That Was The Month That Was… OCTOBER 2017

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l-r: the aftermath of the October 14th bombing; the demonstration of anti-aS feeling; and the Mayor of Mogadishu with BBC journalists

OCTOBER began with a continuation of the divisive alignment of a block of Federal Member States (FMSs) – Puntland, Galmudug & Southwest State – with Saudi Arabia, the UAE & others versus Qatar (and Turkey): this went against the Federal Government of Somali’s (FGS’s) neutral posture in the Gulf Crisis (which was read by many as being pro-Qatari, pro-Turkish). Unaligned but nonetheless opportunistic Puntland intervened and offered to convene an FMS conference, but without the FGS: the result was the formation of a council of FMSs to no obvious purpose.

Turkey opened its military academy in Mogadishu and made a number of commitments to support Somalia bilaterally, including direct delivery of security in the capital. The President travelled to Sudan: amongst other things, Sudan offered to print the new Somali banknote. Discussion of the constitution continued to ‘circle the airport’, partly due to the now obligatory objections by the FMSs to anything that came out of the FGS. The civil service and the security forces revealed that they had not been paid since the new administration had taken power in FEB17 and the Chief of Police in Puntland tried to shoot a political rival but ended up hitting his own deputy. The Minister of Defence and the head of the Somali National Army resigned for reasons that were unclear.


Then, on the afternoon of Saturday October 14th, the largest terrorist bomb ever detonated on the continent, causing the greatest slaughter of civilians in a terrorist incident in Africa went off.

In the blurry aftermath of the incident, the international response was slow: but the usual capping of casualty figures was subverted by accurate reporting from a civil society ambulance agency, Aamin Ambulance, and it quickly became clear that the usual, magical figure of 20 dead had been surpassed (and, in fact, multiplied by a factor of at least 15 and possibly 20).  The local media (news and social) made it clear this was not another ‘bomb goes off in Mogadishu’. The story grabbed headlines around the world, although the sanctimonious chose to ignore this and bemoaned the differentiation between first and third worlds in terms of the value of human life.

Aamin Ambulance, Turkey, The Guardian newspaper & BBC News, the British-Somali novelist, Nadifa Mohamed, and the Mayor of Mogadishu were overt in their support and received plaudits. Others were more demure but the effort was nonetheless significant. Robowe, the controversial founder member of aS turned not-aS-member-but-not-FGS-supporter-either, condemned the attack with vigour.

The story began to twist and turn. aS declined to claim responsibility for the attack and the gullible speculated about who had planned the attack (ISIS/Da’esh faction or maybe Qatar – whose embassy was damaged in the attack- or perhaps AMISOM and so on), despite the device coming from an aS-controlled area and another element of the attack team being captured and confessing all. But massive anti-aS fervour gripped Mogadishu and the rest of the country, the red head band becoming a symbol of the rejection of aS and its un-Somali values.

The President declared war on aS (again) and then left for a tour of East African capitals (minus election-plagued Kenya), with the aim of engendering fighting spirit amongst the AMISOM contributing countries: the Prime Minister left for Turkey and visited the injured who were being treated in Turkish hospitals. But at the same time, former PM Sharmarke and a former President conducted a spoiler visit to UAE, a hint of a return to ‘business as usual’.

As the month ended, the Director General of the National Intelligence & Security Agency (DG NISA) blasted the international community for their lack of tangible support to the Somali security forces in an Op-Ed on the front page of the New York Times, keeping Somali at the top of the news agenda. aS attacked the Nas Hablood 2 Hotel in a text-book complex attack that shifted the conversation once again. This time the government and the security forces were the subject of popular ire and DG NISA and the Commissioner of the Somali Police Force joined the former Minister of Defence and the head of the SNA down at the Job Centre.

For a moment in mid-October it seemed like Somalia had reached a semi-mythical ‘turning point’, much like the attack on a group of graduating medical students in the Shamo Hotel in DEC09 (which was instrumental in Robowe’s split with aS). Depressingly, by the end of October, it seemed like Somalia was already back to ‘business as usual’.


‘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).

Poets, not Athletes

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‘Someone asked me, what would have been the make-up of your ideal platoon – athletes? No, I said: poets.’

