Al Shabaab's First "News" Video: An Effort to Recruit Westerners and Expel Peacekeepers

August 5, 2010

African Union troops in Somalia. (Photo by David Axe, available at Flickr)

Key Points:
  • The Somali terror group al Shabaab released a professional-quality English-language “news” broadcast to jihadi web forums on July 29.  The release of the video comes one month after al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s release of its first English-language magazine.
  • The video appeared to have two main objectives.  First, it sought to attract foreign militants – and especially Westerners – to its ranks.  Second, it sought to influence policy related to the African Union’s peacekeeping force in Somalia.  Specifically, it aimed to convince the international community that the peacekeeping force is destined to fail and not worth supporting.

The Somali terror group al Shabaab announced the establishment of the al Kata’ib News Channel in a statement posted on jihadist web forums on July 26.  The statement acknowledged that “the media war waged by the mujahideen [i.e. militants] is now amidst one of the fiercest battles and most important in [the] war against the infidel Zio-Crusade” and described the objective of the news channel as aiming “to teach, to inform, and to incite.”[1]  The channel released its first broadcast three days later on July 29.  The broadcast continued the group’s trend of producing high quality media, and sought both to recruit Westerners and convince foreign governments not to support the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Al Shabaab’s skilled media team has mastered the art of producing effective media propaganda, but the first al Kata’ib News Channel broadcast raises the group’s productions to a new level, perhaps matched only by Hezbollah’s al Manar propaganda outlet.  The 21-minute broadcast, entitled, “Mogadishu: The Crusader’s Graveyard,” resembled a professionally produced piece expected from a mainstream news outlet.  The broadcast opened up with impressive computer graphics and flashed the al Kata’ib logo, which bears a striking resemblance to media symbols recognized in the Middle East, such as the al Jazeera logo.  The broadcast then showed extensive frontline footage of al Shabaab militants fighting AMISOM peacekeeping forces as an articulate English-speaking narrator with a British accent described the damage al Shabaab allegedly inflicted upon the AMISOM forces.  Speeches by al Shabaab leader Abu Zubair and senior deputy and spokesman Mukhtar Robow Ali followed this opening segment.  Both speeches focused on the need to attack Ugandan and Burundian interests because of those countries’ contributions to AMISOM.[2]  The leaders delivered their speeches in the Somali language, but al Kata’ib provided translations of both speeches in their entirety with English and Arabic subtitles.  In fact, the full broadcast included English and Arabic subtitles when the audio was not in one of those languages.        

The video appeared to have three target audiences; notably, none of those audiences were the Somali people.  First, the usage of English and Arabic throughout the video suggests that al Shabaab sought to reach out to potential militants in the West and Middle East seeking to contribute to the al Qaeda-led global jihad against the West.  The narrator referred to the AMISOM peacekeeping mission as an “American-led Western cause,” thereby using language that would likely appeal more to an aspiring international Islamist than Somali nationalistic rhetoric.[3]  

This video does not mark the first time al Shabaab has attempted to reach out to foreign fighters, and especially Westerners.  The group has made a concerted effort since 2008 to attract foreign militants to Somalia.  Robow Ali articulated this goal clearly in 2008: “We seek to empower the shari’a of Allah and commit His faith to His worshippers, in perfect conformity between the global jihad and the jihad in Somalia. However, [we] lack the precious element of the foreign fighters. There are an insufficient number of non-Somali brothers.”[4]  Al Shabaab has produced several statements and videos in English, or at least included an English translation along with such products, since Robow Ali made that statement.  

The al Shabaab video marks the most recent attempt in a trend of foreign terrorist organizations prioritizing the recruitment of Western militants to their ranks using sophisticated propaganda.  The release of the broadcast comes almost exactly one month after al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula released its first English-language magazine, which reflects the competition between international terror groups in recruiting Western militants – a valuable but limited resource.

The second target audience of the broadcast appeared to be the people and governments of Uganda and Burundi (English serves as the official language of Uganda).  Nearly all of the broadcast’s footage and rhetoric focused on al Shabaab’s efforts against AMISOM.  The speeches by both Abu Zubair and Robow Ali contained ominous threats to the people of Uganda and Burundi.  The video also concluded with the narrator standing in front of a destroyed African Union tank offering the following warning: “It was only last night when the chants of Allahu Akbar resonated throughout this neighborhood, and as the bullet shells litter the scene, the clear message is sent to the so-called reinforcement soldiers of the African Crusaders that this is the destiny that awaits them.”[5]  

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has remained steadfast in his country’s commitment to the mission in Somalia, even after al Shabaab’s July 11 attack in Kampala, Uganda, but opposition leaders in both Uganda and Burundi have raised the issue of withdrawing the Ugandan and Burundian forces from Somalia.  The Kampala bombings did provoke public debate in Uganda on the country’s role in Somalia, and some Ugandan commentators have called for the country’s withdrawal from AMISOM.  Al Shabaab may be seeking to capitalize on this dissent, especially with Uganda’s presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 2011.     

