Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The July 11 attacks by the Somali Islamist group Al-Shabaab killed more than 70 people watching the finals of the World Cup in Kampala, Uganda's lakeside capital city. The tragic bombings, and the response, have brought up an interesting issue in the field of international security - why countries react in different ways to terrorist attacks.

On one end of the spectrum is Spain's reaction to the March 11, 2004 attacks by "homegrown" Al-Qaeda members on the Madrid subway (Ed. note - why do so many terrorist attacks happen on the 11th day of the month?). The attacks occurred shortly before the 2004 parliamentary elections, and led to Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's party, known by its Spanish acronym PSOE, taking power from the Conservative Jose Maria Aznar. In the aftermath of the election, tinged by Aznar's contention that the bombings were caused by the Basque separatist group ETA, Zapatero's government withdrew Spanish troops from Iraq.

On the other end of the spectrum is the U.S. reaction to the September 11 attacks in 2001, with a death toll of over 3,000. Within a month, after the Taliban refused to turn over Osama Bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda members, U.S. and allied forces had entered the country. On October 7, 2001, airstrikes began in Kabul. U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan today, 105 months after the initial invasion. 9/11, far from deterring future action, led directly to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

In reacting to the 7/11 attacks, Uganda's government has remained uncowed, despite being singled out for attack by Al-Shabaab because of the presence of Ugandan peacekeepers in Somalia. President Yoweri Museveni was defiant, stating that "we shall go for them wherever they are coming from. We will look for them and get them as we always do." Although this rhetoric is not likely to be backed by immediate military action, Museveni's words are no retreat. In fact, he has already hinted at changing the mandate of the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia to one of "peace enforcement." Such a shift in the rules of engagement would allow for a more proactive military effort against Al-Shabaab.

Leaving aside the (important) question of why Al-Shabaab would attack Uganda or what their broader agenda may be, why did Uganda react in this way, and why do countries react so differently when responding to terrorism?
First, the reaction of any given country will be a function of its relative power. The U.S. can respond in many ways to an attack, something that certainly Uganda, and to a lesser extent Spain, are constrained from doing. Uganda can certainly respond to Al-Shabaab, but nowhere near the U.S. response to 9/11.

Second, a country's reaction to terrorism appears to be a function of its tolerance for war. Put another way, a country is more likely to respond with force if its populace accepts, or is inured against, loss of life. Spain's pacifist-tending foreign policy leanings exist in marked contrast to the American public's gradual acceptance of the loss of life of troop deployments in troubled regions around the globe.

Third, the perception of the rationality and motives of a terrorist organization are key determinants of a nation's reaction to an attack. If a terrorist organization is seen to have legitimate grievances, an attack will more likely be met with negotiation or retreat. But if a terrorist organization is seen as "fanatical," "millenarian," or just plain crazy, an attack will be more likely to be matched with a forceful military response. This is because so-called rational terrorist organizations are seen as potential negotiating partners who happen to reside at the sub-state level, whereas irrational terrorists cannot be handled with anything but force. In Spain, the initial response was introspection about Spanish (and NATO) policy, which found reception in a Spanish population already skeptical of U.S. policy in Iraq. In the U.S. the early response to 9/11 focused on America as the victim, with little to no introspection. This introspection is key to understanding the different responses, as a lack of introspection by the U.S. signaled an unwillingness to examine potential policies that could have provoked such an attack, leaving the terrorists as simply evil.

Fourth, the political environment in a country can often dictate the response, although this can also be a function of other factors (i.e. a military response was politically popular in the U.S. because of acceptance of the use of military force). If an elected official can gain politically from the use of force, or the converse, then that incentive can determine how a government will respond to an attack. In the U.S. it was enormously popular to use military force after 9/11, whereas in Spain the politically safe decision was to remove troops.

In Uganda, a combination of these factors seems to have been at work. Uganda's majority Christian population has not seen much rationality in Al-Shabaab's attacks, dictating a forceful response from a conflict-inured society, but such a response has been bounded by Uganda's limited state resources and its limited military strength. Politically, President Museveni, elected by margins of over his long political career, appears to have little to fear in responding to Al-Shabaab.

I don't pretend that this post is a comprehensive account of all factors (I'm not a Uganda nor a terrorism expert), but the social scientist in me can't resist applying this type of analytic framework to the recent attacks. Please feel free to critique, edit, and/or disabuse me of my misconceptions in the comments.


Catie Corbin said...

Beau, great post. I think it's a fascinating question that I hadn't ever asked myself. I always question the attack and not really the response. This has shifted my thinking a bit. Nice work!
My one question would be: Do you think in Al-Shabaab's planning of this attack, they anticipated what their response would be, given the factors you've raised? If so, why would Al-Shabaab want the response that Museveni has given them? Or do they think of themselves as legitimate enough to have warranted a different response? Ok, that was more than 1 question...

Beau said...

Catie - good question. The issue of meta-perception (what Al-Shabaab thinks the Ugandan government thinks about it) is tricky, and can go a few different ways:

1) Al-Shabaab anticipated a weak Ugandan government would see the attacks as a direct result of the presence of peacekeepers in Somalia and would promptly remove their troops, thus leaving Somalia to Al-Shabaab.

2) Al-Shabaab doesn't really care about the strength of the Ugandan government, but is interested in expanding its power in East Africa beyond its current stronghold in southern Somalia.

3) Al-Shabaab anticipated a resolute response from Museveni, possibly an escalation, which they want because they want to provoke an over-reaction from Uganda (and possibly the U.S.), similar to Osama Bin Laden's purported motivation for the 9/11 attacks.

4) Al-Shabaab is seeking a kind of jihadist "street-cred" from Al-Qaeda through this attack, which would show that they are a serious actor in the radical islamist terrorist world.

Max Fisher at the Atlantic talks about the first two options, with dark implications for the US if either is Al-Shabaab's motivation. ( ). AEI's Critical Threats Project thinks that Al-Shabaab's motivation is a combination of 1 and 4, with Al-Shabaab wanting to dissuade further peacekeepers and also seeking an "al-Qaeda franchise designation." (

Personally, I think that their motivation is a combination of 1, 2, and 4, but that Al-Shabaab miscalculated. #3 doesn't seem likely, as a major Afghanistan-style invasion and/or an oppressive occupation aren't a likely response by any actor. Al-Shabaab loses nothing by gaining Al-Qaeda's respect, but probably gains funding, recruits, and access to information (and weapons). I'm sure that they also fancy themselves as capable of dominating all of East Africa, even if that vision is a bit like the would-be terrorists who tried to cut the cables on the Brooklyn Bridge. But Al-Shabaab certainly wants to deter more peacekeepers by attacking Uganda, but here they miscalculated severely. The Ugandan response has been strong, and Guinea's announcement that it will send a battalion of peacekeepers, almost immediately after the attack, certainly demonstrates that the AU doesn't feel deterred. (

Catie Corbin said...

Thanks Beau. That's a lot of great information to feed my curiosity.

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