Terror in Northern Mozambique: an Analysis of the Violence and the Total LNG Project

Mozambique is one of Africa’s poorest nations in Africa: over 70% percent of the population is considered to be “multidimensionally poor”, meaning that their poverty effects them in multiple ways; for example, they suffer from a lack of clean drinking water and have no access to stable electricity. The south African nation of 30 million ranks 181 out of 189 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index. It’s GDP per capita is $1,293 according to the IMF, ranking 182 out oof 188 countries. 

The country has an abundancy of national resources such as coal, iron, and rare gems, and a strategic coast to access the global economy. Despite its natural potential, Mozambique has a brutal and deadly history ranging from the colonial period to its independence and the subsequent civil war, which lasted 16 years and caused more than 1 million deaths. Since the end of the Mozambiquan Civil War in 1992 the country has made great progress in improving conditions, yet they are still abysmal. 

In 2010, trillions of cubic feet of natural gas were found of the shores of Mozambique; immediately tens of multinational energy companies wanted to expand operations into the country. Hundreds of billions of dollars of potential investment could revitalize the economy and boost the country toward positive growth. Now, an Islamic insurgency in the northern provinces threatens to plunge the country back into chaos and worsen poverty. Since 2017 thousands have already died and hundreds of thousands forced to flee their communities. In this analysis, we examine the recent attacks in Cabo Delgado province and the effects on Total’s LNG project.

The French energy giant finalized their $20 billion dollar investment in 2019 by buying a $3.9 billion stake to own 26.5% of the operations and lead a group of energy companies to develop a liquified natural gas plant expected to produce at least 65 trillion cubic feet of LNG. The gas is found 40km offshore the city of Palma in the far northern reaches of the country. The gas will be transported by pipeline to liquifying facilities onshore, where it will be loaded on to ships bound for Asian and European markets. The project is expected to recover 43 million tons per year (mtpa). Total signed $14.9 billion in debt financing for the majority of its 20 billion investment in Mozambique, including several offshore gas fields. The other operators are Mitsui, Oil India, ONGC Videsh Limited, Bharat Petroleum, PTT Exploration, and Mozambique’s nationalized oil & gas company ENH. Total signed a contract in October 2020 with Siemens to develop and produce decarbonizing technology for LNG production sites and has ordered emission cutting power generation machinery for the plant. Prior to the most recent attacks in Palma, the plant was expected to begin exportation by 2024.

After increased violence closer to the compound in January of 2021, Total decided to suspend operations temporarily, a decision also influenced by an uptick in Covid-19 cases in the region. The company requested that the government create a 25km security zone around the compound, which was approved and deemed a “special security area”. The parties also signed an official Memorandum of Understanding last summer stating the common interests in the security of the project. The intense violence in Palma in March and April is almost certainly the nail in the coffin of the project meeting its goal of 2024, and the delayal will have serious repercussions on other companies in earlier phases. 

There’s about $60 billion total planned investment in natural in Cabo Delgado. Exxon Mobil, who was near finalizing investment of over $30 billion, postponed when the coronavirus broke out, and the renewed violence in the region will surely complicate the company’s decision making going forward. Before the attacks, estimated investment from multinationals by 2026 was up to $120 billion, but the reality of this value fades by the day. 

Ahlu Sunna wa Jama (ASWJ) is the Islamic fundamentalist group active in Cabo Delgado. The group is locally known as Al-Shabaab, but is not connected to the Somali based group which operates throughout northeast Africa. Since the ASWJ insurgency began in October 2017 there has been 2,700-3600+ causalities. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) estimates that since fighting broke out in 2017, more than 1300 civilians have died, which is more than half of all causalities in the multiyear conflict. The violence has caused more than 700,000 people to become displaced and the regions capital, Pemba, has doubled in population. 

The situation in Cabo Delgado is dire: the UN’s World Food Programme estimates that more than 950,000 people in Northern Mozambique face severe hunger; Cabo Delgado is a historically impoverished region pushed to the brink by the violence.

ASWJ is thought to have originated from a local religious sect and has appealed to the local communities through expression of outrage at the abuse of the poor and corruption and disregard from FRELIMO, the political ruling party since independence in 1975. They claim that strict Sharia law will create equal wealth from the money from the energy projects and other economic activity. 

