Provocation and attrition strategies in transnational terrorism: the case of Al-Shabaab, terrorism and political violence

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Abstract

Scholars have identified a range of terrorist strategies that militant groups employ to influence intended audiences, but there is scant empirical validation. Following Kenya’s invasion of Somalia in late 2011, Al-Shabaab executed retaliatory terrorist attacks in Kenya with the strategic aim to compel the withdrawal of Kenyan troops from Somalia. Drawing on unique in-depth interviews with Al-Shabaab defectors and civilian witnesses to counterterrorism measures in Kenya, this article investigates the strategic motives underlying Al-Shabaab’s transnational terrorist operations and assesses the effect these have had on the intended audiences. The empirical findings reveal that the attrition strategy has underpinned Al-Shabaab’s major terrorist attacks (large-scale events) whilst their minor terrorist attacks (small-scale events) have been motivated by the provocation strategy, aimed at eliciting a repressive state overreaction against Kenya’s Somali and Muslim minorities. Whilst the major terrorist attacks succeeded in fomenting the Kenyan public’s anti-war views, this did not result in troop withdrawal; the minor terrorist attacks, however, engendered harsh state repression and draconian measures against Kenya’s Somali and Muslim minorities, ultimately exacerbating existing grievances and channelling fresh recruits to Al-Shabaab. This article contributes to the growing literature on terrorist strategies, offering nuanced empirical insights to understanding the strategic motives underpinning transnational terrorist campaigns. The article demonstrates that transnational terrorism campaigns are rooted in the strategic need to influence different audiences abroad. Depending on militant groups’ short- and long-term objectives, the type of attack indicates the type of terrorist strategy they will employ.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages26
JournalTerrorism and Political Violence
Early online date3 Nov 2021
DOIs
Publication statusEarly online - 3 Nov 2021

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