The deteriorating security situation is already having an impact on the development of northern Mozambique’s LNG industry. In early June, Wentworth Resources requested an extension of its appraisal licence in Rovuma, in part because violence prevented its employees from accessing the company’s onshore sites. A few days later, Anadarko put its staff under ‘lockdown’ due to the risk of attacks. Given the primitive nature of previous attacks, ASWJ likely does not pose a direct threat to LNG facilities for now. However, the group’s rapid evolution means a further increase in capacity and shift in focus cannot be ruled out. This could have devastating humanitarian and economic implications just as a permanent solution to Mozambique’s decades-old conflict between the ruling FRELIMO and the rebel RENAMO appears within reach and investors are returning. If the government moves toward a more moderate response, there is still a chance further escalation can be avoided, but the window is closing fast. It is not clear the government has understood this.