JOHANNESBURG -- It is among Africa's most opaque security challenges: A campaign of attacks by mysterious militants in an impoverished corner of Mozambique that prompted a military crackdown, leaving civilians vulnerable in a cyclical conflict that has killed at least 100 people.
More than a year after insurgents announced their presence with a brazen assault on police in Cabo Delgado province, they have yet to clearly and publicly articulate what they want. The attackers have been described as Islamic extremists in a mostly Muslim area, but their ideology appears undeveloped and ethnic and economic resentments, as well as organized crime, could be key drivers of the unrest, according to analysts.
The violence in northern Mozambique, close to Tanzania, is mostly confined to remote, rural areas and doesn't match the reach, ferocity and sophistication of other armed movements on the continent, including al-Shabab and Boko Haram. But the stakes are high because the Mozambican government, shaken by financial problems and corruption concerns, hopes international plans to develop large reserves of natural gas in Cabo Delgado will eventually boost the economy.
Any energy windfall is a long way off, and military operations have made it harder for researchers and journalists to report on the conflict in the meantime. Last month, Human Rights Watch reported allegations that Mozambican security forces had arbitrarily detained, mistreated and summarily executed dozens of suspected insurgents. Last weekend, security forces in Cabo Delgado detained a local journalist, Amade Abubacar, after he photographed civilians fleeing their homes, according to local media.
"They've basically kept quite a tight lid on what's currently going on in the region," said Ryan Cummings, director at Signal Risk, a risk management firm that focuses on Africa.
The holiday period in December would have been an ideal opportunity for the insurgents to highlight any Islamic extremist credentials with attacks on Christian targets, but that didn't happen, Cummings said. That lends credence to the idea that the attackers are not primarily motivated by fundamentalist ideology, and could simply be using religion to organize and justify their actions, he speculated.
Insurgents in Cabo Delgado sometimes use machetes in their grisly attacks, which have included beheadings, and seem to lack the kind of arsenal of powerful firearms often used by extremists elsewhere in Africa. They target civilians in what could be attacks on suspected collaborators with the government. Villagers have retaliated, killing two insurgents and displaying the severed arm of one of them, according to local reports last month.
Nearly 200 people are on trial for alleged involvement in the armed group. Most are Mozambicans but there are nationals from other countries, including Tanzania. Prosecutors recently accused Andre Hanekom, a 60-year-old South African, of being the financier and coordinator of attacks that aim "to create instability and prevent the exploitation of natural gas" in Cabo Delgado, according to Lusa, the Portuguese news agency.
South Africa's foreign minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, views the charges "in a very serious light" and has asked South African law enforcement agencies to also investigate, the ministry said. Hanekom's wife said on Facebook that allegations that the longtime resident of Cabo Delgado is a "terrorist" are absurd and that "influential people" are trying to frame him so they can seize his beach property.
Experts are watching for any sign that the insurgency is spreading.
"The militants are still militarily weak, and the violence could still be contained," Simone Haysom wrote in a report for The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, a Geneva-based group. "But if it is handled clumsily, the situation could develop in a direction that sees northern Mozambique become a zone for launching assaults and furthering the aims of criminal networks across the region."
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