Skip to main content

A strategic analysis of Al Shabaab.

Maszka, J. E., 2017. A strategic analysis of Al Shabaab. Doctoral Thesis (Doctoral). Bournemouth University.

Full text available as:

MASZKA, John Edward_Ph.D._2017.pdf



This thesis makes an original contribution to the body of literature by applying strategic theory to the Somali militant group al Shabaab. By tracing the line of thinking of the organisation, I endeavour to more fully comprehend the group’s strategic objective(s). The U.S. State Department designated al Shabaab a terrorist organization in February 2008 (Shinn 2011), but has the group been engaged in terrorism or should it more accurately be labeled an insurgent group? The answer to this question is not as straight forward as it may seem because the group has gone through a number of transitions in which its ideology and tactical operations have changed considerably. In fact, I argue that even its strategic goals appear to have changed. Therefore, we need more than a superficial understanding of the organization and what it hopes to achieve through violence. The first order of business is to clearly define what we mean by “terrorism” and what we understand an “insurgent” to be. While the definition of terrorism is a hotly debated subject, this thesis employs the definition articulated by Neumann and Smith. According to Neumann and Smith (2005, p. 574), terrorism is “the deliberate creation of fear, usually by the use or threat of the use of symbolic acts of physical violence, to influence the behavior of a given target group.” Furthermore, while conventional warfare seeks to conquer the enemy, terrorism merely seeks to manipulate political change through terror (Ruby 2002; Neumann and Smith 2005). In the most generic sense, we can differentiate between conventional warfare (which seeks to conquer the enemy) and terrorism (which aims to manipulate political change through terror). However, because the decision to employ terrorist violence is strategic, we can also distinguish between groups that employ terrorist violence as simply part of an overall strategy and those that rely solely on terrorist violence to achieve their goals. By employing this three-part typology, we are left with three basic categories of militant violence: (1) military violence intended to overthrow a regime, (2) terrorist violence employed along with a number of other tactics intended to coerce political concessions from a regime, and (3) terrorist violence employed as the sole means for obtaining political concessions. Neumann and Smith refer to this third category of violence as strategic terrorism, and they define it as the attempt to obtain political objectives through the use of primarily terrorist activity rather than through some other means. The main focus of this thesis is to determine al Shabaab’s strategic goal(s), and therefore, whether it is an insurgent group or a terrorist organization. After tracing al Shabaab’s ideological underpinnings back through its predecessors, I examine the various phases the organization has passed through and attempt to determine what its strategic objective is and whether it has changed from one phase to another. I conclude that al Shabaab has passed through three phases and is currently in phase four. While the organization began as an insurgent group, it has since altered its strategic goal from overthrowing the Somali government to the use of violence to coerce political concessions from foreign governments. It has also adopted strategic terrorism. A component of this analysis is the theory of perception of the other. Perception plays a huge role in both the decision to engage in terrorist violence and in the way target governments respond. Strategy is the use of one’s resources towards the attainment of one’s goals. Therefore, how an actor perceives its own resources vis-a-vis the resources of another plays as large a role as the strategic goal itself. Furthermore, because al Shabaab has adopted the takfiri doctrine―which dramatically affects its tactical operations―perception of the other is indispensable for understanding how to interpret the group’s actions as a means for obtaining its respective goals. Perception of the other is also critical for comprehending both who al Shabaab directs its acts of symbolic violence towards and why this audience has changed over time.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Additional Information:If you feel this work infringes your copyright please contact the BURO Manager.
Uncontrolled Keywords:Al Shabaab; terrorism; strategic theory
Group:Faculty of Media & Communication
ID Code:28752
Deposited By: Symplectic RT2
Deposited On:11 Apr 2017 14:39
Last Modified:09 Aug 2022 16:04


Downloads per month over past year

More statistics for this item...
Repository Staff Only -