Abstract: The Somali jihadi insurgent group al-Shabaab retains both significant armed capacity and well-honed and sophisticated media operations warfare capabilities. A key aspect of al-Shabaab’s media insurgency is its PSYOPS (psychological operations) messaging, targeting both rank-and-file enemy soldiers as well as the domestic electorates in enemy countries, including the United States, Kenya, Uganda, and Burundi. In its PSYOPS and other propaganda messaging, al-Shabaab takes advantage of the lack of transparency in certain instances from its opponents, including some governments, and the demand by the international news media for details from on the ground, with the group framing itself as a reliable source of on-the-ground information. The militant group actively seeks to extend the penetration of its media messaging by attracting attention from international news media, though this practice has proved to be of mixed value.

Al-Shabaab, despite being forced to withdraw from most of Somalia’s major urban centers between 2011 and 2014, has proven to be markedly resilient in the face of numerically, economically, and technologically superior enemies, including the Somali Federal Government (SFG) and its main international supporters, the United Nations, United States, European Union, and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces.1 It continues to retain significant, deadly military capabilities as well as the ability to plan and successfully execute mass-casualty attacks in the heart of Somali cities, including the federal capital, Mogadishu, and on government military bases.2 The Somali militant group, which engages regularly in anti-civilian violence both in its terrorist attacks and as a tool of the proto-state governance of areas under its control, also continues to run a highly capable media operations apparatus that produces glossy propaganda material aimed, often in the same media product, at domestic Somali, regional East African, and international audiences.3

Al-Shabaab’s media apparatus is particularly adept at PSYOPS (psychological operations),a targeting both the rank-and-file soldiers in the forces of its enemies—for example, AMISOM—as well as the voting publics in enemy countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, Kenya, Uganda, and Burundi.b PSYOPS are part of the group’s broader information operations and warfare campaign.c In its PSYOPS messaging, the Somali militant group seeks to influence domestic politics in these countries,d particularly those in East Africa, as a way of gaining an advantage on the battlefield in Somalia, where a relative military stalemate exists. This stalemate is the result of al-Shabaab remaining capable of carrying out small- to large-scale attacks on a weekly basis but incapable of capturing the Somali state and overthrowing the SFG.

This article examines the history of al-Shabaab’s PSYOPS by analyzing six al-Shabaab messaging campaigns, paying particular attention to the broader military and political contexts in which this messaging occurred. The six case studies look at al-Shabaab PSYOPS in relation to the:

1. The January 2020 Manda Bay airfield attack

2. The 2010 stalemate between al-Shabaab and AMISOM forces in Mogadishu

3. The 2011 ambush of Burundian AMISOM forces in Dayniile

4. The 2014 attacks in and around Mpeketoni in Kenya

5. The leadup to Kenya’s 2017 general election

6. Mass shootings and wildfires in the United States in 2019

In its PSYOPS messaging in each of these cases, as well as in the aftermath of its January 2016 and January 2017 attacks on and capture of the Kenyan military bases in El Adde and Kulbiyow, Somalia, respectively, al-Shabaab has sought to not only broadcast its own claims about the events in question but has also taken advantage of questions about the extent—or even lack—of government transparency in some cases concerning facts on the ground, including casualty figures and the chronologies of attacks. This lack of official transparency eases the way for al-Shabaab’s own messaging to muddy the waters further by playing off of preexisting questions and exacerbating doubts about governments’ official narratives. The militant group has further sought to take advantage of continuing questions regarding the numbers of civilian casualties in U.S. airstrikes and other military operations in Somalia, playing off of the problems in verifying information on the ground.4 e

Case Study 1: The January 2020 Manda Bay Attack
On January 5, 2020, an al-Shabaab team from its elite “martyrdom-seekers brigade” (Katibat al-Istishhadiyyin)5 composed of an unknown number of fighters launched a dawn attack on the Manda Bay Airfield in Kenya’s Lamu county, successfully penetrating part of the base’s perimeter and killing a U.S. soldier and two Department of Defense contractors while also damaging a number of aircraft and vehicles.6 Cutting off power to the nearby county ward of Hindi before the attack,7 the al-Shabaab force—which reportedly included fluent Swahili-speakers8—took photographs during the attack, 17 of which were released the day of the attack by the Somali militant group’s external media department, the Al-Kataib Media Foundation.9 f Al-Shabaab also prepared and released three print statements during or immediately after the attack,g prioritizing the release of propaganda in “real time” to capture the attention of news media in a manner reminiscent of its media strategy during its September 2013 assault on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall.10 h

Claiming to have destroyed seven aircraft and “more than” five military vehicles while inflicting 17 U.S. and nine Kenyan casualties,11 al-Shabaab’s media apparatus, as it did during the Westgate siege via-à-vis the Kenyan government,12 engaged in a war of words with U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), which also released a series of press statements after the attack. Labeling al-Shabaab’s statements as “exaggerating the security situation” in order to “bolster their reputation to create false headlines” at Manda Bay, AFRICOM dismissed the militant group’s claims.13 In response, al-Shabaab accused AFRICOM of an “incoherent” response that attempted to downplay the significance of its attack on the airfield, the site of U.S. air operations in Somalia and U.S. military training for Kenyan forces.14 Here, al-Shabaab sought to build on its longstanding claim, however unbelievable, to be a reliable and impartial source “meticulously consistent with their facts [corroborating] them with hard evidence,”15 purporting that its media apparatus only reports the ‘realities’ on the ground hidden by its enemies and their lackeys in the international news media.16

Al-Shabaab pursued several lines of messaging regarding the Manda Bay attack. First, it took aim at the U.S. government and military, engaging in a war of words to control the narrative of the attack. Second, al-Shabaab sought to solidify its place as one of al-Qa`ida’s most enduringly dangerous and resilient regional affiliates in naming the attack as being part of an ongoing campaign by al-Qa`ida and its regional affiliates to “avenge” the U.S. government’s decision to recognize the contested city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.i Third, al-Shabaab used the attack to take aim at members of the Kenyan military, security forces, and civilian electorate, warning them not only of further attacks but also noting the weakness of their military and security forces as well as their national borders: “In order to attack the U.S. naval base in Lamu, the Mujahideen had to traverse large swathes of territory under Kenyan occupation [areas of eastern Kenya with Muslim majorities or large Muslim populations], circumventing several weaker, poorly defended Kenyan military bases en route.”17

Although al-Shabaab’s claimed casualty figures were clearly exaggerated—a common practice for the insurgent group—its series of media releases sought to take advantage more broadly of remaining questions about what exactly happened during the base attack, including how the militants were able to penetrate the base’s perimeter, the state of the base’s defenses, and the behavior of the Kenyan military during the attack.18 By attempting to undermine a part of the official Kenyan and U.S. press narrative on the base attack, al-Shabaab sought to influence international reporting in a similar way to its PSYOPS and broader media messaging following its attacks on the Kenyan military bases in El Adde and Kulbiyow, Somalia in 2016 and 2017.

By attacking U.S. forces at the airfield, al-Shabaab said that Kenyans should now understand the “vulnerability of your American masters on whom you so trustingly depend […] the fragility of the American military might and the humiliating defeat of your trainers.”19 The group threatened Kenyan businesspeople, merchants, and civilians with further attacks that it stated would severely damage the country’s economy, tourism sector, and the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport Corridor project (LAPSSET) as well as cost the lives of its soldiers and police unless Kenyans pressured their government to withdraw from what al-Shabaab presented as the unwinnable war in Somalia.20 Future attacks would be carried out, al-Shabaab strongly hinted, by returning foreign fighters “who speak your language and know your culture” and who have embraced the concept of “al-wala wa-l-bara,” loyalty to Muslims and disavowal of disbelievers, a core tenet frequently invoked in militant form by Sunni jihadis.21

Al-Shabaab also warned AFRICOM to make a “full public disclosure” about what really happened during the attack before insurgent media “publishes a damaging revelation of the attack,” citing the domestic controversies caused by the Kenyan government’s attempts to cover up what happened during the January 2016 and January 2017 attacks by insurgents on Kenyan military bases at El Adde and Kulbiyow, respectively.22

