al-shabaab, mass violence, and the politics of weakness

In the days since al-Shabaab’s assault on Nairobi’s Westgate mall, Western observers have seized on the Somali group’s violence as a variable display of organizational strength. As Joseph Young discusses, this conversation centers on a basic question: What do the deaths of 61 civilians tell us about where al-Shabaab’s been, and where they’ll go? Does the Westgate attack precede a violent renaissance, as counterterrorism observers suspect, or, as Somalia observers suggest, will a drowning al-Shabaab soon gasp its waning breaths? Though external, post-Westgate events will likely shape the group’s evolution, this (false) choice offers an opportunity to probe the political meaning of “strength,” and what it tells us about an organization’s use of mass violence.

When we say “al-Shabaab is strong,” what do we mean? In colloquial terms, we probably suggest that the organization has the capacity to wreak havoc, despite an external actor’s (Kenyan military forces, the UN peacekeeping mission in Somalia, the Somalian government in Mogadishu) best preventive efforts. Unfortunately, “capacity to wreak havoc” doesn’t tell us much about the organization, its capabilities, or the scale of planned violence. “Strength” depends on several political characteristics, which combine to shape an organization’s actions:

  • Strength-as-technology: At Westgate, al-Shabaab fighters used several technologies to achieve mass violence. In a potential display of sophisticated planning, the group likely rented a Westgate shop to survey the mall’s layout. According to post-attack reports, al-Shabaab ferried assault rifles across the Kenya-Somalia border, using corrupt networks of Kenyan security officials to facilitate weapons caches in Nairobi. To carry out the attack, the organization amassed a lot of weapons, gathered sophisticated, action-ready intelligence, and tapped the correct trafficking networks. The Kenyan government could not thwart these technologies; at the technological level, therefore, al-Shabaab appears strong.
  • Strength-as-organization: An organization’s internal strength relies in large part on its ability to coerce its own authority. In some organizations, like an ideal-type syndicate, this authority may rest on collective decisions across a horizontal plane; in others, like an ideal-type autocracy, this authority may stem from a small group of individuals. Either way, someone makes the rules, and the organization’s survival depends on whether the group’s component parts follow them. In the Westgate context, al-Shabaab’s internal organization is probably the most opaque form of strength, and, as a result, the most susceptible to speculation. The group’s sophisticated planning may imply streamlined decision-making, but its external outcomes are a mere proxy for internal processes. The fog of spectacular violence, too, renders al-Shabaab’s internal strength indeterminable. From an external perspective, we cannot confirm whether the group’s leadership expected 61 civilian deaths, rather than 40; or, whether its leaders perceive the deaths of Muslim civilians as a justifiable mistake, rather than a punishable offense.
  • Strength-as-reputation: As I discussed, al-Shabaab exists as an organization, or a collection of people, working together, to identify and achieve goals. The group also exists as a “brand,” a crass term-of-reference for an organization’s reputation. Al-Shabaab displays a specific set of collective values to its social counterparts, including its like-minded allies (e.g., al-Qaeda’s disparate parts, Kenya’s sympathetic ethnic Somali cells) and its adversaries (e.g., regional peacekeeping organizations, Kenya-sponsored militias in southern Somalia). As a social phenomenon, reputation is a relative construct. At a beach without bodybuilders, Charles Atlas would’ve been content as a 97-pound weakling:

    If al-Shabaab were a comic-book advertisement. (via Boing Boing)
    If mass violence were a comic-book advertisement. (via Boing Boing)
  • Strength-as-relation: By the same token, an organization’s strength exists in a political society, where its counterpart’s relative strength matters. As counter-al-Shabaab efforts become more sophisticated, al-Shabaab’s relative strength decreases; as those efforts weaken, the opposite may occur. As Jay Ulfelder implies, these relationships are hardly one-to-one; system-level factors always come into play. Consider the issue of organizational financing, which transnational money-laundering efforts have recently thrust into the international spotlight. Facing increasingly sophisticated sanctions, al-Shabaab cells may use cash to complete commercial transactions, including weapons purchases and bribery payments. When this occurs, international currency rates–a system-level factor–may impose varying financial burdens on the organization. In most cases, these burdens will be incremental: a G3 assault rifle may cost 70,000 Kenyan shillings on Tuesday, and 71,000 on Wednesday. In some, as in the aftermath of European debt crisis, currency fluctuations may have dramatic effects on the organization’s fiscal strength.

Why do variations in different types of organizational strength matter? In a previous, longer essay on the politics of mass violence, I described a “mass atrocity” as a tentative symptom of organizational weakness, the definitional opposite of strength. The “too long, didn’t read” version: well-controlled organizations don’t want too perpetrate mass violence, because mass violence corrodes the perpetrator. As Joseph Young observes in a previously-referenced piece, insurgencies like al-Shabaab talk, walk, and act like states. They want a state’s territory and control over people, resources, and funds, and contained violence–repression–is an effective way to achieve both. The benefits of repression, however, rely on a repression al-Shabaab can control. As violence scales, the core group’s ability to limit its destructive outcomes declines; the organization’s basic infrastructure crumbles. All of that to say: if the consequences of Al-Shabaab’s strength appear grave, the consequences of a weaker organization may be even greater.

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