Skip to main content

Al-Shabaab is fighting for its survival

By Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, Special to CNN
September 27, 2013 -- Updated 2217 GMT (0617 HKT)
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
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 0730 GMT (1530 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT