Al-Shabaab's Desperation?

07/15/2010 10:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The recent terrorist attacks in Uganda, during a World Cup celebration, quickly redirected the world's attention from the soccer tournament to the continuing threat of terrorism in Eastern Africa. The claim of responsibility by al-Shabaab (AS), a Somali Islamist group, added to the anxiety surrounding the attacks, as this may represent the spread of that group's disastrous insurgency beyond Somalia's borders. The attacks, though, must be understood in the context of the political and military struggles facing AS, which has managed to wield significant power in Somalia, but is meeting increasing resistance from Somalis. The bombings in Uganda, while terrible, likely represent desperation on the part of AS to maintain an appearance of strength.

AS emerged out of the Council of Islamic Courts, a loose affiliation of Islamist groups fighting for control of the country, which prompted US concern over a Taliban-like force emerging in Somalia. Ethiopia also became interested in the conflict due to historic tensions with Somalia. America and Ethiopia supported a coalition of warlords -- rebranded as a counter-terrorist force -- who uprooted the Islamic Courts. Political control continued to seesaw between the two sides, though; currently a moderate faction of the Courts serves as the official government. More radical elements cohered into what is now AS.

As I have discussed recently, AS has managed to prolong Somalia's instability. The group has launched horrific suicide attacks against groups it sees as illegitimate, including Sufi orders and the government. The group also controls a good amount of territory, leaving only a small portion of the capital, Mogadishu, in government hands. AS claims to be in alliance with al-Qaeda, and bin Ladin has expressed support for the group's actions. In addition, AS' global appeal has led to an influx of foreign fighters; some are part of the Somali diaspora, but many are from the Middle East and Central Asia and are attracted to AS' struggle for ideological reasons.

What is often overlooked, however, are the extreme difficulties AS faces. The Somalia people have widely rejected AS because of its brutality, which has included beheadings of Christian converts and attacks on Somalis watching soccer. Also, Sufi groups have capitalized on their deep roots in Somali culture to actively resist AS' presence. Finally, AS has been fighting intermittently with Hizb-al-Islam, an Islamist group and former ally, indicating a fractious situation among Somali militants. While AS is far from weak, the combination of public rejection, organized Islamist resistance and internecine fighting limits its ability to take control of the country.

We are thus witnessing the contradictory trend of a weakening terrorist group launching ever more dramatic attacks. This is, however, far from an exception in the history of terrorism. Many groups step up attacks as they come under pressure from states or rivals. This is in part due to frustration among groups at the inability to easily achieve their goals; such frustration leads moderates to abandon the group, while hardliners grow more ideologically rigid and determined to achieve victory. It is also a rational response to declining strength. Destructive suicide bombings can harm targets' morale and increase the chance of some capitulation, while broadening a conflict can generate more publicity for the group, possibly increasing support among like-minded audiences.

This dynamic is likely occurring in Somalia, as the group responds to challenges by increasing the destructiveness of bombings and launching attacks outside the country. Attacks like those in Uganda are thus unfortunately likely to continue as long as AS' position in Somalia remains threatened. But these horrific attacks, and AS' extreme rhetoric, must be recognized for what they are: desperate attempts by an increasingly unpopular movement to stay relevant. As demonstrated by public anger and the rise of moderate opposition, terror is ultimately self-defeating, but in their death throes terrorist groups attempt to drag society down with them.

The best US policymakers can do in this situation is to avoid assuming AS' attacks are signs of strength, or symptoms of ancient hatreds that can never be controlled. Instead, the United States must lead the international community in ensuring continued support for the African Union peacekeeping mission and engagement with President Ahmed, the country's embattled leader. Only then can AS' desperation -- and the horror it produces -- be prevented from spreading, prolonging the Somali people's misery and destabilizing Eastern Africa.