Asmani Dadi had heard rumors about the insurgents. Then, one day, they came true.
It was July 2020 and Dadi was a student in the town of Moc?mboa da Praia, northern Mozambique.
“They came … from the forest and began to kill people. When they found children, … they stole them back to the forest. And when they find men… they cut off their heads,” Dadi recalled.
The attack was just one in a festering insurgency by ISIS-linked militants in the southern African nation that has killed at least 4000 civilians and displaced nearly one million people, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR.
“They first arrived in this area to spread their propaganda. To say they were Muslim men. But Muslim men should not kill like this,” said Dadi.
Mozambique has huge natural gas reserves – a resource that, if exploited effectively, could change its fortunes and help the world as it struggles to find enough natural gas to heat homes and fuel industry following Russia’s war on Ukraine. The insurgency, however, jeopardizes Mozambique’s entire economic future, and the battle against the militants is now international.
Soldiers and military personnel from 10 nations are combating the fighters. Among them are Rwandan forces that have now largely regained control of a portion of Mozambique’s northernmost Cabo Delgado province, which is home to Palma and Moc?mboa da Praia.
Whether Mozambique and its allies can stamp out the insurgency altogether is a question that has global repercussions as countries hunt for new sources of liquefied natural gas (LNG).
Mozambique is one of the poorest nations on earth but its offshore riches could make it one of the richest countries in the region. In early 2010, an enormous gas field was discovered in the Rovuma basin, near Mozambique’s border with Tanzania.
With already more than 100 trillion cubic feet of proven offshore natural gas reserves, one industry insider likened its future potential equal to Russia – a natural gas giant.
As the European Union attempts to wean itself off Russian LNG after President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, the need for future sources from non-aligned countries like Mozambique is critical, says Paul Eardley-Taylor, director of Oil & Gas, Southern Africa at Standard Bank.
“Mozambique is important as it’s a very large find; has low CO2 gas; is an ideal geography for Southeast Asia but can also service Europe and East Asia,” he said.
Many industry experts see LNG as an ideal transition fuel as countries move from coal to renewable energy to combat climate change, though some climate activists believe that the transition should skip LNG entirely because even as a cleaner source of fuel, it does contribute to global warming.
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In practical terms, the world will depend on LNG supply in the foreseeable future. And the war in Ukraine has rattled expectations of both price and supply.
“Gas prices are upwards of anywhere to eight times what they were before the invasion of Ukraine. Not just prices, but the availability of supply. The ability for the world markets to have more gas available – especially LNG – is huge,” said a senior US State Department diplomat who closely watches Mozambique.
After the find, major oil suppliers such as TotalEnergies, ExxonMobil, and others flooded in.
Mozambique faced a radical transformation; the government promised human development would be at the center of its strategy. But without much delay, several officials became embroiled in a corruption scandal worth billions of dollars.
But a far more deadly threat was brewing.
On the ridge above Moc?mboa da Praia, the market stalls are just burnt-out husks, evidence of the battle to retake the town from the ISIS-linked fighters.
They held Moc?mboa for a year until Rwandan forces pushed them out. But the earliest known insurgent attacks in the country occurred in late 2017.
At first, small groups of men struck with clubs and machetes. They seemed to capture weapons from the Mozambican police and military at will. Machetes became AK-47s; AK-47s became RPGs and grenades.
The group began calling for followers online and started attacking bigger towns. Their awful signature became beheading security forces and civilians to sow terror.
Known as Ansar al-Sunnah wa al Jamma’ah, or Shabaab (no connection to the Somali group of the same name), in 2021 the US State Department branded the militants as ISIS-Mozambique.
Their motivations, organizational structure, and leadership remain opaque.
“It is really important to emphasize how little is known. And the intelligence deficit has been a central challenge for the government and security forces in dealing with this insurgency,” said Piers Pigou, a senior consultant for Southern Africa at the International Crisis Group (ICG).
In March last year, the militants staged one of their most brazen attacks and overran the town of Palma in Cabo Delgado, leaving behind a trail of bodies, some beheaded.
Few security analysts publicly believed a successful attack was possible, as a substantial force of Mozambican military was posted in the area.
The militants had activated sleeper cells in the economic hub, however, and attacked from three different directions.
During the raid, ISIS-Mozambique destroyed a cell tower to cut communications and beheaded several truck drivers on the routes into Palma, robbing banks and looting stores as they went.
The Mozambican forces, as had happened multiple times in smaller towns, were unable to stop them. Many Mozambican and foreign workers sought refuge in the Amarula hotel.
Over the space of several days, a South African mercenary group evacuated some of them. Others set up a convoy to make a desperate escape. They were ambushed on their way out.
Scores were killed in the Palma attack and thousands displaced, many scrambling onto boats to get to Pemba, the regional capital. Government forces eventually regained control. But people were too scared to come back.
