Skip to main content

Al-Shabaab is fighting for its survival

By Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, Special to CNN
updated 6:17 PM EDT, Fri September 27, 2013
Relatives of Johnny Mutinda Musango, 48, weep after identifying his body at the city morgue in Nairobi, Kenya, on Tuesday, September 24. Musango was one of the victims of the Westgate Mall hostage siege. Kenyan security forces were still combing the mall on the fourth day of the siege by al Qaeda-linked terrorists. Relatives of Johnny Mutinda Musango, 48, weep after identifying his body at the city morgue in Nairobi, Kenya, on Tuesday, September 24. Musango was one of the victims of the Westgate Mall hostage siege. Kenyan security forces were still combing the mall on the fourth day of the siege by al Qaeda-linked terrorists.
HIDE CAPTION
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
Kenya mall attack
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Somali group Al-Shabaab attacked a mall and other targets in Kenya, killing many
  • Ethan Mesquita: These terrorist attacks are a sign the rebels are losing
  • He says the goal of Al-Shabaab is to rule Somalia, so why would it attack Kenya?
  • Mesquita: Terrorism is a weapon of the weak; Al-Shabaab is fighting for its survival

Editor's note: Ethan Bueno de Mesquita is a professor at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago.

(CNN) -- The attack by al Qaeda's Somali affiliate group Al-Shabaab that killed scores at the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya, was horrifying. It was followed by two smaller scale attacks by the group that killed and injured both police and civilians.

Previously, a multilateral campaign against Al-Shabaab undertaken by United Nation's sanctioned African Union forces, including many from the Kenyan military, was being touted as a great counterinsurgency success story, both for the African Union and the United States. Indeed, the Obama administration directly backed the African Union forces, participated in the counterinsurgency with targeted drone and air strikes and recently formally recognized the new Somali government.

Beginning in 2011, the counterinsurgents pushed Al-Shabaab out of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, and made it nearly impossible for Al-Shabaab to hold territory even in its former strongholds in southern Somalia. This was a stunning turnaround for parts of Somalia.

Ethan Bueno de Mesquita
Ethan Bueno de Mesquita

Despite these major counterinsurgent victories, many analysts interpret the recent attacks as a sign of a resurgent Al-Shabaab. The New York Times, for instance, reports that according to senior American counterterrorism and diplomatic officials the attack shows the Somali militants are as dangerous as ever. If Al-Shabaab, with its increasing ties to global jihadi groups, is capable of such spectacular attacks, the argument goes, it is stronger than we thought. Victory was declared too soon.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The goal of Al-Shabaab is to rule Somalia. In order to do so, it must hold territory. By holding territory rebel groups establish political control, build operational capacity and gain recruits.

Terrorism is a tactic used to spread fear. It is not a tactic suited to holding territory. So, in analyzing the attack in Kenya, one must ask why Al-Shabaab has resorted to a tactic so ill-suited to its goals.

How terror group recruits in the U.S.
Are we seeing a 'new' Al-Shabaab?

The answer is that terrorist and other unconventional attacks are now all that Al-Shabaab can manage, precisely because of the success of the counterinsurgent campaign against it.

Terrorism is a weapon of the weak. Rebel groups turn to terrorism when they lack the human and material resources required to field a fighting force capable of using conventional tactics that might actually take and hold territory. That is, terrorist attacks are a sign that rebels are losing -- not winning.

This is a pattern that has been seen repeatedly throughout the history of counterinsurgency. Brutal but effective Russian counterinsurgency efforts in the second Chechen war degraded Chechen rebels' public support and operational capacity. In response, those rebels shifted tactics, resulting in dramatic terrorist attacks in the Moscow Metro in 2010. Those attacks, though deadly, were a sign of a Chechen rebellion no longer able to seriously challenge Russian counterinsurgents.

After the Tet offensive during the Vietnam War, when American and South Vietnamese operations rested local control over a village, mobilization for the North Vietnamese declined in those villages and, as a result, conventional attacks by the North Vietnamese decreased and unconventional attacks by the Viet Cong increased.

The rise of the Irish Republican Army as a terrorist organization can be largely attributed to similar dynamics. After its defeat in the civil war of the early 1920s, the remaining IRA rebels, unable to field a conventional fighting force capable of conventional operations against British and Free State forces, turned to terrorist tactics and assassinations.

Counterinsurgency is a strategically complex business. Rebels shift tactics and strategies in response to changes to their operational environment. Consequently, it is a mistake to expect that every counterinsurgent victory will be followed by a reduction in all forms of violence.

We must learn to recognize when an uptick in violence is really a sign of resurgence and when it is a sign of a rebel group on its heels, fighting for survival. Terrorist attacks by groups like Al-Shabaab that used to control large amounts of territory are an instance of the latter phenomenon. No rebel group loses quietly. But governments must show resolve in the face of attacks, which should be understood for what they are—a sign the counterinsurgents are winning.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ethan Bueno de Mesquita.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT