Friday, October 25, 2013

New Article in the October 2013 CTC Sentinel: "The Nairobi Attack and Al-Shabab's Media Strategy"

I have a new article in this month's issue of the CTC Sentinel, published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.  The article, "The Nairobi Attack and Al-Shabab's Media Strategy," focuses on analyzing the insurgents' media operations strategy during and after the Westgate attack/siege.  After a brief overview of the attack and its timeline, the article proceeds with an analysis of Al-Shabab's media strategy and its evolution in historical context.  Continuities and shifts in its media operations receive particular attention, as does the importance to Al-Shabab of its key Kenyan ally, the Muslim Youth Center (recently re-branded reportedly as "Al-Hijra" or "The Emigration").

I look at both "traditional" forms of media operations artifacts such as radio/audio interviews, written press statements and communiqués, and insurgent produced and/or released photographs and videos as well as newer forms of media messaging, such as micro-blogging on Twitter via Al-Shabab's official Twitter accounts in English, Somali, and Arabic.

The introduction: 

"After carrying out a bold attack inside the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi in September 2013, the Somali militant group al-Shabab succeeded in recapturing the media spotlight. This was in large part due to the nature of the attack, its duration, the difficulty in resecuring the mall, the number of casualties, and al-Shabab’s aggressive media campaign during and immediately after the attack.

From al-Shabab’s perspective, the attack on Westgate Mall was a media triumph, particularly coming in the midst of a growing rift among jihadists both inside and outside Somalia regarding the consolidation of power by the group’s amir, Ahmed “Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr” Godane. The attack also followed a year in which al-Shabab lost control of significant amounts of territory in Somalia, most importantly major urban and economic centers such as the cities of Baidoa and Kismayo.

This article examines al-Shabab’s media strategy during and immediately after the Westgate Mall attack, both via micro-blogging on Twitter through its various accounts as well as more traditional media formats such as audio statements from the group’s leadership. The article also puts the group’s media operations for the Westgate attack in historical context by comparing and contrasting them to al-Shabab’s past media campaigns. Finally, the article concludes with an assessment of al-Shabab’s current state of health and the potential for more spectacular acts of violence, in large part as political and media spectacles designed to capture public attention. It finds that al-Shabab, despite facing increased political and military setbacks, remains adept at executing audacious attacks designed to attract the maximum amount of media attention. Its media operatives are still able to skillfully exploit its enemies’ mistakes on the battlefield and in the information operations war, as well as manipulating the news cycle by inserting sensationalist claims. It also finds that al-Shabab has maintained a great deal of continuity with its messaging toward foreign state actors active in Somalia, despite the insurgents’ shifting fortunes on the ground."

Read the rest at the CTC Sentinel's web site.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

My Podcast Discussion on The Loopcast about Al-Shabab's Media Operations Pre and Post Westgate, Foreign Fighters, & Recruitment

Yesterday I discussed the evolution of Al-Shabab's media operations, its media strategy during and immediately after the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya, and the group's recruitment strategies and practices on The Loopcast podcast with host Sina Kashefipour.  

The podcast runs about one hour and forty minutes and is playable on the web site or as an mp3 download at The Loopcast's web site.


Thursday, October 10, 2013

IN PICTURES: The 'Martyrdom Seekers': Part 1

One of the "fidai'yyin" (self-sacrificers) team from the Haqqani Network who attacked the Hotel Inter-Continental in Kabul, Afghanistan in September 2011.

A new "In Pictures" of posts featuring images of the "martyrdom seekers" (al-istishhadiyyin) of contemporary Muslim militant groups encountered during my academic research:

Abu Mus'ab al-'Asimi, a teenage member of Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), who detonated a van full of explosives on an Algerian military base in Dellys, Algeria in September 2009.  The cameraman, from AQIM's Al-Andalus Media Foundation, asked him, "Is this the vehicle that will take you to Paradise?," to which the teenager smiles and replies, "Yes this is the vehicle [which will take me] to Paradise."

'Abd al-'Aziz (Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen in Somalia)

Abu Ayyub al-Muhajir (Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen in Somalia)

The "fidai'yyin" (self-sacrificers) team from the Haqqani Network who attacked the Hotel Inter-Continental in Kabul, Afghanistan in September 2011.

The pictures that follow are also of members of that team.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

My New Article: "Zaynab's Guardians: The Emergence of Shi'a Militias in Syria"

I have a new article, "Zaynab's Guardians: The Emergence of Shi'a Militias in Syria," in this month's issue of the CTC Sentinel.  The article focuses on 5 main issues: (1) the politics of sectarianism, (2) sectarianization as a gradual, parallel and mutually reinforcing process between communities in conflict, (3) overview of the composition of the militias, (4) ways in which historical memory & idioms are tapped in formulating mobilization frames for social movement creation/mobilization of social movements, & (5) why these frames resonate with the target audience(s).  These are issues which will be a part of my doctoral dissertation and I will be starting to draft more traditionally academic article drafts on some of these issues in relation to these militias and their conceptions and narratives of self-sacrifice and martyrdom (which is a social practice promoted by every community around the globe, most of all the nation-state), funery and commemorative practices, and comparing and contrasting contemporary Sunni and Shi'i Muslim conceptions and narratives of martyrdom.


"The public emergence of Twelver Shi`a foreign fighter militias operating with Syrian government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, together with the recent public admission by Lebanese Hizb Allah that it is also operating alongside them, is the latest in the increasing sectarianization of Syria’s civil war. Sectarianism has long been a tool used for social and political mobilization by a variety of actors, and has historically been employed as much in struggles within the same community as in struggles between different communities. Historically, sectarianism has been driven by politics and competition over group identity, and has been a part of social processes to mobilize large numbers of people against other groups. This remains true today. As conflicts break down along sectarian or ethnic lines, identifiers (differentiating one group from another)—such as religious affiliation, nationality, or tribe—become increasingly salient. Mobilization frames, which draw upon cultural idioms, are created and utilized to drive social mobilization.

This article examines the gradual sectarianization of the Syrian civil war with a particular focus on the emergence, composition, mobilization frames and media campaigns of pro-Assad Shi`a militias. Close attention is paid to the historical and cultural significance of the mobilization frames and idioms used to inspire support from a broad public, particularly Shi`a, for these groups’ participation. Understanding these frames and their historical and cultural resonance, referred to as “frame resonance” in social movement theory literature, is vital to comprehending the drivers of the mobilization and recruitment of Shi`a foreign fighters in Syria. It finds that these frames, in turn, are the central element at play in the formulation of a sectarian counter-narrative aimed at delegitimizing the Syrian opposition and Sunni rebel groups as well as attracting Shi`a foreign fighters from abroad to fight for al-Assad."

 Read the rest HERE.

There is a typo in this sentence: "For their part, pro-Assad, Sunni rebel groups have drawn upon historical narratives and polemics to counter the information operations and messaging of the al-Abbas Brigade, Hizb Allah, and other Shi`a actors in Syria."

I unfortunately missed this typo during the editing process.  The article went through numerous drafts and edits.  Clearly I did not intend to describe the rebels as pro-Assad, mea culpa. I've contacted the publication's editor-in-chief to see if it can b e fixed in the online version.

Photographic and visual primary sources referenced in the article may be viewed here: