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.