  Sydney Jary, WW2 Platoon Commander

At times like these I would suggest we might do better to listen to the poets, rather than the politicians, the soldiers, the commentators et al. With that in mind, my favourite living poet, Warsan Shire, in the aftermath of the London riots:

what they did yesterday afternoon, by warsan shire

they set my aunts house on fire

i cried the way women on tv do

folding at the middle

like a five pound note.

i called the boy who use to love me

tried to ‘okay’ my voice

i said hello

he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?

i’ve been praying,

and these are what my prayers look like;

dear god

i come from two countries

one is thirsty

the other is on fire

both need water.

later that night

i held an atlas in my lap

ran my fingers across the whole world

and whispered

where does it hurt?

it answered

everywhere

everywhere

everywhere

Title image is ‘Response to the Sandyhook School Massacre’ by Jeremy Collins

Everything Ends in IS

The Islamic State Releases a Confusing Video of its new al-Shabaab Members

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I was speaking to a group of military men a few days ago, playing the age old soldierly game of wargaming: not with little metal soldiers, but sitting around, beer in hand, working through scenarios.

In this case, we considered the fate of al-Shabaab. The group’s leader, Diriye, is killed: IS takes over. Al-Qa’ida’s Zawahiri dies: IS takes over. Al-Shabaab descends into a civil war over allegiance to al-Qa’ida or IS: IS takes over. Everything ended in IS.

I disagree. Being an only child, I’ve always found being contradicted hard to take.

But my fellow wargamers proved hard to shift in their beliefs – understandable, when the presence of the Islamic State is fundamental to your existence (armies need enemies to fight, after all) and Islamic State presence means more budget for fighting that particular bogeyman.


This was still preying upon my mind last night (being an only child, I dwell on things), when the Islamic State, through its media house, ar-Raqqah, released a video product celebrating the shift of allegiance by a group of al-Shabaab members led by the ideologue, Mumin.

The video is short, running to just under seven minutes (compared with al-Shabaab products released through al-Kutaib, which run up to 90 minutes.)

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Sexy M4 with fore grip and light unit – you don’t see many of them in Somalia

The first three speakers are all in Iraq/Syria (although this is never stated, allowing for the assumption to take hold that this is all set in Somalia). The talking heads switch between Somali and Arabic, quote from the Q’ran. They provide a religious argument for mutiny, explicitly asking aS fighters to leave ‘the battlefield’ if al-Shabaab’s leaders refuse to let them shift their allegiance. But they speak poor Somali – Diaspora, possibly never having set foot in Somalia itself. (This not the first time the Islamic State have commited a faux pas in their messaging to Somalia. See Do We Want al-Shabaab to Join the Islamic State?)

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Sexy MP5 and a sprinkler in the background –                                                           don’t see many of either of those in Somalia

Their weapons are sophisticated (an MP5, an M4 with a foregrip and a sexy sight unit) – too sophisticated for Somalia. There is a sprinkler in the background of one shot – you don’t see many sprinklers in Somalia.

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Fighters follow a man carrying an Islamic State flag through some bushes

The production quality shifts dramatically down and fighters with faces covered are shown wandering through the bush (well, some bushes), following a flag-bearer, swearing allegiance – they might be in Somalia. (It is also reasonable that they should cover their faces given the ongoing Amniyat purge of Islamic State supporters.) The terrain could be the Galgala mountains. Or it might not.

 

Mumin, who leads the al-Shabaab-Islamic State faction 

Mumin himself appears, but this is a lift from his original video statement.

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Group shot – 27 fighters, which matches the number of Mumin’s group 

Then group shot: there are 27 fighters and, adding those recording, this could be the group of fighters who fled with Mumin. But where is Mumin, then? (Perhaps he was the one filming. I suspect not.) The video ends with a few fighters watching an Islamic State video on a laptop.

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Watching an Islamic State video product on a laptop


The product feels wrong, as wrong as al-Shabaab feels within the context of the previously moderate, Suffist Somalia.  Too often there is a ‘could be…’

But it is probably convincing enough for those who haven’t developed fingerspitzengefuhl for all things Somali. Or for those who have their conclusions pre-formed.

And that is dangerous. This is a period when the Islamic State might be changing form and becoming an international terrorist organization, rather than a territory-focussed entity. (Although that assumption is based on events over Sinai, and I might be the one with the prepared conclusions. But I’m not the only one.)