Further doubt about Kenyan government claims that the El Adde and Kulbiyow attacks had been repelled and the bases had never been captured by the insurgents was cast by al-Shabaab media materials. These materials included photosets, each released within days of the temporary capture of the bases and, later, by the militant group’s two lengthy pseudo-documentary films that showed their capture and the retreat of their surviving Kenyan garrisons.23 The release of these insurgent photographs and, later, extended video footage of the two base attacks increased domestic Kenyan and international questioning of the official government narratives about what happened at the El Adde and Kulbiyow bases, respectively.24 The Kenyan Ministry of Defence claimed that its forces had only suffered nine dead and 15 wounded in the Kulbiyow attack and also initially denied that the KDF lost control of the base and said instead that al-Shabaab had been repulsed. Local residents, however, reported not only the base’s capture but also seeing KDF survivors fleeing into the countryside as al-Shabaab advanced as well as seeing a large but unclear number of Kenyan casualties.25

In its January 2020 Manda Bay attack statement, al-Shabaab also warned Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) troops and other AMISOM countries’ soldiers that they were being sacrificed as “cannon fodder for the Western crusade against Islam”26 in the interest of the United States. “Know that when the situation gets difficult [for them], the U.S. forces will abandon you just as they abandoned the [Kurdish] YPG forces in Syria after getting them embroiled in a long, unwinnable war,” al-Shabaab stated, referencing recent confusion about U.S. policy toward Syrian Kurdish forces fighting against the Islamic State.27 This messaging mirrored the Somali militant group’s earlier PSYOPS messaging in 2010 and in the run-up to the August 2017 Kenyan general elections.

Case Study 2: The 2010 Mogadishu Stalemate
During the summer 2010 stalemate that preceded the group’s renewed push to capture all of Mogadishu during its “Ramadan Offensive” in 2010,j al-Shabaab introduced a new PSYOPS messaging push seeking to increase pressure on the Ugandan and Burundian governments to withdraw their troops from AMISOM by influencing their domestic public opinion. Al-Shabaab began producing pseudo-documentary propaganda films posing as frontline news coverage of the ongoing battle for Mogadishu28 while also underlining the key importance of media operations to the group’s military campaign.k This influence operations push sought to increase domestic pressure in Uganda and Burundi for a withdrawal of both countries’ troop contingents that, at that time, made up the bulk of AMISOM’s forces.29

Casting its media operatives, and in particular an unidentified British English-speaking narrator, as jihadi ‘journalists,’ al-Shabaab released a film in late June 2010, The African Crusaders: Fighting the West’s War, aimed at the Ugandan and Burundian contingents of AMISOM as well as both countries’ civilians, portraying their soldiers’ suffering and sacrifices in Somalia as being only in the interest of the “West” and not their own domestic security.30 Showing one of the many clashes between al-Shabaab and AMISOM forces in Mogadishu, edited to show an insurgent victory, the film asked why Ugandans and Burundians were sacrificing their “sons” as cannon fodder in the interest of “America’s war” when they have their own domestic security needs, including fighting to protect Ugandans from the predations of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group led by fugitive Joseph Kony.l The continued failure of the Ugandan and Burundian electorates to pressure their respective governments for withdrawal from Somalia was one with profound consequences, the film said.31

Two weeks after its suicide bombers carried out two attacks in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, on July 11 during the 2010 FIFA World Cup final,32 al-Shabaab released a second film that built on the PSYOPS messaging introduced in The African Crusaders. Narrated by the same unidentified British English-speaking ‘journalist’ media operative, who now appeared on screen, this second film, Mogadishu: The Crusaders’ Graveyard, included edited footage that seemed to show the destruction of an AMISOM tank during running street battles in Mogadishu. The film then interspersed edited footage of an AMISOM press conference following the clashes in which spokesman Major Ba-hoku Barigye claimed the tank shown burning in insurgent battlefield footage was destroyed due to a “mechanical fault” and not—as al-Shabaab footage seemed to show—an insurgent projectile.33 “The dishonest lackeys [AMISOM] were caught lying again,” the al-Shabaab narrator said, going on to allege that AMISOM commanders were callously indifferent to the deaths of their own soldiers.34 m

The film connected the deadly Kampala attacks with the failure of Ugandans and Burundians to heed al-Shabaab’s earlier call for them to pressure their respective governments to withdraw from Somalia. “How many more of your sons are you willing to sacrifice for this American-led Western cause,” the narrator asked, warning that if the losses of their soldiers in Mogadishu was not enough of a warning, “then perhaps lessons a little more closer to home [referencing Kampala] would be the only solution.”35 The film closed with the al-Shabaab narrator touring the Mogadishu battlefield and standing in front of the wreckage of an AMISOM tank where he delivered a scripted report as if a legitimate war journalist: “They say a picture tells a thousand words. It was only last night when the chants of ‘Allahu Akbar’ resonated throughout this neighborhood and as the bullet shells litter the scene a clear message is sent to the so-called ‘reinforcement forces’ of the African Crusaders that this [death] is the destiny that awaits them,” he said, reaching out to lay a hand on the gun barrel of the burned-out tank.36 Mimicking a television news correspondent, the narrator signed off, “Al-Kataib News Channel, live from the frontlines of Mogadishu.”37

In highlighting the dangers to Ugandan and Burundian soldiers in Mogadishu and framing them as ‘cannon fodder’ unimportant even to their own officers, al-Shabaab sought to increase domestic disaffection in the two countries as well as build on resentment among the military rank-and-file whose members were already unhappy with the frequent late payment of salaries while their governments benefited from international funding for the AMISOM mission.38 In addition to not being paid, al-Shabaab alleged that AMISOM commanders and their political bosses were also concealing from their own domestic electorates the exact numbers of casualties in Somalia as well as the horrific manner in which their soldiers were being killed in a war with no relevance to Ugandan or Burundian domestic security.39 This theme of government concealment and the pointless expenditure of financial and human resources is a theme that remains constant in al-Shabaab PSYOPS propaganda, including, as outlined above, its messaging about the January 2020 Manda Bay attack.

Case Study 3: The 2011 Dayniile Ambush
On October 20, 2011, a few months after it announced in August that it would begin strategically withdrawing forces from Mogadishu amidst a major AMISOM and Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) offensive,40 al-Shabaab ambushed a Burundian AMISOM convoy in the Dayniile district on the outskirts of Mogadishu, killing a significant number of Burundian troops.n Public confusion over the exact number of Burundian soldiers killed in the ensuing battle was increased by press reports suggesting many more casualties than officially acknowledged, leading to domestic unease among families of missing or killed soldiers in Burundi.41 This allowed al-Shabaab to step in and muddy the waters further with its own PSYOPS media push that began with a public event a day after the battle during which the bodies of some of the Burundian casualties were put on display.42 This event, along with battle footage, was later featured in a documentary-style film released on November 12, 2011, by al-Shabaab, The Burundian Bloodbath: Battle of Dayniile.

In the film, al-Shabaab’s British English-speaking narrator built upon the PSYOPS messaging framework and style laid down in Al-Kataib’s June and July 2010 videos.43 Walking around the rural battleground, he picked up a rotting apple core and commented, “this is probably the last bite [of the apple] one of the Burundian soldiers took before the final moment came for him.”44 The film was released, the narrator said, as part of al-Shabaab’s media campaign to report on the reality of the Somali conflict, with the group recognizing that the media field was a key part of the ongoing war.45 o

Al-Shabaab’s U.K. English-language narrator and media operative, who has never been identified by the group, stands against a backdrop showing Kenya Defence Forces vehicles the group claimed to have seized during its attack and temporary capture of the KDF’s El-Adde military base in Somalia’s Gedo region on January 15, 2016. (Al-Kataib Media Foundation film, The Sheikh Abu Yahya al-Libi Raid: Storming the Crusader Kenyan Army Base at El-Adde – Islamic province of Gedo, released on April 9, 2016).

