Peer-Reviewed Research Articles

2023. Provoking an overreaction: Transborder guerrilla warfare in the Kenya-Somalia borderlands.” African Security.

Scholars have shed much light on the positive correlation between foreign military interventions and blowback in the form of transnational violence, such as terrorist and guerrilla attacks. While the strategies of transnational terrorism have been widely addressed in the literature, the strategies of transborder guerrilla warfare have received little attention. Since Kenya deployed troops to Somalia in 2011, Al-Shabaab has carried out reprisal attacks in Kenya in an attempt to wear down their opponents. Using new primary evidence from Somalia and Kenya, I demonstrate that Al-Shabaab frequently stages transborder guerrilla operations at the margins of Kenya with the intention of provoking a violent overreaction from the Kenyan state against ethnic Somalis who dominate the Kenya-Somalia borderlands. The resulting repressive governmental response has strengthened perceived divisions and mistrust among Kenyan Somalis, sparked virulent public anger in Somalia, and reinforced the public image of Kenya as an unfriendly foreign occupying force. Despite the costly militant casualties, the findings reveal that militant groups prioritize transborder guerrilla attacks over transnational terrorist violence primarily due to the resultant state repression against their presumed constituency. These findings contribute to the broader analytical literature on militant organizations’ strategic goals.

2021. “Provocation and attrition strategies in transnational terrorism: the case of Al-Shabaab.” Terrorism and Political Violence.

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.

2021. “Protection or Predation? Understanding the Behavior of Community-Created Self-Defense Militias During Civil Wars.” Small Wars & Insurgencies.

During civil wars, some communities raise self-defense militias to protect themselves from insurgent predation, but these militias can end up mutating into predatory organizations. The extant literature has focused chiefly on the predatory propensity of state-created self-defense militias and has mostly overlooked why some community-created self-defense militias segue into predatory organizations while others eschew predation altogether. This study explains this phenomenon, drawing on in-depth interviews with active members of two community-created self-defense militias (Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a and Macawiisley) in Somalia. In doing so, two sequential mechanisms ­(sponsorship and mobility) that determine the propensity of predatory behavior are introduced. Self-defense militias that conduct offensive operations engage in predatory behavior, irrespective of whether they are sponsored locally or have external patrons. Externally sponsored self-defense militias that engage in offensive operations attract opportunistic recruits and become motivated by material benefits, while community-sponsored self-defense militias that conduct offensive operations instrumentalize their position to settle old scores against rival communities. By contrast, self-defense militias that restrict their operations to defensive activities typically recruit dedicated homegrown members, and are regulated by community-managed accountability mechanisms that prevent predatory and abusive behavior. This community control remains crucial for defensive self-defense militias, who must balance external patrons’ strategic aims with their local objectives.

2020. “Dialoguing and negotiating with Al-Shabaab: The role of clan elders as insider-partial mediators.” Journal of Eastern African Studies.

Since 2015, Al-Shabaab and the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) have been locked in a violent,protracted stalemate. There is little momentum to pursue a political settlement, with Al-Shabaab rejecting any overtures of dialogue. Drawing on theoretical perspectives from peace and conflict literature and key interviews with clan elders and Al-Shabaab defectors, this article explores two interconnected themes. First, Al-Shabaab’s dynamic attitudes towards dialogue since the group’s establishment; and second, how clan elders play diverse peace-seeking roles, negotiating between Al-Shabaab and FGS at the microlevel. The article highlights two important findings. First, Al-Shabaab was initially inclined toward dialogue but, following the death and defection of senior members, increasingly adopted an anti-negotiation stance. Second, whilst Al-Shabaab is obstinately refusing any dialogue on the macrolevel, at the microlevel, the group indirectly negotiates with the FGS and other actors using clan elders as interlocutors and facilitators. Finally, the article explores the idea that, instead of relying on foreign third-party mediators to resolve Somalia’s protracted stalemate at the macrolevel, clan elders, as credible insider-partial mediators possessing locally sourced legitimacy and perceived integrity, have the capacity to help overcome the stalemate between Al-Shabaab and the FGS.

2020. “More attacks or more services? Insurgent groups’ behaviour during the COVID-19 pandemic in Afghanistan, Syria, and Somalia.” Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression.

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, service-providing insurgent groups have responded differently, with some initiating more attacks amid ongoing destabilisation while others have immediately veered towards precautionary measures such as initiating public awareness campaigns and setting up quarantine centres. What drives these divergent responses? Relying on publicly available and semi-private sources, this article examines how the Taliban in Afghanistan, Ha’ayt Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Syria, and Al-Shabaab in Somalia have operationalised their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings reveal that the divergent responses are rooted in the framing of the pandemic discourse. The Taliban and HTS both interpreted it as a calamity that needs responding to and repurposed their activities accordingly by stepping up their attacks against combatants while concomitantly exploiting the humanitarian vacuum created by the pandemic by delivering health services. However, as the pandemic surged, the two groups gradually scaled down their combatant targeting and prioritised delivering health services to bolster their legitimacy and build popular support for their proto-states. By contrast, Al-Shabaab labelled the pandemic as a Western and Chinese ‘problem’, and made no visible changes to their operations in response to the crisis, only belatedly beginning to offer health services as the pandemic worsened.

2020. “How do leadership decapitation and targeting error affect suicide bombings? The case of Al-Shabaab.” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism.

Targeted killing is a cornerstone of counter-terrorism strategy, and tactical mistakes made by militant groups are endemic in terrorism. Yet, how do they affect a militant group’s suicide bomber deployment? Since joining Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab has carried out various types of suicide attacks on different targets. Using a uniquely constructed dataset, I introduce two typologies of suicide bomber detonation profiles – single and multiple – and explore the strategic purposes these have served for the group during multiphasic stages following targeted killings against the group’s leadership and targeting errors committed by Al-Shabaab. The findings reveal that targeted killing has the opposite effect of disrupting suicide attacks, instead, leading to a rapid proliferation of unsophisticated single suicide attacks against civilian and military targets to maintain the perception of the group’s potency. Thus, I argue that targeting errors made by Al-Shabaab have a more serious detrimental effect on its deployment of suicide attacks than any counter-terrorism measure.

2019. “Brothers in Arms: The Phenomenon of Complex Suicide Attacks.” Terrorism and Political Violence. Co-authored with Abdi Hersi.

Globally, the spread and use of suicide bombing attacks have become a regular occurrence. Suicide terrorism literature focuses primarily on conventional suicide bombing attacks. However, a growing trend has been observed in the adoption of complex suicide attacks. Using Al-Shabaab as a case study, this paper investigates the phenomenon of complex suicide attacks. We explore the tactical differences of complex suicide attacks vis-à-vis simple attacks in terms of its target goal, discriminative lethality, and delivery method. The paper relies on a uniquely constructed dataset of the group’s suicide operations, employing a variety of data collection techniques. The findings reveal that, inter alia, complex suicide attacks reduce civilian casualties compared to simple suicide attacks. Contrary to the group’s intent and official guidelines to target foreign entities; findings illustrate that domestic targets bear the brunt of most complex suicide attacks. These findings have the potential to contribute to counter-terrorism strategies and be adopted by concerned states in order to effectively protect significant loss of lives and destruction of property resulting from suicide terrorism.

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