By Jamie Geller |
Seeking to geographically expand its jihad, al-Qaeda-core established relations with Somali Islamic militants in the mid-1990s. Those same militants later comprised the al-Qaeda Somali affiliate, Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahedeen, or al-Shabaab. Over the years, the group has become better organized and more sophisticated.
Al-Shabaab’s September 21, 2013 attack at Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya showed its understanding of the media’s power in recruitment. During the attack, the group used its Twitter platform – @HSMPress – to broadcast its version of events and emphasize the role of American foreign fighters in the operation. Following the physical attack, al-Shabaab disseminated a 58-minute video, “Woolwich Attack: It’s an Eye for an Eye,” that explicitly called for Western Muslims to conduct lone wolf attacks to support global jihad. The sophistication of both the Westgate attacks and the accompanying virtual recruitment campaign demonstrate al-Shabaab’s mounting capacity. To effectively respond, the U.S. government needs an effective counter-messaging strategy.
Using both video and more instantaneous platforms like Twitter, al-Shabaab’s formal media wing, Al Kataib Foundation for Media Productions, uses three packaging techniques to increase the resonance of its messages. First, it communicates diagnostic messages that identify ills that many Western Muslims perceive, particularly those involving identity and foreign policy-based grievances. Second, it conveys prognostic messages that offer solutions to the diagnosed ills; most often violent jihad to defend Islam. Third, it uses motivational messages that reference a holistic Muslim ummah and the need to restore Islam’s historic greatness.
Employing social persuasion tactics, al-Shabaab tends to publicize Western operatives in media communications. Before he defected in March 2012, al-Shabaab strategically used Alabama-born, English speaking operative Omar Hammami as its Western face. After he defected, Hammami was replaced by another American operative, Abu Ahmad al-Amriki. Though scholars debate the exact role Hammami, and later al-Amriki, played in the terrorist organization, it is clear that al-Shabaab used them both to make it easier for a particular category of recruits to identify with the group.
The post-Westgate recruitment video demonstrates al-Shabaab’s sophisticated use of its official platform and persuasion tactics. Diagnostically, the video blames Western governments for Muslim identity grievances, citing the “widening gulf between Muslims in the West and Kaffir neighbors” and blaming Western foreign policy for contemporary Muslim conflicts. Motivationally, the video stresses the global jihad, encouraging viewers to join the holistic Muslim ummah and help restore Islam’s greatness. Furthermore, it tells individuals to select Quranic passages that speak to them directly. Finally, the video emphasizes “movement-entrepreneur-led activism” in which individuals undertake lone wolf actions in support of a common agenda. The video discusses both unsuccessful and successful attacks, underscoring how these operations can be tactically feasible and strategically valuable.
The video’s target audience is cognitively radical U.K. Muslims; people who are radical in ideology, but not yet carrying out attacks. Subtle hints throughout the video point to this conclusion. Most noticeably, al-Shabaab chose an English-speaking narrator with a British accent. Moreover, the video uses English subtitles with Arabic clips, particularly for key al-Qaeda speeches, but does not use Arabic subtitles during the English content. The video also focuses on the 2013 Woolwich attack in London that was carried out by al-Muhajiroun, an Islamist terrorist organization based in Britain. Finally, the video is almost an hour long, which makes it clear that it was only intended for cognitive extremists. Individuals with only cursory knowledge of jihadist ideology would be unlikely to watch the entire film.
To counter al-Shabaab’s improving physical capacity and virtual media outreach efforts, the U.S. government must undermine al-Shabaab’s credibility, rather than the tactics it espouses. In particular, the United States should challenge the narrative that al-Shabaab attempts to sell on Twitter by highlighting the group’s poor treatment of foreign fighters. When Hammami defected, he cited poor treatment. Al-Shabaab reacted by issuing official statements minimizing Hammami’s strategic contributions and publically accusing him of spreading “societal discord (fitna).” The group’s quick, loud response highlights both its reliance on foreign recruitment and its vulnerability to narratives about the mistreatment of Western fighters.
The U.S. government included counter-messaging in official counterterrorism policy when it created the Department of State’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. And indeed, this group has already implemented some measures to counter al-Shabaab’s virtual narrative. However, current programs are too closely associated with the government. Often, messages display the Department of State logo, which immediately undermines their credibility. Going forward, messages should either be anonymous or come from moderate Muslims “who have greater credibility with the most relevant target audiences.” Any connection to the U.S. government will instantly undermine the argument in the eyes of radical Muslims.
American citizens are protected by a complex patchwork of active and passive defenses against terrorism. While no single measure ends the threat, together the web is difficult to penetrate. Introducing an effective counter-messaging strategy would add another layer to the web of protection and make a successful terrorist attack by al-Shabaab even less likely.
Jamie Geller is an MA candidate in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and the GSSR Associate Editor for the Middle East.
 Fred Dews, “Al Shabaab: Background on the Somalia-based Terrorist Group that Attacked a Nairobi Mall,” Brookings Institution, September 23, 2013, http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/brookings-now/posts/2013/09/al-shabaab-somalia-terrorist-nairobi-mall-attack; Charlotte Florance, James Phillips, James Jay Carafano, PhD, Steven Bucci, PhD, and Peter Brookes, “Kenya Attack: Vigilance Required to Combat al-Shabaab’s Resurgence,” The Heritage Foundation, No. 4059, September 30, 2013, http://report.heritage.org/ib4059. See also Morgan Lorraine Roach and Ray Walser, “Saving Somalia: The Next Steps for the Obama Administration,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2691, May 12, 2012, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2012/05/saving-somalia-the-next-steps-for-the-obama-administration.
