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The rapid evolution of Al-Shabab’s media and insurgent “journalism”

The evolution of Al-Shabab’s media arm provides a window into the group’s overall maturation as an insurgent movement that has endorsed key elements of Al-Qaeda Central’s ideology while still focusing primarily on waging a domestic insurgency inside Somalia.

The media arm of Somali Islamist insurgent movement Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabab), the Al-Kata’ib (The Brigades) Media Foundation, has evolved rapidly since its launch in 2007 and consistently produces high quality films in a variety of languages including Somali, Arabic, and English. Insurgent videos, first issued by its “Media Department” between 2007 and the summer of 2010, were initially relatively simple productions produced with often shaky, probably handheld cameras that resulted in often grainy footage and varying sound quality. However, Al-Shabab’s media made a revolutionary jump in 2009 with the landmark release of a 48-minute video, Labbayk Ya Usama (“We Heed Your Call, O’ Usama), in which the insurgent’s leader, Ahmed Abdi “Mukhtar Abu’l Zubayr” Godane, praises Al-Qaeda Central founder Usama bin Laden. The film is an impressive and incredibly polished multimedia production that, in its largest format, was 1GB in size. Understanding the rapid evolution of Al-Shabab’s media output is integral to understanding the insurgent movement’s strategic thinking and development since its emergence in 2007 as the primary Somali movement fighting the weak Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the Ethiopian military forces inside the country.

Al-Kata’ib’s latest film, The Burundian Bloodbath: Battle of Dayniile, which was released on November 12, continues a media strategy launched by insurgent media during the summer of 2010, the presentation of some of its propaganda films as journalistic reporting from the frontlines of Somalia’s battlefields. The film is narrated by a masked Al-Shabab “reporter” with a British accent who tours the battlefield interviewing insurgent field commanders and showing sites where he says fierce fighting took place between insurgent and AMISOM forces. Other segments of the film show Dayniile’s market district, which the narrator and civilians interviewed say was destroyed by AMISOM artillery barrages during the battle, and cheering crowds of men, women, and children who come to view the displayed AMISOM casualties and a statement by Al-Shabab’s chief spokesman, Ali Mahamoud Rage. The narrator appears to be the same one who appeared in two previous Al-Shabab videos released in the summer of 2010, The African Crusaders and Mogadishu: The Crusaders’ Graveyard .

The Burundian Bloodbath focuses on a fierce battle between Al-Shabab and Burundian soldiers from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) military force on which the TFG continues to rely for its survival. The battle took place on October 20 in Dayniile, a suburb of Mogadishu and resulted in heavy AMISOM casualties. Al-Shabab, through spokesman Ali Rage, claim that 101 Burundian soldiers were killed and displayed 76 bodies that it said were from this number. AMISOM officials vigorously denied Rage’s assertion, saying that only 10 AMISOM soldiers had been killed and accusing Al-Shabab of dressing up its own casualties in captured AMISOM uniforms. However, eyewitnesses reported that 60 AMISOM soldiers were likely killed in the fierce fighting in Dayniile and other locals said that the bodies displayed by Al-Shabab after the battle did not have typical Somali features. Families of missing Burundian soldiers were called by other soldiers from their country’s AMISOM contingent who reported that 51 soldiers were killed in the battle. The Burundian government has refused to publicly state how many of its soldiers were killed in the Dayniile fighting. Al-Shabab has previously displayed the bodies of Ugandan and Burundian soldiers, their identity cards, and captured military equipment and supplies following AMISOM denials that it has suffered casualties in insurgent attacks.

Al-Shabab renamed its media arm “Al-Kata’ib” in 2010 and announced the formation of a “news channel” in a statement dated July 24, 2010. The channel’s mission is to “inform, inspire, and incite” through the production of films styled as journalistic documentaries and reports “reporting the reality” from the battlefield. In founding the channel, Al-Shabab said that it hoped to counter the bias of the mainstream media that usually parrots claims made by AMISOM and the TFG. When insurgents still controlled roughly forty percent of Mogadishu Al-Kata’ib was even broadcast for a brief period terrestrially though the current status of this stream following Al-Shabab’s withdrawal from most of the city in August is unclear.

The first two journalistic films released by Al-Kata’ib were The African Crusaders and Mogadishu: The Crusaders’ Graveyard in June and July 2010. The latter, which is narrated by, seemingly, the same English-speaking narrator as The Burundian Bloodbath, guides the viewer through 21 minutes of battlefield footage that counter claims made in clips of an AMISOM official. Al-Shabab fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades and bazookas are shown destroying an AMISOM tank during fierce fighting with AMISOM and TFG forces on the streets of Mogadishu. TFG soldiers are shown fleeing the battlefield, abandoning the AMISOM forces. Closing the film the narrator poses by a destroyed AMISOM tank and says, “Al-Kata’ib News Channel, live from the frontlines of Mogadishu.” Al-Kata’ib even has its own “theme music,” a nasheed (a religiously themed poetic recitation) entitled “With the Battalions of Faith”.

The evolution of Al-Shabab’s media arm provides a window into the movement’s overall maturation as an insurgent movement that has endorsed key elements of Al-Qaeda Central’s ideology while still focusing primarily on waging a domestic insurgency inside Somalia. Al-Shabab has been particularly active in countering reports of its battlefield setbacks and pressures from the severe famine that grips the country with a steady media output in multiple languages. The movement’s media output continues to be multifaceted and strategically complex, belying claims that the movement is not strategically complex in its media messaging.

About the author

Christopher Anzalone is a doctoral student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University where he studies modern Muslim socio-political movements, Shi'ite Islam, contemporary jihadi movements, and Islamist visual culture. He has published articles in Foreign Policy magazine's AFPAK Channel and several academic encyclopedias including the Princeton University Press' Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought (forthcoming) and Oxford University Press' Encyclopedia of the Islamic World (2009), Encyclopedia of the Modern World (2008), and Encyclopedia of Islam and Law (forthcoming).


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