When vast pockets of Natural gas were discovered off the coast of Northern Mozambique in 2010, many hoped that the exploitation of those resources would bring sufficient jobs and foreign investment to lift the struggling state out of intense poverty. But the resulting $20 billion liquefied natural gas (LNG) project, headed by French energy giant Total, right now sits abandoned just South of the small city of Palma, in the Northern Cabo Delgado province.
Total suspended all of its operations at the LNG site, which represents the largest foreign investment on the continent, in April, following a devastating raid on Palma by insurgents in late March. The attacks had been the latest in a conflict that’s been escalating in Cabo Delgado since 2017, when a group known as Ansar al-Sunna began doing terrorism. Attacks dramatically increased in frequency over 2020 and the group shows no sign of slowing down into 2021.
The terrorists are known locally as al-Shabaab, not to be confused with the Somalian terror group al-Shabaab, and to make matters more complicated, they have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, though it’s unlikely IS is actually calling any of the shots. I’ll get more into that later, but regardless of who these guys are, they’re ruthless, abhorrently violent, and so far one for one in shutting down massive multi-billion dollar foreign energy investments.
This success is partly due to the fact that the region surrounding the LNG project is incredibly underdeveloped, meaning that there is limited infrastructure to support military intervention. In the March raid, insurgents were able to quickly seize control of multiple major roads into Palma, including one which runs parallel to the city's only airstrip, effectively cutting off significant military reinforcement from the land or air.
But it’s not clear that the Mozambican military’s priority is to protect its citizens anyway. The New York Times published a visual investigation that showed “at least nine recently constructed military outposts at key positions around the [Total] site.” The report went on: “It’s clear that the natural gas project, and not the town, is the most secure place when insurgents move in.” The Times also reported that when the raid occurred, around 750 soldiers stayed within the LNG compound instead of moving to protect the city. Multiple reports also contended that soldiers who were within the city at the time of the attack quickly fled.
Total's LNG compound just South of the city of Palma
The government has tried to cover up its military incompetence, the scope of which often takes several days to come into focus due to communications breakdowns in conflict zones and a lack of press freedoms, by playing up its role in preserving what shreds of public safety remain in Cabo Delgado. In the case of Palma however, it was actually a private military corporation (PMC) that was responsible for the bulk of civilian rescues.
I have to come clean with you guys now, because to be honest, the involvement of PMCs is really what made me want to cover this conflict. Not because I’m any more interested in them than I am in other parts of the story, it’s just that a lot of PMCs are run by older South African dudes, and these guys have the funniest names in the world, I swear to god. It’s comedy gold.
During the March Palma raid, several survivors including many foreigners had taken shelter in the Amarula hotel. Because the main roads were blockaded, the only safe way for these people to evacuate was through the air, but government choppers only made one attempt at entering Palma and, according to the NYT, they “quickly retreat[ed] under fire.” Enter the Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), pronounced ‘dike,’ which I’m not sure makes it better, but either way, I told you these dudes had funny names. DAG is the Mozambican government’s most recent PMC contractor and was hired to provide air support to military operations in the region.
DAG’s choppers were lightweight and could only airlift a few survivors from the hotel at a time, and according to them, they intervened on their own, with no government guidance or oversight. This meant that the decision on who should be rescued first somehow fell to the Amarula’s manger, Timothy Robert. Tough break Tim, but maybe Don Cheadle will play you in a movie someday or something.
Anyway, in the end, DAG could only rescue a little over 20 people over several trips, and despite the fact that military choppers could likely have carried upwards of 30 people each, none showed up. After another private company called Everett sent one more helicopter to evacuate hotel staff, the rest of the Amarula survivors gathered vehicles from the parking lot and set off across the treacherous land. Several of these vehicles were attacked on the roads and never made it to their destinations, according to multiple reports.
Soooo, yeah, not a great look for the government, leaving private companies as well as literal randoms to organize rescue missions in their territory without any support. And DAG wasn’t the first PMC Mozambique had hired to take on some of the dirty work. In 2019, the Moscow Times reported that a Kremlin-linked PMC called the Wagner Group beat out two other South African companies for a contract earlier that year. One of those companies, Black Hawk, is run by a dude named Dolf Dorfling. Not at all relevant, but what a fuckin name. No wonder this guy kills people for money now. I would too if I were him.
Anyway, despite the fact that the two South African PMCs had more experience in the region, Wagner, which is reportedly run by a Putin-allied oligarch named Yevgeny Prigozhin (less funny, more Bond villainy), won the contract, and promptly ate all kinds of shit once it began operating in Mozambique. Also, according to the Moscow Times, in the run up to Mozambique’s 2019 federal election, a think tank called Afric ran a poll that predicted a win for the incumbent president Filipe Nyusi. Since publishing polls during the election campaign is apparently illegal, Afric published it on the website of a Russian NGO called the International Anticrisis Center, which is linked to, you guessed it, Yevgeny Prigozhin. This poll was shared widely on social media in the run-up to the election before Facebook eventually suspended Afric’s page for its ties to Prigozhin. Honestly, the poll probably didn’t make a difference, since European observers basically called the whole election bullshit anyway, but still, it seems like Nyusi’s relationship with Prigozhin likely played a part in Wagner winning the contract.
At the end of the day though, Wagner didn’t really seem to make a difference once they got to work because they got their ass repeatedly handed to them by insurgents operating in unfamiliar territory for the Russians. It became obvious that they weren’t really helping, and according to anonymous sources quoted by the Moscow Times, even the Mozambican military was like “what are you guys doing, you’re scrubs, you’re dogwater, uninstall, get out of my lobby, you’re shit, you don’t know how to do war, just go home, we don’t want you here, we’re literally not even gonna work with you guys, just retire, you’re literally useless, etc...” And so Wagner eventually just packed up and cut its losses.
Then Mozambique hired DAG, and Amnesty international accused them of war crimes. Actually Amnesty accused DAG, the terrorists (which, duh), and security forces all of committing war crimes, so it’s just a big war crime party. Love to see it. DAG has said it will investigate the allegations, but PMCs in general are no strangers to that kind of shit, so it should surprise (cue Mitski) nobody, nobody, nobody that Amnesty heard reports that “DAG operatives have fired machine guns from helicopters and dropped hand grenades indiscriminately into crowds of people, as well as repeatedly fired at civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, and homes.”
This is the type of shit you end up with when your military’s priority is protecting foreign investments and saving its image instead of protecting civilians, and you let PMCs fill the vacuum like it's Iraq in the early aughties. DAG’s contract has also come to an end, but with the conflict showing few signs of slowing down, Mozambique is now turning to foreign governments to lend them a hand. The U.S. and Portugal, the former colonial power, have sent military personnel to help train Mozambicans to fight the insurgency, the E.U. is debating getting involved, and according to Reuters, South Africa wants the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which includes 16 member states, to take up military action against the terrorists.
Here’s the big problem though: al-Shabaab’s recruitment is reportedly almost entirely local. It feeds off of the legitimate grievances of a people whose government is a failure that would sooner displace people for a foreign energy project than build proper infrastructure, whose leaders are corrupt and repressive, and whose military seems unconcerned with their safety. It would be a bad look for the international community to help a corrupt regime put down a peasant uprising, wouldn’t you agree?
This is why, according to critics, everyone has been playing up al-Shabaab’s ties to IS. The link is tenuous at best, given that IS didn’t claim a single attack until 2019, two years after the insurgency in Mozambique began, and there’s no evidence to suggest that any IS veterans or officials are aiding in the campaign. Yet, the U.S. officially designated the terrorists as ISIS fighters and international media consistently reports that the group is affiliated with IS without due diligence. Convenient for the international community, since nobody can argue with putting down a brand new cell of an international terrorist organization. And if it just so happens that Western powers also manage to liberate a $20 billion gas project in the process, then that’s just what they call a happy accident.
Look, I’m not saying that fighting terrorists is a bad thing. These guys behead women and children for fuck’s sake, and the insurgency has cost thousands of lives and displaced around 700,000. But listen to me, the West, if you just want an excuse to help out, you don’t have to gin up the threat in such a transparently manipulative way — name dropping IS like it was your roommate in college who went on to be way more successful than you is straight up pathetic. Just say you want to protect your fancy neocolonial energy project and go, it’s not like it’d be a shock to anyone. Plus, if you had come out with that in the first place, maybe a bunch of roided out ageing commandos wouldn’t have spent the last two and a half years blundering around the countryside, allegedly committing war crimes, and trying to pick up after a military that can’t seem to actually do anything except commit their own war crimes and/or watch other people commit war crimes. I’d rather nobody committed war crimes, but if it’s going to happen, at least don’t let it happen at the hands of someone named Dyck or Dolf. Seriously, that's just insult to injury. Pick it up.