It’s all about the video… An al-Shabaab cameraman films during the El Adde Attack
As al-Shabaab video products go, it’s not one of the better ones. While not as sprawling as the one-and-a-half hour Mpeketoni product, it is still a ponderous 48 minutes long (try blue-toothing that to your pal). Like the Mpeketoni video, a great deal of the build-up focuses on imagery of Muslims being abused by Kenyan security forces, followed by a reminder of the ‘body count’ of al-Shabaab’s various forays into Kenya (Westgate, Lamu County, Garissa, Mandera) carried out in apparent direct reprisal for and in defence of the oppressed Muslims of East Africa. (The logic of reminding the audience of atrocities, each almost exclusively against civilians, is questionable.)
Monoped Farhan: not much use for anything else except suicide bombing
After the obligatory, lengthy suicide bomber ‘leaving speech’ (monoped Farhan of the Habargidir – not much use for anything else after he lost his leg, we must assume), the attack begins in the same old way, with a flash against the dawn skyline.
The attack, too, is very much akin to the previous video products produced on al-Shabaab’s behalf by al-Kutaib, al-Qa’ida’s media house. Technicals mounting Dushka heavy machine guns, twin 23mm anti-aircraft cannon go back and forwards. Plenty of ammunition is expended (sometimes aimed, mostly not), PK machine guns are fired from the hip and above the head, RPGs and heavy recoilless rifles engage targets (although two unfortunates standing behind one of the recoilless rifles appear to take the backblast in the face). Loose lines of troops advance at a gentle pace and begin to overrun the hotch-potch AMISOM position. Apparent leaders, rifles slung over their shoulders, kneel, speak into Tetra-style radios, give some direction. Most of the troops wear the proud badge of the Abu Zubayr Brigade, a bright orange flash, either as a head or arm-band.
A profusion of orange head- and arm-bands: not so much bravado as a simple control measure for troops unused to fighting as a unit
But there are jarring notes throughout, not just for the two clowns who forgot that some of the fiery fury that comes out the front of the recoilless rifle also comes out the back as well. Those bright orange bands must make nice aiming marks and, as much as they might be a piece of bravado, they might also be a unit marker, needed to a coordinate a loose rag-tag that has come together for the operation, probably never having worked as a formed unit before. (There are also some blue bands to be seen later in the video.)
More questioning of what we seem to be seeing. A colleague comments, ‘it’s some men firing at some bushes’: and she is right. For most of the video, we willingly suspend our disbelief and go along with al-Shabaab’s version of events. But most of the video is just that, men firing at some bushes, or a tarpaulin, or something, maybe a running man, in the distance.
Occasionally the fighters do shoot at a target – it takes a section strength group a few minutes, a few hundred rounds to hit a prone, probably already dead AMISOM soldier at a distance of about 30 metres. Despite the apparent profusion of anti-armour weapons (according to the editing at least), an AMISOM-tagged armoured car meanders through melee, does some ‘turning in the road using forward and reverse gears’ and goes away again.
Al-Shabaab uses the Kenyan government’s ill-judged messaging against it – again
The fighting putters out and, again, to a format, we view some burning vehicles, the shooting of some soldiers who are already dead, boxes and boxes of ammunition being carried away, imagery of al-Shabaab fighters wandering around a deserted town, a slideshow of dead bodies. The video product ends with the standard judo flipping of ill-judged Kenyan government and military messages set against apparently contradictory video evidence (the Kenyans really must ditch the ‘aspirational messaging’– al-Shabaab throws this back at them every time).
But numerous seeds of doubt are planted by this product. Yes, the Kenyans obviously lost a lot of troops: it was pointless and it continues to be pointless to claim otherwise. But virtually every one of the corpses is in helmet and body armour, holding a rifle. These men died fighting, and, small compensation to their families as that is, it is how soldiers are meant to die in battle. That deserves recognition.
Which leads to another point: where are the al-Shabaab casualties? Recently defected former fighters claim that al-Shabaab suffered something like 50% dead and wounded in the El Adde attack. Judging by their still-much-too-close spacing, their gentle, strolling pace as they advance and the atrocious marksmanship, that is feasible, especially when the Kenyan light armour started engaging. It is easy to forget that this is an edit, a propaganda product with a deliberate effect in mind, something to be taken with a very large pinch of salt and set against a backdrop of a disastrous, illogical amphibious assault in Puntland (probably 200+ killed out of 400) and a series of drone strikes (Raso Camp: nearly 200 killed) and special forces raids (various senior leaders killed). But, and in spite of over $20 million worth of communications projects focussed on Somalia, a plethora of radio stations, TV channels, websites and a purported ‘getting’ of Strategic Communications (after ten years of trying to ‘get’ Strat Comms in two other long CT/COIN campaigns), there is still no real challenge to al-Shabaab’s inconsistency-ridden messaging. No-one is answering the questions these video products pose.
Hardest to forget, though, is the chilling sequence where a dazed Kenyan crewman appears out of the hatch of a stalled armoured vehicle. After a long section that captures his bewilderment all too well he is fired at, finally some of the rounds hit, he slumps, dies. That, along with an ominous message that many of the captured-and-paraded Kenyan troops subsequently ‘succumbed to their injuries while others still remain in captivity and their fate hangs by a thread’, has ramifications that we should not forget whilst caught up in an exciting video re-enactment of a battle. These are war crimes, outrages against humanity, and, one day, some of these murdering bastards should be held to account for that.
War crimes: a captured AMISOM soldier whose life, ominously, ‘hangs by a thread’
NOTE: as a matter of policy and out of respect to the dead we do not publish imagery of the dead: we counter propaganda, not amplify it