Christopher Anzalone writes in a guest editorial for Informed Comment– which is particularly timely given the bloody attack by fundamentalist gunmen on a Mogadishu hotel, in which they killed 33 persons:
From ‘Martyrdom’ Videos to Jihadi Journalism in Somalia: The Rapid Evolution of Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen’s Multimedia
The Somali insurgent-jihadi group Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Movement of Warrior-Youth), its ranks swelled by a stream of volunteers from abroad, mainly from Somali immigrant communities in Europe and North America, is currently enjoying widening control over large swaths of the southern regions of the troubled East African nation. High-profile non-Somali volunteers, such as the Alabama-native Omar “Abu Mansur al-Amriki” Hammami, are believed to play an influential role in the group’s media campaign and field operations. Harakat al-Shabab’s multimedia releases have undergone a remarkably rapid evolution in production quality and design over the past two to three years. Sound quality, animation, syncing sound with visuals, and narrative structures have all improved from the group’s multimedia releases from 2007 and 2008 when its videos were relatively simple, often just individuals sitting in front of a video camera, possibly just a camcorder, and grainy battle footage depicting fierce firefights between Harakat al-Shabab and the interim Somali government and its chief military backers, the African Union expeditionary force stationed inside the country.
On July 27, the insurgent-jihadi group announced the formation of a “news channel,” essentially a rebranding of its media wing, the Al-Kata’ib (Brigades) Media Foundation as the “Al-Kata’ib News Channel.” The channel’s mission is to, “inform, inspire, (and) incite” by producing a journalistic-type of propaganda for Harakat al-Shabab. Al-Kata’ib released its first video production, Mogadishu: Crusaders’ Graveyard, three days later. Harakat al-Shabab, one of the few insurgent-jihadi groups with a very real chance of establishing some type of “state,” is moving to equip itself with the organs of a state, including an “official” news network, courts of law in areas it controls, and a social and public services branch.
Harakat al-Shabab’s video productions from 2007 and 2008 are relatively simple. They are composed largely of low to medium-quality video footage and sound with elementary animated introductory segments and often-grainy battle footage from the frontlines. In 2009, the audio-visual quality of the group’s videos underwent a noticeable improvement. Although still relatively simple in design and style, the March 2009 video featuring Omar Hammami, Ambush at Bardale, featured improved footage and sound quality from many of the group’s earlier videos. The production quality of Hammami’s July 2009 audio response to U.S. President Barack Obama, Beginning of the End, continued this trend. However, it was the group’s 48-minute video, Labbayk Ya Usama (Here We Are at Your Service O’ Usama), released on September 20, that was a true landmark in the evolution of Harakat al-Shabab’s multimedia campaign.
Labbayk Ya Usama, in which Harakat al-Shabab’s leader Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr (Ahmad Abdi Godane) pledges solidarity to Al-Qa‘ida Central (AQC) chief Usama bin Laden, is an impressive state-of-the-art multimedia production that is extremely polished in terms of both its editing and connecting its visuals with a narrative structure and “soundtrack” (jihadi nasheeds, themed songs). In addition to its crisp visuals and sound quality, the size of the film’s highest-quality version, 1GB, is also noteworthy as it strongly suggests that at least part of Harakat al-Shabab’s media campaign is based outside of war-torn Somalia, where access to high-speed Internet and other multimedia tools is easier to access than inside the country. The video is reminiscent of the similar rapid evolution of the multimedia productions of another regional AQC affiliate, Al-Qa‘ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which continues to create high-quality videos, particularly those in its Shade of Swords series.
In Harakat al-Shabab’s July 27 statement announcing the formation of the Al-Kata’ib News Channel the group says that the channel’s foundation was undertaken in recognition of the vital importance of the “media battle” in the ongoing war between the “mujahideen” and their enemies. The channel will strive to act as the phalanx of “truth” on the frontlines, reporting about events on-the-ground and alleviating the need for supporters of the “mujahideen” to rely on “apostate” and “Crusader” media.
The channel’s first video production, Mogadishu: Crusaders’ Graveyard, is an insurgent-jihadi version of frontline, war propagandistic journalism, complete with a (masked) “reporter”-narrator who guides the viewer through the 21-minute video. Remarkably high-quality battle footage shows Harakat al-Shabab militiamen ambushing African Union (AU) military forces in the scarred Somali capital city of Mogadishu. RPGs, automatic rifles, heavy machine guns, bazookas, grenades, and firebombs are utilized against AU forces, aided by poorly-trained Somali soldiers loyal to interim Somali president Shaykh Sharif Ahmed. An AU tank is destroyed in the fighting.