Cabo Delgado is the poorest province in the nation despite the plethora of natural resources.  ASWJ and many locals feel that the wealthy from the capital Maputo exploit the population and their land, enrichening themselves and prolonging endemic poverty and underdevelopment in the region. The group is commonly known as Al-Shabaab which means “the youth” which further supports their image positioning as champions of the local people.

ASWJ is suspected to have about 2000 soldiers, but the estimates are difficult to ascertain with accuracy. The group is said to have many foreign fighters alongside local Mozambique recruits. The majority are suspected to have come from neighboring Tanzania, Uganda, and the Great Lake Region. In November 2020, ASWJ attacked a small farming village, burning it the ground and beheading 50 people on a football pitch. Since 2017, the group has attacked 6 district capital cities and have controlled the port city of Mocimboa da Praia for more than an entire year despite several efforts from the Mozambique Defense Forces. During these attacks, the insurgents have reportedly executed and beheaded civilians and targeted banks, government buildings, infrastructure, schools, and hospitals. 

The Islamic State has posted photos and claimed responsibility for attacks in the region since 2019, when ASWJ officially became linked with the IS in Central African Province. Analysts have also identified similar tactics between the militants in Palma and other IS affiliated groups, which would indicate cooperation or advising. They have also noted increasingly coordinated and sophisticated attacks since 2019.

The government has hired several private military groups such as Dykes to help in their campaign against the insurgents. In august 2019, Nyusi met with Putin and secured support from the Wagner group – a private contractor group with ties to the Kremlin which are infamous for doing the Russia’s bidding in Ukraine and Syria. Despite their experience, in Mozambique Wagner immediately had heavy causalities which forced the Russians to withdraw after only 10 months.

Government forces have also been accused of human rights abuses, on a much smaller scale. 

Some experts have called for increased international support against the insurgency, since the government has been struggling to keep up with the increasingly organized and well financed attacks. Between the formal alignment with IS, the continued influx of foreign fighters, and increased organization, the local government has been struggling to contain the group. An increase in both quantity and sophistication of attacks in the last year has been notable; there were 38 reported attacks by ASWJ in 2019, up to 105 in 2020. With the organizational expertise, experience, and financial backing of IS, ASWJ could become increasingly influential in northern Mozambique, especially given the local governments limited resources without foreign support. 

In March, the US State Department identified Abu Yasir Hassan, who is thought to be a Tanzanian citizen, as the leader of ASWJ and added him to an international list as an “specially designated global terrorist”. In response to the most recent attacks, the United States announced a two-month program to deploy Army special forces to train Mozambique Defense Forces, and Portugal, who originally colonized the nation, has committed to sending 60 soldiers in a similar plan. More intensive foreign support is not as likely as with other groups or in other eras, as ASWJ is primarily focused on local ambitions. and has kept relatively quiet, having released only 5 propaganda videos. However, this could change following the recent attacks and the connection with IS.  

The Attacks in Palma

The multiday siege of Palma in March and April of 2021 took the lives of “dozens” of people, and reports indicate a horrendous situation with as many as 60 deaths. The city is only 8km from the Total compound, and the attack came the same day which the company announced plans to restart operations. Mozambique defense forces say that dissuading or destroying energy and all foreign investment is an objective of ASWJ. There were several reports, as well as video evidence of civilian bodies lying in the streets. Reports indicate that hundreds of insurgents entered the town several days before the attack and then started the merciless killing; the timing is potent as the attack came within hours of Total’s announcement. The Mozambique military also reported coordinated attack from the north and the east, as well as false attacks to distract the military from the south. Communication has been extremely limited since the attack since ASWJ cut telephone lines. The violence in Palma was not only the closest to the Total LNG compound, but it was extremely violent. The New York Times obtained a phone interview with a local resident Ricardo Elias Dário who said, “They were shooting everywhere, shooting everyone, even the dogs”.

Approximately 200 foreign workers, many of whom were working in the energy sector coming from South Africa, France, and Britain were targeted in the local Hotel Amarula. Reports indicate that as many as 17 vehicles fled the hotel in an attempt to make it to boats rescuing people on the coast, but were ambushed. The exact number of victims is unknown, but the Mozambique military reported at least seven deaths from that convoy. Many local people escaped to the heavy bush outside the city, many of them reporting hiding out there for several days with no food and water. 

