‘But They’re So Much Better Than Us’

The Myth of Terrorist Communications Superiority


The moment an al-Shabaab cameraman is shot and killed while filming the attack on Janaale, captured on camera: it is unclear which direction the bullet came from

Another day, another al-Shabaab attack video.

Janaale, near Marka town, was occupied by Ugandan People’s Defence Forces serving under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) flag. The camp was in the process of being dismantled as part of AMISOM force re-posturing, recognising the danger posed to isolated positions in the hinterland by al-Shabaab’s continuing ability to mass hundreds of fighters for set-piece attacks. Unfortunately for the Ugandans that day the re-posturing meant that, while the artillery and armour had been withdrawn, the infantry remained. At dawn on September 1st, al-Shabaab destroyed a nearby bridge (denying reinforcement by land) and then, under a low grey sky (denying air support), attacked.

The President of Uganda and senior military figures are mocked in the video

Released 6 weeks later (this appears to be the standard period), the video unfolds to the usual pattern: a lengthy educational introduction by a luminary, then the attack itself. A suicide attacker initiates the assault (just as it did during the attack on the Burundian position in Leego) and seemingly hundreds of troops fight through the spartan, disorderly seeming AMISOM position. Heavy weapons blaze away, fighters fire from the hip and over their heads. (Did I see two pale fighters, about half way through?) An occasional Ugandan is seen in the distance. At the conclusion of the attack, stockpiles of captured weapons, ammunition, uniforms, identity cards. The dead are made more dead by being shot at close range.

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A captured Ugandan is displayed

A novelty: a captured Ugandan chats amiably about being woking up by the explosions, only to find he had been abandoned. Connections, quite possibly artificial, are made: to the killing of civilians in nearby Marka town by AMISOM forces in the aftermath of an IED attack, to the anniversary of Godane’s death in a US airstrike. The product is bookended by footage of the Ugandan president and senior military figures, set-up to look like bluffers, African Comical Ali’s, as they mock al-Shabaab’s weakness and praise their own forces.

Captured AMISOM equipment is displayed

The videos are definitely improving in production quality. The Janaale video is tighter, certainly tighter than the ponderous Mpeketoni video that spent 45 minutes focussing on President Uhuru Kenyatta’s denials of al-Shabaab involvement in the attacks before it actually got down to showing al-Shabaab involved in attacking Mpeketoni (another 45 minutes). The edits are good, split screens, multiple angles. Six different cameramen were involved, laboriously proven by six different views of the suicide attack that initiated the attack. And the gamer’s eye view of an attack can’t be beaten. It almost feels like you’re there.

Oddly, though, no mention of the ongoing purge within al-Shabaab of those who seek a shift of allegiance to the Islamic State.



‘Slick,’ says a colleague, also former military, also in his 40s. ‘Sophisticated,’ says a female acquaintance working for a friendly government, also in her 40s. ‘But they’re so much better than us,’ despairs another (also in his 40s). 

But a 14 year old wouldn’t say that: they would find these products laughable. Why is it so long? (Tut.) And why don’t you actually see anything? (Sigh.) Are these videos actually authentic? (Tut.) Haven’t they heard of Go-Pro? (Tut.) And how are you meant to download something 30 minutes long onto your phone? (Tut.) Aren’t there highlights of the best bits? (Sigh.) Booorrriiing. (Tut. Sigh.)

Situations Vacant: al-Shabaab Cameraman

The Janaale video is ripe with specifics for the 14 year old to rip apart. During one of the many scenes of ‘men standing in a field firing at distant bushes,’ there is a puff of earth in front of the cameraman… A pause… The image slides to the left and hits the ground… ‘The martyrdom of the cameraman, brother Abdulkarim al-Ansari,’ announces the slate.

How amusing would a 14 year old find that? Your cameraman gets shot and you actually include it in the video…? Epic fail. Lucky they had six of them! Who’d be an al-Shabaab cameraman?



What we are facing in the information war is not the over-whelming creative sophistication and technological aptitude of the other side: the problem there lies more with the lack of creativity and the technical ineptitude of many of those we choose to implement our response. Sometimes it is much simpler: volume and a bit of initiative, for example. While institutions focus on what might go wrong, the enemy is focussing on what might go right.

As Dr Neville Bolt of the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London, points out, we are moving towards a new phase in the way institutions communicate: we have moved from 80s-style complete control of communications (think Falklands – print this); through the millennium period of ‘control-management’ (think spin-doctors and embeds); and, now, institutions engage in management-responsiveness (‘I will be answering your Tweets questions at midday today…’).

But the process of development is not finished: next, predicts Dr Bolt, comes Pro-active Responsiveness, the ultimate delegation of messaging (with all the risk that brings). He attaches an arbitrary ‘2024’ deadline for that to come about. There is now so much communicating going on that governments, militaries and other lumbering monstrosities cannot hope to control it but must instead engage with it through trusted and maybe not-so-trusted advocates, and in the knowledge that there will be ‘epic fails’.

In some ways, that is how terrorists and insurgents are already communicating, as if it is Dr Bolt’s 2024: totally off the lead, making mistakes (like getting shot dead while filming), but getting a message out nonetheless.

But it is also how gaming communities and trendy clothing brands and media houses and bars and restaurants are already communicating – groups that are on our side but not yet On Our Side. (They probably are not yet On Our Side because we haven’t asked them if they want to be on our side, because they have beards or piercings or didn’t go to the same schools as us.)

Come to think of it, it only seems to be 40-somethings like me and my chums, and institutions, with their collective, 40-something mindsets, that aren’t communicating this way. Like all wars this war this will be a young man’s game, but this time we should perhaps consider giving the young men and, increasingly, the young women, a say in the strategy rather than just asking them to do the dirty business of getting killed (albeit now on camera).

