February 17, 2011
Global Ambitions: An Analysis of al Shabaab's Evolving Rhetoric
Al Shabaab’s rhetoric has evolved over time and developed an increasingly global militant Islamist undertone as the group has gained strength in Somalia. The message of al Shabaab’s published statements has conveyed the transition in Somalia’s political situation from a nationalistic struggle against the Ethiopian occupation to a broader conflict within the context of global jihad. Al Shabaab’s statements also reveal an evolving understanding of the utility of propaganda, which the group has used in order to win the support of the Somali people in their fight to uproot the Somali government and replace it with an Islamist state. A closer examination of al Shabaab’s changing rhetoric concerning goals, operations, and threats suggests that al Shabaab’s tactics and strategy have shifted, and while the establishment of an Islamist state in Somalia remains its top priority, al Shabaab’s desire to participate in the global jihad can no longer be denied.
Somalia has lacked a functioning central government since January 1991, when the political opposition party, the United Somali Congress, ousted Mohamed Siad Barre from power. Attempts to establish a legitimate government have repeatedly failed. The rising influence and capabilities of the radical Islamist group al Shabaab threaten the survival of Somalia’s UN-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which currently controls limited territory in the capital city Mogadishu. Al Shabaab’s growth casts doubt upon the TFG’s ability to regain control of Somalia and al Shabaab’s increasingly global ambitions will threaten not only neighboring African nations, but possibly the international community as well.
The United Somali Congress was unable to establish a legitimate government and Somalia descended into a state of lawlessness from which it has yet to emerge. Various Islamic shari’a courts, with the support of al Ittihad al Islami, a Somalia-based Islamist militant group made up of mostly Hawiye clansmen with links to al Qaeda, were able to maintain some semblance of order in Somalia in the absence of a central authority throughout the 1990s. When the leaders of al Ittihad decided to form a political front in 2003, its younger members broke away to form their own movement with the goal of establishing a Somalia ruled by shari’a: Harakat al Shabaab al Mujahideen (more commonly known as al Shabaab). In 2006, al Shabaab became the leader of a resistance movement seeking to end the Ethiopian military presence in Somalia. Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a leading Islamic Courts Union figure in Mogadishu, was elected president of the TFG by the Somali parliament on January 31, 2009 following the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces from Somalia. Since then al Shabaab’s goals have increasingly focused on the group’s fight to overthrow the Western-supported government, turn Somalia into an Islamist state, and earn its reputation as an element of the global jihad movement.
Al Shabaab's Changing Goals
Al Shabaab’s stated goals have undergone a dramatic shift since the group began to release statements in 2007. Between 2007 and early 2009, when al Shabaab was fighting to rid Somalia of the Ethiopian presence, its stated goals were nationalistic: to return to a Somali state ruled by Somalis. By the end of 2010 al Shabaab developed a more global focus, though it continues to fight TFG troops and African Union peacekeepers for control of Somalia. The expulsion of the foreign “infidels” from Somalia and the establishment of shari’a within the country remain al Shabaab’s immediate priorities, while participation in the global jihad has become part of its long-term ambition.
Al Shabaab employed the call of nationalism to gain Somali popular support during its fight against the Ethiopians. Official rhetoric repeated the line “Defeat the Ethiopian crusaders and their apostate brothers” at the end of nearly all published statements that reported on attacks in 2007 and 2008. Al Shabaab’s evolving rhetoric already employed a more international Islamist consciousness by 2008. In February of that year, al Shabaab introduced its goal of establishing “the Islaamic Khilaafah from East to West after removing the occupier and killing the apostates.” A September 2008 statement read, “Any peace agreement that contradicts Islamic shari’a is not worth the ink that wrote it,” which alludes to the group’s refusal to accept an alternative to shari’a. It must be noted that, while al Shabaab did mention international goals in its rhetoric at this time, such rhetoric was featured less frequently and given less prominence than its stated nationalist goals.
By late 2008, the Somali conflict and al Shabaab’s role in it had become international in scope. The increasing enlistment of foreign fighters in al Shabaab’s struggle, the international composition of the African Union Mission for Somalia (AMISOM), the use of internet media to reach out to the Muslims around the world, and increased interactions with other Islamist groups all contributed to the internationalization of al Shabaab’s conflict. Al Shabaab could no longer use nationalism to rally supporters behind it after the withdrawal of Ethiopians troops in 2009; instead, the group coupled anti-Western with anti-government sentiment to bolster its support. Al Shabaab “managed to create a mood of hostility and suspicion towards the TFG” by “portraying [President] Sharif as a Western puppet and a traitor to the Islamist cause.” By early 2009, the group had successfully changed its narrative from that of a nationalistic struggle to one firmly grounded in broader Islamist principles, namely the establishment of shari’a and the pursuit of a global caliphate. Over the course of 2009 and in 2010, waging global jihad moved to the forefront of al Shabaab’s stated goals.