Case Study 4: The 2014 Attacks in and around Mpeketoni
On June 15 and 17, 2014, al-Shabaab fighters carried out a series of attacks in and around the town of Mpeketoni in Kenya’s Lamu county targeting a police station, hotels, and government offices and killing at least 60 people.46 Despite local residents reporting that the attackers seemed to be targeting Christians and shouted “Allahu Akbar” as well as claims of responsibility from al-Shabaab,47 p Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta instead blamed local political opponents of perpetrating the attacks and denied that al-Shabaab was behind them.48 Even before al-Shabaab released its own footage of the attacks in March 2015, footage that matched the reports of local residents who witnessed the 2014 attacks,q Kenyan journalists, news analysts, and politicians openly questioned Kenyatta’s claim, seeing it as a politically motivated response meant to counter mounting criticism and questioning of Kenya’s 2013 military intervention in Somalia and noting that it was directly contradicted by the testimony of multiple local residents.49

Al-Shabaab took advantage of Kenyatta’s insistence that his local political foes and not the militant group were behind the Mpeketoni attacks in a major propaganda film released in three separate versions in Arabic, Swahili, and English in early March 2015, Mpeketoni: Reclaiming Muslim Lands Occupied by the Kenyan Crusaders.50 It compounded preexisting questions about the lack of the Kenyan government’s transparency and the truthfulness of the president’s public claim that his local political opponents and not al-Shabaab were responsible.

Opening with a montage of clips drawn from international and Kenyan news media reports on the attacks and Kenyatta’s televised address to the nation, the film was entirely framed around the president’s strident denials despite mounting evidence to the contrary as well as the rhetorical question the film posed, “What would compel a country’s president to lie to his people so unashamedly?”51 The film and the subsequent April 3, 2015, attack by al-Shabaab targeting Kenyan Christians at Garissa University College also sought to frame the militant group’s operations in Kenya as legitimate retaliation, from an Islamic legal perspective, for Kenyan government abuses against Kenyan Muslims. The Garissa University College attack had angered locals who blamed longstanding government corruption and poor performance by the security forces for allowing al-Shabaab to operate with relative impunity.52 r

Case Study 5: The Leadup to Kenya’s 2017 Elections
In the months leading up to Kenya’s hotly contested 2017 national general elections, al-Shabaab released a coordinated, multi-part influence operations campaign seeking to sway the results against President Kenyatta and his Jubilee Party and, as a result, continued Kenyan military presence in Somalia.53 This campaign included the release of over a dozen films and video messages from al-Shabaab that sought to sway Kenyan public opinion against the incumbent president and the KDF remaining militarily in Somalia.

Ali Mohamud Rage, al-Shabaab’s spokesman and a senior official, told the Kenyan electorate that their country’s military involvement in Somalia, Operation Linda Nchi (“Protect the Country”), far from resulting in greater domestic security, had dramatically worsened the security situation as well as the national economy due to a significant downturn in the tourism sector thanks to his group’s attacks.54 Al-Kataib also released a two-part video interview with Kenyan militant preacher Ahmad Iman Ali, the head of al-Shabaab’s Kenyan foreign fighters contingent, in which Ali declared any alliance or employment with the Kenyan government impermissible according to Islamic law and Qur’anic injunctions.55 Also released by al-Shabaab’s external media department were a series of video testimonials and recruitment pitches from deceased foreign fighters, including Kenyans;56 and short videos featuring current Kenyan foreign fighters delivering messages to the Kenyan public.57 s

The most noteworthy of al-Shabaab’s stream of election-centered media productions was a 37-minute documentary-style film, The Kenyan Invasion before and after ‘Linda Nchi,’ which appears to have been narrated by Al-Kataib’s aforementioned British English-speaking media operative. Weaving together selective news clips, citations from international bodies and NGOs, video clips of Kenyan politicians and analysts, and insurgent battlefield footage, the film framed Kenya’s intervention in Somalia as a military and economic failure that was endangering the Kenyan public’s safety and severely harming the country’s economy by hitting the tourism sector and diverting much-needed monies from other vital domestic needs.58 t Al-Shabaab alleged that the only people benefiting from Kenya’s failed Somalia policy were a select group of corrupt politicians and military commanders.59

The film’s messaging—and particularly its warnings about additional casualties of Kenyan soldiers—was augmented by a series of hostage videos that built upon al-Shabaab’s earlier use of hostage videos to exert pressure on enemy governments.u The hostage videos placed emphasis squarely on the incumbent president, Kenyatta, as the KDF prisoners, who were highly likely forced to follow an al-Shabaab script, pleaded with him to negotiate with al-Shabaab and withdraw Kenyan forces from Somalia and not to “abandon them” like Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni had his own army’s captives.60 In 2012 and 2013, al-Shabaab released hostage video messages from two Kenyan government employees it had taken captive, Edward Mule Yesse and Fredrick Irundu Wainaina, eventually releasing them after the Kenyatta government was pressured into entering into negotiations with the militant group through Kenyan-Somali clan elders.61

Case Study 6: Mass Shootings and Wildfires during 2019 in the United States
In November 2019, al-Shabaab opened a new media salvo aimed directly at the American public. Following three years of devastating wildfires in Californiav and a record number of mass shootings in 2019 in the United States,62 the group’s emir, Ahmad “Abu Ubayda” Umar, released an audiovisual message that included a direct message to the American people that played off of domestic economic, political, and security issues.63

Centered in part on al-Shabaab’s significant, though failed, attack in late September 2019 on the Baledogle Airbase in Somalia, which is reportedly a site of U.S. military training of Somali “Danab” commando forces and used to launch drone strikes,64 Umar’s message to the American public centered on a cost-benefit analysis, arguing that their domestic interests—economic as well as security—were being harmed by U.S. “meddling” in Somalia and other Muslim-majority countries.65 Rather than investing their tax money into providing security at home against mass shootings in schools and public places or addressing natural disasters, unemployment, and homelessness, he claimed that the U.S. government was instead using the money to engage in military adventures against Muslims abroad.66 By electing their leaders, Umar said, the American public was complicit in the “crimes” of their federal government, and Americans—in al-Shabaab’s eyes—are legitimate targets for revenge attacks, Umar stressed that the American people should pressure their government to stop meddling in Muslim countries and instead address its own domestic problems including school security and natural disaster relief.67

His message to Americans, like al-Shabaab’s earlier 2010 messaging to the Ugandan and Burundian publics during the “Ramadan Offensive,” also came at a time when the Somali militant group, though at its strongest and most resilient since 2011-2012, was stuck in a stalemate. Despite its ability to strike regularly in the heart of Mogadishu and other cities and major urban centers, al-Shabaab still cannot overthrow the SFG to capture the Somali state. Like past al-Shabaab media operations materials, Umar’s message sought to attract broader attention from the mainstream news media, particularly in the United States, but largely failed to do so, highlighting the challenges to get wider reporting on its propaganda despite framing it, in part, to attract media attention.w

Although it retains significant capabilities and territorial reach in Somalia, al-Shabaab remains stuck in a relative stalemate. Despite being al-Qa`ida’s most resilient regional affiliate and a major threat to Somali domestic and regional East African security, the militant group cannot capture the Somali state because it cannot militarily defeat AMISOM. Its ability to implement civil governance—though significant in the local context and even, at times, rivaling the capabilities and capacity of the SFG68—is also limited by both finite economic as well as human resources. In terms of its attacks, al-Shabaab’s activities have declined slightly in 2019, and the number of reported fatalities caused by them has significantly declined since both 2018 and 2017.69 x

Understanding these constraints, al-Shabaab continues to rely not only on regular asymmetrical warfare and large-scale terrorist attacks to weaken its adversaries’ resolve but also on media operations—and in particular PSYOPS—in a bid to weaken domestic support for AMISOM and international interventions in Somalia. This is in line with al-Shabaab’s past strategic behavior of producing and disseminating a particular type of media operations product—PSYOPS messaging—to gain an edge on the physical battlefield when its physical on-the-ground capacity remains limited in an asymmetric war. This PSYOPS messaging, in the cases reviewed in this article, has sought to erode domestic public support in East African countries including Kenya, Uganda, and Burundi for continued involvement in AMISOM and, more recently, in the United States by playing off of existing questions about the lack of East African government transparency regarding events on the ground in Somalia in the eyes of the domestic public.