Finally, the video likely sought to reach African and Western governments that may be supporting or considering supporting AMISOM.  The video portrayed AMISOM as a futile mission doomed to fail.  The title of the broadcast, “Mogadishu, the Crusaders’ Graveyard,” perhaps best reflects al Shabaab’s intentions to continue fighting AMISOM and thus scare the world into not supporting the mission.  One powerful scene in the broadcast evoked memories of October 1993, when cheering mobs dragged the mutilated bodies of American servicemen, who were in Somalia on a humanitarian mission, through the streets of Mogadishu.  Video footage in the broadcast, aimed especially at inducing fear into American policymakers supporting AMISOM, showed a charred body – presumably a Ugandan or Burundian soldier – accompanied by the following statement from the English narrator: 

“And just like the Americans and the Ethiopians whose bodies have been dragged in the streets of Mogadishu, the charred bodies of your [i.e. Ugandan and Burundian] soldiers have now received a well-deserved treatment, putting an end to the bright optimism that drove them here in the first place. The blackened bodies of your sons now serve as a spectacle to thousands of cheerful Muslims. Becoming aware of the mujahideen’s resolve to annihilate their soldiers one after the other, the disgraced African Crusaders began pleading for dialogue.”[6] 

The image of Americans being dragged through Mogadishu and the story of “Black Hawk Down” have resulted in America’s limited and cautious involvement in Somalia since the conclusion of Operation Restore Hope in March 1994.  As al Shabaab continues to manipulate those fears in an effort to weaken AMISOM, it seeks to welcome a separate contingent of Americans to Somalia: young Islamist militants.  U.S. federal agents arrested one such aspiring American militant, Adam Chesser, just eight days prior to the release of al Kata’ib’s first news broadcast, and they unsealed indictments charging 14 others on August 5.[7]  Upwards to three  dozen Americans have travelled or attempted to travel to Somalia to fight for al Shabaab, and the group’s most recent propaganda video again demonstrates its dedication to trying to recruit even more Americans and other foreign fighters.  Al Kata’ib’s first broadcast reveals much about al Shabaab’s global outlook and goals: it hopes to frighten AMISOM into leaving Somalia and then create a haven for international terrorists within Somalia.                   

 



 

[1] “Shabaab Creates Second Media Arm,” SITE Intel Group, July 27, 2010. Available: https://www.siteintelgroup.com/_layouts/SiteIntel/ApplicationPages/Document.aspx?ID=26679

[2] “Shabaab Video on Mogadishu Battle, Kampala Bombings,” SITE Intel Group, July 30, 2010. Available: https://www.siteintelgroup.com/_layouts/SiteIntel/ApplicationPages/Document.aspx?ID=26692 
 
[3] “Shabaab Video on Mogadishu Battle, Kampala Bombings,” SITE Intel Group, July 30, 2010. Available: https://www.siteintelgroup.com/_layouts/SiteIntel/ApplicationPages/Document.aspx?ID=26692
 
[4] “GIMF Interview with Spokesman of Shabaab – Third Installment (Final),” SITE Intel Group, May 15, 2008. Available: https://www.siteintelgroup.com/_layouts/SiteIntel/ApplicationPages/Document.aspx?ID=11446.
 
[5] “Shabaab Video on Mogadishu Battle, Kampala Bombings,” SITE Intel Group, July 30, 2010. Available: https://www.siteintelgroup.com/_layouts/SiteIntel/ApplicationPages/Document.aspx?ID=26692
 
[6] “Shabaab Video on Mogadishu Battle, Kampala Bombings,” SITE Intel Group, July 30, 2010. Available: https://www.siteintelgroup.com/_layouts/SiteIntel/ApplicationPages/Document.aspx?ID=26692
 
[7] Spencer Hsu and Michael Alison Chandler, “Graduate of Va.’s Oakton High Charged with Trying to Join Terrorist Group,” Washington Post, July 22, 2010. Available: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/21/AR2010072104577.html.  See also: David Gura, “Justice Department to Unseal New Indictments Related to ‘Jihadi Pipeline’,” National Public Radio, August 5, 2010. Available: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2010/08/05/129000153/justice-department-to-unseal-new-indictments-related-to-jihadi-pipeline