It’s often said that terrorist groups, are, compared to plain old states, a relatively minor threat to the security of the U.S. and other Western countries. That’s true. But due to their unique interest in failed rather than strong states, they’re a profound threat to the people who live where they’re based.

I thought of this while reading a reflective and thoughtful article (therefore pushed quickly off the front web page) in today’s L.A. Times. The article was less about the latest horrific bombing in Somalia than about what it means about the Shabab’s factions and their strategies. I’m sure that smart political scientists had thought of this already (consider this a bleg for citations), but I hadn’t.

The money quotes:

A suicide truck bombing that killed an estimated 70 people, including students hoping for foreign scholarships, underscores the intent of an Islamic militant group to ensure that Somalia remains ungovernable and a secure base for its global struggle against the West.

Such tactics are likely to worsen tension between Shabab clan leaders who want to fight Somalia’s weak, internationally backed transitional federal government, or TFG, for territory and influence, and more extreme elements who seek only a base of operations against the West, experts say. The latter faction controls the group’s finances, they say.

The Shabab’s interest in maintaining Somalia as a platform for fighting the West doesn’t require it to control the country, said one expert.

“If all Shabab has to do is prevent the TFG from exercising control over the capital, then these kind of attacks are all they need,” said Ken Menkhaus, an associate professor at Davidson College in North Carolina.

Menkhaus predicted that the attack would deepen divisions in the movement. However, he said it would not necessarily shake the grip of the hard-liners.

“There’s going to be a backlash amongst Somalis that will be pretty fierce, I think,” he said. “For the moment, the hard-liners have been able to keep the other Shabab leaders in tow. They’re indifferent to the costs of their policies on the Somali community.

“They hold the purse strings of the organization, and so far we haven’t seen major defections by whole Shabab groups, or even an internal coup,” he said.

Roger Middleton, a Somalia expert at the London-based think tank Chatham House, said the Shabab didn’t need to be popular inside the country.

“This is not about PR victories,” he said. “This is about causing trouble for the government, and making sure the government is not able to establish itself and AU troops are kept busy with these kinds of issues, rather than launching any kind of concerted attack against Shabab.

“It’s a military tactic, not a hearts-and-minds tactic.”

States seeking military power have an interest in at least minimally good government. To field a well-organized army with modern weapons it helps to have a moderately literate population, a working industrial base, and an economy that produces some goods that can be exported to pay for foreign weapons. (Not all states do this efficiently—look at Pakistan—but to the extent that they don’t, it weakens their state capacity. Pakistan’s Army is a burden on Pakistanis without being a threat to India.) Even countries with loathsome governments, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, typically provide a bit of security and some public goods, giving their citizens a chance at fairly long and reasonably tolerable lives. They don’t have famines, murderous gangs ruling the streets, or cholera.

A terrorist group funded by random rich international Wahabis has exactly the opposite interest. Blowing up Westerners for no reason is bad for diplomacy, bad for business, and bad for the security that enables economic growth. But from the terrorists’ perspective these are features, not bugs. The weaker the government, the more freedom they have to operate. Because the group’s sympathy for the violent international cause trumps its loyalties for local citizens, the misery of those citizens is a small price to pay for a zone of blissful lawlessness. Nor is it just a matter of loyalty. The typical state-based strongman will only be able to exert power, and stay alive, if he keeps a base of support among at least some of his people. The funders and strategists of terrorist groups, if kicked out of one country, can always go to another—and might live longer if they do.

As a result, Al Qaeda and its sympathizers have almost certainly brought about thousands of times times more deaths in Afghanistan, Yemen, and now Somalia than in New York and Madrid. A victory by the local Shababists—awful, violent, Islamic fanatics, but state-based ones who in their own perverse way believe in the rule of law—over those whose main priority is killing Westerners might make more of a difference to ordinary Somalis than the victory of the provisional government over the local Shababists. At least the locals might not think that mass famine is an efficient tool for securing a terrorist base. As for the terrorists:

In Somalia, the Shabab has blocked aid to famine victims and is reportedly driving thousands out of aid camps in what experts say may turn into a death march back to their farms. Many are unlikely to survive the effects of hunger and disease, analysts say.…

“I saw a nursing team putting human limbs onto a sack to carry away,” said Mowliid Abdulkadir, surveying the smoke drifting across a scene of chaos.

“It was a horrific scene. We collected 70 corpses inside and on the road,” said Ali Muse Sheik, an ambulance coordinator.

There were no reports of casualties among senior officials of the transitional government.

But in a country that has lacked a fully functioning government for two decades, the dead and wounded included some of the few people with real prospects: students waiting outside the Education Ministry for exam results. They were hoping for secondary-school scholarships in Turkey.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl is a Visiting Professor in the Program on Ethics, Politics, and Economics and in Political Science at Yale University.