The UN reported in January that the region around Palma was essentially inaccessible to humanitarian workers, and Pemba airport reported it had suspended humanitarian flights to allow for military operations. This forced many to flee by boat or into the bush and left them without any hope for international aid.

IS also reported that militants had targeted and killed several local Christians. This is also thought to be the first attack in the region which specifically sought out foreigners, seen especially by the attack on the hotel in Palma. IS, when claiming responsibility, said that more than 55 people were dead, including soldiers, Christians, and foreigners. Mozambique said that “dozens” died and at least 7 foreigners. Dyck Advisory Group, a private contractor agency hired by the Mozambique government has reported scenes of decapitated civilians lying in the streets. President Nyusi announced that Palma was cleared of ASWJ on the 8th of May, 14 days after the siege started, and also announced that the government will offer amnesty to members of the group. Leaders of South Africa, Botswana, Malawi, and Zimbabwe met in Maputo to talk with president Nyusi on the threat. 

Agostino Vuma, the president of Confederation of Economic Associations of Mozambique, estimates small-medium businesses in the country have already lost $90 million since the attack in Palma. Total, Exxon Mobil, Eni, Chevron, BP, Mitsui, Petronas, and CNPC are all active in the area, and all these firms will be watching the insurgency closely as they consider the risks of investing in the region. Any delayal, withdrawal, or decision not to invest will have serious consequences on the opportunity of local development in Northern Mozambique. The ~$60bn already invested stimulates local contractors and industrial work, which, as already seen in the early stages of the Total project, has the potential to transform small fishing villages to bustling hives of economic activity and development.

Future Outlook

As Western military coalitions have been successful in combatting the Islamic State in the Middle East in recent years, many operations have pivoted to a new battle ground of terror: Africa. 

Across the continent there are active Islamic based groups from Somalia and Mozambique in the east to Mali and Nigeria in the west. Many of these groups are local grown insurgencies which than receive the backing and support of global terror networks like IS and Al-Qaeda. This coincides with the western government trend of withdrawing from the “forever war” on terror, which will limit any chance that Western forces take substantial measures to counter growing terrorism in the continent. General Townsend, the head of US Africa Command, says that “ISIS and Al Qaeda are on the march” when referring to their presence in Africa. Weak states, poverty, easy borders, corruption, and lack of communication all benefit terrorist groups and promote homegrown recruiting. They are also increasingly connected and advised by transnational terrorist groups with the experience and infrastructure to facilitate rapid growth. The aforementioned lack of political will to intervene will likely influence a containment approach which would aim to stop groups from expanding outside of Africa, but not help local people or address root causes of conflict.

Unlike other African groups like Boko Haram or Al-Shabaab, ASWJ have largely retained their domestic grievances and not shown aspiration for extra-regional growth. Despite the increase in sophistication of ASWJ attacks over the last two years, some experts have stated that IS contributions are limited, stipulating that IS is eager to claim ASWJ victories as their own to prove strength and influence globally as their power in the Middle East has dwindled. 

While the objectives of the two groups may differ, even a small amount of financial, strategical, or physical support to ASWJ could be enough to overpower the weak and disorganized government forces. The delicate balance of power in Cabo Delgado means that any shifts could plunge the region into further instability and change the dynamic of ASWJ objectives and scope. Joseph T. Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies states that, “these groups are not extraordinarily powerful, it’s just that they have enough capacity to destabilize these fragile states which are not able to maintain a security presence”. The traditional grievances are based on the wealthy from the capital city of Maputo as well as foreigners benefiting from the rich resources of the region such as timber and ruby. The region is also a major pathway for illegal drug and ivory trafficking. 

ASWJ had strong grass-root support in its nascent period, but, as it has become increasingly violent against civilians, public support has declined, yet the local population remains divided. The local grievances speak to many, but the violent nature against civilians has deterred many. Many also see no friend in the government, as human rights abuses by the military delegitimizes the state and aids the grievances of ASWJ. The military has reportedly arbitrarily arrested civilians and carried out extrajudicial executions of suspected terrorists. The aggressive response from the government aids local grievances and feeds into ASWJ’s claims as many local see the military as puppets of the elite from Maputo. 

While there is no simple solution to address the legitimate grievances of corruption and unequal distribution of wealth, the Mozambique government cannot allow violence in the region to destabilize and disincentivize foreign investment which would have long lasting benefits for the country’s development. The country should welcome foreign advisors and seek a coalition of military support from neighboring countries.

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