Women’s cries just after 1 a.m. confirmed Barnabe Samuel Mussa’s worst fears — an attack was underway.
He and other men from his village of Mitumbate in Mozambique were camped in a dense forest armed with bows, arrows and machetes, awaiting the arrival of a little-known group of Islamist fighters that’s terrorized residents in the gas-rich area 1,800 kilometers (1,118 miles) northeast of the capital, Maputo. An explosive cocktail of ethnic and religious tensions and the region’s deep poverty are fueling the insurgency.
“They started to burn the houses screaming, ‘get out of here. We do not want anyone to live in this village’,” Mussa, 65, said over the sound of children nearby playing drums and singing under a mango tree. “We heard the flames of houses burning. Shortly after that, we heard a boom. That was a bomb exploding at the church.”
By the time they’d left, the militants of Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama, which means “followers of the prophetic tradition” in Arabic had hacked to death one man, set fire to 27 houses, and thrown a crude bomb into the small church. They also replaced the red flag of Mozambique’s ruling party with their own: an off-white fabric with a green crescent moon and a star. Some local residents call the group al-Shabaab, the same name used by militants in Somalia.
Much of the group’s leadership has links with religious, commercial and military circles of Islamist groups in Tanzania, Somalia, Kenya and the Great Lakes region, according to a study published in May by Mozambican researchers including Saide Habibe, a Muslim cleric who spent a month in Cabo Delgado investigating the attacks.
Since it started its campaign in October with an assault on police and government buildings in the town of Mocimboa da Praia, Ahlu Sunnah has killed more than 40 people in Cabo Delgado province. The violence has raised concern over risks to about $30 billion in gas projects companies including Eni SpA and Anadarko Petroleum Corp. are developing about 50 kilometers to the north of Mussa’s village near the Tanzanian border.
While the companies say their installations haven’t been affected by the unrest, a village less than 5 kilometers away from an Anadarko construction camp near the town of Palma has been targeted. London-listed explorer Wentworth Resources Ltd. said it hasn’t been able to gain access to its onshore licenses for safety concerns. The U.S. Embassy last month advised Americans in the area to consider leaving due to “violent extremism.”
With a coastline famous for its turquoise tropical waters rolling along white-sand beaches, and harboring some of the world’s biggest deposits of graphite used to make lithium batteries, and the largest ruby resources globally, Cabo Delgado is now gripped by fear.
Militants raid villages deep in the forest, burning houses, beheading men and stealing food. Since May alone, more than 1,000 people have been forced to flee their homes, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The government has stationed soldiers in many villages, including Mitumbate, where five troopers sat around an armored military vehicle parked 100 meters from the bombed church. But the dense forest that covers much of Cabo Delgado, easy access to the ocean, and a porous border with Tanzania all favor Ahlu Sunnah’s guerrilla tactics.
“We vigorously condemn these acts and will not rest until their perpetrators and collaborators are neutralized and held accountable for their crimes,” President Filipe Nyusi said during independence day celebrations on June 25. “For this, our defense and security forces are on the ground, firm and ruthless.”
During their assault on Mitumbate, the militants had inside help, residents said. Just before they arrived, a man summoned Mussa and others on night patrol to one side of the village, while they slipped in from the opposite direction.
Their targets reveal an ethnic dimension to the expanding conflict. The houses they torched all belonged to predominantly Christian members of the Makonde ethnic group who live on one side of the village, while they spared the homes of Kimwani, a mainly Muslim community, and the mosque. The attack prompted everyone to flee the village.
Only half of the 70 families have since returned — all of them Makonde, according to Joaquim Martins, the local secretary of the ruling Frelimo party.
“Who brought a war to this village are the Kimwani,” Mussa said. “The Mwani houses are empty. They are not coming back.”
The Makonde people, the most influential ethnic group in Cabo Delgado with famous sons such as President Nyusi and army generals, have historically lived inland. The Kimwani, who generally live along the coastline, are poorer and mainly fishermen. Tensions between them have intensified in recent years, as more Makondes settle closer to the sea.
“There is an element of ethnicity,” Yussuf Adam, a history professor at Universidade Eduardo Mondlane, said in an interview in Maputo. “The problem is serious; it has long roots in the area.”
About 54 percent of Cabo Delgado’s 2.3 million people are Muslim, with most of the rest Catholic, according to government statistics. Nationally, over half are Christian, while 23 percent follow Islam, estimates from the Pew Research Center show. About two-thirds of them say they want shariato be the official law of the land, according to a 2013 survey by the Washington-based group.
While most of Mozambique’s Muslims are moderate and follow the more mystical Sufi form of the religion, desperate poverty and the arrival of oil and gas conglomerates in the region make for a “potential powder keg,” said Eric Morier-Genoud, a lecturer in African history at Queen’s University in Belfast.
Islamic leaders in the country have denounced the violence. “This is not the spirit of a Muslim,” Nzé Assuate, the Islamic Council’s representative in Cabo Delgado, said in an interview following Eid al-Fitr celebrations at a packed stadium in the provincial capital of Pemba. “The Islamic religion is a religion of peace.”
Luiz Fernando Lisboa, the Catholic bishop in Pemba, said the militants are using cash to recruit young people, who he described as “our children.” Most villages in Cabo Delgado don’t have electricity or running water, and almost all the homes are wattle and daub huts with thatched roofs.
“It’s young people from our midst who are being enticed — they are being offered money,” Lisboa said in an interview at his residence. “The poor are very vulnerable.”