Al-Shabab’s Western Recruitment Strategy

Jan 18, 2012

The deaths of Anwar al-`Awlaqi and Samir Khan in September 2011 dealt a severe blow to al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) ability to project jihadist propaganda to a Western audience. Whether or not AQAP will continue to target Western Muslims for recruitment remains to be seen, although another group is fast emerging as a likely successor. Somalia’s al-Shabab militia has previously made some effort to direct its propaganda toward Western Muslims, yet it is now escalating such outreach.

Although al-Shabab’s priority is the domestic insurgency currently waged against Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), there is evidence that it is capitalizing on new opportunities. Like AQAP, the group is attracting English-speaking Muslims, and it is now actively pursuing the recruitment of Western Muslims. Since 2009, Western security agencies have made clear their concerns that al-Shabab could threaten Western cities, noting that large Somali populations in the United Kingdom and United States could act as ideal recruitment pools. The January 2012 arrest of a former U.S. Army soldier charged with trying to join al-Shabab is just the latest incident of how its propaganda is affecting Westerners.[1]

By reviewing al-Shabab’s recent propaganda output, this article will show how al-Shabab is recruiting Westerners, and why the group is seeing results.

An Emerging Threat
In September 2011, the head of the United Kingdom’s MI5, Jonathan Evans, warned that the country faced an imminent terrorist threat from British residents trained by al-Shabab. He stated that he was “concerned that it’s only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those who are today fighting alongside al-Shabaab.”[2] This alarm was not without foundation. The past years have witnessed a number of UK-based Somalis and other Muslims traveling to the region to train and fight for the Somali jihadists. In October 2007, an unnamed British-Somali was among the first Western-based jihadists to die for al-Shabab when he detonated a suicide vest at an Ethiopian army checkpoint in the town of Baidoa, killing himself and around 20 soldiers.[3] In his suicide video, he had a message for his fellow British Muslims:

“I am doing this martyrdom operation for the sake of Allah. I advise you to migrate to Somalia and wage war against your enemies. Death in honor is better than life in humiliation…To the Somalis living abroad, are you happy in your comfort while your religion, your people are being attacked and humiliated?”[4]

In the United States, the problem is equally serious, with some American Muslims either joining or providing material support to the militia. Among the first to become involved was American convert Zachary Adam Chesser (also known as Abu Talha al-Amriki), who in February 2011 was convicted of providing material support to the terrorist group.[5] Another example is Somali-American Shirwa Ahmed, who traveled from Minnesota to Somalia where he conducted a suicide bombing in October 2008.

Therefore, al-Shabab’s appeal to Western Muslims is not a new development. It is in the last few months, however, that a more concerted strategy to target Western Muslims has taken shape.

Al-Shabab’s Western Propaganda
In early November 2011, al-Shabab claimed that Abdisalan Hussein Ali, an American-Somali from Minnesota wanted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, took part in an October assault against African Union forces in Mogadishu. He was apparently one of two suicide bombers involved in the attack.[6] Ali is among a group of at least 11 Americans wanted by the FBI in connection to their associations with al-Shabab. If the group’s claims are confirmed, Ali is at least the third American al-Shabab suicide bomber.[7]

Al-Shabab made a specific effort to promptly release the audio of a “martyrdom” sermon (which al-Shabab claims is delivered by Ali) on jihadist web forums following the October operation. The intention, as with all al-Shabab media aimed at Westerners, was to use Ali’s story to awaken militant jihadist feeling among American Muslims. Thus, he called on his audience to migrate to Somalia as part of what is known as the hijra, which refers to the Prophet Muhammad’s seventh century flight from Mecca to Medina from where he waged a successful jihad against his enemies.

The juxtaposition of an Islamic historical narrative upon a modern conflict is one of the cornerstones of all al-Qa`ida related media. Just as their pious predecessors had done hundreds of years ago, Western Muslims are told to leave un-Islamic lands, which are supposedly hostile to them and their religion, and move to countries where they can wage jihad against the modern day crusaders and pharaohs. “Be prepared,” exclaimed the speaker, “the umma [global Islamic community] is waiting for us.” To Muslims living in the West, he proclaimed, “don’t sit around like a couch potato or just chill all day…go on the internet and find out the fate of the Muslims…come to the land of jihad.”[8]

Of the Americans wanted by the U.S. government for involvement with al-Shabab, an American named Omar Hammami has by far the highest profile and is now placed firmly at the center of al-Shabab’s Western recruitment strategy. Having joined  al-Shabab in late 2006, he made his first public appearance as the American face of the group in an October 2007 interview with al-Jazira, in which he announced:

“Oh, Muslims of America, take into consideration the situation in Somalia. After 15 years of chaos and oppressive rule by the American-backed warlords, your brothers stood up and established peace and justice in this land.”[9]

Since then, Hammami’s public pronouncements rarely amounted to more than a few Islamic rap songs and short, generic calls to the various theaters of jihad. This changed in early October 2011, however, when he released an audio sermon apparently attempting to stake his claim as the new shaykh of Western jihadists.