There is a battle going on right now in Somalia, but the battle is not the Islamic State trying to control Somalia. It is between factions within al-Shabaab, young and old, globalists and nationalists, foreign fighters and Somalis, Diaspora and homelanders, even. (And there is also a battle going on between the Somali government and their international partners against al-Shabaab.) Unless there is a widening of the strategic view of those in the military, in government, in the media, the elements of the international community who might actually have some influence over events, then this scenario might well end in IS after all.


Al-Shabaab’s Da’esh Problem

Mumin

Abdul Qadir Mumin, who swore allegiance to the Islamic State/Da’esh on Thursday

There have been rumblings of a shift of allegiance by al-Shabaab from al-Qa’ida to the Islamic State/Da’esh for some time. In February, for instance, there media reported that a senior leader, Karate, was strongly in favour of the move, in direct opposition to the relatively new and unestablished leader of al-Shabaab, Diriye. (The story was grossly exaggerated, though, claiming that, in a moment of tension in the discussion, Karate had threatened to behead Diriye: while authentically Da’esh, the likelihood of even a senior leader making such a threat and surviving is very unlikely.)

During the Holy Month of Ramadan, the rumour appeared again, with claims of an announcement of the change of allegiance to come at Eid al-Fitr. But it didn’t. Eid al-Adha brought a different, albeit indirect message, hidden within a video product focused on al-Shabaab’s attack on the Burundian camp in Leego: quotations from Usama Bin Laden, but also from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qa’ida. Al-Shabaab was never going to answer the rumours directly, but this concluded the discussion.


Except that it didn’t conclude the discussion. Abdul Qadir Mumin, a relatively well known al-Shabaab religious ideologue, declared his allegiance via an audio message on Thursday evening along with 20 of his followers, somewhere in Puntland.

‘Da’esh has an appeal,’ says a chum in the Somali intelligence community. ‘Da’esh are Manchester City right now, al-Qa’ida are… Born. Mouth.’ (Ah, Bournemouth, I realise after a moment.) ‘The young people, the footsoldiers, and the foreign fighters, they are taken by Da’esh, by their daring, by their media. Al-Qa’ida is for the old men.’

Foreign fighters can mean both non-Somalis but also Somali Diaspora. Which does he mean?

‘A group of foreigners declared in the mosque a few weeks ago, two Arabs and three Kenyans. In a village somewhere between Barawe and Jamame, where they have no internet, no television or radio. They didn’t know what was happening and they were arrested by the Amniyat.

‘But it is not just foreigners – another groups, Somalis, all from the same clan, they decalred their allegiance to Da’esh and are strong enough with their own clan militia that al-Shabaab has sent religious men to negotiate with them.’ (Where? Near Jilib, also in the hinterland between Mogadishu and Kismayo.)

(This raises an interesting point, the clan dynamics of al-Shabaab. As much as the group claims to be above clan, no Somali is not influenced by clan and al-Shabaab itself regularly mediates in clan disputes, using the ancient system to their advantage. And as much as al-Shabaab has representatives of virtually every clan within its ranks, the leadership of al-Shabaab, the Shura Council, is dominated by one clan. It was only a matter of time before the clan issue appeared.)

So this isn’t a one off. There are elements within al-Shabaab, not just one isolated group, but groups of foreigners, Somali Diaspora and ‘real’ Somalis, swearing allegiance to Da’esh. The response from al-Shabaab depends on how strong the individual group is. For now, at least.


Kulwa, an al-Shabaab leader in Puntland, condemns Mumin’s move and states that al-Shabaab will fight anyone who opposes ‘the movement’. This is a standard approach by al-Shabaab, low level responses first: a tweet here, a statement to local media there. Al-Shabaab then assesses the response. If the story goes away, they leave it at that. But if the story is ‘sticky’, they respond commensurately: a more senior leader responds, a statement might be issued, it might even go all the way up to Diriye if required. (‘If only the government adopted that approach,’ my intelligencer acquaintance wryly comments.)

But al-Shabaab isn’t just about communications. It is also about deeds.

In 2013, when Godane purged al-Shabaab of those who opposed his ideology of the Global Jihad and his alliance with al-Qa’ida, there were no Tweets or statements. Al-Shabaab’s actions spoke for themselves, and there is no reason to doubt that al-Shabaab won’t adopt a similar course in the coming months against its errant, vacillating members.

Al-Shabaab’s Eid Message: the Attack on Leego

Al-Shabaab’s latest video, produced by al-Qa’ida, reminds us of some old lessons and also teaches us some new ones.

