September 2017: That Was The Month That Was

TWTMTW

l-r: weapons seized from gun-runners off the coast of Puntland; the unburied bodies of the casualties of the Barire incident; Prime Minister Khayre addresses UN GA; an AMISOM armoured vehicle shunts a civilian car in Mogadishu; and President Farmaajo heads to Saudi Arabia

SEPTEMBER started as it would end, focussed on the town of Barire in Lower Shabelle. A number of locals, armed and moving at night with an unidentifiable but presumably nefarious purpose, stumbled upon a Somali special forces unit who promptly engaged them, killing 8. The government agreed to compensate the dollar-hungry families of the unburied and decomposing casualties.

The business of government went on, with counter-terrorism legislation heading to parliament along with various other bills. The Media Law followed close behind, trailed by the ubiquitous chuntering. The PM headed to New York for the UN General Assembly where Somalia was deprived of its voting rights because of unpaid dues but the PM nonetheless managed to meet a selection of his influential counter-parts.

International relations interfaced dangerously with relations between the government and the Federal Member States. HirShabelle democratically removed its State President early in the month and quickly replaced him. But this was insignificant in comparison to the sudden alignment of Puntland, then Southwest, then Galmudug with Saudi Arabia & UAE against Qatar, in opposition to the government’s neutral stance. The President himself returned to Saudi Arabia for the third time since taking office, but the month ended with the situation apparently unresolved.

At a regional level, relations with Ethiopia caused problems. The extradition of an Ogaden National Liberation Front leader sparked an outburst of nationalistic fervour that mixers happily exploited: the President’s popularity plummeted. The fragility and disenfranchisement that came with a major clan/not-so major sub-clan President and Prime Minister appeared to spill over into violence, albeit concealed in a variety of Somali National Security Forces uniforms, when the Stabilisation Force attempted to disarm another unit (from a different clan block): 9 died.

There were some positives: football matches and civilian flights into Mogadishu Aden Abdulle Airport took place at night for the first time in nearly three decades. The Mogadishu Book Festival was a success, rivalling its elder cousin in Hargeisa.

Kenyan forces serving as part of AMISOM withdrew from Bardhere and Tarako: aS immediately occupied the towns. In Mogadishu, video of a road traffic accident, where an AMISOM armoured vehicle shunted a civilian car along one of the main arteries of the city, went viral on social media: AMISOM quickly apologised and offered compensation.

The security slugging match continued in the hinterland. aS continued to suffer from air, drone and special forces strikes, the Shadow Governor of Banadir being a notable victim. aS tried to use disinformation to counter the strikes, re-imagining them as civilian casualty incidents.

In reply, aS launched assaults on government positions across the country, from Af-Urur in Puntland to Bulo-Gaduud, Beled-Hawo, Kalabyr and El-Wak in south-central. In the city of Mogadishu aS kept up its campaign of assassinations of government officers, members of the security forces and NGO workers (although whether aS actually was responsible for every single killing remains unclear): the Deputy Commander of SNA Logistics was a notable victim. aS’s other urban trademark, the car-bomb, was less prevalent than in previous months, but some attacks succeeded in spite of the best efforts of the Stabilisation Force to secure the city.

The month ended where it began, in Barire. aS stormed the SNA garrison in the town, inflicting heavy casualties and seizing a number of vehicles including armed ‘technicals’. aS’s narrative predominated and steered attention away from its concurrent and grimly symbollic car-bombing of the Mogadishu Peace Garden.


 

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.

 

‘But They’re So Much Better Than Us’

The Myth of Terrorist Communications Superiority

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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).

Death by Hashtag

Journalists now risk crucifixion on social media if they offend the sensibilities of Africans – maybe that’s a good thing.

DeathbyHashtag

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

Others agree:

#someonetellmaryharper enough is enough, Somalis are defining their own narrative, and stereotypes won’t define us

@MogadishuNews

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

@Mazario2012

Abdihakim Ainte spreads the word:

Hello Kenyans: this hashtag #someonetellmaryharper is equivalent to #someonetellcnn. Speaks of Somali narrative. Please use and promote.

@AbdihakimAinte

#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.

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The BBC map of Somalia – al-Shabaab controlled territory in green

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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.

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.