Entitled “Lessons Learned,” the sermon was aimed directly at Western Muslims and contained much of the same type of effective messaging utilized previously by al-`Awlaqi. The sermon was a discussion of what he referred to as his “transition in thinking from pre-jihadi days to post-jihadi” provided in the hope that, by explaining how a Western Muslim can become a jihadist, he will encourage others to make a similar transition.[10]

Among the most important changes, he said, is a re-calibration of how a Muslim perceives their identity. What is required is the construction of what may be described as an “umma-centric” identity; Western Muslims must become part of the umma and cast aside any national or cultural ties. This can only happen, according to Hammami, when “you get out of the belly of the beast [Western host countries] and you start living in the crisis zones with the Muslims.” In a clear reference to the requirement of performing hijra discussed above, Hammami argued that living in the West corrupts and damages a Muslim’s link to the umma and leads to them overlooking their divinely ordained duties to their co-religionists around the globe. Western Muslims, he asserted, cannot truly experience and be part of the umma “by walking down orderly sidewalks and buying Subway sandwiches on your way back from the gym.”[11]

Muslims avoiding hijra and remaining in their host countries has led to the phenomenon of what Hammami referred to as “the Starfish Effect,” whereby Muslims who are cut off from their umma generate their own understandings and interpretations of their religion just as a starfish regenerates a lost limb. Although he used an analogy that perhaps lacks the sophistication of more articulate jihadists, Hammami’s point is one which has been made by jihadist ideologues for many years: Western Muslims have decided to reinterpret their religion (and in particular their views on jihad) to please their non-Muslim host society. They have made the error of customizing their religion to make it more compatible with Western society. For the Salafi-jihadis, this is unacceptable. Therefore, these “Starfish Muslims” perceive global events involving Muslims through a corrupt, Western frame or, as Hammami put it, “from the perspective of their brand new Ray-Ban or Oakley sunglasses.”[12]

Instead of celebrating a terrorist attack as a blow to those waging a global war on Islam and Muslims, Hammami admonished “Starfish Mo” for “jumping up and down” and criticizing such violence. Why should “Starfish Mo” care about the deaths of “Joe and Sally” (Hammami’s reference to non-Muslim Westerners)? Seen through a jihadist frame, these individuals are not innocent civilians worthy of any pity; rather, they are “part of a civilization that is at war with Islam,” and this is how Western Muslims must re-calibrate both their own identities and their perceptions of the people with whom they share their daily lives.[13]

Through these arguments, Hammami seeks to create an unbearable tension for Western Muslims between being true to their religion on the one hand, while also living in the lands of disbelief. “Trying to practice your religion in dar al-kuffar [the land of unbelief] is nothing more than a dream world” as it requires a Muslim to supposedly deny the “face of Islam” by rejecting supremacist terrorist violence and searching for a moderate path. Not even Western Muslims sympathetic to the global jihad are spared, as Hammami criticized them for “supporting jihad and the umma, while here [in the West] at the same time we’re still going on about our normal everyday lives, and trying to engage in da`wa [proselytizing], and giving the kuffar smiling faces.” It is not enough, therefore, to sympathize with or passively support al-Qa`ida; Muslims must join the fight and “throw your lot in with the rest of the umma.”[14]

One of the recurring features of Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-`Awlaqi’s work was his desire to eliminate the ideological and practical impediments facing Western Muslims who are considering joining the jihad, and Hammami continues in a similar vein during his discussion of ribat, or living in areas where Muslims are involved in battle. According to `Abdullah `Azzam, ribat is the stage immediately following the hijra, where a Muslim lives among the fighters and near the front lines before he becomes directly involved in jihad.[15] Hammami is aware that many Western Islamists and Salafists argue that jihad cannot be pursued by an individual until they have gained the requisite knowledge about Islam through study, and he tries to remove this obstacle by arguing that this can take place after the hijra has been performed during the ribat stage when “they have a lot of free time.” For Salafi-jihadis, action is almost always preferable to discussion and study, and Hammami made this clear:

“So for those of you out there who believe that the virtue of seeking knowledge is greater than the virtue of acting upon it, that it’s greater than the virtue of fulfilling the individual obligation of liberating the Muslim lands…we have a limited time offer for you…you have the opportunity to engage in both of these actions.”[16]