Al-Shabaab appears to recognize that media operations—of which PSYOPS messaging is a key part—are a lower-cost and potentially high-yield warfighting tool, even more so for non-state groups in asymmetric conflicts like that in Somalia.y Already possessing a formidable media operations capability, al-Shabaab, much like state militaries, uses PSYOPS and influence operations as a lower-cost and, potentially, high-impact way of reaching friendly and hostile audiences as well as enemies and other foreign audiences.z However, al-Shabaab, like states themselves, also faces the challenges of both reaching all of its intended audiences and its messaging having the intended effects.70 The group seeks in part to ensure that its messaging reaches a broader audience in the United States, Kenya, and other countries—beyond its own supporters—by trying to attract the attention of the news media, which then, it hopes, will report on it. As noted with regard to Umar’s most recent audiovisual message, this is far from always the case—resulting in an unpredictable rate of success and extent of messaging penetration.aa

While, to the degree it is successful, this can extend the reach of al-Shabaab’s propaganda, this indirect method is also out of al-Shabaab’s control and does not always result in all parts of its PSYOPS messaging reaching all of the intended audiences, though the militant group seeks to produce media products that are more likely to attract the attention of the news media—for example, with the short ‘lone wolf’ mall attack messaging segment in its 2015 pseudo-documentary film about the Westgate Mall attack and in a 2013 video praising the murderers of off-duty British soldier Lee Rigby.71 The record of al-Shabaab’s PSYOPS messaging is mixed: though it has not succeeded in expelling AMISOM or overthrowing sitting presidents like Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, it has in some cases noticeably affected the wider reporting of events, such as the El Adde,72 Kulbiyow, and Manda Bay military base attacks, particularly through the release of visual media such as photographs.73 ab

Al-Shabaab’s PSYOPS messaging is both a sign of the continued sophistication of its media operations and warfighting capabilities but, conversely, is also arguably an inadvertent admission of its limitations—namely the group’s inability, despite its resilience, to completely take over the Somali state. The insurgent group likely knows that this goal—or even another form of relative success such as the continuance of a semi-territorial proto-state existence74—will not be achieved solely (or even mainly) on the battlefield. Instead, al-Shabaab likely recognizes their aims could, to a significant degree, be achieved by fostering war weariness—primarily among AMISOM-participating countries in East Africa but also within the broader international coalition arrayed against it, which in turn would result—al-Shabaab wagers—in the decline of financial and military support to the Somali federal and regional state governments from AMISOM-participating countries, the European Union, and the United States. The jihadi-insurgent group is banking on war weariness increasing because the SFG remains beset with corruption, preoccupied with domestic political infighting, and its continued failure to meet security benchmarks. It is this sentiment that al-Shabaab’s PSYOPS are attempting to further foster and compound.75 ac     CTC

Christopher Anzalone is a visiting scholar at the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University. His research focuses on political Islam, religion and violence, and Islamist visual culture. He has published extensively on the history, ideology, and media operations of al-Shabaab and runs a research website at ibnsiqilli.com. Follow @IbnSiqilli

Substantive Notes
[a] The RAND Corporation’s definition of “psychological warfare” is a type of warfare that “involves the planned use of propaganda and other psychological operations to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, and behavior of opposition groups.” See “Psychological Warfare,” RAND Corporation. PSYOPS, together with electronic warfare, operational security, physical and information attacks on enemy information processes, and deception, make up information warfare. See Brian Nichiporuk, “U.S. Military Opportunities: Information-Warfare Concepts of Operation,” in Zalmay Khalilzad, John White, and Andy W. Marshall eds. Strategic Appraisal: The Changing Role of Information in Warfare (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 1990), p. 180. Information operations and PSYOPs, according to the U.S. military and NATO, seek to “create desired effects on the will, understanding and capability” of enemies and potential adversaries. See Major Rob Sentse and Major Arno Storm, “The Battle for the Information Domain,” IO Journal (2010), p. 7.

[b] This is the author’s assessment based on an in-depth review of al-Shabaab media productions and propaganda messaging since 2007. PSYOPS are particularly attractive for both non-state and state actors because of their lower cost—when compared to costlier ground operations—and potentially high impact on target populations, both friendly and unfriendly. PSYOPS can carry multiple meanings, representing different messaging to different target audiences PSYOPS can also take multiple forms including written leaflets or other publications, aural, and audiovisual. See Jeffrey Jones and Michael P. Matthews, “PSYOP and the Warfighting CINC (Commander in Chief),” National Defense University, 1995, p. 29.

[c] PSYOPS are also known as influence operations. See “Information Operations,” RAND Corporation, and Edward Waltz, Information Warfare: Principles and Operations (Boston: Artech House, 1998).

[d] Al-Shabaab has been able to attract international news media attention—and a broader audience than its propaganda by itself could reach. For example, in its pseudo-documentary-style film documenting its September 2013 attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, The Westgate Siege: Retributive Justice, the al-Shabaab narrator spent one minute of the one-hour-and-16-minute film urging Western “lone wolf” terrorists to carry out “Westgate-style” attacks on malls in their own countries including the United States, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom, going so far as to name specific potential targets. This one-minute-long segment attracted international news media attention. See, for example, Tom Whitehead and Peter Foster, “Extremists call for terror attacks on major London shopping centres,” Telegraph, February 23, 2015; Eric Bradner, “Johnson warns Mall of America patrons,” CNN, February 23, 2015; Faith Karimi, Ashley Fantz, and Catherine E. Shoichet, “Al-Shabaab threatens malls, including some in U.S.; FBI downplays threat,” CNN, February 21, 2015; Ben Candea, Lee Ferran, and Pierre Thomas, “Mall of America Heightens Security After al-Shabab Threat,” ABC News, February 22, 2015; “RCMP investigating Al-Shabab video calling for terrorist attack on West Edmondton Mall,” National Post, February 22, 2015; and “Terror group Al-Shabaab singles out West Edmonton Mall in video calling for attacks on shopping centres,” National Post, February 22, 2015.

[e] In response to reports that it does not adequately investigate reports of civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure, property, and the killing of livestock, AFRICOM said that it takes “all allegations of civilian casualties regardless of their origin” seriously, alleged that al-Shabaab was lying about the number of civilian casualties and coercing locals to make “untrue claims,” and said that it conducted “additional analysis to ensure the military objectives were met and that there were no civilian casualties” and considers “information from all available sources” after all of its airstrikes. “U.S. Africa Command statement on Amnesty International Report,” U.S. AFRICOM, March 19, 2019.

[f] Kenyan civilians near the airfield reported being accosted by at least 11 withdrawing al-Shabaab fighters following the base attack. See Mohamed Ahmed and Kalume Kazungu, “How al-Shabaab militants plotted raid on Manda naval base,” Daily Nation, January 6, 2020.

[g] While it is difficult to precisely identify the timing of the statements’ releases in relation to the timeline of the base attack, details of which remain unclear, the three written statements and the photoset were released the same day of the attack and within hours of it being reported by local and international news media outlets. On confusion about what happened immediately before, during, and after the base attack, see Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Eric Schmitt, Charlie Savage, and Helene Cooper, “Chaos as Militants Overran Airfield, Killing 3 Americans in Kenya,” New York Times, January 22, 2020.

[h] During the Westgate attack, al-Shabaab—through its both its real-time Twitter posts and statements and other insurgent media released during and immediately after the attack—took advantage of confused and sometimes contradictory statements by different parts of the Kenyan government and security forces about the attack, including when the attack finally ended, whether government forces engaged in looting of shops during the siege, and the number of perpetrators. For details, see Christopher Anzalone, “The Nairobi Attack and Al-Shabab’s Media Strategy,” CTC Sentinel 6:10 (2013); Patrick Galthara, “Five years after the Westgate Mall attack, a culture of silence still haunts Kenya,” Washington Post, September 27, 2018; Daniel Howden, “Terror in Nairobi: the full story behind al-Shabaab’s mall attack,” Guardian, October 4, 2013; and Robyn Dixon, “Video shows Kenyan soldiers looting besieged mall,” Los Angeles Times, October 3, 2013.

