CHITOLO, Mozambique (Reuters) - Anastacio Talene Nakupenda woke to the sound of gunshots as a dozen men burst from dense forest to attack his remote Mozambican village, torching homes, stealing food and decapitating one of his neighbors.
“I was left with nothing, completely naked,” Nakupenda, a Catholic, said outside his partially rebuilt home in Chitolo, northern Mozambique, from where he had run for his life while five men armed with machetes set the mud and wood walls alight.
Initially dismissed as isolated acts of banditry, attacks like the one on Chitolo in March are increasing.
An emerging pattern suggests the potential beginnings of an Islamist threat in Cabo Delgado - an impoverished province on the border with Tanzania where companies are developing one of the biggest gas finds in a decade.
The group goes by the name Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama, or “followers of the prophetic tradition”. In common with Boko Haram in Nigeria, it touts a radical form of Islam as an antidote to what it regards as corrupt, elitist rule that has broadened gaping inequality.
Since October more than 100 people have been killed, often by decapitation, in 40 separate attacks, in villages up to 200 km (124 miles) apart, according to local news site Zitamar.
The targets are usually remote villages and attacks are carried out with machetes, though the occasional shooting and a recent use of a basic explosive device have been reported.
Researchers have found the Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama leadership has links to Islamist groups in Tanzania, Somalia, Kenya and the Great Lakes region where some also received training.
Its capacity is limited so far, but it is rooted in conditions that mirror northeast Nigeria a decade ago when Boko Haram began recruiting young men angry with stark inequality and perceived religious discrimination.
“It’s similar to how Boko Haram started,” said historian Joao Pereira, co-author of the most comprehensive study on the group. “All the conditions are there for this situation to worsen.”
While Boko Haram morphed from an anti-establishment movement into one of the world’s deadliest Islamist groups that has killed more than 30,000 people, northern Mozambique’s remoteness and a lack of funding for militants are brakes on the violence, security experts say.
But it has been enough for the United States and Britain to advise against traveling to the region.
Several killings have been reported about 20 km outside the town of Palma, from where energy multinationals are developing massive gas discoveries in the Southern African country.
Some of the companies are taking precautions as they develop projects involving investments expected to total about $50 billion, more than four times Mozambique’s GDP.
U.S. firm Anadarko, which is building a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant near Palma, placed staff under “lock-down” due to security fears, a security source said.
Canada-based Wentworth Resources said it had limited access to its onshore license site because of the security situation.
Exxon and ENI both said they are closely monitoring the situation.
The companies plan to develop the Coral offshore gas field which is expected to start production in 2024. A final investment decision on an onshore LNG plant is planned for 2019.
It was in Cabo Delgado that the liberation struggle against the Portuguese began in the 1960s, with fighters trained and sneaking across from Tanzania.
That victory, and the spoils of a 15-year civil war, enabled Frelimo, a party few Muslims feel represents them, to cement power. However, the new group does not appear to be linked to sporadic attacks in recent years blamed on Frelimo’s war-era opponents, Renamo.
Muslims make up 20 percent of the total population but more than half of Cabo Delgado’s 2.3 million people. The younger ones are increasingly angered by what they regard as broken promises of jobs from the offshore gas discoveries on their doorstep.
Violence began in October, when around 30 people attacked a police station in the quiet fishing town of Mocimboa da Praia.
Two policemen died and one was seriously wounded as gunfire raged through the night. Bullet holes can still be seen in the wall of the base and the neighboring petrol station store.
For most observers the incident came out of the blue, but locals say they had been warning authorities of radicalization in their communities for the past two years.
A heavy-handed military response has further fueled resentment.
Soldiers live out of camouflaged tents on the edge of vulnerable villages along the 200 km stretch from Macomia to Palma. At one military checkpoint, a soldier in crumbling footwear, said: “We’re at war”.
Authorities have said they do not know the motivations or the identities of the people behind the attacks and are restricting media access to the area. Local religious leaders have been told not to speak to reporters.
To stem the unrest, authorities, which have so far cracked down, must repair ties with communities that have long felt ignored by a central government sitting 2,500 km away in the capital Maputo, experts say.
“The response of the government will decide whether this gets worse or is resolved,” said Saide Habibe, an Islamic cleric who has also been researching the attacks.
The government insists its tactics are working. Officials say the large military presence is acting as a deterrent, pointing to a fall in the number of attacks in July, although after a similar lull earlier in the year, violence resumed.
“We are vigorously fighting these killers across the entire province. We have deployed the army, the marines, intelligence services and we are counting on the help of the population, to hunt down these groups,” police spokesman Inacio Dina said in a response to queries.
Around 500 people have been arrested, several mosques were closed and one, where authorities believed radicalization was taking place, was leveled to the ground.
Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama have divulged little about themselves, and have not yet made any confirmed public demands, but researchers say they want to replace the more moderate teachings of local mosques with a doctrine that rejects the state.
They keep their children away from government schools and seek to impose education grounded in a strict interpretation of the Koran, according to the study by Habibe and Pereira in May.
The group appears to benefit from the illicit trade that courses through Cabo Delgado, dealing in rubies and timber.
The distance and timing between strikes now suggests there are at least two cells, probably more. In villages, fighters appear to be targeting Christian houses and burning them.
Security sources said one Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama cell was struggling to afford ammunition or food. Violence carried out by smuggling syndicates and criminal gangs was also wrongly being blamed on the group, the sources said.
In villages like Chitolo, confused residents live in fear.
“This is a war. But we don’t know who is attacking, we don’t know why we’re fighting,” Nakupenda said.
“They tried to kill me, but God let me live.”
Reporting by Stephen Eisenhammer; additional reporting by Manuel Mucari, Ernest Scheyder and Stephen Jewkes; editing by Joe Brock and Philippa Fletcher