Attack Statements and Changing Tactics
Al Shabaab primarily uses its published statements to report the details of attacks and battles. These statements are useful in illustrating which altercations al Shabaab deems to be important—most often those altercations initiated by al Shabaab or those in which the insurgents emerge, or claim to emerge, victorious. An examination of the attack statements also reveals al Shabaab’s changing strategy and tactics. During the early years of the insurgency, al Shabaab employed traditional guerrilla tactics such as isolated bombings and targeted killings of government and security officials. Al Shabaab has since increased its capabilities and adapted to operate like an insurgent group. Al Shabaab increasingly initiated battles against AMISOM and government troops in 2009 and 2010, while still employing asymmetrical warfare. Al Shabaab also discovered the importance of using propaganda to win the support of a population that tends to bear the brunt of the violence.
In 2007, the majority of al Shabaab’s claimed attacks involved targeted assassinations of specific leaders among the Ethiopian occupation in Somalia. Al Shabaab most often used car bombings to execute those attacks. Official statements very rarely reported on troop engagements with the Ethiopians in 2007, but by the beginning of 2008, al Shabaab emphasized taking over Ethiopian positions within Somalia. In 2008, al Shabaab had a militia capable of facing Ethiopian troops in direct combat, and reports of clashes between the two sides became more common. Al Shabaab primarily attacked Ethiopian bases toward the beginning of 2008, according to its statements. Later, the group reported attacking Ethiopian troops throughout Mogadishu, where the soldiers were more vulnerable and where civilians were also at greater risk of becoming involved in the clashes. A greater incidence of attacks throughout the city meant that control of territory within Mogadishu became more important in 2008.
The nature of the conflict underwent a complete shift in 2009 when the internationally-composed AMISOM force became the primary opposition to al Shabaab. Al Shabaab acknowledged this change and adapted its combat style. The group’s statements reported longer, more violent battles. Statements put greater emphasis on destroying AMISOM’s capabilities and its infrastructure, not just on killing troops. The group’s rhetoric reflected a new goal of eliminating the Western presence in Somalia, which sought to maintain the support of the people after the Ethiopian withdrawal. Al Shabaab began to portray the peacekeeping forces as cowardly and indifferent to the lives of the Somali people. According to the statements, every time al Shabaab attacked AMISOM, AMISOM retaliated by attacking civilians. A May 2009 statement reads, “As it is the habit of the enemies of Allah, the Crusaders, when the Ugandans realized that their brothers, the apostates, were wiped out, they began to indiscriminately bombard the neighborhoods.” Al Shabaab’s growing capabilities allowed it to attack more high-profile targets in Mogadishu in 2009, such as Villa Somalia, the Aden Adde International airport, and AMISOM bases.
Al Shabaab’s attack statements show greater confidence in the sophistication of its attacks and tactical capabilities by 2010. Various attacks from last year were referred to in statements as a “complicated security operation,” a “pre-planned attack,” and “very well planned.” Al Shabaab increasingly strikes high-profile targets, including its first international attack in Kampala, Uganda, and regular attacks on Villa Somalia and the Mogadishu airport. Al Shabaab’s actions seem to indicate that it is beginning to think more in strategic terms, whereas in the beginning of the insurgency its focus was simply on attacking individual members of the opposition. This evolution in capabilities has made the group far more powerful, enabling it to effectively challenge Western-supported AMISOM and TFG troops.
Al Shabaab's Threats
The threats issued in al Shabaab’s statements follow the same pattern as al Shabaab’s goals, keeping pace with the changing political situation and conflict within Somalia. Threats were directed at Ethiopia prior to the end of the Ethiopian presence in January 2009. Since the Ethiopian withdrawal, the threats have been directed at AMISOM contributors, the TFG, and the West. The threats directed at the “Ethiopian crusaders” were made using extremely violent language. A July 2007 statement read, “There will not be discussions with the dictators or negotiations with the apostates, with the exception of blood and destruction,” and a September 2008 statement read, “We are after them wherever and they are until they are [sic] force to leave our country not through negotiations and bargaining, but with machine guns, pica, and artillery.” The threats issued warnings such as, “The swords of the mujahideen are thirsty for your blood” and “We assure them that what they have seen from strikes and attacks is only a drop of rain, and the coming is more awful and much more bitter.”
