Shabaab responds to FDD’s Long War Journal study on its suicide bombings

Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s branch in East Africa, responded to FDD’s Long War Journal’s recent study on its suicide bombings through an article published on its Shahada News Agency. While celebrating the high numbers of so-called “martyrdom operations,” it claims it does not target civilians in such bombings. This is a lie. 

Though the Shahada News Agency portrays itself as independent or unaffiliated to Shabaab, it acts as an auxiliary Arabic-language propaganda source for the group, issuing its claims of responsibility, penning editorials on broader issues pertaining to the group, and disseminating its propaganda to a wider audience compared to its more local Somali-language propaganda outlets. 

The entire first half of Shahada’s article is an almost word-for-word copy of FDD’s Long War Journal’s recent article. The propaganda outlet only changes some words slightly to note it is quoting us. 

The second half, however, acts as a refutation of one of our key points. Namely, that in addition to using suicide bombings on military targets, Shabaab often does directly target civilians in its suicide bombing campaign. According to the jihadist group, however, it absolutely does not target civilians in such operations. 

In making this argument, Shabaab’s propagandists quote from a 2018 report on the subject from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point by Jason Warner and Ellen Chapin.

Shabaab claims the report states that the group “does not randomly target non-combatants” in its suicide bombings. But this is a careful lie by omission. While it is true that Shabaab does not wantonly target civilians in such bombings and uses the tactic in more targeted ways compared to other groups, it nevertheless still periodically chooses targets in which it knows many civilians will be collateral damage. 

For instance, its bombings on hotels, restaurants, tea shops, cafes, or at busy street intersections, while framed under the deliberate language of either targeting Somali or African Union forces, have all universally resulted in deliberate killings of civilians. 

Moreover, the 2018 report does show several occasions in which civilians were indeed the main target of Shabaab’s suicide bombings. This includes the 2010 bombings in Kampala, a 2010 bombing on a medical clinic, a 2011 bombing at a crowded intersection, or a 2012 bombing at a refugee camp

Since that study’s data concluded in 2017, additional bombings on civilians since that year and were not talked about in the report include several other suicide bombings on markets, against Sufi civilians, an ice cream parlor, and various cafe’s and restaurants. This is to say nothing about the Oct. 2017 suicide bombing that left 587 people dead in Mogadishu – a massacre so grave that Shabaab was forced to remain quiet about its guilt. 

It is hard to not see any of these instances in which Shabaab did not make the conscious choice to deliberately kill and maim civilians – despite how it later framed such operations as against military or government targets. 

That Shabaab does not make wanton violence against civilians a main objective of its suicide operations does not mean that it never deliberately targets civilians or civilian sites or institutions. 

In fact, two such suicide bombings in Sept. 2023 – Somalia’s worst month on record for suicide bombings – were on a crowded market and busy tea shop. Even though Shabaab framed these bombings as targeting Somali government officials, these sites offered little to no military value and the framing was an ex post facto justification for murdering civilians. 

And though not suicide bombings, it should be noted that Shabaab had seemingly zero issues deliberately murdering civilians in the 2013 Westgate Mall attack and the 2019 Dusit D2 attack, both in Nairobi, Kenya.

Shabaab uses its suicide bombings more tactically compared to other terrorist groups, particularly the Islamic State – a reflection of Shabaab’s relationship with al-Qaeda – but it absolutely targets civilians and civilian infrastructure in its overall suicide bombing campaign. 

By saying it does not “randomly” target civilians, this is a careful mischaracterization of the data meant to portray the group in a positive light. Fortunately, facts and data do not lie and Somali civilians – people Shabaab claims to be fighting to protect – have suffered greatly from the group’s suicide bombings.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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