COLUMN | Mozambique misery deepens: dozens killed by Islamic extremists in Palma bloodbath [Offshore Accounts]

Fighters of the East Africa-based Al-Shabaab terror group (Photo: Islamic Theology of Counter Terrorism)

Editor’s Note: The earlier version of this article mentioned the participation of 1) offshore services provider Bibby Marine and 2) Afon Menai, a towing vessel operated by UK-based Holyhead Towing, in the evacuation of refugees displaced by the ongoing violence in Mozambique. Incident response specialist MTI Network has stated that Bibby Marine’s employees have no direct involvement in Mozambique and that personnel from another provider working on behalf of Bibby were evacuated from the country on Sunday, March 28, while Holyhead Towing has issued an official statement clarifying that Afon Menai was moved to safety out of the area on Saturday, March 27, and so was not involved in any evacuation. Baird Maritime sincerely apologises for the above errors.

This weekend has seen the dire situation in Cabo Delgado province in northern Mozambique get even worse, as rebels launched a massive attack on the town of Palma, just ten kilometres away from the construction site of Total’s US$20 billion LNG plant on the Afungi peninsula.

On Wednesday, March 24, Islamic extremists known locally as Al-Shabab struck, killing dozens of people. Al-Shabab in Cabo Delgado is affiliated to the Islamic State, and has adopted brutal tactics similar to what were seen in Iraq. Human Rights Watch said it had received credible accounts of beheadings by the militants in Palma, and of bodies lying in the streets of the town, as Mozambique security forces battled to regain control. The rebels were reported to be shooting civilians indiscriminately on the streets and in their homes after they seized control of the town in a well- coordinated strike from multiple directions on Wednesday. The police station and banks were hit first.

The newswire service AFP interviewed an LNG plant contractor who survived the attack over the phone. “Almost the entire town was destroyed,” recounted the survivor. “Many people are dead.”

Evacuation by all available vessels

Yesterday, aid workers reported that over two thousand terrified refugees fleeing from the violence had arrived in motley convoys of vessels at the nearby island of Pemba, where the Total and ENI supply base is located. Some commentators compared it to a “Dunkirk moment” referencing the 1940 evacuation of British troops from France by a flotilla of varied boats. Another thousand survivors are expected to arrive later on Monday, March 29.

Twitter photos from Pemba and AIS tracking of the different vessels involved can be seen here and here.

Escape convoy attacked, contractors killed

On Sunday, West African diving company Petrodive announced on social media (here) that Adrian Nel, a former diving supervisor who had worked for the company in freelance, had been tragically killed as fighting raged in and around Palma. The South African was among seven people shot dead in a convoy of cars, which was ambushed as they attempted to escape the fighting, according to Reuters (here).

His mother, Meryl Knox, told Reuters that Mr Nel had died in the ambush and that “her husband and another son hid with his body in the bush until the following morning, when they were able to make it to safety in Pemba.”

A British national working as a contractor on the Total project has also been killed, according to The Times of London.

“Insurgents are specifically attacking foreigners”

Joseph Hanlon, a Mozambique expert at the UK’s Open University, was quoted in the Financial Times (here) that this attack had seen a dangerous new development for contractors with staff and equipment working on the LNG project. These include Chevalier Offshore, which has accommodation units housing hundreds of contractors beached at the site, Saipem, James Fisher, Peschaud and MMA Offshore on the marine side.

“For the first time, insurgents are specifically attacking foreigners in the ongoing fighting in Palma,” the academic stated. “The attacks will raise serious questions about the expected development of the multibillion-dollar gas liquefaction plants.”

Total closes down operations again

Total had only just restarted work on the project after a previous attack led to the suspension of operations and the withdrawal of its staff in January. The company had said that it would only recommence operations when the Mozambiquan military could guarantee the security of a perimeter zone extending 25 kilometres from the site. It gave the green light just before the Al-Shabab attack.

Following the battle in Palma, Total has now announced that it was cancelling efforts to resume construction of the LNG plant, and said that would reduce its workforce in Afungi to what it described as a “strict minimum”. This threatens to push back the LNG project start date and puts the French energy giant into a difficult position, along with Exxon and ENI, which also have major offshore gas discoveries pending development. They have spent billions to drill the discoveries of the deepwater gas fields and Total has already built much of the supporting facilities for the construction of the plant, including a temporary shore landing for vessels to deliver cargo.

Increased risks to ENI’s Coral Sul FLNG

UK intelligence provider Ambrey Risk has reported that the insurgents may have “taken control of two vessels off Palma, firing on a third, in the latest major offensive,” which will increase concerns of future attacks on vessels and drilling rigs offshore. Militants in Yemen have used speedboats to attack both American military vessels and oil tankers in coastal waters there in the past (USS Cole and Limburg here).

Pelican Unity (Photo: Ambrey)

ENI has the drillship Saipem 12000 working on the Coral Sul gas field development wells just 50 kilometres from the coast, supported by Vroon and Tidewater PSVs (here). Ambrey itself is reported to have mobilised a fast intervention security vessel to the country, Pelican Unity (here).

The Coral Sul field will be produced by a floating LNG vessel, also named Coral Sul, which is currently under construction at the Samsung Heavy Industries shipyard in South Korea, with sail-away expected later this year and first gas next year. The Coral-Sul FLNG will have a production capacity of 3.4 million tonnes of liquefied gas per year, and ENI had announced that thirteen of the topside modules had been installed at the end of last year.

