MOZAMBIQUE: Escalating terrorist threat likely to disrupt major LNG projects
Two attacks by Ansar al-Sunnah wal-Jamaah, an Islamic State-affiliated militant group, in March marked a clear escalation in northern Mozambique’s terrorism risk outlook. On 23 March, the militants staged an on Mocímboa da Praia, Cabo Delgado province. The militants remained in the town for several hours, overwhelming security forces and distributing food to cheering crowds, before leaving with significant amounts of weapons and equipment from the security forces. Islamic State has claimed its Central Africa branch conducted the attack. Two days after the first incident, the militants attacked the town of Quissanga, about 240km south of Mocímboa da Praia. The increased terrorism risk, combined with low demand for natural gas, is now threatening strategic natural gas deposits which are being developed for commercial activity in the Rovuma basin, whose estimated natural gas reserves could transform Mozambique into the world’s fourth-largest gas exporter.
ATTACKS LIKELY TO PRECEDE FURTHER ESCALATION
While casualties are unclear from the first incident, which was the more violent one, anonymous security sources have indicated significant human casualties among the armed forces, FDS. The material damage was also extensive, leaving the airport in Mocímboa da Praia and a local police station destroyed. The airport is widely used by companies involved in major liquefied natural gas projects in the Rovuma basin. In addition, the militants also stole weapons and several 4x4 pick-up trucks belonging to the police. The militants left the town peacefully after about seven hours of fighting with the security forces, suggesting that the Mocímboa da Praia attack was not the end goal and that further high-impact attacks are highly likely in the one-month outlook.
Since October 2017, most attacks have featured beheadings and scorched-earth tactics against local communities, and militants have mainly used rudimentary weapons, such as machetes. However, throughout 2019 the militants seized significant amounts of weapons, which partly explains their enhanced striking force. This change in tactics signals an ambition to expand operations against government targets and to hold territory.
The attack in Mocímboa da Praia was the first in which security forces and government targets were specifically targeted while civilian lives were largely spared. This assumption is echoed in videos circulated on social media, where presumed militants in Quissanga explain that they are ‘not against the people’, but against the ruling party, Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO), and called on Muslims to die in the name of Allah.
The distribution of food to cheering crowds is another indication that the group is seeking increased support from local communities, many of whom feel abused by powerful local FRELIMO cadres. Because foreign investors interested in the gas-rich region need to negotiate with the FRELIMO-led formal authorities, they run the risk of being accused of collusion with the party, exposing them to a high terrorist and crime threat.
POOR GOVERNANCE OFFERS FEW PROSPECTS FOR CHANGE, ENDANGERING HUGE NATURAL-GAS PROJECTS
Given the strategic importance of the natural gas deposits in Cabo Delgado for Mozambique’s future economic development, the authorities are likely to meet the extractive companies’ call for more deployment. However, priorities have temporarily shifted towards slowing the spread of COVID-19 in the country. Furthermore, increasing the number of troops in the region is unlikely to address underlying economic grievances, shared by the militants and local communities alike, and could instead fuel further suspicion towards the FRELIMO-led authorities.
The formal security forces are poorly equipped and lack motivation to adequately deal with the insurgent threat. Furthermore, the domination of FRELIMO within the ranks of the FDS and the intelligence service, Serviço de Informação e Segurança do Estado (SISE), has opened up the possibility for abuse and corruption in remote areas, particularly in Cabo Delgado. This has increased local communities’ mistrust of and grievances towards the security services.
Infrastructure constraints, including roads severely damaged by the passage of cyclone Idai at the beginning of 2019, are posing additional barriers to the security forces’ ability to respond to security incidents. According to some local media reports, security forces were unable to deploy to Quissanga because of damaged roads. This suggests the government’s tactical response to such incidents will be futile, and attacks will continue in the short term and necessitate continued robust security provisions from corporates, until the authorities and militants engage in some form of ceasefire negotiations.
THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE March 2020 EDITION OF THE SUB-REGIONAL INTELLIGENCE MONITOR FOR EAST & SOUTHERN AFRICA
Also in this edition:
MADAGASCAR: Indefinite suspension of mining project highlights underlying friction between local communities and mining companies
ETHIOPIA: Arms seizures highlight growing risk of armed violence ahead of general elections