al-Shabaab Spokesman Ali Dheere Speaks – and the Somali People Respond

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In January 2017, the al-Shabaab spokesman, Ali Dheere, spoke to AJE’s Hamza Mohamed (although the interview itself was released through a Somali Diaspora online news channel called Dalsoor). The first part is here and the second here.

About a month later, two cheap-and-cheery locally produced products appeared, challenging Ali Dheere’s comments on the bombings of hotels (here) and the bombings of public places such as markets (here). The products experienced a surge in views this week in the aftermath of the bombing of the Wehliye Hotel on Mogadishu’s Makka ul Mukarama Road.

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The products are slightly clumsy and the English subtitles, which mimic the English subtitling of the original interview, might ring alarm bells for some, but it is nonetheless interesting to see the Somali people feeling confident enough to speak out openly against al-Shabaab.


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.

 

Seeds of Doubt: The El Adde Edit

 

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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.)

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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

 

The Shop-fronts of Mogadishu – 6

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Bar Kamal Diin

Via Moscow, Hamarweyne district, Mogadishu

Back in the day when literacy levels were low, Mogadishu shopkeepers would engage a local artist to depict their offerings on the exterior wall. Sadly these are disappearing and being replaced by blast walls and HESCO bastions or, worse still, the tatty plastic faux-glitz signs you see in every African and Middle Eastern city.

 

The Shop-fronts of Mogadishu – 5

  


Caaqil Shop

Police Academy, Mogadishu

Back in the day when literacy levels were low, Mogadishu shopkeepers would engage a local artist to depict their offerings on the exterior wall. Sadly these are disappearing and being replaced by blast walls and HESCO bastions or, worse still, the tatty plastic faux-glitz signs you see in every African and Middle Eastern city.

The Shop-fronts of Mogadishu – 4

  

Allaa Waldilee Bar Restaurant

Via Roma, Hamarweyne district, Mogadishu

Back in the day when literacy levels were low, Mogadishu shopkeepers would engage a local artist to depict their offerings on the exterior wall. Sadly these are disappearing and being replaced by blast walls and HESCO bastions or, worse still, the tatty plastic faux-glitz signs you see in every African and Middle Eastern city.

 

The Shop-fronts of Mogadishu – 3

  

 Ala Aamin’s Barber Shop

Via Roma, Hamarweyne district, Mogadishu

Back in the day when literacy levels were low, Mogadishu shopkeepers would engage a local artist to depict their offerings on the exterior wall. Sadly these are disappearing and being replaced by blast walls and HESCO bastions or, worse still, the tatty plastic faux-glitz signs you see in every African and Middle Eastern city.

The Shop-fronts of Mogadishu – 2

  

Haji Hassan’s Bakery

Via Roma, Hamaeweyne district, Mogadishu

Back in the day when literacy levels were low, Mogadishu shopkeepers would engage a local artist to depict their offerings on the exterior wall. Sadly these are disappearing and being replaced by blast walls and HESCO bastions or, worse still, the tatty plastic faux-glitz signs you see in every African and Middle Eastern city.

The Shop-fronts of Mogadishu – 1

  
Aweys – Super Tailor

Via Roma, Hamarweyne district, Mogadishu

Back in the day when literacy levels were low, Mogadishu shopkeepers would engage a local artist to depict their offerings on the exterior wall. Sadly these are disappearing and being replaced by blast walls and HESCO bastions or, worse still, the tatty plastic faux-glitz signs you see in every African and Middle Eastern city.

‘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).