Technip and Utec schedules at risk

Technip has won the installation contract for the FLNG unit and was due to mobilise a large fleet of vessels to connect the FLNG unit to the subsea wells with risers and umbilicals in around 2,000 metres of water. Utec Survey had announced here it had won the contract for the pre-lay surveys and the positioning of various pieces of subsea equipment, including the manifolds and flexible lines, with work due to commence next month.

Dyck Advisory Group leaves, Green Berets enter

The attack on Palma came as South African media (here) was reporting that security company Dyck Advisory Group was due to complete its government contract to provide armed guards and helicopters in the area on April 6, and that the Mozambique army would be taking full responsibility for security in Cabo Delgado instead. The private South African contractor reported that its search and rescue and gunship helicopters had evacuated 120 people from Palma during the fighting.

An interview with Lionel Dyck himself on South African television is here. He claimed the situation was “serious” and that he had been “surprised” by how well-armed the Al-Shabab forces were now.

South African arms maker Paramount has provided new equipment and helicopters to the state forces. The Mozambiquan helicopter pilots were trained at Paramount’s Top Gun military training school in Polokwane in South Africa (here). Dyck said that high capacity Russian Mil Mi-8 helicopters were required in Cabo Delgado and that the insurgents needed to be hunted down in the bush.

A dozen US Green Berets have been also enlisted to train Mozambican soldiers over the next couple of months, The Times of London has claimed (here), citing sources in the US Embassy in Maputo. Exxon also has a massive LNG project next to Total’s but has not yet made a decision to proceed with construction and the development of the subsea field which will feed it.

Controversy over Dyck

Whilst the insurgents have proved violent and capable of horrible atrocities, the government response has not been without its critics.

Dyck Advisory Group was accused of committing breaches of humanitarian law by Amnesty International. The non-governmental organisation claimed the South African security company had indiscriminately shot into crowds of civilians in Cabo Delgado and had attacked a hospital in what Amnesty described as “a pattern of repeated, reckless targeting”.

Private contractors preferred

The Mozambiquan government has shown itself to be reluctant to enlist foreign military forces to assist in the suppression of the Islamist guerrillas. Instead, it initially relied on Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group (more here), but the Russian security contractor suffered heavy casualties against the Al-Shabab insurgents and withdrew. Dyck Advisory Group then won a contract with the Mozambique military, but attacks on first the port of Mocimboa da Praia in August last year, and now the bloody assault on Pemba, indicate that more resources may be required.

The government of President Filipe Nyusi has been reluctant to admit that its own forces have proved to be “in complete chaos and really demoralised” (in the words of one analyst) and so has been slow to draw on foreign support. The president fears that this would be seen as a sign of weakness and failure from his ruling party, which itself claimed power after a successful guerrilla insurgency against Portuguese colonial rule.

Success is critically important when your GDP is US$430 per head

It is clear that the Total LNG project can only proceed if security in Cabo Delgado can be re-established. It is also clear that the government of Mozambique and its allies in the region, especially South Africa, and in the West, especially France and the US, cannot afford to fail in the struggle against Al-Shabab and its violent methods. In Somalia, another Al-Shabab insurgency has devastated the country and created a zone of instability and insecurity across the horn of Africa and beyond.

Mozambique is a desperately poor country with a per capita income of just US$430 per head estimated for 2021 (here). The gas revenues from Total, Exxon and ENI’s project could provide an opportunity to transform the entire country and make life considerably better for its population of thirty million. That requires the project to go ahead in a safe environment, and for President Nyusi to ensure that the gas revenues are spent on infrastructure, healthcare, housing and education, rather than being syphoned off in corruption. His record here is poor, with the notorious “Tuna Bond” scandal hanging over his administration, where hundreds of millions of dollars were embezzled in a scheme that has seen two Credit Suisse bankers jailed for corruption while Mozambiquan officials were able to avoid a similar fate (here).

The horrors inflicted on Palma these last few days are a reminder of the terrible price of failure.

Background Reading

The Human Rights Watch report on the dire situation in Palm can be viewed here. For other important research by the group in China, see here.

Amnesty International’s report into the war crimes in Mozambique, issued ahead of the Palma attack, is here.

ACLED analyst Jasmine Opperman’s Twitter feed provides up to the minute coverage of the crisis from the ground here.

Ambrey’s intelligence feed is here, offering excellent coverage of the Saudi Arabian/Yemen conflict as well.

One of the best local news sources from Mozambique is Zitamar News, on Twitter here and Telegram here.

On Friday, David Brewster had warned here that the deteriorating security situation threatened not only the LNG project, but also the safety of shipping in the Mozambique Channel.

The Guardian’s coverage of the fighting is here and here.

We reported the James Fisher involvement in Mozambique and the deteriorating security situation in December which led Total to suspend operations here.

BBC coverage of the August attack on the port of Mocimboa da Praia by Al-Shabab can be viewed here.

Hieronymus Bosch

This anonymous commentator is our insider in the world of offshore oil and gas operations. With decades in the business and a raft of contacts, this is the go-to column for the behind-the-scenes wheelings and dealings of the volatile offshore market.