[i] Between December 6 and 9, 2017, al-Qa`ida Central, al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and al-Shabaab released statements condemning the U.S. government’s decision to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. See al-Shabaab statement, “The Meeting Place is Bayt al-Maqdis: Statement from the general leadership concerning the American administration’s declaration of al-Quds [Jerusalem] as the capital of the Jewish Occupation,” December 9, 2017; al-Qa`ida Central statement, “Hatred has already appeared from their mouths and what their hearts conceal is greater,” Al-Sahab Media Foundation, December 7, 2017; al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb, “Statement concerning Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as the Zionist Entity’s Capital,” Al-Andalus Media Foundation, December 7, 2017; and al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula, “Statement concerning Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish occupation,” Al-Malahim Media Foundation, December 6, 2017.

[j] Ramadan in 2010 ran from around August 11 to September 9. The exact start date of Ramadan each year depends on which location Muslims are in and which jurists they follow.

[k] As part of this push, al-Shabaab renamed its “Media Department” as both the Al-Kataib Media Foundation and, occasionally, the Al-Kataib News Channel, modeling its new logo and the framing of its reporting after satellite television news channels. From al-Shabaab statement, “Al-Kata’ib News Channel,” July 24, 2010: “The media battle that is now being waged by the mujahideen is one of the fiercest and most important battles in our war with the disbelieving Zionist-Crusaders, which leads us, as those responsible on the media jihad front in Somalia to strive toward developing methods and tactics for the media war in order to communicate the truth to the people concerning the events on the battlefields and conveying the voice of the mujahideen to the entire world and to defend those dedicated to God, with His help and grace.”

[l] In 2010, the Lord’s Resistance Army, which operates in parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Uganda, and the Central African Republic (CAR), killed and kidnapped hundreds of civilians. See Michael Wilkerson, “Why Can’t Anyone Stop the LRA?” Foreign Policy, April 15, 2010, and “DR Congo: Lord’s Resistance Army Rampage Kills 321: Regional Strategy Needed to End Rebel Group’s Atrocities and Apprehend Leaders,” Human Rights Watch, March 28, 2010. That same year, U.S. President Barack Obama also pledged U.S. support to help fight the LRA. See Max Delaney, “Obama commits US to helping hunt for LRA leader Joseph Kony,” Christian Science Monitor, May 25, 2010.

[m] In other edited footage from Major Ba-hoku Barigye’s press conference, he is shown asking rhetorically, “And if you lose one soldier, so what?” The al-Shabaab narrator noted, “And in addition to the major defeats suffered on the battlefield in recent months, the lives of your sons are considered worthless even by their leaders here in Mogadishu,” with following footage showing the badly burned body of an AMISOM soldier killed when the tank in question caught fire.

[n] Al-Shabaab publicly displayed between 60-76 bodies, according to local eyewitnesses interviewed by The New York Times, and claimed that it had killed at least 101 Burundian soldiers. A video al-Shabaab posted of the aftermath of the attack, and reviewed by the author, appeared to show dozens of corpses. AMISOM denied such large numbers had been killed, but reporting by the Associated Press suggested that 51 may have been killed, much higher than the initial six the Burundian government said were killed and the official AMISOM number of 10 killed and two missing. Local Somali civilians said that at least 60 soldiers had been killed. Al-Shabaab film, The Burundian Bloodbath: The Battle of Dayniile, Al-Kataib Media Foundation, November 12, 2011. On the various estimates of the number of Burundian dead, see “Al-Shabab claims peacekeepers’ killings,” Al Jazeera, October 21, 2011; “AU rejects al-Shabab bodies ‘stunt’ in Somalia,” BBC, October 21, 2011; Josh Kron and Mohamed Ibrahim, “African Union peacekeepers killed in Somalia battle,” New York Times, October 21, 2011; “Mogadishu massacre – 70 AU troops killed,” news24, October 20, 2011; and “Burundi anxious over 51 dead soldiers in Somalia,” Associated Press, October 28, 2011. Al-Shabaab later released photographs of ID cards and other identity papers it said had been captured from some of the Burundian soldiers killed, though only for 10 soldiers. See Christopher Anzalone, “Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen Releases Statement & Information on Burundian AMISOM Soldiers Slain at Battle of Dayniile,” al-Wasat, December 12, 2011.

[o] The film cast al-Shabaab’s media campaign not as propaganda but instead as a needed intervention and alternative view to that provided by international journalists who, it alleged, “are either complicit or unwittingly serving as pawns of Western governments.” The insurgent narrator claimed, “It’s the media of the mujahideen that has succeeded in capturing the accurate image of the battlefields of jihad.”

[p] Local residents’ reports were consistent with al-Shabaab’s own propaganda film documenting the attacks, Mpeketoni: Reclaiming Muslim Lands Occupied by the Kenyan Crusaders, released on March 2, 2015, in which militants are shown lecturing local Kenyan Muslim residents after Kenyan Christians had “fled.” The film was an installment in Al-Kataib’s No Security except by Faith or a Covenant of Security series.

[q] In part of the film’s footage, al-Shabaab militants were shown in the town—signs and store names identifying the location as Mpeketoni—rounding up Kenyan Christians it accused of being government workers, haranguing them about their religion before summarily executing them.

[r] In its April 5, 2015, statement claiming responsibility for the Garissa University College attack, al-Shabaab said that it was the result of repeated warnings by the militant group to the Kenyan public that the actions of their government “will not be without retaliation.” The statement laid out what al-Shabaab said was a history of Kenyan persecution, “massacres,” and other “crimes” against Kenyan-Somalis specifically and Muslims generally. “Not only are you condoning your government’s oppressive policies by failing to speak out against them but [you] are reinforcing their policies by electing them. You will, therefore, pay the price with your blood,” the statement said. Al-Shabaab statement, “Garissa Attack: Burying Kenya’s Hopes,” April 4, 2015.

[s] One propaganda video, Are You Content with…: Questions to the Muslims in Kenya, released on July 27, 2017, featured nine East African foreign fighters addressing the Kenyan electorate in eight regional languages or dialects spoken in Kenya (with Swahili and English subtitles): Oromo, Swahili, Bajuni, Digo, Luo, Kikuyu, Nairobi “Sheng” slang, and Swahili.

[t] The film referenced violence by armed nomadic herders and mass demonstrations by Kenyan doctors. See Adam Cruise and Bibi van der Zee, “Armed herders invade Kenya’s most important wildlife conservancy,” Guardian, February 2, 2017; Eyder Peralta, “In Kenya, Nomadic Herders And Police Clash Over Pastures,” NPR, April 3, 2017; Jacob Kushner, “Kenya’s health system on the verge of collapse as doctors’ strike grinds on,” Guardian, February 13, 2017; Eyder Peralta, “The Doctors Aren’t In At Kenya’s Public Hospitals,” NPR, January 5, 2017; and Rael Ombuor, “Amid medical protests, Kenyan court releases imprisoned doctors’ union officials,” Washington Post, February 15, 2017.

[u] Al-Shabaab’s hostage videos released between September 2016 and May 2017 featured Kenyan and Ugandan soldiers captured during the militant group’s attacks on and capture of AMISOM bases in Janaale in September 2015 and El Adde in January 2016. Al-Shabaab had previously released several other hostage videos including ones showing pleas and scripted messages from French Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE) agent Denis Allex and Kenyan government employees Edward Mule Yesse and Fredrick Irundu Wainaina. On Allex’s capture and the failed DGSE commando raid and his subsequent death, see Leela Jacinto, “French spy held captive in Somalia pleads for release,” France24, October 5, 2012; Feisal Omar, “Second French commando dies of wounds: Somali rebels,” Reuters, January 14, 2013; and “Somali Islamists say French hostage sentenced to death,” Reuters, January 16, 2013. On Yesse and Wainaina’s release, see Jill Langlois, “2 Kenyan officials kidnapped by Al Shebaab freed,” PRI, July 30, 2013; Julius Kithuure, “Kenya: Edward Mule Yesse Free After 18 Months in Al-Shabaab Captivity,” allafrica.com, August 2, 2013; Duncan Miriri, “We will not bargain with al Shabaab over hostages: Kenya,” Reuters, January 24, 2013; Feisal Omar, “Kenya says no talks with rebels who claim killed soldier,” Reuters, February 15, 2013; and Kipchumba Some, “Al Shabaab threatens to kill captives,” Standard, January 27, 2013.