The Attack Begins with the detonation of a Suicide Bomber

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.

aS Parade Prior to Leego Attack

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 Lengthy Interview with the Suicide Attacker Who Initiates the Attack

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.)

Technical Mounted Heavy Weapons During the Assault

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 Move Along a Trench System

Burundian troops under fire meander along a trench

Sniper Shot

A sniper targets a Burundian soldier: probably a post-event overlay

The Burundian Church is Destroyed

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.

Captured AMISOM Burundian Uniforms and Rank Slides

Captured AMISOM Equipment including Heavy Mortars and Ammunition

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. 

Do We Want al-Shabaab to Join the Islamic State?

The Daily Mail Certainly Seems to.

Tom Evans DeadWannabe hero of the Glorious Jihad, Tom Evans – now brown bread

“When you have to choose between the truth and the legend, choose the legend.”

                                                                                                            John Ford

The rumour of a high level meeting in Jilib in southern Somalia of al-Shaabab’s leadership has been rattling around Mogadishu for a few days. On the agenda is a discussion of what to do after the loss of the thin stretch of territory al-Shabaab still holds (something like 20% of South/Central Somalia, from what was once 80%) to impending military operations by Ethiopian and Kenyan forces operating under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) mandate.

Al-Shabaab has concentrated its 2015 Ramadan campaign on AMISOM bases in the hinterland of the country and on civilian centres in northern Kenya, ambushing an Ethiopian convoy on June 17th and over-running a Burundian base in the town of Leego on June 26th. It has, once again, mounted a successful strike on the Kenyan border town of Mandera and a failed attack on a Kenyan military base in Lamu County.

Al-Shabaab must have realised that such attacks would draw a response, particularly from the Ethiopians. And so they have, with 3000 Ethiopian troops and their local allies, the Somali Ahla Sunna wa Juma militia assembling near some of the few remaining al-Shabaab strongholds and Kenyan conducting airstrikes against targets in Gedo in southern Somalia (the Kenyans are less inclined to engage in a direct fight than their Ethiopian comrades – and perhaps have less trust in their local partners as a fighting force).

Perhaps this is what al-Shabaab wanted, to draw the Ethiopians and the Kenyans in, hoping to play on the historic and instinctive dislike of the Somalis for their neighbours and the perhaps inevitable ‘over-zealousness’ that sometimes comes with an AMISOM offensive, grist to al-Shabaab’s propaganda mill.

Or perhaps al-Shabaab isn’t operating in as unified a manner as we sometimes assume and the leadership have to meet to deal with unintended consequences. It’s a mistake we often make, assuming the other side fight, command, communicate and behave as we would.

Additionally, at the end of the meeting agenda, just before ‘AOB’, is the subject of a transfer of allegiance from al-Qa’ida (to whom the then leader of al-Shabaab, Godane, swore allegiance in 2012) to the Islamic State, or Da’esh.

The shift of allegiance to IS is a longer running rumour, stretching back to late February of this year. One senior leader, Karate, is an apparent proponent of the shift, supported by many of the younger membership of al-Shabaab. Godane’s successor, Diriye, however, remains loyal to his predecessor’s pledge to al-Qa’ida and the majority of the older leaders are with him.

But this week the rumour grew legs, picked up by the UK Daily Mail with the splash headline, ‘Somalia Terror Group al-Shabaab ‘to Pledge Loyalty to ISIS’ in Terrifying Expansion of the Caliphate’, according to a ‘source within al-Shabaab’ (there are quite a few of those – in the same way there were a lot of ‘sources within Somali pirate gangs’, who turned out to be Somali-Kenyan chancers, duping journalists for a giggle and a bit of spare cash).

The Daily Mail story itself was thin, based on local media reports of the impending meeting. But then fast forward: and the meeting has already happened and the deal is already done: al-Shabaab will swear allegiance to Da’esh.

Then the numbers start to ramp up – al-Shabaab’s 9000 troops (the largest estimate anyone actually in Somalia has come up with is 6000, most of whom are sympathisers, hangers on and facilitators – al-Shabaab’s combat strength is 1500 at most) conducted 150 attacks in June (which would be a rate of 5 a day – but unfortunately only about 20 seem to have been noticed by anyone, including the local media).

