Continuity and Change: The Evolution and Resilience of al-Shabab’s Media Insurgency 2006-2016 by Chris Anzalone


Quality analysis of al-Shabaab’s communications by Chris Anzalone of the International Security Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University:

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There is also an associated podcast, also featuring Dr. Stig Jarle Hansen and moderated by Bronwyn Bruton of the Atlantic Council.

 

Eating & Tweeting

If Facebook offered passports, most Somalis would now be living in Facebook


UK ambassador to Somalia, Harriet Mathews, during the Eat &Tweet event

 ‘If Facebook offered passports, most Somalis would now be living in Facebook,’ says Fatuma Abdulahi, the editor of the popular Somalia-focussed website, Wariye Post.

She is right: Somalis have taken to social media with even more enthusiasm than the rest of the (connected) planet, and not just to share selfies or pictures of cats.

‘Everyone has heard about the oral culture of the Somalis, that we didn’t have an agreed written form of the language until the 70s,’ she continues, ‘but what isn’t mentioned is that the oral culture left out women, young people and minority groups: social media now offers those groups a voice.’

 
And there are plenty of those voices around the table at the British Embassy in Mogadishu for an ‘Eat & Tweet’ hosted by the new ambassador, Harriet Mathews. ‘Only one ‘t’ in Mathews, otherwise you won’t find me on Twitter and someone else will be getting bombarded with hashtags,’ she notes.

 
There are journalists (Radio Goobjoog, Mogadishu News, Radio Dalsan, CCTV Africa), a rep from the National Union of Somali Journalists and media activists like Idilay Bilan. All are young: this seems to be a young man’s – and woman’s – game. Others couldn’t make it today but will hopefully be included in future Eat & Tweets: the phenomenally popular Canadian-Somali Instagramer, Ugaaso Abukar Boocow; the photographer behind ‘@MogadishuImages’ who is sharing the raw beauty of Mogadishu every day; and many, many more. The event even has its own hashtag: #Media4Somalia and the participants are encouraged to Tweet as they eat, like the name says.

 
It’s not long before comments are coming in: ‘what’s on the menu? Hilib geel [camel meat] or curry?’ asks Dahir Kulane, a popular Twitterer who could not make the event. (It’s chicken curry. It is the British Embassy, after all.)

 
But Somalis don’t generally spend their time on social media sharing photos of their lunch: they have more important issues to discuss. So the camera does NOT, on this occasion, eat first.

 
‘The incident in Marka, that’s the biggest story right now,’ notes the Radio Goobjoog correspondent, referring to the killing of members of a wedding party by African Union soldiers, apparently in reprisal for a roadside bomb attack on their convoy. ‘The people took to social media to vent their anger. There isn’t anywhere else for them to go with their anger.’

 
‘Except al-Shabaab,’ says another participant.

 
‘But al-Shabaab banned 3G. We know what al-Shabaab is all about these days. They’re good at social media in that they’re fast, and much better than the government, but everyone knows what their agenda is these days.’

 
‘The government is getting better, though.’ There is some agreement. ‘The Ministry of Security, NISA [the National Intelligence & Security Agency], they are getting much faster in telling the people what is happening during attacks.’ (Although they get hell from some quarters for their trouble, and compared to the scandal-seeking local channel, Shabelle.)

  

The discussion widens onto the challenges facing governments in the information age: the need to tell the truth (if there is such a thing anymore), keeping up with the pace of digital media, the need to be interactive and the sheer risk that is implicit in every Tweet, every photo posted, every blog.

 
‘We’re in a period of time where fear dominates all our editorial judgements,’ notes the ambassador. She recounts the challenges the UK experiences: despite being the third largest donor in Somalia after the US and the EU, the natural British reserve and humility (and, of course, concerns about security) has led the UK to be cautious in publicising its direct support to the Federal Government and across Somalia as a whole. The obvious comparison with the more overt self-publicity of Turkey in Somalia prompts more discussion.

 
But the consensus is that governments and institutions can do it, it will just take time to change institutionalised mindsets. (At this point, Faduma and Idilay recount their experiences training government personnel in social media, with the caveat, ‘don’t Tweet this!’ – it’s the only one of the day. There is still some way to go, apparently, but they are making progress.)

 
Flipping the discussion, the ambassador asks (on Twitter first, then to the group), what can governments and institutions do to help the Fourth and Fifth Estates? Resist the temptation to try to bring them into the institutional fold is a view that comes across strongly. Leave independent voices just as they are: independent.

Create more space seems to be another strong message. What does that mean, saturate the city with free wifi, give out cheap Smart phones? No, apparently. It means creating real, physical spaces for expression, like sports grounds, arts venues.

