Monday, September 21, 2009

Leaps & Bounds: The Rapid Evolution of Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen's Media


The Somali insurgent-jihadi group Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen [Movement of Warrior-Youth], its ranks swelled by foreign volunteers from Somali expatriate communities in Europe and North America as well as non-Somalis, has experienced an upsurge in its influence and projection of power in the troubled East African state. The interim Somali government, headed by President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, has lost control over nearly 1/3 of the country, and is battling Harakat al-Shabab fighters in and around the capital city of Mogadishu, and has been doing so for months. In June, the interim security minister, Omar Hashi, was assassinated in a kamikaze vehicle bombing. Earlier this month, the group announced a new phase in its insurgency campaign, which it is calling the "Winds of Victory Campaign."

Harakat al-Shabab seemingly suffered a major setback last Monday (September 14), when the U.S. military killed Salah 'Ali Salah al-Nabhan ("Saleh 'Ali Saleh al-Nabhan"), a reputed al-Qa'ida "Central" (AQC) and its liaison with Harakat al-Shabab. However, the group struck back hard on September 17 with dual kamikaze vehicle bombings on the headquarters of African Union (AU) soldiers at the Mogadishu airport, killing at least 16 people, including five AU soldiers. Their statement claiming the attacks can be read HERE.


Yesterday (September 20), Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen released a brand new 48-minute video,
لبيك يا اسامة , "Here I am at Your Service O' Usama," an impressive state-of-the-art production that clearly illustrates the rapid evolution of the group's media wing during the past two years. Even taking into account the different types of challenges posed in the production of "in-the-field" videos, the new video is extremely polished with regard to both the editing and connecting of its visuals (primarily recorded footage and animations), as well as the use of a "soundtrack" (nasheeds, or religiously and politically-themed songs) which makes use of both popular jihadi nasheeds (plural: anasheed) and new nasheeds that appear to have been produced exclusively for use in the video. One nasheed, used around the 36-minute, 35-second mark for several minutes, is remarkably similar with regard to melody to a nasheed used by the Islamic Army of Iraq (IAI), a religious-nationalist insurgent group in its video series "جوبا قناص بغداد", "Juba, Baghdad Sniper." This particularly interesting considering that the IAI has been on the outs with the jihadi Salafi groups operating in that country, including the Islamic State of Iraq umbrella and al-Qa'ida in the Land of the Two Rivers/Iraq (AQI).

Quite simply, this video is a landmark in Harakat al-Shabab's evolution into a fully fledged, media-saavy affiliate of AQC, the latter's partner in an attempt to establish and maintain a solid foothold in East Africa, a longtime goal of Bin Laden and AQC's chief ideologue, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. The video is also one of the largest, in terms of file size, jihadi Salafi media production ever released, with the highest quality file coming in at 1GB. The visuals and sound are both extremely crisp, even with in-the-field action sequences. The rapid evolution of Harakat al-Shabab's media capabilities are reminiscent of the similar rapid evolution of the media productions of al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghrib, another regional AQC affiliate.

The video's introduction states that it is a gift on the occasion of 'Eid al-Fitr, the celebration that ends Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, to al-Qa'ida "Central" (AQC) leader Usama bin Laden, the "commander of the faithful" (a title historically reserved by Sunni Muslims for the head of state, the caliph) Mullah Muhammad 'Umar (Muhammad Omar), the "lions of Tawhid" (absolute monotheism; referring here to the "mujahideen," or warriors of faith).

After showing field footage of the ongoing battles between Harakat al-Shabab and the security forces of the interim Somali government and African Union forces inside the country, including footage of the raising of the black flag bearing the Islamic testament of faith ("There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His Messenger") favored by jihadi Salafi groups worldwide, former U.S. president George W. Bush's ill-considered off-the-cuff declaration that the "war on terrorism" was a "crusade" is replayed in order to bolster claims that the presence of AU forces, backed by the United States and United Nations, is a "modern-day crusade" (الحرب الصليبية العصرية ). A large photograph of current U.S. president Barack Obama, in front of a large cross, dominates the scene, with the video of Bush appearing in a small window.

"This, this, this, this.....this is a Crusade. This is a war against terrorism [or "Islam"];" the part in brackets was added by the producers of the Harakat al-Shabab video.

