Al-Shabaab, an Islamist terrorist group that has been plaguing Somalia since 2006, was named the most deadly terror group in Africa in 2017 by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). One tactic that al-Shabaab uses in its reign of terror is suicide bombing. Despite recognition of the seriousness of the threat that al-Shabaab’s suicide bombers pose, very little is known about how, when, and why al-Shabaab elects to employ the tactic of suicide bombings. This report answers these questions.
By analyzing a unique dataset compiled by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point that tracks all instances of al-Shabaab suicide bombings between the group’s first suicide attack on September 18, 2006, to the end of our data collection in October 2017, the authors offer the most comprehensive account to date on the emergence, evolution, and efficacy on al-Shabaab’s suicide bombers. They find that al-Shabaab has deployed at least 216 suicide attackers who carried out a total of 155 suicide bombing attacks, killing at least 595 and as many as 2,218 people. Their data indicates that al-Shabaab’s suicide attacks are highly targeted, aimed at degrading the Somali state and members of the international community (United Nations, African Union, or African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM)) that are combating it. Unlike certain other terrorist groups, al-Shabaab’s suicide attacks tend to attempt to avoid targeting non-combatant civilians, and thus do not seem to be undertaken simply to engender shock and awe. Their data also reveals information about just who serves as al-Shabaab’s suicide bombers; where they target; al-Shabaab’s suicide bombing delivery tendencies; and timing trends along months and days of the week. In conclusion, they offer suggestions about how to combat the group’s suicide bombing efforts in the future.