Doorway, Via Roma, Hamar Weyne, Mogadishu
Al-Shabaab’s latest video, produced by al-Qa’ida, reminds us of some old lessons and also teaches us some new ones.
A suicide attacker initiates the attack on the AMISOM base in Leego
It’s sometimes hard to tell if al-Shabaab’s timing is as intentional as the media sometimes interpret it to be. Was the attack on Ugandan troops serving with AMISOM in Janaale on September 1st really in memoriam Godane, marking the first anniversary of his death in a drone strike? Was Monday’s attack near the perimeter gate of Villa Somalia really meant to coincide with the anniversary of Westgate? And was Thursday’s release of the obligatory video product that follows every major attack, this time of an attack on Burundian troops under the AMISOM flag in Leego, really al-Shabaab’s message for the people at the time of Eid al-Adha?
It doesn’t matter, of course, because whether it was or wasn’t, that is how social meeja and subsequently the media have interpreted it. And perception is reality, some say.
Once again the video product was produced by al-Kutaib, al-Qa’ida’s production house. Once again, al-Shabaab and Somalia provide the cast and the set for the ailing al-Qa’ida studio. The quality is consistently improving: there are at least three different cameramen (occasionally filming each other – how very Vice) and the editing is slick, with lots of split screens and the like. The subtitling again is in English and Arabic. The product as a whole is tighter, too, only 27 minutes this time, as opposed to the sprawl of some previous products, notably the 90 minute ‘Western Shopping Mall’ product (that fleetingly mentioned western shopping malls). It is undeniably exciting to watch the attack unfold, as graphic as the violence is and as ambivalent the thrill might be.
Al-Shabaab footsoldiers parade prior to the attack on the AMISOM base in Leego
The video itself begins and is subsequently punctuated by a series of inspirational comments from Osama Bin Laden, Godane and Zawahiri. Various scarfed footsoldiers prance around for a while but any comic value (they make the Italian Army on parade look intimidating) is lost when the camera pans out to reveals hundreds of fighters. A lengthy interview with a combat medic who has decided Allah has a greater role for him sings a song, looks wistfully into the distance.
A suicide attacker, eulogised, initiated the assault on the AMISOM base
Darkness falls, broken first by the flash of the self detonation of the healer-turned-killer in the distance, then webs of tracer rounds from 7.62mm PK light machine guns and then the heavier 12.7mm Dushkas, mounted on the backs of 4×4 ‘technicals’. (A sharper eyed/more spotterish colleague spies even heavier ZSU 23mm anti-aircraft cannon mounted on technicals too. There are at least four different technicals involved, possibly more.)
One of the many technicals mounting heavy weapons that were used in the Leego attack
The assault itself takes place, strangely lacklustre after the build-up and the previous video products. Burundian troops are seen in the distance, in a mixture of states of dress, confused and meandering around entrenchments aimlessly.
Burundian troops under fire meander along a trench
A sniper targets a Burundian soldier: probably a post-event overlay
The Burundian church is destroyed
It is after the assault that the most striking images appear: a sniper scope view of a Burundian killed by a headshot, so derivative of many similar clips produced in Iraq; the destruction of the Burundian church tent, the cross stomped upon until it splinters; the seizure of quantities of ammunition, weapons (including heavy mortars), AMISOM uniforms and Burundian rank-slides; and finally, dead bodies. Many dead bodies.
Significant quantities of arms, ammunition and uniforms were seized in the attack
Bodies are finished off with headshots; a series of single images of corpses build into a cascade, designed to justify the assertion that 80 Burundians were killed in the attack; bodies are strung together and dragged behind a technical.
Many of the messages from this video are not new. The video shows once again that al-Shabaab can concentrate large numbers of troops and weapons systems against isolated positions, seemingly at will. We knew this in December, when al-Shabaab attacked Interim Jubba Authority troops on Kodhay Island, but now the focus is on AMISOM. We also know that al-Shabaab will always produce a communications output from their operations and it is likely that they may even design their operations around the communications output. We also see that AMISOM, while they certainly outclass al-Shabaab in the offence, are weak in defence. The fact that al-Shabaab can mass vehicles and fighters and assault AMISOM positions with impunity shows that AMISOM has not yet adjusted to the physical terrain or to counter-insurgency: no aggressive foot-patrolling, no dominating ground, no exploitation of the technical advantage, no offensive spirit, obviously no support amongst the local population: all the tactics you would expect in rural counter-insurgency.
But there are is a new, albeit indirectly stated message: al-Shabaab’s allegiance remains with al-Qa’ida. Any doubt about that is confirmed by the fact that it is not just Bin Laden who is quoted in the video, but also Zawahiri. The media flurry around al-Shabaab’s supposed shifting of allegiance to the Islamic State can now be seen to be a red herring, although it allowed the Daily Mail to fill a few pages with pictures of Samantha Lewthwaite and stills from the latest ‘ISIS-style’ video release by al-Shabaab (who were producing such video products long before the Islamic State came into being).
