The Economic Factors of al-Shabaab’s Insurgency

Data from ACLED on attacks perpetrated by jihadists in Mozambique. Photo Credit: The Economist

In October 2017, a group of Islamist rebels locally known as al-Shabaab (no affiliation with al-Shabaab in Somalia) sought to spread radical Islam and gain territory in the northern Mozambican province of Cabo Delgado. [i] The situation deteriorates as both internal and external factors have contributed to the large influx of violence. As of early October this year, over 3,300 militants and citizens have died. [ii] The abduction of children, boys and girls, contributes to the domestic grief and further exacerbates the issue. Additionally, attacks by the local group have seriously stalled extraction of the province’s natural resources inhibiting the country’s well-being further. [iii] These abductions and tense relationships between locals and corporations intensify the conditions allowing al-Shabaab to flourish. A long-term investment is needed to suppress al-Shabaab and bring economic prosperity to the people of northern Mozambique.

The abduction of boys and girls not only has an economic impact on the community but also plays a part in the success of al-Shabaab by providing free labor to continue attacks and build forces. Boys as young as 12 are recruited, kidnapped, trained, and forced to fight government forces alongside adults. Additionally, evidence gathered by UNICEF shows acts of sexual violence committed against these girls, many of whom are forced to marry their captors. [iv] While there is no accurate number for the children who have been taken, it is believed to be in the thousands. [v] The very real human cost must also be emphasized here. James Elder, a spokesperson from UNICEF, describes the situation, “Children are exposed to incomprehensible levels of violence, they lose their families, they lose their safety, they lose their ability to go to school.” [vi] While these children are taken from their communities, they are also deprived of their childhood and forced to fight or marry away from their families and loved ones. They are stripped of a future as long as al-Shabaab thrives.

The abduction of these children affects not only their families but also the community around them. With the absence of young people, there is less economic input into the community as the years go on. The decrease in the upcoming workforce only further hinders economic success that the area so desperately needs, which al-Shabaab is able to capitalize on for influence.

Additionally, an influx of multinational companies, such as gas and mining, to the area increases tensions in the local communities aggravating the conditions that lend to the foothold of al-Shabaab. In January 2021, al-Shabaab attacked Palma, a coastal town in the northeast region of the country. The hub houses the operations of TotalEnergies, a French energy company extracting natural gas from deposits that are said to be among the largest in the world. While the company attempted to resume operations in March, it had to evacuate employees after it was deemed not safe enough. [vii] These practices are also seen in the mining area of Montepuez in Cabo Delgado, where relations are strained between international mining companies and the residents. [viii] Furthermore, the illegal timber trade that is able to operate bolsters the group’s power. These firms are openly flaunting the local laws and providing valuable income for al-Shabaab. Not only are these groups sustaining the insurgents with an income, they are also fueling the tensions that the insurgency thrives on in the area, namely the abuse of labor in the community, lost employment due to deforestation, as well as vulnerability to severe weather. [ix] These practices are making the country much less safe allowing al-Shabaab to advance and profit, while continuing to deteriorate the conditions that supply the group’s insurgency. An abundantly resource rich country, Mozambique needs these international companies to continue to invest in the country to spur economic growth. Due to the presence of these companies furthering the social tension and economic despair within the community, the prosperity of the Mozambican people is crucial to a successful suppression of al-Shabaab.

Military action has been taken to crush the insurgency, but it is proving to be insufficient because it fails to address the fundamental economic underpinnings of al-Shabaab’s success. In July, 1,000 Rwandan troops were deployed into Mozambique and with the help of Mozambican troops, were able to drive al-Shabaab back from its de facto headquarters in Mocimboa da Praia. However, recent reports of violence south of the city indicate the group is still active. [x] A South Africa-based terrorism expert Jasmine Opperman believes that al-Shabaab fighters driven out of Mocimboa da Praia are lying low and waiting to regroup perhaps until the rainy season when guerilla warfare will be most effective. [xi] She also notes that before Rwandan troops arrived, al-Shabaab withdrew most of its fighters leaving only a few groups to ensure visibility of the insurgents. [xii] If the retreated fighters are able to regroup, military action will go on indefinitely. Moreover, if most insurgents were withdrawn before the arrival of Rwandan troops, one must question how successful the military campaign actually is in terms of the larger picture of crushing the insurgency. This calls into question the viability of military action alone to conquer the Islamist group. While minor progress has been made against al-Shabaab, there is still more to do to ensure the safety and prosperity of these communities. The conditions that fuel this insurgency are vast and far-reaching but ultimately center on the economic context of the local people. The consequences of al-Shabaab’s actions among the immediate community and the country as a whole are devastating.Abducted boys fill the ranks of al-Shabaab’s fighting force providing free labor, and young girls become wives all while losing their childhood, families, and communities. Companies are not able to complete projects in the region due to widespread security issues surrounding the insurgency of al-Shabaab. Without international investment in the resource rich country, there is little economic growth and success for the people. Worsening economic and living conditions further the hold and power that al-Shabaab has in the region. The stronger the group gets, the more chaos and destruction that it is able to cause.  In addition to a military solution, the government must provide a strong economic plan to improve the prosperity of its people and better the weak economic situation that gives the group a hold on the community. Though the path to quelling the violence will be long, it is necessary to serve the people of Mozambique.


[i] Thomas P. Sheehy, “Five Keys to Tackling the Crisis in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado,” United States Institute for Peace, July 28, 2021,

[ii] Bill Corcoran, “Defeats of Al-Shabaab insurgents in Mozambique forces them into new areas,” The Irish Times, October 11, 2021,

[iii] Andrew Meldrum, “Explainer: Who are the rebels in northern Mozambique?” AP News, April 2, 2021,

[iv] Lisa Schlein, “UNICEF: Mozambique Insurgents Recruiting Children to Fight in Cabo Delgado,” Voice of America, October 5, 2021

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Andrew Meldrum, “Explainer: Who are the rebels in northern Mozambique?” AP News, April 2, 2021,

[viii] Ali Rogin, “Mozambicans fleeing IS-affiliated insurgents feel failed by government, exploited by big business,” PBS Newshour, September 30, 2021,

[ix] Henry Tugendhat and Sérgio Chichava, “Al-Shabaab and Chinese Trade Practices in Mozambique,” War on the Rocks, September 23, 2021,

[x] “In Mozambique, Kagame says Rwandan troops’ work not over,” Al Jazeera, September 24, 2021,

[xi] Bill Corcoran, “Defeats of Al-Shabaab insurgents in Mozambique forces them into new areas,” The Irish Times, October 11, 2021, [xi] Ibid.

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