Poets, not Athletes


‘Someone asked me, what would have been the make-up of your ideal platoon – athletes? No, I said: poets.’

  Sydney Jary, WW2 Platoon Commander

At times like these I would suggest we might do better to listen to the poets, rather than the politicians, the soldiers, the commentators et al. With that in mind, my favourite living poet, Warsan Shire, in the aftermath of the London riots:

what they did yesterday afternoon, by warsan shire

they set my aunts house on fire

i cried the way women on tv do

folding at the middle

like a five pound note.

i called the boy who use to love me

tried to ‘okay’ my voice

i said hello

he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?

i’ve been praying,

and these are what my prayers look like;

dear god

i come from two countries

one is thirsty

the other is on fire

both need water.

later that night

i held an atlas in my lap

ran my fingers across the whole world

and whispered

where does it hurt?

it answered




Title image is ‘Response to the Sandyhook School Massacre’ by Jeremy Collins

If you’re about to comment on Paris…

If you’re about to comment on Paris (or Beirut, or Baghdad), pause: imagine what the terrorists behind the attack would like you to post.

Anti-immigrant? Tick.

Anti-refugee? Tick.

Anti-Islamic? Tick.

This is a war? Tick.

Our tragedy is greater than your tragedy? Tick.

This is France’s/Russia’s/the US’s/the UK’s/the Arab governments’ fault? Tick.

Don’t let the terrorists work you like a ventriloquist’s doll. Unless, of course, you enjoy having someone’s hand up your arse.

Everything Ends in IS

The Islamic State Releases a Confusing Video of its new al-Shabaab Members


I was speaking to a group of military men a few days ago, playing the age old soldierly game of wargaming: not with little metal soldiers, but sitting around, beer in hand, working through scenarios.

In this case, we considered the fate of al-Shabaab. The group’s leader, Diriye, is killed: IS takes over. Al-Qa’ida’s Zawahiri dies: IS takes over. Al-Shabaab descends into a civil war over allegiance to al-Qa’ida or IS: IS takes over. Everything ended in IS.

I disagree. Being an only child, I’ve always found being contradicted hard to take.

But my fellow wargamers proved hard to shift in their beliefs – understandable, when the presence of the Islamic State is fundamental to your existence (armies need enemies to fight, after all) and Islamic State presence means more budget for fighting that particular bogeyman.

This was still preying upon my mind last night (being an only child, I dwell on things), when the Islamic State, through its media house, ar-Raqqah, released a video product celebrating the shift of allegiance by a group of al-Shabaab members led by the ideologue, Mumin.

The video is short, running to just under seven minutes (compared with al-Shabaab products released through al-Kutaib, which run up to 90 minutes.)


Sexy M4 with fore grip and light unit – you don’t see many of them in Somalia

The first three speakers are all in Iraq/Syria (although this is never stated, allowing for the assumption to take hold that this is all set in Somalia). The talking heads switch between Somali and Arabic, quote from the Q’ran. They provide a religious argument for mutiny, explicitly asking aS fighters to leave ‘the battlefield’ if al-Shabaab’s leaders refuse to let them shift their allegiance. But they speak poor Somali – Diaspora, possibly never having set foot in Somalia itself. (This not the first time the Islamic State have commited a faux pas in their messaging to Somalia. See Do We Want al-Shabaab to Join the Islamic State?)


Sexy MP5 and a sprinkler in the background –                                                           don’t see many of either of those in Somalia

Their weapons are sophisticated (an MP5, an M4 with a foregrip and a sexy sight unit) – too sophisticated for Somalia. There is a sprinkler in the background of one shot – you don’t see many sprinklers in Somalia.


Fighters follow a man carrying an Islamic State flag through some bushes

The production quality shifts dramatically down and fighters with faces covered are shown wandering through the bush (well, some bushes), following a flag-bearer, swearing allegiance – they might be in Somalia. (It is also reasonable that they should cover their faces given the ongoing Amniyat purge of Islamic State supporters.) The terrain could be the Galgala mountains. Or it might not.


Mumin, who leads the al-Shabaab-Islamic State faction 

Mumin himself appears, but this is a lift from his original video statement.


Group shot – 27 fighters, which matches the number of Mumin’s group 

Then group shot: there are 27 fighters and, adding those recording, this could be the group of fighters who fled with Mumin. But where is Mumin, then? (Perhaps he was the one filming. I suspect not.) The video ends with a few fighters watching an Islamic State video on a laptop.


Watching an Islamic State video product on a laptop

The product feels wrong, as wrong as al-Shabaab feels within the context of the previously moderate, Suffist Somalia.  Too often there is a ‘could be…’

But it is probably convincing enough for those who haven’t developed fingerspitzengefuhl for all things Somali. Or for those who have their conclusions pre-formed.

And that is dangerous. This is a period when the Islamic State might be changing form and becoming an international terrorist organization, rather than a territory-focussed entity. (Although that assumption is based on events over Sinai, and I might be the one with the prepared conclusions. But I’m not the only one.)

There is a battle going on right now in Somalia, but the battle is not the Islamic State trying to control Somalia. It is between factions within al-Shabaab, young and old, globalists and nationalists, foreign fighters and Somalis, Diaspora and homelanders, even. (And there is also a battle going on between the Somali government and their international partners against al-Shabaab.) Unless there is a widening of the strategic view of those in the military, in government, in the media, the elements of the international community who might actually have some influence over events, then this scenario might well end in IS after all.