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.
"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.