The arrival at Mogadishu's airport of hundreds of African Union "Crusader" forces is then shown, followed by footage of atrocities that the video producers' allege the AU has committed in Somalia, including footage of wounded children and destroyed homes. The AU and Ethiopia are described as agents of the U.S. and U.N., which seek to impose their will on the independent Somali people.

Selections from Bin Laden's March 2009 audio message (which was released in as a video, with an unchanging background with a photograph of the AQC leader), "Fight On, O' Champions of Somalia," are used to anchor the footage throughout the video, and selections from videos of several non-Somali jihadi scholars and leaders is also included. The latter scholars/leaders used include 'Abdullah 'Azzam, a Palestinian religious scholar and revolutionary jihadi intellectual who was a key organizer of the Afghan jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s, and Afghan Taliban leader Muhammad Yasir (who is called "Shaykh Ustaad," or the "Professor Shaykh"). The clip of Shaykh Yasir is from an interview conducted with him by AQC's media wing, the Al-Sahab (The Clouds) Media Foundation.

'Abdullah 'Azzam

Noticeably absent are any clips of Abu Yahya al-Libi, the rising AQC star who has increasingly become one of the, if not the, most visible, charismatic, and persuasive spokesman for the movement. The absence of any clips of Abu Yahya is all the more interesting, and perhaps even puzzling, given the fact that he has starred in several video messages about the ongoing insurgency in Somalia, the latest of which was "Somalia...The Cloud of Summer Has Lifted," which was released by Al-Sahab on June 30.

Screen grab of Abu Yahya al-Libi from "Somalia....The Cloud of Summer Has Lifted"

A large segment of Somalia's Muslim religious scholars ('ulama) are singled out for excoriation because of their failure to condemn outright the "apostate" government of President Sharif Ahmed. Bin Laden, in a segment of his March 2009 message, warns: "My Muslim brothers in Somalia: You must beware of the initiatives which wear the dress of Islam and the religious institutions even as they contradict the rules of Islamic Shari'ah [law], like the initiative attributed to some of the 'ulama of Somalia which gives Shaykh Shareef [sic] six months to implement Islamic Shari'ah. They are asking him for something he was installed to demolish, so how can he possibly erect it? These people either don't understand the facts or take us to be fools. This initiative of theirs is a blatant betrayal of trust." The following panel reports that President Sharif Ahmed's government has declared its opposition to the institution of Islamic law while the AU continues to rampage across the country. Bin Laden's sharp criticism of the Somali 'ulama mirrors his, and other AQC leaders', criticisms of the "state" or "official" 'ulama in other Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. They differentiate between the "scholars of jihad," or the "true" scholars of Islam ('ulama al-jihad) and the "scholars of the palace," ('ulama al-balat), or those scholars employed by the state who serve as mouthpieces for the autocratic regimes that dominate much of the Muslim world.

The video is guided or "framed" by, in addition to clips from Bin Laden's March 2009 audio message, by an audio voice-over by the Amir (literally "prince," but here meaning "leader") of Harakat al-Shabab, Ahmed Abdi Godane, known as "Abu Zubayr" (Abu Zubeir). In one such segment, he says, speaking in Arabic, not Somali,: "The Apostates mugged their teeth and appeared in their true colors, fighting the religion of Allah [the One God], killing the people loyal to Islam and allying the enemies of this religion. So the Mujahideen emerged to fight the apostates, following the tradition of the Rightly Guided Khalifa [caliph] Abu Bakr, may God be pleased with him." This is followed by a clip from the interview with Shaykh Yasir, who speaks, also in Arabic, about the hypocritical "apostate" regimes in the Muslim world.

A speech by Somali president Sharif Ahmed, and footage of him meeting with U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton, is followed by a clip from Bin Laden's March 2009 audio message: " persevere and be resolute, for you [Harakat al-Shabab] are one of the important armies in the Mujahid Islamic battalion, and are the first line of defense for the Islamic world in its southwestern part; and your patience and resolve supports your brothers in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Islamic Maghreb, Pakistan, and the rest of the fields of Jihad; and their patience and resolve in the face of the same enemy-America and its allies-supports and strengthens your patience and resolve as well. So let each of us protect his garrison, and heal his chest by killing the trespassers."

Watch the video.