 Media as “gatekeepers” is discussed here: Chen, H. and E. Reid. “Internet-Savvy U.S. and Middle Eastern Extremist Groups.” Mobilization: An International Quarterly 12.2 (2007): p. 178.; See also Raffaello Pantucci, “Bilal al-Berjawi and the Shifting Fortunes of Foreign Fighters in Somalia,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 24 September 2013, http://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/bilal-al-berjawi-and-the-shifting-fortunes-of-foreign-fighters-in-somalia. It is also alleged that al-Shabaab boasted this claim through their Twitter account: Jamie Dettmer, “Were Americans Among the Al-Shabaab Nairobi Mall Attackers?” The Daily Beast, 9 September 2013, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/09/23/were-americans-among-the-al-shabaab-nairobi-mall-attackers.html.
 The Blaze uploaded the full hour-long video to their website from MEMRI. YouTube has since taken the full video down. This very platform just underscores the secondary and tertiary ripples this video really had outside of jihadist circles. Sara Carter, “New Terrorist Video Urges Western Muslims to Emulate London Terror Attack, Fort Hood Shooting – Should We Be Worried?” The Blaze, 17 October 2013, http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2013/10/17/al-qaeda-offshoot-tells-western-muslims-to-emulate-london-terror-attack-fort-hood-shooting-in-new-video/.
 Al-Shabaab uses these common framing techniques to enable recruits to digest and act on these messages. It also broadcasts messages in various languages to reach broader audiences. See Chen, H. and E. Reid. “Internet-Savvy U.S. and Middle Eastern Extremist Groups.” Mobilization: An International Quarterly 12.2 (2007): p. 178. See also Table 2 on p. 180 which states Computer Media Communications (CMC) focused on sharing ideology and propaganda “post resources in multiple languages.”
 For an excellent analysis of Hammami’s role in al-Shabaab, please see: Christopher Anzalone, “The Evolution of an American Jihadi: The Case of Omar Hammami,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 21 June 2012, http://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/the-evolution-of-an-american-jihadi-the-case-of-omar-hammami.
 For quote, see timestamp: 10:59. Also see timestamp: 04:12.
 Video timestamp: 04:12. See also timestamp: 06:51 where it talks about Muslims from all walks of life participating across the globe in the battlefields of jihad. The video stresses “global jihad” at timestamp: 8:18.
 See timestamp: 29:13.
 Garrett, R. K. “Protest in an Information Society: A Review of Literature on Social Movements and New ICTs.” Information, Communication and Society 9.2 (2006): 202-224. p. 15 in Blackboard PDF.
 See timestamp: 08:28.
 For a good overview on the reasons why the UK banned al-Muhajiourin see Catherine Zara Raymond, “Al Muhajiroun and Islam4UK: The group behind the ban,” The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, May 2010, http://icsr.info/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/1276697989CatherineZaraRaymondICSRPaper.pdf.
 Video timestamp: 03:12 where the masked jihadist appears with no Arabic subtitles.
 Osama bin Laden’s speech appears on timestamp: 5:00. Another example of footage from an Arabic-speaking rally with English subtitles can be found on timestamp: 07:29. There is also footage in the background of both Ayman al Zawahiri and bin Laden indicating the group’s subtle messaging to join the global jihad – not just al-Shabaab’s, timestamp: 07:58.
 Footage from Woolwich is interspersed throughout but can specifically see at timestamp: 08:44 and Anjem Choudry can be seen at timestamp: 18:44;Tom Whitehead, “Woolwich attack: Al Muhajiroun linked to one in five terrorist convictions,” The Telegraph, 24 May 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/terrorism-in-the-uk/10079827/Woolwich-attack-Al-Muhajiroun-linked-to-one-in-five-terrorist-convictions.html.
 Christopher Anzalone, “Al-Shabab’s Tactical and Media Strategies in the Wake of Its Battlefield Setbacks,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 27 March 2013, http://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/al-shababs-tactical-and-media-strategies-in-the-wake-of-its-battlefield-setbacks.
 “Executive Order 13584 – Developing an Integrated Strategic Counterterrorism Communications Initiative,” Office of the Press Secretary of the White House,” 9 September 2010, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/09/09/executive-order-13584-developing-integrated-strategic-counterterrorism-c. CSCC website can be viewed here: http://www.state.gov/r/cscc/.
 Eric Schmitt, “A U.S. Reply, in English, to Terrorists’ Online Lure,” New York Times, December 4, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/05/world/middleeast/us-aims-to-blunt-terrorist-recruiting-of-english-speakers.html?ref=world&_r=1&. See also Ramsay, Gilbert. “Online Arguments against Al-Qaeda: An Exploratory Analysis.” Perspectives on Terrorism 6.12 (2012), p. 2 in Blackboard Word Document – primary source is Lina Khatib, William H. Dutton and Michael Thelwall, “Public Diplomacy 2.0: An Exploratory Case Study of the US Digital Outreach Team”, The Middle East Journal 2012.
 Ramsay, Gilbert. “Online Arguments against Al-Qaeda: An Exploratory Analysis.” Perspectives on Terrorism 6.12 (2012), p. 1 in Blackboard Word Document – primary source is Alex P. Schmid, “The Importance of Countering Al-Qaeda’s ‘Single Narrative’”, E.J.A.M Kessels (ed). Countering Violent Extremist Narratives, (The Hague: National Coordinator for Counterterrorism, 2010), pp. 46-57.