Posing next to the tank a day later, a masked Harakat al-Shabab “reporter,” speaking fluent English, fulfills the role of an insurgent-jihadi journalist, concluding his news report in the characteristic journalistic format, “Al-Kata’ib News Channel, live from the frontlines of Mogadishu.” The same “reporter” narrated Harakat al-Shabab’s earlier film, The African Crusaders, which was released in late June by the group’s media outlet, then named the Al-Kata’ib Media Foundation. Both films, similar to TV and radio news broadcasts, also feature “theme music,” in this case a transnational jihadi-takfiri nasheed, “Kata’ib al-Iman (Brigades of Faith)”.
As it has expanded its control over more and more of southern and central Somalia, Harakat al-Shabab has attempted to promote an image of itself as a legitimate executor of governing authority. It runs courts of law in areas it controls, albeit ones that implement the simplistic and draconian interpretation of Islamic law (shari‘ah) that the group adheres to. Public and social services projects are also undertaken, including the running of programs for orphans of Harakat al-Shabab’s “martyrs” and the construction of bridges and roads. These projects are publicized through the group’s spokesmen and press releases issued by Al-Kata’ib (and its earlier incarnation as the “Media Department” of Harakat al-Shabab) to African, Arab, and international news organizations and posted on Internet discussion forums and web sites used by transnational jihadi–takfiris.
The group’s decision to rename and portray its official media outlet as a “news channel” is yet another example of how Harakat al-Shabab is actively publicizing a carefully constructed image of itself as a legitimate successor to the weak Somali interim government. In short, it is attempting to claim for itself the mantle of the legitimate exerciser of governing authority through the establishment of institutions and carrying out of services and duties that are generally linked to a state.
The rapid evolution of the group’s multimedia productions raises questions of how and from where its media campaign is operated. The recent arrest and indictment of Virginia-based American wannabe Harakat al-Shabab recruit Zachary Chesser has shed some light onto the group’s media operations. Chesser, and presumably other recruits from outside of Somalia, was asked to bring video cameras, laptop computers, and other technology with them to the country in order to aid the group’s media campaign. Given the file sizes of the highest-quality versions of recent video productions by Harakat al-Shabab and the fast, high-level of improvement in production quality suggest that the group’s multimedia network may include operatives based outside of war-torn Somalia in locations with ready access to high-speed Internet connections and multimedia design technology.
Somalia, thanks to Harakat al-Shabab’s successful ongoing insurgency, is the arena with arguably the best prospects for the expansion of transnational jihadi-takfiri operations. Although it remains largely focused on Somalia, the group has received a great deal attention from AQC and other transnational jihadi-takfiri groups. The group’s leader, Abu al-Zubayr, was recently quoted in a video from AQIM’s Shade of Swords series, Ghazwat al-Mansura (Expedition of al-Mansura) alongside AQC bigwhigs Abu Yahya al-Libi and the late Abu al-Layth al-Libi. The use of footage from what appears to be the same film depicting the seventh century Arab Muslim conquests in both the AQIM film and Mogadishu: Crusaders’ Graveyard raises questions about possible connections between the media outlets and/or the production teams of both groups.
The rapid evolution of Harakat al-Shabab’s multimedia productions is a window into the group’s maturation. It has come a long way from its days as the most radically militant wing of the military wing of Somalia’s Union of Islamic Courts. Unlike the Somali Sufi militias loyal to President Sharif Ahmed, Harakat al-Shabab embodies the vision of its founder, the late Adan Hashi Ayro, who saw the group as the forerunner of a radical Islamic state first in Somalia and eventually East Africa. Mogadishu: Crusaders’ Graveyard continues a theme repeated by the group’s senior leaders, dedication to the eventual establishment of a global “Islamic” state governed by their extreme jihadi-takfiri interpretation of Shari‘ah.
Christopher Anzalone is a doctoral student at McGill University’s Institute of Islamic Studies. His primary research interests are modern Muslim socio-political movements, Shi‘i Islam, radical Sunni Islamism, and political art in the Middle East and wider Muslim world.