Bin Laden's statement is followed by one from Shaykh Abu al-Zubayr: "And God willing, Islam will not be let down from our side, for we have learned that the path to restore the glory to this Nation and the establishment of God's law can only be through Jihad [struggle] for the sake of God and confronting the enemies of God. So receive Glad tidings and rejoice, and we are awaiting your guidance in this advanced stage in the life of Jihad, in which the challenges of fighting the occupiers have overlapped with the requirements of establishing the Islamic State. And may God reward you from us and on behalf of the Muslims, and may God bless your Jihad and actions."

Beginning near the 27-minute mark, the video is comprised primarily of footage of Harakat al-Shabab fighters in physical and military training in the barren landscapes of southern Somalia. This includes footage of the training of "special operations" units, in which Abu Mansur al-Amriki, an American commander in the group first featured in its March 2009 video "Ambush at Bardale" and now believed to be Alabama-native Omar Hammami, is shown observing and instructing recruits, as well as meeting with other members of the group, presumably other trainers and field commanders.

Abu Mansur al-Amriki

Abu Mansur al-Amriki (in the back standing near a tree)

Abu Mansur al-Amriki (second from right, partially obscured)

Over footage of large detachments of Harakat al-Shabab fighters, a voice-over from Shaykh Abu al-Zubayr says: "And Allah [God] willing the brigades for Global Jihad will be launched from the Land of the Two Migrations. To deprive the disbelievers of sleep and to destroy their interests around the world. Dear brothers in Ribat [an Arabic term with many meanings, but in general usage meaning "guardianship" or "keeping watch" over Muslim land, which forms a "sacred geography;" See HERE], despite the plots of the enemy, your brothers in Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen have broken the chains restraining the Mujahideen and smashed the walls that besieged them for the banner of Jihad to appear clearly, far removed from the jurisprudence of appeasement and the policy of surrender." His reference to a "jurisprudence of appeasement" is a thinly-veiled reference to the aforementioned " 'ulama al-balat," the scholars of the palace. Shaykh Abu al-Zubayr highlights the difference between Islamist-nationalists and transnational jihadis, which I discussed previously HERE. In short, transnational jihadis see even local/regional conflicts as part of a larger, global whole, a transnational conflict that transcends, at least theoretically/ideologically, set national borders and regional divides.

Harakat al-Shabab, it should be noted, are not an AQC "proxy" as if often alleged. Rather, they are a regional ally/affiliate of it. Such a relationship bears fruit for both. In Harakat al-Shabab, AQC potentially will be able to gain a permanent foothold in East Africa, which has been one of its longtime strategic goals (see Gregory A. Pirio's excellent book The African Jihad: Bin Laden's Quest for the Horn of Africa), and an alliance with AQC will enable the Somali insurgent-jihadi group to tap into the former's extensive network of contacts, potentially receive assistance in the further development of their media outlet, and attract new recruits from abroad.

Footage of battle, the recitation of a Qur'anic verse urging Muslims not to ally themselves with non-Muslims over Muslims, a qasida dedicated to Bin Laden, and a clip of Bin Laden speaking about the Taghut, the corrupt rulers of the Muslim world, ends the video. President Obama is shown meeting with several such leaders, including Fatah chief Mahmoud 'Abbas, Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, Saudi Arabia's King 'Abdullah bin 'Abd al-'Aziz, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Afghan president Hamid Karzai, and Pakistani president Asif 'Ali Zardari.

Harakat al-Shabab
have left a high bar for their future media productions.

Closing panel of the video. Abu 'Umar al-Baghdadi is the amir of the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella for the many of the most radical jihadi Salafi groups operating in that country, including AQI.

Packaging designs for the video in DVD and CDR formats that appeared on the jihadi Salafi forums.


For other recent Somalia-related posts, see HERE and HERE.

For another recent Abu Mansur al-Amriki related post, see HERE.


alle said...

Great work. I spent some time yesterday listening to them drone on, but it's so much better to get the annotated version straight away. Thanks!

إبن الصقلي said...

Thanks very much!

I really like your blog, by the way. I'm trying to get some more grounding in North Africa, and it's been a big help.

Anonymous said...

Nice work. I follow East Africa for a living and your work always impresses me.


إبن الصقلي said...


Thanks very much for your compliment and for reading!