The Strength of al-Shabab
By Joe Young
The recent attack by al-Shabab on an up-scale shopping mall in Nairobi, which has claimed the lives of dozens of Kenyans, has reignited a discussion among counterterrorism experts/advisors over what the attacks reveal about the strength of the organization.
The attacks, based on what we know and what al-Shabab tweeted, were retribution for Kenya sending troops into Somalia.
David Kilcullen, the counterinsurgency strategist and former advisor to David Petraus, suggests that this is the first of many attacks against East African countries that sent troops to battle al-Shabab. Killcullen argues that the group could emerge stronger, especially if they provoke Kenya into a harsh response.
Ken Menkhaus, a professor at Davidson College and an expert on Somalia, claims that al-Shabab is significantly weakened. This attack is a sign that they are potentially out of options and that this is a desperate gamble.
My colleague, Boaz Atzili, and I had a brief exchange on the issue yesterday. His points are persuasive. A strong Shabab would act like a state. It would control large pieces of territory and major cities, discipline its population, and provide services, some of the actions the group was able to do in 2010 and 2011. A weak Shabab would seek soft targets, such as this mall attack, in an attempt to remain politically relevant. This, however, is unlikely to be a winning strategy.
Recent research by Page Fortna, a contributor to this blog, shows that rebel groups who employ terrorism in a civil conflict are more likely to lose than rebels that do not use this tactic. Max Abrahms has argued that terrorism is counterproductive as it often hardens the resolve of the target state, even when the demands of the group are somewhat moderate. Given the recent pronouncements by the Kenyan government, these attacks are likely to be unhelpful for al-Shabab and its cause.
1. See David Lake’s “Rational Extremism: Understanding Terrorism in the Twenty-first Century” for a primer on how terrorism is a provocation strategy or what he calls political jujitsu.
2. See some of Max Abrahm’s work on how terrorism is ineffective.