OPINION: Total’s decision to pull workers from its liquefied natural gas site in northern Mozambique due to the manifest threat posed by Islamist insurgents comes as little surprise to watchers of this East African country.

The home-grown insurgency in Cabo Delgado province hit the headlines in late 2017, although President Filipe Nyusi says the signs of budding militancy existed many years before.

Most political pundits have long been counting down the days to when the LNG site on Afungi peninsula would be seriously threatened.

That moment seems to have arrived.

Known as Ahlu-Sunna Wa-Jama or Ansar al-Sunna (ASWJ), the insurgents have, over the past three years, boosted their military prowess and capabilities, both on land and at sea, with concomitant successes.

In August 2020 they took control of Mocimboa da Praia port, once a key logistics and service base for the upstream sector but subsequently surpassed by Pemba, the provincial capital.

Success at Mocimboa da Praia seems to have emboldened ASWJ, which is affiliated to Islamic State’s Central Africa Province, leading them to intensify attacks on villages, towns and islands on Cabo Delgado’s coast and inland, and accessing arms, assets, food and recruits (willing or not) on their way, and all the time edging closer to Afungi.

Since mid-2019, Islamic State “has strategically co-opted ASWJ’s local narrative and successes for its own propaganda and notoriety", according to Stable Seas, a US-based research house focused on maritime security and an offshoot of non-profit One Earth Future, warning that this relationship is deepening.

One result is that large swathes of Cabo Delgado have been depopulated. Some 570,000 villagers have fled their land, homes and coastal livelihoods to havens such as Pemba, desperate to avoid being caught up in ASWJ’s brutal attacks. Beheadings are common in affected areas.

Now, the insurgents are knocking at the gates of the Afungi site which, it must be assumed, is heavily protected by the elite of Mozambique’s armed forces allied to private military contractors.

It is unclear if a memorandum of understanding signed last year by the government and Total to create a joint task force has been formalised or progressed at all and, if so, what this currently means for the security set-up at Afungi.

If the insurgents do try to attack the construction site, it will have clear cost and schedule implications for Total's $23.5 billion Mozambique LNG project.

Even if the attacks are rebuffed, workers are unlikely to return — and Total will not send them into a conflict zone — until their safety is assured.

If the insurgents do not attack, their mere presence just a few kilometres from the Afungi site’s security fence will be a major concern and something that Mozambique’s government surely could not tolerate.

Maputo has so far failed to prove it can rein in the insurgency, despite minor successes.

Yet Nyusi is very reluctant to allow foreign troops on Mozambique's soil, believing the situation can be handled internally.

With ExxonMobil's $24 billion Rovuma LNG project also waiting in the wings, crunch time has now come for the president.

To provide comfort for workers and investors, his armed forces must effectively counter this escalating insurgency, with or without foreign assistance.

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While a Baghdad-style, heavily protected Green Zone would be unwelcome, Afungi’s security cordon may also need hardening.

Nyusi has some difficult and critical decisions to make very soon. The clock is ticking on $50 billion worth of inward investment.

(This is an Upstream opinion article.)