Al-Shabaab’s Insurgency in Somalia: a Data-Based Snapshot

Two recent attacks highlight the continuing terrorist threat to Kenya. On 23 March 2014, gunmen shot up services at a church near Mombasa, killing six. Just over a week later, an explosion in Nairobi’s Somali neighborhood of Eastleigh that a Red Cross official described as a “deliberate attack” killed six people and wounded eighteen. But the most dramatic example of the threat terrorism poses to Kenya famously occurred in the fall of 2013, when terrorists affiliated with the Somali militant group al-Shabaab, an official al-Qaeda affiliate since February 2012, launched a brazen attack on the upscale Westgate Mall in the heart of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. The routine hustle and bustle of shopping was interrupted by the sounds of gunfire as attackers swept through, shooting mall patrons in the head as they did. The attackers retreated with hostages and forced authorities into a standoff that dragged out over the course of 4 days, killing at least 67 and injuring more than 175.

Analysts’ response to this attack points to the difficulties of interpreting clandestine non-state actors: informed observers had diametrically opposed views of what the Westgate Mall attack meant for Shabaab’s future. It is clear that the group had experienced a noticeable decline since its 2009-10 peak, from acting as southern Somalia’s dominant military force and governing broad swathes of territory to losing its final urban stronghold of Kismayo on 2 October 2012. But did the deadly Westgate attack signal al-Shabaab’s resurgence?

Some analysts believed that the attack was sign of weakness. Ken Menkhaus, a respected Somalia specialist in Davidson College’s political science department, described the attack as “an act of desperation by a jihadi group beset by internal power struggles and plummeting support.” Other observers viewed the Westgate attack as a sign of al-Shabaab’s strength; Scott F. Mann wrote in Small Wars Journal that al-Shabaab had “proven its resilience and ambition, as well as the tremendous growth in its capabilities.”

Here, we analyze what can be discerned about the current shape of al-Shabaab’s insurgency from data about all al-Shabaab-related attacks that have been conducted between the group’s loss of its Kismayo stronghold and the end of February 2014. We draw from a Foundation for Defense of Democracies database that attempts to chronicle every reported al-Shabaab-linked attack carried out since al-Shabaab was encircled in Kismayo and stood on the verge of losing the city; the database draws from both the English-language and also the Somali-language press.

The Current Shape of al-Shabaab’s Insurgency

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Several interesting aspects of al-Shabaab’s insurgency can be discerned based on our data. First, the external evidence does not support a maximalist or minimalist interpretation of Shabaab’s strength. The group’s ability to conduct attacks since its defeat at Kismayo has not significantly declined; in fact, it seems to be recovering its ability to carry out deadly attacks. At the same, time, the pace and lethality of its attacks has not exploded after Westgate. Contrary to some predictions, the rate of al-Shabaab attacks post-Westgate has slowed somewhat.

Since al-Shabaab’s defeat at Kismayo, the number of al-Shabaab attacks carried out per month has neither significantly risen nor declined. Figure 1 displays the number of attacks al-Shabaab and its supporters have carried out per month: the red bars indicate the minimum number of attacks al-Shabaab executed each month, while the blue bars represent attacks that the group likely committed, but where uncertainty remains. For example, on 24 November 2013, Hassan Tifow Mohamed, the judge of Hurwa district in Banadir province, was shot and killed on the way to his office. His brother told Radio Dalsan, “Al-Shabaab killed my brother because of the work he is doing for the Somali people.” It appears likely that al-Shabaab was responsible for killing Mohamed, but there has been no claim of responsibility, and al-Shabaab is by no means the only perpetrator of violence in southern Somalia. Thus, this attack was coded as just a suspected al-Shabaab attack.

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Linear regression shows a decline in monthly attacks, but this is largely because the first month in the data (October 2012) also featured the highest number of attacks of any month. If one excludes this first month, the downward trend levels out significantly. Given that there can be aberrational months in any sequence, the relatively steady, albeit somewhat declining, pace of attacks provides little external support for the notion that al-Shabaab’s capabilities are steadily eroding, particularly when one takes into account not just the number of attacks but also their lethality.

Figure 2 shows the number of reported deaths in al-Shabaab attacks since October 2012. Due to the nature of the armed conflict, which constrains the media’s access, it is difficult to obtain precise casualty figures. Published reports contain contradictory information about many al-Shabaab attacks, with conflicting death totals reported and no final resolution. Moreover, there is no consistent rule about whether a high-end or low-end estimate is accurate: sometimes the death tally of a security incident declines over time because the initial estimate of fatalities was too high (the 9/11 attacks are an example), while sometimes the initial death count is too low.

For the amount of deaths al-Shabaab has caused per month in its attacks, the regression lines show a slight decline in the maximum but a slight increase in the minimum. The fact that the maximum is declining while the minimum is increasing indicates that the number of deaths the group causes per month has stayed within a consistent range.

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However, al-Shabaab appears to have an increasing ability to carry out attacks that kill six or more people at once. Both the data (Figure 3) and our qualitative observations suggest that al-Shabaab is becoming more capable at carrying out these relatively large-scale operations.

Even though al-Shabaab had a rapid pace of attacks in October 2012 immediately after the loss of Kismayo, most of these attacks were small. For example, on 9 October, a remote-controlled landmine targeting Somali government forces killed two and injured five; on 13 October, al-Shabaab ambushed Somali forces near Baidoa, but only managed to kill four in an hours-long firefight; and al-Shabaab gunmen assassinated both a journalist and a comedian in two separate attacks. Since then, al-Shabaab has noticeably recovered its ability to carry out larger-scale attacks. On 14 April 2013, al-Shabaab executed a spectacular attack that targeted a Mogadishu courthouse. The complex operation employed multiple modes of attack, including a bombing, suicide vests, and gunfire. Twenty-nine were killed and fifty-eight wounded. On 19 June 2013, al-Shabaab carried out another spectacular operation against the U.N. compound in Mogadishu, using two suicide bombers to spearhead a strike that killed twenty-two.

Such relatively large-scale attacks continued into 2014. In addition to this qualitative observation, Figure 3 also shows an upward trend in the number of attacks that kill six or more people. As with the number of people killed per month, there is both a maximum and minimum regression line, since some attacks are reported with conflicting numbers killed.

Screen Shot 2014-04-03 at 1.12.02 PMTurning to al-Shabaab’s activities in Kenya, the Westgate Mall attack was seen by some observers as a sign that al-Shabaab was becoming more interested in Kenya, and thus that more attacks would be carried out in that country. That may ultimately end up occurring, and the two most recent attacks in Kenya may be signs of things to come. However, as of the end of February 2014, the popular view of an increasing Shabaab focus on Kenya was not supported by the data. For one thing, around 50 al-Shabaab-linked attacks had been carried out in Kenya between October 2012 and the time of the Westgate attack. Moreover, al-Shabaab-linked attacks in Kenya since Westgate  declined: there were only eight such attacks in Kenya between the Westgate attack and the end of February 2014 (Figure 4).

Furthermore, despite Westgate, there was only a modest increase in the number of deaths caused per month in al-Shabaab-related attacks (Figure 5). If one excludes the Westgate attack, the number of deaths caused per month has actually been declining (Figure 6).

This didnot mean, of course, that al-Shabaab either lost interest in striking inside Kenya or lost its ability to do so. Rather, the decline in attacks following Westgate may be attributable to any number of factors. Al-Shabaab networks in Kenya may have shifted their tactics away from the small-scale attacks they typically carry out, instead attempting to more frequently execute larger attacks (a conclusion that the most recent attacks may support). A shift in tactics in this manner could produce the temporary illusion of a decline in violence. Alternatively, these networks may have reduced their activities in the wake of Westgate in order to survive the inevitable antiterrorism sweeps that the attack would produce.

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Some trends are discernible from this data. As previously noted, al-Shabaab’s ability to conduct attacks has not significantly declined over time, and it seems to be recovering its ability to conduct attacks that kill six or more people. However, there has not been an upward explosion in its capabilities. Oneinherent challenge that scholars analyzing violent non-state actors face is that the clandestine nature of these entities can make interpretations of their strength and structure difficult. However, for a group like al-Shabaab, which is involved in constant armed conflict against state actors, its external activities will be more telling than for an entity like al-Qaeda’s senior leadership, which has fewer externally observable acts.

Our data does not support the hypothesis that al-Shabaab is on the verge of collapse or that it experienced an upward explosion in its capabilities around the time of the Westgate attack. Matt Bryden, one of the leading Western experts on Somalia, offers the model that best explains what our data about al-Shabaab suggests. In a report published in February 2014 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Bryden argues that al-Shabaab has been reinventing itself. Al-Shabaab has steadily lost territory that it once controlled in southern Somalia, and Bryden argues that its military reverses will likely continue. As such, Bryden states that al-Shabaab “is not playing to win, but to survive, subvert, and surprise—to become, as T.E. Lawrence once described his irregular army during the Arab Revolt, ‘an influence, a thing invulnerable, intangible, without front or back, drifting about like a gas.’” To Bryden, this is a strategy of necessity, but it is in line with the strategies adopted by other unconventional actors. An old adage holds that insurgents win by not losing. As Derek Jones explains in Understanding the Form, Function and Logic of Clandestine Insurgent and Terrorist Networks, survival is a critical part of insurgents’ strategy because “a long, drawn out series of seemingly minor attacks without decisive engagement erodes the will of their enemies.”

Thus, consonant with this strategy, al-Shabaab’s military wing has been avoiding open warfare with the better organized and equipped African Union and Somali government forces, and instead the group has relied on its intelligence wing to plan and execute targeted killings, suicide bombings, and grenade and IED attacks.

At some point, al-Shabaab’s position is likely to change. Due to military reversals, it may experience such a loss of capabilities that it is no longer able to maintain its pace in attacks against its enemies. Or, alternatively, the group may regain such capabilities that it becomes more capable of engaging African Union and Somali government forces openly. We will continue to watch trends in the data closely to determine whether al-Shabaab undergoes further evolution in the future.