The insurgency being waged by the Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah (ASWJ) movement in northern Mozambique is causing widespread death and destruction. Neil Ford investigates the roots of the crisis.
Many questions surround the insurgency in northern Mozambique carried out by Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah (ASWJ), which is also sometimes known as al-Shabaab.
Is it really an Islamist movement? How did it flare up so suddenly? And for how long can it deter the development of the onshore LNG resources?
Most members appear to be local, although those who have been kidnapped and then escaped said that some are Tanzanians and others Somalis. Those killed have been overwhelmingly Mozambicans, plus some foreign workers employed on developing LNG infrastructure.
Various sources claim that ASWJ is an Islamist group, Washington certainly regards it as an offshoot of Islamic State (IS) and IS itself claims responsibility for the attacks but Joseph Hanlon, one of the foremost commentators on Mozambique, disagrees with this narrative. Partly because of the common name, some media outlets also suggest a link with Somalia’s al-Shabaab but Hanlon says that the name is not evidence of a definitive link as al-Shabaab merely means ‘the youth’.
On balance, it appears that the group does have links with IS but that the association is a fairly loose one, with both sides using the connection for self-publicity.
The ire of the Mozambican insurgents mainly seems directed against the government but they do want to impose Sharia law and more popular distribution of LNG income.
The timing of the 24 March attack on Palma could suggest a direct link with the LNG industry, as it took place just one day after Total announced that it was going to restart construction work on its nearby LNG project after a previous suspension. There have also been reports that they – like the Somali pirates – have been motivated by the impact of mass, unregulated offshore fishing on local fishermen.
The LNG consortia developing the country’s resources are introducing their own infrastructure, including an airfield, on the Afungi Peninsula itself, but more than 1,000 contractors have been based in the previously sleepy fishing port of Palma, just 10km away.
Palma has experienced rapid development, with a building boom for new hotels, suppliers and other infrastructure springing up. This sudden influx of wealth has created an economic imbalance in what is one of the poorest parts of Mozambique and where economic development is badly needed.
The developers of all three of Mozambique’s LNG projects have pledged to train and employ residents to take up technical positions and include local companies in their supply chains, and not just offer lower-skilled catering and security jobs.
Doing so would encourage people in the far north to buy into the projects but it is claimed that most of the Mozambicans employed to date have come from the south. However, any desire by ASWJ to represent the wishes of local people is surely undermined by the extreme violence of its attacks.
Work suspended on LNG
The insurgency has had an increasing effect on the LNG sector but onshore development work had been badly affected since January. Total withdrew all its staff from the project it is leading at the start of April and then suspended all work several weeks later.
It declared force majeure on the project, a legal step that allows developers to suspend or end contracts because of events beyond their control. The engineering contractors McDermott International, Saipem and Chiyoda Corporation have also suspended work. It seems unlikely that construction will resume until there is a dramatic upturn in the security situation.
At the very least, the decision is likely to push the project’s completion date beyond the previously anticipated 2024. In a statement, Total described the decision as “the only way to best protect the project interest, until work can resume”, while the consortium had “agreed with lenders to temporarily pause the debt drawdown”.
The French firm bought its stake in the venture from Anadarko Petroleum for $3.9bn in 2019, while the consortium secured $16bn in lending last year.
The fact that ASWJ can take and hold territory is something of an embarrassment for the Mozambican military, which has been unable to prevent widely anticipated attacks, nor quickly retake towns invaded by the group.
The biggest town in the area, Mocimboa da Praia, has suffered attacks since 2017, notably in August last year when it was captured, and various other towns in the province have been controlled by the group at different times. There have been increasingly overt assaults by the insurgents, most recently at the end of March, when they attacked and seized Palma, killing dozens of people in the process.
There have even been reports of the army looting buildings in the towns they retake. A recent Amnesty International report concluded that government and private security forces had been involved in the unlawful killing of civilians.
The government initially turned to private security companies for support, including a Russian group and South Africa’s Dyck Advisory Group (DAG). DAG is training local forces and also provided helicopter support before the Mozambican military acquired its own new helicopters.
Several foreign powers, including the US and other Southern African Development Community (SADC) states, have offered to support Maputo in the conflict but the government is reluctant to accept such offers because it highlights its own shortcomings. However, according to the US embassy in Maputo: “US special operations forces… will support Mozambique’s efforts to prevent the spread of terrorism and violent extremism”, while Portugal has also announced that it is sending personnel to train Mozambican forces.
Discontent over resource revenues
Exports of oil, gas and other similar commodities are supposed to benefit host communities through the taxes, royalties and other payments made to national governments, a significant proportion of which are to finance local projects and other forms of local economic development.
However, local communities often see little benefit. Although they are sometimes displaced and have to cope with disruption, rising prices and pollution, the money is instead used to finance other forms of government spending, with some often siphoned off by politicians and officials. This creates discontent that can directly lead to violent attacks, but more often creates an environment within which militant groups can thrive.
As in the Niger Delta, it seems unlikely that such violence would have emerged if there had been wider economic development and job creation in the area.
The roots of the crisis are therefore socio-economic rather than directly religious. There is also a political angle because the government has allowed a situation to develop where the elite is quickly becoming more prosperous, while poverty remains entrenched in more remote areas, which cover most of the country. In terms of the level of violence, tactics and ability to control territory, a better Nigerian example is Boko Haram.
Jobs and money persuaded many Niger Delta militants to hand over their weapons in the 2009 Militant Amnesty, and it has been reported that some local youths have joined Mozambique’s insurgents because of the lack of opportunities rather than because of any deep-seated religious passion.
Even in Afghanistan, research has shown that only a hard-core minority of Taliban members are motivated by religion, with the bulk involved in the movement on economic grounds, or out of fear. This is not to say that a significant proportion of local people support the terrorists, merely that underdevelopment has created an environment within which insurgencies can explode.