A clear shift in the tone of al Shabaab’s threats occurred after the Ethiopian occupation ended. Threats issued prior to 2009 employed violent, battlefield language. Those issued afterwards occur less often, are more political in tone, and are directed at AMISOM and the West. For example, a May 2010 threat issued to security companies in Mogadishu read, “… we warn that the hand of oppression which has for so long affected worshippers at the mosque in Bakara Market, a mosque often targeted by cowardly Crusader attack, is the same filthy hand which kills Muslims in Pakistan and Iraq… We will not live in security until we extirpate their roots, if not tomorrow, then in the near future.” By issuing less specific, more muted threats, al Shabaab is able to increase the likelihood of following through on them, thereby increasing its credibility.
Al Shabaab's Use of Propaganda
Al Shabaab has grown stronger and more skilled in the use of propaganda while also developing greater operational capabilities. Al Shabaab has used propaganda as both a method of reporting victories and as a tool to weaken the legitimacy of the TFG and to improve its own legitimacy in the eyes of the civilian population.
Winning the support of the population is vital in this conflict, where the civilians ostensibly have relatively little incentive to support the corrupt and powerless government or the violent Islamist insurgency. Al Shabaab can no longer use the powerful ideal of nationalism, inspired by the Ethiopian invasion, to rally supporters, so it has changed its strategy. It now uses its portrayal of AMISOM troops as cowards without regard for the civilian population to cast itself as the morally superior force. For example, it has accused AMISOM of repeatedly attacking defenseless civilians. Al Shabaab tries to convince its audience, through the wording of its statements, that every attack represents retaliation for an unjust attack by the enemy. In this way, al Shabaab comes across as justified in its threats and actions. For example, a February 2010 statement reads, “We here remind the AMISOM mercenary forces and those with them that, with grace from Allah, we will not delay a single moment to fight them, and that we have not forgotten the crimes committed against the Muslims in the black continent and elsewhere.”
Al Shabaab also uses its attack statements to portray itself as tactically superior, often emphasizing its ability to overcome a disparity in troop size, weaponry, or technological capabilities between itself and AMISOM. The exaggeration of reports of enemy casualties contributes to this image of tactical superiority. When al Shabaab does not know how many, if any, enemy troops were killed in a confrontation, the statements tend to claim that “special sources report” a high number of casualties, or that they “expect” high casualties to be reported. Similarly, most confrontations between al Shabaab and AMISOM troops appear to end with the “crusaders” fleeing the scene of the battle and the al Shabaab militants returning to their bases safely. A May 2010 statement reads, “[The enemies of Allah] fled from the battlefields, dragging their tails behind them in frustration and humiliation. There were many dead and injured. The mujahideen pursued them until the army command instructed they stop the hunt. So, the heroes returned to their bases, safe and sound.” A July 2008 statement reads, “According to our special sources, Allah guided the mujahideen to hurt the enemy, inflicting upon them heavy casualties among both Crusaders and apostates. The heroes withdrew safely, frightening the enemies of Allah.” In this way, al Shabaab emerges as the valiant force and AMISOM appears cowardly and weak.
Al Shabaab reinforces the message espoused in its statements with political and social propaganda. It provides services not provided by the TFG by ensuring its brand of justice through the establishment of shari’a courts and settling clan-based disputes, convincing the people that it will assist them where the government will not, and further garnering popular support for its cause. This popular support is priceless for al Shabaab’s insurgency, as it further alienates the TFG from the population, encourages defecting TFG soldiers and civilians to join the ranks of Shabaab, undermines the work done by the TFG and AMISOM, and attracts the participation of foreign fighters.
Analysis of al Shabaab’s organizational statements between 2007 and 2010 reveals several clear trends. Al Shabaab’s reports of its military victories indicate greater focus on touting the group’s operational capabilities, coinciding with the group’s growing strength. Al Shabaab understands the importance of effectively manipulating the support of the population and al Shabaab’s stated goals are broadening to include more global ambitions. What began as a war to remove the “infidels” from Somalia and establish shari’a within the state has morphed into a movement that is aligning itself ever closer with the global jihad. The rhetoric and style of al Shabaab’s statements have evolved to make them more appealing to the general public. Recognizing that “imposing the puritanical brand of Islam it espouses…would quickly alienate many Somalis,” al Shabaab has become less extreme in the language and imagery it employs, focusing its statements more on military victories than extremist religious goals. Al Shabaab has announced its desire to take part in the global jihad, and, with July’s twin bombings in Kampala, Uganda, it has demonstrated its ability to execute high-profile attacks outside Somalia. The United States and the rest of the West must acknowledge the threat of an al Shabaab attack on Western interests as a legitimate and dangerous possibility.