OPINION: The Islamist insurgency in Mozambique is a growing threat to stability in Cabo Delgado province and could have serious implications for the safety of workers brought in to construct liquefied natural gas facilities on the coast.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), a recent escalation of violence forced thousands to flee for their lives, with at least 100,000 people now displaced throughout the province.

The UNHCR said there has been a dramatic increase in brutal attacks in the last few months, with recent weeks being the most volatile period since the insurgency began in October 2017.

At least 28 attacks have been reported in the province since the start of the year.

The attackers are also moving towards Pemba, the provincial capital and an important oil and gas service and supply base.

Reports this week indicate that a first attack has taken place in Niassa province to the south.

The UNHCR said the insurgents are terrorising local populations, with those fleeing speaking of beheading, maiming, torture, kidnappings, the disappearance of women and children, and destroyed homes, crops and businesses.

The agency is one of many helping a population already on its knees due to the devastation wrought by cyclones Kenneth and Idai last year.

Signalling the importance to Maputo of a province rich in gas, rubies and timber, Mozambique's President Filipe Nyusi held a Cabinet meeting in Cabo Delgado recently.

But with Islamic State claiming to be active in the province, Nyusi needs more than public relations to end this insurgency, while at the same time dealing with an uprising in central Mozambique where the Renamo Military Junta, an armed group with links to the country’s main opposition party, is carrying out ambushes.

Nyusi’s challenges do not stop there, with kidnappings for ransom commonplace, drug-running rife on Cabo Delgado’s quiet beaches and ivory smuggling on the increase in the north.

There was also this month’s final report from the European Union observer group alleging an “astonishing” extent of vote-rigging in October's elections in Mozambique.

EU observers said they found evidence of fraud at almost every stage of the polling process, criticising irregularities in opposition strongholds that benefited Frelimo, Nyusi’s ruling party.

Nyusi is trying to get to grips with the insurgents but has had little success.

Russian mercenaries and Mozambican armed forces have failed to stem the killings, with Nyusi admitting last month that “stability” is now a major issue.

Tanzania - home to some arrested insurgents - may offer help as could the African Union although this appears unlikely.

According to intelligence outfit Rhula, the three Cabo Delgado districts with the highest risk of attacks include Palma, where Total's and ExxonMobil's LNG facilities are being built.

The government is beefing up protection at the LNG site. Upstream was told that 500 military personnel are in the area, with plans in hand to deploy a further 1000 troops.

But Nyusi must also protect Cabo Delgado’s civilian population.

Country watchers suggest insurgents found fertile ground to grow in Cabo Delgado precisely because citizens there have always felt ignored and impoverished compared to the south.

The insurgents will be difficult to defeat militarily and have no apparent leader with whom to hold talks. So, protecting and investing in local communities may be the only short term solution.

However Nyusi proceeds, the insurgency must be contained before the country’s economic future is jeopardised and the attacks spread to Maputo and beyond.

(This is an Upstream opinion article.)