The attack had devastating economic consequences. TotalEnergies declared force majeure (a case of unforeseeable circumstances that prevent it from fulfilling a contract) and shut down its vast Afungi gas development nearby.
The Mozambican government, long accused of downplaying the insurgency, faced the very real prospect of losing both its economic future and the entire province of Cabo Delgado to ISIS-Mozambique.
The Mozambican government did not reply to requests for comment on this story.
The Mozambican military and police had struggled to combat the insurgents from the very start. Despite a brutal civil war after independence in 1975, or perhaps because of it, their forces have appeared demotivated and undersupplied according to multiple outside observers.
But foreign forces from nearby countries have now stepped in.
Standing amongst the perfect rows of prefabricated housing on the Afungi site is Brig. Gen. Ronald Rwivanga, of the Rwandan Defence Force. With him are a group of journalists, including CNN, embedded with the Rwandan forces in a rare opportunity to get into Cabo Delgado.
“The first stage will be to show the population that you have militarily defeated the insurgents. The next step should be to rebuild lives. To ensure that everybody feels that sense of security. And that requires you to be present. The forces have to be there,” Rwivanga told CNN.
Rwandan military and police have secured a large swath of land between Palma and Moc?mboa da Praia and into the interior. Southern African forces, as part of a regional block deployment, are tasked with other zones.
They eventually got here after a series of half-measures and failed solutions.
The EU has given substantial financial backing, and the United States and the European bloc have supplied training, but the outcomes are still spotty.
In a bid to stamp out the insurgency, the Mozambican government looked to the outside, first hiring the notorious Wagner Group, Russian mercenaries with links to the Kremlin.
It later engaged the Dyke Advisory Group (DAG), a small mercenary operation led by Lionel Dyck, a former colonel in the Zimbabwe military.
In the wake of the attack on Palma and the halting of Mozambique’s gas potential, the Mozambican government needed to find a solution quickly.
The answer came from Paul Kagame, long-time president of Rwanda and, famously, former military commander. At the invitation of Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi, Rwanda dispatched frontline forces and specialized police to Cabo Delgado in July 2021.
Their progress was swift as they attacked major insurgent-controlled towns and base camps, retaking Moc?mboa in August 2021.
A year on, the Rwandan officers are at pains to show that their area of control is returning to normalcy.
There is some evidence of that. On the roads leading into their former villages, trucks, and buses ladened with the belongings of returning people stream steadily by.
“They were burning houses, killing people everywhere. I was with my family when I saw them doing it, so we had to run,” said Benjamin Thomas, who is sitting in the back of a white truck, as the passengers pass around a bottle of water in the stifling heat, “I heard there is peace now, so I came home.”
Thomas and others said they came back to find what was left and to escape what they say are terrible conditions in the sprawling camps for the displaced to the south of Mozambique.
Schools are still closed in much of the region after teachers and administrators fled, and health care, neglected even before the insurgency, is sorely lacking.
Some human rights activists are suspicious that just enough is being done for the gas projects to restart without a public relations backlash.
“There is a prioritization of optics for the world to see that these areas are fine and therefore investment should come, rather than a prioritization of basic conditions for people to go back,” said Zenaida Machado, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.
“Being surrounded by soldiers is not normalcy,” she told CNN.
It is a sensitive topic for TotalEnergies and at Afungi their representatives were not authorized to speak.
“The situation is getting better, but the restart of our project in Afungi is conditional on the restoration of security in a sustainable way in northern Cabo Delgado and the normalization of the situation with regard to the local population,” a TotalEnergies representative said in a written statement to questions from CNN.
A spokesperson for Eni, the Italian energy company, confirmed to CNN that a separate LNG development of a offshore floating LNG ship called Coral Sul began LNG production this year and its first cargo is expected this quarter.
But the situation on land,, in much of the province and beyond, is still very volatile.
It is unfortunately a kind of whack-a-mole approach. If you hit them here, they pop up there,” said Pigou of ICG.
Together with his team, Pigou has been tracking multiple recent incidents, including deadly attacks and beheadings, mostly outside of the Rwandan zone of control.
There is also growing evidence of closer ties to ISIS in the Middle East and the move towards terror tactics like improvised explosive devices, say Pigou and Joe van Der Walt, CEO of Focus Group, a South African risk management company.
“The security situation has changed, and the dynamics have changed, but the insurgents themselves have demonstrated a propensity for adaptation and survival,” said the senior State Department diplomat, adding that ISIS-Mozambique is still actively recruiting and training inside the province and beyond.
They stress that developing the region, giving people something to hope for, is the key to extinguishing the threat of ISIS-Mozambique before it takes the well-trodden path of insurgencies in other regions of the continent like the Sahel and Somalia.
Most agree that the window to stamp out the insurgency is narrow.
“The first thing about dealing with an insurgency is that you must deal with the root causes of the insurgency. Of course, the very first thing you must do is defeat the insurgents in a military operation, but after that, you must try to win hearts and minds,” said Rwivanga.