 
But, yes, free wifi would be nice as well. (Although even this brings with it an implicit risk: the participants account for the significant numbers of Somali and others trying to migrate elsewhere as being linked to the world they have been introduced to through social media.)

 
The other constraint that faces governments and institutions intervenes: time. But Eat & Tweet becomes Walk & Talk and the subject of access comes up: the Eat & Tweet started late because the airport complex, where the British Embassy is located, ‘might as well be in another country’ (because of the security restrictions – particularly for Somalis).

 
‘Next time we should meet in the city,’ suggests one participant, causing the security officer to blanch. But the ambassador doesn’t seem disinclined to the idea.

‘Are you Filming?’ ‘We’re Always Filming’

Vice Ring

A DAY OUT WITH VICE NEWS

‘These men are pornographers?’ says Abdi, one of the President’s comms team.

‘No, it’s just an attention grabbing name. It’s like Virgin. People used to think that was risqué.’

‘I don’t know… In fact, no, the President won’t see these people. As you say, it is risky.’ I know better than to try to clarify the homophone.

Moving down the feudal pyramid from the President in search of someone who is willing to speak to the Vice News crew, it gets no easier.

‘Vice did those great videos on the Islamic State.’

‘They make the videos of the beheadings, the burning of that pilot alive?’

‘No, I mean –‘ More rejection.


But we get there in the end – after completely re-organising the programme. The Minister for Planning, Abdi Aynte, is a former Jazeera journalist and also happens to have written his Masters thesis on the origins of al-Shabaab, so the pornographers/IS horror video producers get a decent insight into where the organisation came from, where it is now and where it might be going. And the government gets an input. Which is important.

Because Vice News, to those who are familiar with them, are neither pornographers or the PR team for Da’esh but are instead the spearhead of a kind of digital gonzo movement that is making news interesting again. (That’s ‘gonzo’ as in Hunter S Thompson, not as in porn.) Their material on the fighting in Ukraine was outstanding: their inside account of life under IS as alarming as it was riveting (their journalist had to take a break after filming, having got ‘a bit too close’.) And they will make this documentary whether the government cooperates or not.

A UN chum improvises a trip to a Defector Rehabilitation Camp in Baidoa, out in the hinterland of Somalia towards the Ethiopian border, and the trip coalesces into something. Vice News are happy.

It’s important that they are happy because the devil will find work for idle meeja to do if their ‘handlers’ don’t keep them occupied. They might end up filing a different story entirely. Like a story about all the boozing and shagging that goes on in the Mogadishu airport compound, where the UN and various embassies are hubbed, a story that came about because a journalist wasn’t kept occupied.

Or it might be a revenge story, as happened to an erstwhile colleague of mine back in Iraq in 2005 in the aftermath of two British SF soldiers being lifted by the shady Iraqi cops they were meant to be spying on, plunging the city into days of rioting. His opening gambit to the assembled ladies and gentlemen of Her Majesty’s Press: ‘You’ve been foisted upon us so don’t expect us to happy that you’re here.’ His reward: a feature on him and how shit he was.

*      *      *

In the back of the armour we chat about the interview with Aynte.

‘Some of his comments were obviously party line,’ says Suroosh Alvi, the host of the programme that is being filmed (‘TERROR’: a major documentary series on TERROR), who also happens to be one of the founders of Vice. ‘But very good, you can tell he was a journalist.’

Which is interesting, as the Vice crew (or should it be ‘VICE’, because that’s the way it’s cast on Suroosh’s trademark signet ring) pride themselves on not being trained journalists.

And that makes for a very different media visit from what I am used to (it’s been a while since I did any media handling) and also from what the private security company that is driving us around is used to as well. The mainstream media have become so bureaucratised, with all their disclaimers and risk assessments and their entourage of security advisors that their trips have become a breeze, since their masters are so risk averse and they have been brought up with the pernicious ‘embed’ as the norm.

But Vice are different. They have to be restrained from dashing to the Jazeera Palace Hotel when an al-Shabaab truck bomb peels the frontage off, killing 15. (But they get there later.) They are nearly in tears when we have to board the plane back to Mogadishu, a plane we cannot miss (unless we fancy a 5 day layover in Baidoa): the commander of the Ethiopian garrison offers to let them go up in an attack helicopter to see some action. But they got to meet some real, live al-Shabaab defectors, so the disappointment quickly passes.


The conversation in the armour drifts to the realities of the campaign against al-Shabaab. I nearly have an unguarded moment, but something from years ago, maybe the Defence Media Operations course, kicks in.

‘Are you filming?’ I ask the cameraman, Chris, who is squashed into the boot of the armour so Suroosh and I can sprawl on the back seat (and so Suroosh can do a piece to camera if need be).

‘We’re always filming,’ they reply, in unison.