(Bloomberg) -- When a group of suspected Islamist militants beheaded 10 villagers in Mozambique’s gas-rich north late last month, it ratcheted up concerns that spreading attacks in the remote region could threaten a potential $30 billion in investment.
Anadarko Petroleum Corp. and Eni SpA, which are developing separate offshore gas projects near the Tanzanian border, say they haven’t been affected by the violence in Cabo Delgado province. London-listed explorer Wentworth Resources Ltd. said it hasn’t been able to gain access to its onshore licenses near the town of Mocimboa da Praia for safety concerns due to the attacks.
“This problem is not going to go away and is increasingly becoming a regional problem,” said Nigel Morgan, director of Rhula Intelligent Solutions in the capital, Maputo. “This is a risk issue for the oil and gas investors in Cabo Delgado.”
The assaults began in October, when a group of men armed with guns, knives and machetes targeted police stations in Mocimboa da Praia, leaving five police and 12 assailants dead. In response, the authorities detained 133 people, including 32 from Tanzania.
Since then, there have been 20 attacks by “extremist elements” in the area in the first four months of this year, according to the Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium. Those figures don’t include the May 27 beheadings in which two of the victims were children.
In the latest violence, attackers used machetes to kill seven people and set fire to 164 homes late Monday in a village in the district of Macomia between Mocimboa da Praia and Palma, police spokesman Inacio Dina told reporters Tuesday in Maputo. He said the authorities considered the assailants common bandits not terrorists. A day before, police said they had killed nine suspected insurgents in the region.
What first emerged as a religious group in the far north of one of the world’s poorest nations had by the end of 2015 incorporated military cells, according to a study by Muslim cleric Saide Habibe and Maputo-based academic researchers João Pereira and Salvador Forquilha. It was initially known as Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama, which is Arabic for “adherents of the prophetic tradition,” but local residents call it al-Shabaab, the same name used by militants in Somalia.
Already, the group has grown to consist of more than 100 cells, though it is difficult to know how many members it has in total, Pereira, a political science professor at Eduardo Mondlane University, said by phone.
Geography contributes to the problem. Mocimboa da Praia, where the attacks started, is 1,800 kilometers (1,118 miles) northeast of Maputo, and Palma, where the offshore gas reserves that Eni, ExxonMobil and Anadarko are developing, is about 80 kilometers north of that.
The group attracts mainly jobless youths in Cabo Delgado, where poverty runs deep in the rural areas, according to the research by Pereira, Habibe and Forquilha. To stand out, they wear white turbans, shaved heads with large beards, robes and black shorts. The leadership has links with religious, commercial and military circles of Islamist militant groups in Tanzania, Somalia, Kenya and the Great Lakes region of East Africa, where some recruits have received training, they said.
Funding of their operations comes from trading in rubies, ivory and timber -- all of which Cabo Delgado has in abundance. The area has also become a key landing site for heroin shipments that are then trafficked onward to Europe and neighboring South Africa, according to research by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.
The group is probably learning from other militants in Africa and may mimic techniques used by Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia, said Habibe.
Mozambican authorities have responded to the attacks by arresting hundreds of people and closing some mosques. A heavy-handed response from government could worsen the situation, according to Pereira.
“If the repression is too large, the group may use other more sophisticated techniques such as bomb attacks,” he said by phone. “Elimination of the group depends on regional military action, combined with social investment and intelligence action.”
Much could also depend on how countries to the north like Kenya are able to combat the penetration of the radical groups into Tanzania and how that country can eliminate the routes to Mozambique, Pereira said.
“It is clear that state institutions like the police, intelligence and military do not have this situation under control,” Morgan of Rhula said.
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