JOHANNESBURG — Mozambique's government has been shaken by beheadings and other deadly attacks by suspected Islamic extremists in a northeastern region touted internationally for its offshore reserves of natural gas.
Since last month, men with machetes have spread terror in several villages in Cabo Delgado province on the border with Tanzania, beheading 10 people in one attack, hacking others to death and burning vehicles and homes. At least 24 people have died and security forces have killed 11 suspected militants, the Portuguese news agency Lusa reported.
The violence started last year and included a deadly attack on police in Mocimboa da Praia town in October, prompting the Mozambican government to launch counterterrorism operations in Muslim communities where some have complained of official neglect. Relative calm has returned to Cabo Delgado's coastal areas after security forces increased their presence, Mozambican radio reported Monday.
Local residents call the attackers "al-Shabab," although the extremists have no known formal link to the Islamic extremists of that name in Somalia. The Mozambican insurgency by a shadowy band of young Muslims has intensified worries that Islamic extremism has found a beachhead in southern Africa, which has been free of the kind of attacks seen in other parts of the continent. Even so, the killings in Cabo Delgado appear localized and the attackers, whose fundamentalist ideology seems undeveloped to some observers, could also be driven by ethnic and economic resentments, as well as the interests of criminal syndicates.
Right now, the group is a mystery because it hasn't publicly provided a clear outline of its motives or loyalties, making it hard to "infer what their objectives are," said Ryan Cummings, director at Signal Risk, a risk management firm that focuses on Africa.
Although Mozambique's population of 30 million is predominantly Christian, Muslims make up a minority of nearly 20 percent, many of whom live in northern coastal areas. There has been more development in southern areas, which include the capital of Maputo. The ruling Frelimo party suppressed Islamic and other religious activities early in Mozambique's civil war decades ago, but later officially welcomed freedom of religion in a move away from Marxist policies.
The U.S. Embassy on Friday warned of information indicating the likelihood of attacks on government and commercial centers in Palma, a district headquarters in Cabo Delgado that would be a base for the natural gas industry that could boost Mozambique's economy but has also raised questions about how any windfall would be distributed in an impoverished, corruption-prone country. The embassy urged Americans to consider leaving the area or postpone any plans to travel there.
Some international oil and gas operators, including Eni of Italy and the U.S. firm Anadarko, are setting up facilities in Cabo Delgado. Last week, Wentworth Resources, a Canada-based company, said security problems in the Mocimboa da Praia and Palma regions had prevented safe access for workers and that the situation remains "challenging."
Natural gas facilities or companies have so far not been attacked in the violence, which initially concentrated on security or state interests but has shifted to civilians in horrific fashion. Mozambican officials said the militants are attacking villagers instead of security forces because they have been weakened by a security crackdown; analysts speculated that suspected collaborators with the government are now being targeted, or that the victims are ethnic Makondes under assault from ethnic Mwanis who feel marginalized.
Many militants are disaffected by poverty and unemployment, and some have reportedly traveled to regional countries, including Kenya, Tanzania and Somalia, for religious or military training, according to a study released last month in Maputo. It said they are influenced by followers of Sheik Aboud Rogo, a Muslim cleric in Kenya with alleged links to al-Shabab in Somalia. He was shot dead in 2012 by suspected government agents in Kenya, triggering violent protests by supporters.
The group in Mozambique numbers in the hundreds, operates in largely autonomous cells and has tapped into the thriving illegal trade in ivory, timber and rubies in the border area, according to the study authors, who include Joao Pereira of Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo.
The Mozambican government cannot stamp out the problem with just security crackdowns and should address the root social causes of the bloody unrest before a "Pandora's box" of extremism fully takes hold, said Liazzat Bonate, an academic who has studied Islam in Mozambique.
"They have to work hard now," Bonate said. "They have to show local populations that they're being more supportive and understanding."