Da’esh’s wooing of al-Shabaab through a video appeal then takes to the stage – although surprisingly without reference to the fact that the video appeals to members of al-Shabaab to leave the group and travel to Syria to join IS, nor to the fact that the cool shades-sporting leader of the group featured in the video, Taymullah as-Somali, is actually blind, nor that his sidekick, Abu Hamza, can barely speak Somali.

And then the finale – the obligatory appearance of foreign fighters at the peak of the al-Shabaab feudal pyramid. Because Somalis, of course, couldn’t run an insurgency or a terrorist campaign without a whitey to guide them, could they?

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Samantha Lewthwaite, ‘the White Widow’

Samantha Lewthwaite, ‘the White Widow’, appears as she always does in any UK tabloid press story about Somalia, now an operational mastermind (the White Widow with the White Cat?) in command of ‘a terrifying army of 200 female jihadists… trained to infiltrate governments, carry out suicide attacks’. Which is interesting, as that would make al-Shabaab’s fighting component about 15% female, the highest in any Islamist terror group to date.

Tom Evans, ‘the White Beast’

‘The White Widow’ now has a companion on the pages of the tabloids – ‘The White Beast’, Tom Evans, who was killed in the assault on a Kenyan military base in Lamu County in June. The Buckinghamshire born also-ran was seen (in the midst of a night attack) and heard (over the sound of a fire fight) by a member of the Kenyan Defence Forces, in his final glorious moments shouting encouragement to his comrades (in English, oddly). The BBC duly regurgitated that fiction.

Putting aside the racist assumption that underlies the inference that al-Shabaab needs a White Something to function, the Daily Mail’s ‘interpretation’ of reality (which is not an isolated interpretation) prompts a number of questions.

Firstly, is it not possible that there might not actually be a Global Jihad, but that instead there is a series of loosely linked, small but similar and yet also distinct groups all fighting their own particular corner? Some groups may swell in influence and then decline (al-Qa’ida, for instance). Others may remain isolated. Marriages of convenience may be formed and dissolved as the circumstances suit. So why do we seem to be encouraging a expanding, unified Caliphate? Why do we demand that it be centralized and coordinated?

Those who really understand al-Shabaab and the Somalis knows that they are unwilling servants – al-Shabaab, for instance, would never be led by a foreigner as al-Qa’ida in Iraq was (by a Jordanian and then an Egyptian). Even individual foreign fighters have never sat comfortably with al-Shabaab – Faisal was betrayed to AMISOM by Godane, meeting his end in an ambush at a checkpoint, al-Ameriki met his death in the hinterland at the hands of al-Shabaab’s internal security force, the Amniyat, along with a British-Pakistani colleague. Al-Shabaab even calls Somalis holding foreign passports ‘foreign fighters’. Foreign fighters heading to Somalia, be warned.

Al-Shabaab might well shift allegiance to IS, but this has to be seen in context – al-Shabaab received very little from the declaration of allegiance to al-Qa’ida (some bomb making expertise; a media team) and it was striking that the death of its leader, Godane, did not warrant any recognition by al-Qa’ida’s leadership. Da’esh should be aware of this, just as it should be aware of the internal fractures within al-Shabaab between nationalists and global jihadists, between the young footsoldiers and the older (30s) leaders, in the ever-present clan dynamics within al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab’s leaders might not even know what its members in northern Kenya are planning, or its members in Mogadishu.

And yet we feel obliged to centralize and empower them, because that is what we would do.

Which leads to a wider question: a question about truth, and perception, and reality. Truth seems to have become malleable in the face of fulfilling or even shaping expectations, and not just in the Daily Mail.

This isn’t such a revelation as it might seem – as the American political commentator James P Farwell notes, the obsession with telling the truth within institutions is actually an obsession with telling selected truths to suit a purpose. It is no coincidence that the motto of NATO’s Strategic Communications department is ‘Perception becomes Reality.’ Truth has become abstract.

But the problem with the Daily Mail’s abstraction of the truth about al-Shabaab’s possible shift of allegiance to Da’esh (and it is still only a possibility) is that it is shaping the perception on which future reality may well be based. And that is precisely what the likes of al-Shabaab and Da’esh rely on the media to do.

John Ford advises, ‘When you have to choose between the truth and the legend, choose the legend.’ But that doesn’t mean that when you are presented with the choice between the truth and the nightmare scenario, you have to choose the nightmare scenario. Because it might just become reality.