[v] In his video message, Ahmad Umar said that the ongoing wildfires in California were part of God’s punishment on the United States for its sins and crimes against Muslims. Ahmad Umar, “We Bow to None Other Than Allah,” Al-Kataib Media Foundation, November 5, 2019.

[w] The uncertain success rate of this strategic bid to attract mainstream news media attention—thus garnering a broader audience for at least parts of its media operations and information warfare propaganda—is due in large part to the inability of al-Shabaab to control what aspects of its media releases are reported on. In some cases, such as with its Westgate attack pseudo-documentary, it has been able to attract significant international news media attention while in other cases, such as Umar’s November 2019 message to Americans, it largely failed in its effort to reach the broader American public through news reporting. For example, in its reporting, The New York Times mentioned Umar’s message but only very briefly and without mentioning the al-Shabaab emir’s discussion of domestic versus international financial expenditures and national interests. See Gibbons-Neff, Schmitt, Savage, and Cooper.

[x] Despite this decline, al-Shabaab was in 2019 responsible or suspected in approximately 38 percent of all African militant Islamist events and 27 percent of all reported fatalities, according to Africa Center for Strategic Studies data.

[y] Al-Shabaab has long recognized the strategic value in building up its own media operations capabilities in order to counter the ‘distortion’ of mainstream news media reporting and claims of the “Western Crusader media” about it. Al-Shabaab statement, “Important clarification regarding Al-Jazeera’s promotion of fake news about the Movement [Al-Shabab],” November 24, 2008, and “Al-Kataib News Channel,” July 24, 2010. Al-Qa`ida strategists have also recognized that their ongoing war against ‘Western Crusader’ governments includes a central media component, in part to counter Western ‘propaganda’ against jihadi organizations and in part to disseminate these groups’ own messaging. See Jarret M. Brachman and William F. McCants, Stealing Al-Qa’ida’s Playbook (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2006) and Jarret M. Brachman, Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice (New York: Routledge, 2008), in particular Chapters 4 and 5.

[z] This is similar to how state militaries, including the U.S. military, seek to use PSYOPS as part of broader cyber and ground campaigns and operations. See Jones and Matthews, p. 29; Nichiporuk, p. 180; Kathy J. Perry, “The Use of Psychological Operations as a Strategic Tool,” U.S. Army War College, April 10, 2000; and Colonel Curtis D. Boyd, “Army IO is PSYOP: Influencing More with Less,” Military Review (2007): pp. 67-75. In 1992 and 1993, the United States, as the leader of the United Nations-backed Unified Task Force (UNITAF) mission in Somalia, conducted a multi-pronged PSYOPS campaign that included daily radio broadcasts and the publication of a print newspaper. See Lt. Colonel Charles P. Borchini and Mari Borstelmann, “PSYOP in Somalia: The Voice of Hope,” Special Warfare 7:4 (1994): pp. 2-9; Staff Sgt. Dillon Heyliger, “U.S. involvement in Mogadishu before the Battle of Mogadishu,” U.S. Army, October 3, 2018; and Psychological Operations in Support of Operation Restore Hope, Unified Task Force Somalia, May 1993.

[aa] This unpredictability has resulted in cases of greater success regarding penetration into mainstream news media and public discussions, such as in Kenya with the Mpeketoni attacks in 2014 and al-Shabaab’s overrunning of the KDF bases of El-Adde and Kulbiyow in Somalia, and other cases of much poorer penetration as with Umar’s most recent audiovisual message and its ‘cost-benefit’ economic analysis aimed at the American public.

[ab] As already noted, following the militant group’s attack on the Manda Bay airfield in Kenya in January, U.S. AFRICOM’s media office even responded directly to al-Shabaab’s media releases, understanding that they do reach both the news media and broader audiences, in part due to social media platforms like Twitter. See “Attack at Manda Bay Airfield, Kenya” U.S. AFRICOM, January 5, 2020, and “Senior U.S. Africa Command Officials Visit Troops at Manda Bay,” U.S. AFRICOM, January 9, 2020.

[ac] Al-Shabaab itself would undoubtedly be vulnerable to a carefully organized and tailored counter-messaging and public outreach campaign that aims to undermine the group’s claim to be a more reliable and ‘truthful’ documenter of events on the ground, highlighting cases where the group’s media has made greatly and demonstrably exaggerated or false claims. For example, al-Shabaab’s claims to have killed 121 U.S. soldiers in its September 30, 2019, attack targeting the Baledogle airbase when in actuality it failed to enter the base and was instead repelled by coordinated U.S. and Somali National Army forces including two airstrikes. See Harun Maruf, “Al-Shabab Attacks Airbase Used by US Military,” Voice of America, September 30, 2019.

[1] On al-Shabaab’s resilience and rejuvenation since 2014, see Christopher Anzalone, “The Resilience of al-Shabaab,” CTC Sentinel 9:4 (2016) and “Black Banners in Somalia: The State of al-Shabaab’s Territorial Insurgency and the Specter of the Islamic State,” CTC Sentinel 11:3 (2018).

[2] Abdi Sheikh, “Somalia says blind female suicide bomber killed Mogadishu mayor,” Reuters, August 9, 2019; “Al-Shabab extremist attack on Somali base kills 3 soldiers,” Associated Press, December 24, 2019; Abdi Sheikh and Feisal Omar, “Somali security forces kill 5 al Shabaab fighters to end hotel siege,” Reuters, December 11, 2019; “Mortar bombs strike Somalia’s Mogadishu airport, six injured: source,” Reuters, October 13, 2019; Harun Maruf, “Al-Shabab Attack Kills 20 Somali Soldiers,” Voice of America, September 22, 2019; Harun Maruf, “Somalia: Al-Shabab Attacks Kill 17,” Voice of America, September 15, 2019; Harun Maruf, “At Least 7 Killed in al-Shabab Attack on Somali Base,” Voice of America, August 14, 2019.

[3] On al-Shabaab’s media operations capabilities and information warfare, see Robyn Kriel, “TV, Twitter, and Telegram: Al-Shabaab’s Attempts to Influence Mass Media,” Defence Strategic Communications 4 (2018) and Christopher Anzalone, Continuity and Change: The Evolution and Resilience of Al-Shabab’s Media Insurgency, 2006-2016, Hate Speech International, November 2016.

[4] Amanda Sperber, “Does America Know Who Its Airstrike Victims Are?” Foreign Policy, May 7, 2019; “The ‘Collateral Damage’ of the U.S.’s Unofficial War in Somalia,” In These Times, December 16, 2019; Melissa Salyk-Virk, “The Hidden Damage of Trump’s Secret War in Somalia,” Defense One, October 3, 2019; Daphne Eviatar, “Breaking the Silence on Civilian Casualties from U.S. Air Strikes in Somalia,” Just Security, March 20, 2019; Nick Turse, “New Data Shows the U.S. Military is Severely Undercounting Civilian Casualties in Somalia,” Intercept, February 25, 2020.

[5] “Manda Bay Raid: Storming the U.S. Naval Base in Kenya,” Al-Kataib Media Foundation, January 5, 2020.

[6] “US soldier, contractors killed in al-Shabab attack on Kenya base,” Al Jazeera, January 6, 2020; Dylan Malyasov, “Somali terrorist group destroyed U.S. spy aircraft in an attack on military base in Kenya,” Defence Blog, January 5, 2020.

[7] Mohamed Ahmed and Kalume Kazungu, “How al-Shabaab militants plotted raid on Manda naval base,” Daily Nation, January 6, 2020.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Al-Shabaab photoset, “Part of ‘Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Will Never be Judaized’ Operations,” 17 photographs, Al-Kataib Media Foundation, January 5, 2020.

[10] Christopher Anzalone, “The Nairobi Attack and Al-Shabab’s Media Strategy,” CTC Sentinel 6:10 (2013); David Mair, “#Westgate: A Case Study: How al-Shabaab used Twitter during an Ongoing Attack,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 40:1 (2017): pp. 24-43; Ken Menkhaus, “Al-Shabab’s Capabilities Post-Westgate,” CTC Sentinel 7:2 (2013).

[11] Al-Shabaab statements, “Manda Bay Raid Still Ongoing; Seven Aircraft Destroyed” and “Seventeen U.S. Casualties and Nine Kenyans Killed,” Al-Kataib Media Foundation, January 5, 2020.

[12] Anzalone, “The Nairobi Attack and Al-Shabab’s Media Strategy;” Dennis Okari, “Kenya’s Westgate attack: Unanswered questions one year on,” BBC, September 22, 2014; Murithi Mutiga, “Westgate mall attack: how Kenya’s vibrant media exposed the army’s botched response,” Guardian, November 2, 2013.

[13] “Attack at Manda Bay Airfield, Kenya,” U.S. AFRICOM, January 5, 2020.

[14] “Seventeen U.S. Casualties and Nine Kenyans Killed.” On U.S. military activities at the airfield, see “UPDATE: U.S. Statement on Manda Bay Terrorist Attack,” U.S. AFRICOM, January 5, 2020, and Abdi Guled, Tom Odula, and Cara Anna, “3 Americans Killed in Al-Shabab Attack on Military Base,” Associated Press, January 5, 2020.

[15] The quote is taken from the al-Shabaab statement “Seventeen U.S. Casualties and Nine Kenyans Killed.”

[16] On al-Shabaab’s attempt to frame its media operations as pseudo-documentary and impartial news gathering, see Christopher Anzalone, “The rapid evolution of Al-Shabab’s media and insurgent ‘journalism,’” openDemocracy, November 16, 2011. Al-Shabaab also claimed that its own media was more reliable than the U.S. military press office in a statement following the Manda Bay attack. “Manda Bay Raid: Kenya Must Take Heed,” Al-Kataib Media Foundation, January 8, 2020.

[17] “Manda Bay Raid: Kenya Must Take Heed.”

[18] Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Eric Schmitt, Charlie Savage, and Helene Cooper, “Chaos as Militants Overran Airfield, Killing 3 Americans in Kenya.”

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] On the importance of this concept in Sunni jihadi thought, see Joas Wagemakers, “Framing the ‘Threat to Islam’: Al-Wala’ wa Al-Bara’ in Salafi Discourse,” Arab Studies Quarterly 30:4 (2008).

[22] On the aftermaths of the El Adde and Kulbiyow base attacks, see Robyn Kriel and Briana Duggan, “Kenya covers up military massacre,” CNN, May 31, 2016; “The Battle of El-Adde: The Kenya Defence Forces, al-Shabaab, and Unanswered Questions,” International Peace Institute, July 2016; Angira Zadock, “Al-Shabaab video on El-Adde raid out,” Daily Nation, April 11, 2016; Angira Zadock, “Journalist arrested after posting photos of attack on KDF camp,” Daily Nation, January 24, 2016; Ismail Einashe, “Living in fear for reporting on terror: A Kenyan journalist speaks out after going into hiding,” Index on Censorship 45:2 (2016): pp. 31-33; Jason Burke, “Witnesses say dozens killed in al-Shabaab attack on Kenyan troops,” Guardian, January 27, 2017; Abdikarim Hussein, “KDF survivor reveals more DISTURBING details of the Kulbiyow attack,” Tuko, February 1, 2017; and “Kenya dismisses casualty claims in Kulbiyow base attack,” Goobjoog News, January 27, 2017.

[23] “Manda Bay Raid: Kenya Must Take Heed;” al-Shabaab film, The Sheikh Abu Yahya al-Libi Raid: Storming the Crusader Kenyan Army Base at El-Adde – Islamic province of Gedo, Al-Kataib Media Foundation, April 9, 2016; al-Shabaab film, They Are Not Welcome, They Will Burn in the Fire: The Sheikh Muhammad Dhulyadeyn Raid, Al-Kataib Media Foundation, May 30, 2017.

[24] Roy Gachuhi, “Battle of El Adde: Many questions still linger 3 years after deadly attack,” Daily Nation (Kenya), January 15, 2019; Tomi Oladipo, “What happened when al-Shabab attacked a Kenyan base in Somalia?” BBC, January 22, 2016 (this report specifically cites the al-Shabaab photoset released after the capture of the base); Patrick Vidja and Nancy Agutu, “El-Adde: How 147 KDF soldiers met their death in Somalia,” Star (Kenya), January 24, 2020; Jacob Beeders, “What Happened in Kulbiyow, Somalia: An Open Source Investigation,” Bellingcat, March 21, 2017; “New analysis suggests Kenyan officials lied about Kulbiyow attack in Somalia,” Messenger Africa, March 23, 2017.

[25] See “Follow Up Operational Update-Kolbiyow,” Kenyan Defence Forces press release, January 27, 2017; Jason Burke, “Witnesses say dozens killed in al-Shabaab attack on Kenyan troops,” Guardian, January 27, 2017; Harun Maruf, “Al-Shabab Captures Military Base in Somalia Before Withdrawing,” Voice of America, January 27, 2017; Nancy Agutu, “Kulbiyow deaths surpass KDF number, al Shabaab releases photos,” Star (Kenya), February 1, 2017.

[26] “Manda Bay Raid: Kenya Must Take Heed.”

[27] Squaring the Circles in Syria’s North East, International Crisis Group, report no. 204, July 31, 2019; Vivi Vitalone, “Trump’s Syria pullout follows years of Kurdish struggle,” NBC, November 3, 2019; Peter Baker and Lara Jakes, “In Syria, Trump Distills a Foreign Policy of Impulse, and Faces the Fallout,” New York Times, October 10, 2019.

[28] Anzalone, “The rapid evolution of Al-Shabab’s media and insurgent ‘journalism.’”

[29] See Paul D. Williams, “Joining AMISOM: Why Six African States Contributed Troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia,” Journal of Eastern African Studies 12:1 (2018): pp. 172-192, and “Special Report: How Many Fatalities Has the African Union Mission in Somalia Suffered?” IPI Global Observatory, September 10, 2015.

[30] Al-Shabaab film, The African Crusaders: Fighting the West’s War, Al-Kataib Media Foundation, June 27, 2010.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Xan Rice, “Uganda bomb blasts kill at least 74,” Guardian, July 12, 2010.

[33] Al-Shabaab film, Mogadishu: The Crusaders’ Graveyard, Al-Kataib Media Foundation, July 30, 2010.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] “Burundi peacekeepers in Somalia ‘unpaid,’” BBC, June 2, 2011; Risdel Kasasira, “UPDF in Somalia not paid for nine months,” Daily Monitor (Uganda), September 6, 2015; Drazen Jorgic, “Failure to pay soldiers threatens Somalia’s war on Islamists,” Reuters, October 8, 2015; Catherine Byaruhanga, “African Union troops in Somalia not paid for six months,” BBC, June 27, 2016; Dan Damon, “Why is Uganda fighting in ‘hellish’ Somalia?” BBC, March 15, 2012; Elizabeth Dickinson, “For tiny Burundi, big returns in sending peacekeepers to Somalia,” Christian Science Monitor, December 22, 2011; Paul D. Williams, “Joining AMISOM: Why Six African States Contributed Troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia,” Journal of Eastern African Studies 12:1 (2018); Mazera Ndurya, “Raila calls for KDF exit from Somalia,” Daily Nation, June 6, 2014; Ugandan opposition politician Facebook post on August 2, 2017; Andrews Atta-Asamoah, “Kenya’s Dilemma in Somalia: To Withdraw or Not to Withdraw?” IPI Global Observatory, July 8, 2014.

[39] Al-Shabaab films, The African Crusaders and Mogadishu: The Crusaders’ Graveyard.

[40] Hamsa Omar, “Al-Shabaab Pledges ‘Guerilla’ Campaign in Somalia, Leader Says,” Bloomberg, August 12, 2011.

[41] “Burundi anxious over 51 dead soldiers in Somalia,” Associated Press, October 28, 2011.

[42] “Al-Shabab claims peacekeepers’ killings,” Al Jazeera, October 21, 2011.