One final, ominous thought. Al-Shabaab is releasing video products somewhere between 6 weeks and 3 months after each major attack. That means we can expect a video product based on the assault on the Ugandan-manned AMISOM base in Janaale earlier on September 1st (in memoriam Godane) in the coming weeks. That incident, rooted as it was in the loss of confidence of the local community after the massacring of members of a wedding party in nearby Marka (which in turn was in revenge for an IED attack on AMISOM forces) will once again cast doubts on AMISOM’s ability to operate in the rural environment. The subsequent confusion in reporting (12 dead, say Uganda; 25 dead say local sources; 50 dead say al-Shabaab), compounded by claims and counter claims of Ugandan hostages taken, prepares the ground for al-Shabaab’s next video. It is a sorry state of affairs when we have to rely on al-Shabaab to provide clarity on what is going on in the hinterland of southern and central Somalia.
POLICY: out of respect to fallen combatants and on the grounds of decency this site does not carry graphic imagery. If you wish to view the video for research, please send a request via the comments section below.
Journalists now risk crucifixion on social media if they offend the sensibilities of Africans – maybe that’s a good thing.
As famous as the oral tradition of the Somalis is, that doesn’t mean that they don’t occasionally commit things to paper. As it transpires, and in spite of high (although mainly rural) levels of illiteracy, there is actually a voracious appetite for seeing the Somali language in print.
Riding on the back of the success of the long-running and internationally recognised Hargeisa International Book Festival, a local activist, Diini, decided Mogadishu needed its own book festival. So, on a rainy morning in late August (it rains in Mogadishu – not a lot of people know that) at the City Palace Hotel, books perched like birds on the hand and the poets and authors of the city strutted their stuff in front of an audience of hundreds. (On the two subsequent days of the festival, that became thousands: people waiting for the weekend, people waiting to see if it’s worth the risk.)
The President attends: as an academic, he is obviously a book lover. Ugaaso Abukar Boocow, made internationally famous by her jocular Instagram miniatures of life for a Diaspora returner (@ugaasada), is also there. (Another surprise: she’s quite small. And bossy. And very good looking.) The wifi, generously provided by the telecoms company, Hormuud, buckles under the weight of postings.
And then, amidst all exuberance and the superlatives, the #mogadishurising and #theafricathemedianevershowsyou: a bomb blast.
Not an actual bomb blast. The City Palace Hotel is right beside the headquarters of the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA), and couldn’t be safer. The BBC provide the bomb blast. Mary Harper, a known Somaliphile and author of ‘Getting Somalia Wrong’, publishes a positive piece about the festival. So far so good. But the image attached to the article is the stereotype of Mogadishu: a street desolated by an explosion.
A new hashtag appears, started by Mohamed Ahmed Cantoobo (@cantoobo), another activist, who runs Act for Somalia: #someonetellmaryharper.
#someonetellmaryharper #Somalia is moving forward regardless of how @mary_harper and BBC chooses to portray
#someonetellmaryharper enough is enough, Somalis are defining their own narrative, and stereotypes won’t define us
And, after the successful conclusion of the Book Fair without incident, still further:
In Mogadishu, ricocheting bullets and bouncing bazookas is replaced by retractable and quill pens #someonetellmaryharper
Abdihakim Ainte spreads the word:
Hello Kenyans: this hashtag #someonetellmaryharper is equivalent to #someonetellcnn. Speaks of Somali narrative. Please use and promote.
#someonetellmaryharper is a development of another hashtag, developed during another case of western-media-offends-African-sensibilities-and-gets-hashtagged-to-death, #someonetellcnn. In the run up to the Obama visit to Kenya. CNN ran a feature (from the US, not from its Nairobi bureau), noting that POTUS was headed to ‘a region that’s a hotbed of terror’ – provoking a ferocious response from Kenyans on Twitter (#KOT) using the hashtag #someonetellcnn and eventually forcing an apology from CNN in the face of cancelled advertising contracts.
The BBC response was diversionary, muted. ‘An editor chose the photo,’ claims Mary Harper, ‘not me.’ That’s quite possible: the BBC has resisted pestering (mainly from this callsign, but also from BBC Africa staff) to update the map of the country it uses online, a map shows al-Shabaab controlling most of southern and central Somalia. It did: until 2012. Even last month the BBC used the out of date map for stories detailing the fall of towns like Baardheere and Dinsoor, deep in the heart of what used to be al-Shabaab territory. But the BBC doesn’t need to worry about big advertising contracts in the way CNN does. So the out-of-date map continues to appear. They are the BBC, after all.
The BBC map of Somalia – al-Shabaab controlled territory in green
What al-Shabaab actually controls (in red)
After six days, use of the #someonetellmaryharper dwindles. (That’s double the normal duration for a ‘Trending’ hashtag. Somalis are persistent.)
But BBC or not, western journalists beware: young, articulate, connected Africans, brought up on Binyavanga Wainaina’s ‘How to Write About Africa’, are watching out for the next stereotype, the next attempt to use Africa to prove your adventure-journalist creds. And they have a hashtag with your name on it.