Moving on from the ideological to the practical aspects of taking part in jihad, Hammami discussed the realities of fighting on the front lines of jihad, warning his pampered Western audience not to expect the amenities they enjoy at home. They must prepare themselves for a less comfortable life:

“Here in Somalia especially, you’ll probably never, ever see a microwave, or even a normal oven…And then you get, most of the mujahidin, even seeing television…it becomes a rarity for many of us.”[17]

For those who may be put off by this rather bleak and dire warning, Hammami offered the popular slogan used in advertising for Slim Fast diet milkshakes: “if I can do it, you can do it.”[18]

His frank assessment of the experience also extends to the mujahidin themselves, who he admitted are “not angels,” but rather “humans, they make mistakes probably just as often as they get things right.” Western Muslims must not, however, use the faults of some jihadist fighters as an excuse not to take part in jihad, and instead learn to “separate between the validity of the cause, and the sanctity of those upholding it.” In what is perhaps the clearest example of Hammami’s desire to pair himself with al-`Awlaqi, he cited Yusuf al-`Uyayri jihadist tract “Constants on the Path of Jihad” to prove the righteousness of the cause and the guarantee of victory.[19] This was no doubt done in the full knowledge that his English-speaking audience could only have come across this work through al-`Awlaqi’s translation of it, which is among the most famous and influential works for the Western jihadist audience.

Al-Shabab’s Cultivation of Alternative Media
Although Anwar al-`Awlaqi’s individual charisma and popularity allowed him to gain influence over a substantial number of followers, the peak of his career as a jihadist preacher came when he became associated with AQAP’s media center, al-Malahim. Al-Qa`ida and its affiliates have long known that to capitalize on the popularity of individual preachers and produce effective propaganda, they require an entire media apparatus that provides a clear alternative to mainstream Western media, which they consider to be hostile to Muslims. Through its media center, AQAP was able to consolidate all of its propaganda, and package it effectively, with al-`Awlaqi at the center of the products designed for Western Muslims. Al-Shabab has followed suit, and in July 2010 began to produce lengthy English-language propaganda through its media wing, al-Kataib.

In the past, al-Kataib has produced videos designed to appear like Western news reports, only with a clear jihadist bent. In the videos, the reporter, whose face is concealed by a scarf, speaks in a British accent and travels the battlefields of Somalia singing the praises of the mujahidin and claiming victories where other media have reported great losses for the group. The most recent of these, released a month after Hammami’s sermon, is also among the most comprehensive they have produced. Entitled “The Burundian Bloodbath: Battle of Daynile,” it is a report of a recent battle between al-Shabab and Burundian soldiers who formed part of the African Union contingent in Daynile, a district in southeastern Somalia. Despite other media reports of al-Shabab struggling to control the area, the reporter talked of a massacre of the “African Crusaders and their Western masters.”[20]

Much of the report tried to give its Western audience an impression of the large, international scope and apparently sectarian nature of the supposed war on Islam and Muslims. The video focused on the “Made in France” tags found on the armored vests of dead Burundian soldiers. Additionally, among the interviewees was Shaykh Ali Muhammad Rage, an al-Shabab spokesman who declared that: “We also want to let the Muslims know that this is a war between eman [belief] and kufr [unbelief], between Islam and Christianity.”[21] To illustrate his point, he held up a bible and cross taken from the bodies of the Burundian soldiers and said: “what you see here is a Christian cross and a bible. They carry these two along with them as we carry the book of Allah and the Sunna of His Messenger.”[22] The holy nature of this conflict, according to Rage, meant that all of the world’s Muslims are obligated to join the fight: “Since the battle is between the defenders of this cross and bible, and those defending the Holy Qur’an, it is obligatory upon the Muslim people as a whole to stand by and support the Holy Qur’an.”[23]

More recently, al-Shabab’s desire to cultivate its own alternative media led them to establish an English-language Twitter account on December 7, 2011, which has thus far been used to antagonize the invading Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF) and call followers to jihad. Called the HSM Press Office,[24] it describes the group as “an Islamic movement that governs South & Cen.[tral] Somalia & part of the global struggle towards the revival of Islamic Khilaafa [Caliphate].” It is unclear who runs the account, although it is almost certainly a native English speaker, and messages display a surprisingly high standard of vocabulary. The account, much like the al-Kataib news reports but in real-time, allows al-Shabab to announce its attacks and other operations without having to rely on Western news reports. One of the first tweets made on the account, for example, stated:

“6-DEC: Martyrdom seeker infiltrates K4 circle [main traffic circle in Mogadishu] in #Mogadishu. 3 #Ugandanm [Ugandan] 7 TFG soldiers pronounced dead on the scene. 2 mercenaries injured.”[25]

Twitter also makes the group more accessible to followers, and allows the administrator of the account to carry on conversations with other Twitter users. In one example, a jihadist Twitter user sent a message to the al-Shabab account saying: “May Allah give you victory! I love you for the sake of Allah!” Al-Shabab responded in kind, saying: “May the One for whom you love us for His sake [Allah] love you!”[26]

Such Twitter interactions, although short and seemingly innocuous, serve a purpose: they strengthen the resolve of Western sympathizers and potential recruits by offering a conduit through which they can interact with operational members.[27]

These exchanges, however, are not limited to followers, and much of the account is dominated by regular conversations between al-Shabab and the spokesman of the Kenyan military, Major E. Chirchir. In what amounts to a propaganda war being waged on the social networking site, each participant attempts to delegitimize and undermine their opponent, calling into question both the morality and effectiveness of each other’s military actions.

On December 9, 2011, for example, Major Chirchir wrote on his Twitter account of the array of assets available to his force: “Look at the assets committed to the operation. We have all the components; LAND, AIR, MARITIME.”[28]

The reply from al-Shabab was dismissive and mocked his men’s fighting abilities: “Assets are worthless without men; your inexperienced boys flee from confrontation & flinch in the face of death.”[29]

Al-Shabab’s use of Twitter as a propaganda battlefield should, therefore, be seen in the context of the group’s desire to increase its ability to influence the minds of Western Muslims, and demonstrates the importance that the group places on taking some element of control over the reporting of its actions to the Western world.

Conclusion
In the near-term, there are likely to be attempts by Hammami and al-Kataib to redouble their propaganda efforts, and it is possible that they may produce their own version of AQAP’s English-language Inspire magazine as they try to take the Western jihadist media mantle from AQAP.

Concerns about the threat posed by al-Shabab are not only based on recent intelligence, but also on the history and legacy of other foreign jihadists. As both the Afghan and Bosnian conflicts have demonstrated, traveling for jihad is not always a one-way street, and in recent years Somalia, along with Yemen, has emerged as the latest incubator of global jihad. This may lead to the creation of the next generation of hardened mujahidin who, after their experiences on the battlefield and extensive terrorist training, could seek to establish themselves in other countries, much like veterans of Afghanistan have done all over the globe. Due to Western governments’ continued scrutiny of this issue, it will be difficult for an American or British Somali to return from Somalia and successfully carry out an attack, although al-Shabab may pursue this objective alongside their main aim of recruiting Westerners to take part in the Somali insurgency.

Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens is a Ph.D. candidate and Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), King’s College, London. He is author of “As American as Apple Pie: Anwar al-Awlaki’s Jihad Against the West,” a pamphlet published by ICSR in 2011.

[1] “Former U.S. Soldier Charged with Trying to Aid Somali Militants,” Voice of America, January 9, 2012.

[2] “MI5 Chief Warns of Terror Threat from Britons Trained in Somalia,” Guardian, September 16, 2010.

[3] “Somali Radicals ‘Importing Terror to UK’ say Intelligence Analysts,” Times, February 16, 2009.

[4] “Somalia: The New Pakistan for Terror Recruitment?” Channel 4 News, February 16, 2010.

[5] U.S.A. v. Zachary Adam Chesser, District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, 2010.

[6] Josh Kron, “American Identified as Bomber in Attack on African Union in Somalia,” New York Times, October 30, 2011.

[7] Josh Kron, “Wanted by the FBI,” New York Times, October 30, 2011.

[8] Audio message released by al-Shabab claiming to be the voice of Abdisalan Hussein Ali in author’s possession.

[9] A. Elliott, “The Jihadist Next Door,” New York Times Magazine, January 27, 2010.

[10] Omar Hammami, “Lessons Learned,” October 7, 2011.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] `Abdullah `Azzam, “Join the Caravan,” Azzam Publications, 2001.

[16] Hammami.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20]  “The Burundian Bloodbath: Battle of Daynile,” al-Kataib Media Foundation, November 11, 2011.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] “HSM” is an acronym for Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin.

[25] HSM Press Office Twitter account, December 6, 2011.

[26] HSM Press Office Twitter account, December 8, 2011.

[27] For more on how this level of access to members of a group can encourage recruitment and mobilize supporters, see Lauren Kessler, The Dissident Press: Alternative Journalism in American History (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1984).

[28] Major E Chirchir’s Twitter account, December 9, 2011.

[29] HSM Press Office Twitter account, December 9, 2011.