[43] Al-Shabaab film, The Burundian Bloodbath: The Battle of Dayniile, Al-Kataib Media Foundation, November 12, 2011.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] “Mpeketoni attack: Death toll rises to 48,” Agence France-Presse, June 16, 2014; “Confusion reigns over Al-Shabaab and Mpeketoni link,” Standard, June 19, 2014; Paul Gitau and Faith Ronoh, “Mpeketoni residents speak,” Standard, June 21, 2014; John Hall, “Al Shabaab gunmen kill 15 in overnight raid on Kenyan coastal village just 24 hours after killing 50 in nearby Mpeketoni,” Daily Mail, June 17, 2014; “Unidentified gunmen hit hotels, petrol, police station at Kenya’s coast: police,” Reuters, June 15, 2014.

[47] Hall.

[48] Isma’il Kushkush and Dan Bilefsky, “Kenyan Leader Blames Domestic Foes, Not Shabaab, for Attacks,” New York Times, June 18, 2014.

[49] Ibid. See also Catherine Wambua-Soi, “Kenya Mpeketoni attack: Who is fooling who?” Al Jazeera, July 23, 2014; Herman Butime, “Unpacking the Anatomy of the Mpeketoni Attacks in Kenya,” Small Wars Journal, September 23, 2014; Dennis Okari, “Mpeketoni attacks: Four Possibilities,” BBC, June 17, 2014; and “Kenya attacks: Al-Shabab not involved – Kenyatta,” BBC, June 18, 2014.

[50] Al-Shabaab film, No Protection except by Belief or a Covenant of Security: Mpeketoni, Reclaiming Muslim Lands Occupied by the Kenyan Crusaders, Al-Kataib Media Foundation, March 2, 2015. The film was an installment in Al-Kataib’s No Security except by Faith or a Covenant of Security series.

[51] Ibid.

[52] “Insult to Injury: The 2014 Lamu and Tana River Attacks and Kenya’s Abusive Response,” Human Rights Watch, June 15, 2015; “Garissa University College attack in Kenya: What happened?” BBC, June 19, 2019; Abigail Higgins, “Kenyans Blame Corrupt Government for Escalating al-Shabab Violence,” Time, April 5, 2015.

[53] Anzalone, “Black Banners in Somalia.”

[54] Al-Shabaab film, An Analysis of Events: Part 2, Al-Kataib Media Foundation, June 13, 2017.

[55] Ahmad Iman Ali, Interview with the brother Ahmad Iman Ali regarding the General Elections in Kenya, Parts 1 and 2, Al-Kataib Media Foundation, July 26 and August 1, 2017.

[56] Al-Shabaab film series, And Rouse the Believers, Parts 1 to 6, released by the Al-Kataib Media Foundation between July 9 and August 6, 2017. The series’ title is taken from Qur’an 4:84.

[57] Al-Shabaab films, all released by the Al-Kataib Media Foundation: An Analysis of Events: Part 3, June 28, 2017; Are You Content with…?: Questions to the Muslims in Kenya, July 27, 2017; Message to the Muslims in Kenya a Few Days before the General Elections, August 4, 2017.

[58] Al-Shabaab film, The Kenyan Invasion before and after ‘Linda Nchi,’ Al-Kataib Media Foundation, July 23, 2017.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Al-Shabaab films, all released by the Al-Kataib Media Foundation: So They May Take Heed: The Final Message from the Ugandan POW, January 18, 2017; An Urgent Plea: Message from the Kenyan POW David Ngugi Wataari, September 30, 2016; Free Us or Kill Us: Your Decision is Our Fate: Urgent Plea from the Kenyan POW David Ngugi Wataari, April 2, 2017; Message from the El-Adde POW Senior Private Alfred Kilasi, May 18, 2017.

[61] Kipchumba Some, “Al Shabaab threatens to kill captives,” Standard, January 27, 2013; Julius Kithuure, “Kenya: Edward Mule Yesse Free After 18 Months in Al-Shabaab Captivity,” allafrica.com, August 2, 2013.

[62] On the California wildfires and the mass shooting record, see “2019 Fire Season,” Cal Fire; “California wildfires map,” Los Angeles Times; Brian Lada, “Devastating California wildfires predicted to cost US economy $85 billion; Containment may take weeks,” AccuWeather, July 1, 2019; “The Economic Impact of the California Wildfires,” AIR CRE, October 17, 2018; Nour Malas and Harriet Torry, “Economic Damage From California Fires Spreads Further Than Blazes,” Wall Street Journal, December 11, 2018; John Roach, “California wildfires will cost tens of billions, AccuWeather estimates,” AccuWeather, November 1, 2019; “US saw highest number of mass killings on record in 2019, database reveals,” BBC, December 29, 2019; “US mass killings hit a record high in 2019: ‘This seems to be the age of mass shootings,’” Associated Press, December 28, 2019.

[63] Ahmad Umar, “We Bow to None Other Than Allah,” Al-Kataib Media Foundation, November 5, 2019.

[64] Harun Maruf, “Al-Shabab Attacks Airbase Used by US Military,” Voice of America, September 30, 2019; Abdi Sheikh, “Twin Somali attacks hit U.S. special forces base, Italian convoy,” Reuters, October 1, 2019; Katharine Houreld, “Somali commandos, U.S. air strike repel Islamist insurgent attack,” Reuters, October 2, 2019; “Somali attacks hit EU military convoy, US base,” DW, September 30, 2019.

[65] Umar.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Omar Faruk and Max Bearak, “‘If I don’t pay, they kill me’: Al-Shabab tightens grip on Somalia with growing tax racket,” Washington Post, August 30, 2019.

[69] “Threat from African Militant Islamist Groups Expanding, Diversifying,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, January 18, 2020.

[70] Captain Gregory Seese and Sergeant First Class Paul N. Smith, “Measuring PSYOP Effectiveness,” Special Warfare 21:6 (2008): pp. 31-34; Ashley Franz Holzmann and Whitney O’Connell, “Falling Short in Measures of Effectiveness,” Small Wars Journal, 2020.

[71] See al-Shabaab film, Woolwich Attack: It’s an Eye for an Eye, Al-Kataib Media Foundation, October 17, 2013; “Is Al-Shabaab opening a terror front in Britain?” Channel 4, October 18, 2013; and Georgia Graham, “Police guard for Muslims named in terror video,” Daily Telegraph, October 19, 2013.

[72] See Tomi Oladipo, “What happened when al-Shabab attacked a Kenyan base in Somalia?” BBC, January 22, 2016; Robyn Kriel and Briana Duggan, “Kenya covers up military massacre,” CNN, May 31, 2016; Ismail Einashe, “Kenya clamps down on journalists covering war on al-Shabaab,” Guardian, June 27, 2016; and Adow Mohamed, “KDF soldier captured in El Adde pleads with Uhuru in al Shabaab video,” Star (Kenya), September 29, 2016.

[73] Shawn Snow and Diana Stancy Correll, “Al-Shabab warns US partner forces in Africa that America will abandon them like it did Syrian Kurds,” Military Times, January 10, 2020; Abdi Guled, Tom Odula, and Cara Anna, “Extremists attack Kenya military base, 3 Americans killed,” Associated Press, January 5, 2020; Carla Babb, “Exclusive: AFRICOM Sends Top Brass to Kenya to Investigate al-Shabab Attack,” Voice of America, January 9, 2020; Kriel and Duggan.

[74] On “semi-territoriality” and Sunni jihadi-insurgent governance and operations, see Stig Jarle Hansen, Horn, Sahel, and Rift: Fault-lines of the African Jihad (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), Chapter 2.

[75] Paul D. Williams, “Building the Somali National Army: Anatomy of a Failure, 2008-2018,” Journal of Strategic Studies (2019); Tres Thomas, “Somali Government Continues Onslaught Against Domestic Rivals With Impunity,” Somalia Newsroom, February 6, 2020; Mohamed Haji Ingiriis, “Predatory Politics and Personalization of Power: The Abuses and Misuses of the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) in Somalia,” African Affairs, January 22, 2020; “US ambassador to Somalia under fire for endorsing contentious election,” Garowe Online, February 5, 2020; Christopher Anzalone and Stig Jarle Hansen, “The Saga of Mukhtar Robow and Somalia’s Fractious Politics,” War on the Rocks, January 30, 2019. On the amount of U.S. foreign aid to Somalia, see “U.S. Foreign Aid by Country,” USAID and Max Bearak, “The U.S. is pouring millions into Somalia despite concerns over dependency on aid,” Washington Post, June 17, 2019.

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