Al-Shabab, the Somali Islamist-insurgent movement seeking to oust the UN- and U.S.-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG), is currently facing the most serious set of challenges to its continued control of most of central and southern Somalia.[1] The recent Mogadishu offensive by the 9,000-man African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) military force and the TFG, the renewed offensives by pro-TFG Somali Sufi militias collectively known as Ahlu-Sunna wal-Jama (ASWJ), and the onset of the most serious famine to hit Africa in at least a generation[2] have combined to create a major set of challenges to al-Shabab’s continued control of territory and possibly its long-term unity as an insurgent movement.

This article will assess the current state of al-Shabab as a viable insurgent movement in the midst of battlefield setbacks and the increasing pressures of the famine. The recent strategic decisions of the movement will be analyzed through the lens of how al-Shabab seeks to portray itself and its actions to audiences both inside and outside the country.[3] The article will examine the evolution of al-Shabab’s media campaign in the midst of these setbacks, insurgent attempts to mask its setbacks by projecting a carefully-constructed self-image as a movement that is still capable of governing territory, a renewed outreach by insurgent leaders to the country’s powerful clans, and the media portrayal of the movement’s famine relief efforts.

Military Pressures and Strategic Withdrawal from Mogadishu
Al-Shabab’s already limited military resources and manpower, estimated to number only 5,000-9,000 frontline fighters, have been stretched thin by the simultaneous offensives by AMISOM and the TFG in Mogadishu, their ASWJ allies in regions along Somalia’s western borders, and the recent Kenyan incursion in the south toward the vital port city of Kismayo. The insurgents have already lost control of the valuable taxing ground of Mogadishu’s Bakara Market and now are facing the threat of also losing Kismayo’s tax revenues. Mounting casualties on the battlefield and the need for more field troops forced al-Shabab to launch recruitment drives, sometimes by force, in an effort to bolster its frontline fighting force, which it calls Jaysh al-`Usrah (The Army of Hardship/Difficulty).[4] Insurgent leaders have also attempted to elicit active military support from Somalia’s socially powerful clans, with mixed results.[5]

These military and resource constraints, together with the logistical pressures of dealing with the worsening famine, were likely the primary factors that led to al-Shabab leaders’ decision to withdraw most of their fighters from Mogadishu in mid-August 2011.[6] Despite premature claims that the insurgents had been “driven out,” al-Shabab remains active in some of the city’s districts, mostly in outlying neighborhoods and suburbs. Al-Shabab remains capable of carrying out attacks inside districts of the city ostensibly under AMISOM and TFG control.[7]

Insurgent Media Messaging in the Midst of Battlefield Pressure
Al-Shabab, in the midst of these setbacks, has attempted to present itself as winning significant victories on the battlefield against AMISOM, the TFG, and ASWJ. The insurgent movement has publicized numerous attacks and pitched battles with these forces, many of them also verified by media sources not affiliated with al-Shabab. The insurgents have also sought to sow dissent within the ranks of both the TFG and AMISOM military forces, both by publicizing its killing or capture of AMISOM soldiers[8] and claiming the “repentance and surrender” of at least two dozen TFG soldiers and ASWJ militiamen since early March.[9] Many of these surrenders claimed by al-Shabab occurred in the district of Hiraan, where intense fighting has occurred between insurgents and the ASWJ, particularly around the city of Beledweyne.

Al-Shabab often releases photographs of AMISOM soldiers it has killed or captured as well as military equipment acquired in insurgent attacks.[10] These photographs often show the ID cards of Ugandan or Burundian soldiers from the AMISOM force. Al-Shabab’s spokesman, ‘Ali Mahamoud Rage, has hosted regular press conferences where the insurgent movement displays its prisoners, those it has killed, and captured AMISOM equipment. These public displays are carefully staged media events meant to dishearten both rank-and-file AMISOM soldiers as well as the Ugandan and Burundian populations at home. The insurgent movement also frequently claims to have inflicted severe defeats and casualties on AMISOM, the TFG, and ASWJ to portray itself as continuing to remain a dangerous and capable military force despite mounting battlefield setbacks.[11] The insurgents’ continued ability to carry out high-profile attacks, such as the June assassination of TFG Interior Minister ‘Abdi Shakur Sheikh Hasan by a suicide bomber, assist in this self-portrayal of strength and strategic prowess.[12] To show its continued ability to operate within Mogadishu amidst claims by the TFG and AMISOM that its fighters had been scoured from the city, al-Shabab released a 15-minute video in early September showing its snipers killing and wounding AMISOM and TFG soldiers.[13]

Masking Setbacks? Broadcasting Insurgent Governance
Despite the claims of continued strength in insurgent statements, there are signs that al-Shabab’s senior leaders and regional administrations became increasingly concerned about “betrayals” from civilians as its battlefield losses to AMISOM and the TFG mounted in Mogadishu during the spring and summer. Based on al-Shabab’s own statements, at least six residents of Mogadishu and the surrounding district of Banadir have been executed by the insurgents on charges of spying for the TFG and AMISOM.[14] These executions suggest that al-Shabab feels increasingly threatened by the willingness of residents in some areas it controls to “collaborate” with its enemies.

Al-Shabab’s media output since the AMISOM/TFG offensive began has not been limited to battlefield reports and claims of victory against “the Crusaders and Apostates.” A significant number of the statements have dealt with seemingly mundane issues of governance. Since taking control of vast amounts of territory in southern and central Somalia by the second half of 2008, al-Shabab has attempted to project an image of itself as being a capable, just, and even beneficent insurgent government.[15] The number of statements that the movement has issued since 2008 about issues related to governance and public works is significant. A brief survey of statements is useful to understand the public image that al-Shabab wants to project. A significant number of what can generally be classified as “governance” statements deal with the distribution of aid to famine-struck regions of the country under insurgent control.

Facing significant strategic and resource losses on the battlefield, al-Shabab since the spring has continued to publicize its education and other social programs as well as repair and public works programs. The insurgent movement has conducted “education” programs for religious preachers and da`wa activists, Qur’an recitation and memorization contests for children, and “information sessions” for merchants, including women, about their legal responsibilities under al-Shabab’s interpretation of Shari`a.[16] One of the more notable events, held under the auspices of the movement’s Office of the Judiciary, was a training session, which began in March and ended in early June, for Shari`a court judges in all the regions under insurgent control.[17] Al-Shabab’s publicizing of its claims to have continued investing resources and manpower in such public works projects and social programs serves to present the movement both as still capable of playing a “governance role” and unconcerned militarily with events on the battlefield.

Al-Shabab also continues to hold major social events that its media apparatus has publicized widely. These events, and their advertisement, serve to broadcast the movement’s continued authority over much of the country despite recent setbacks. The first of these major events was a “conference” that lasted several hours following the killing of Usama bin Ladin.[18] In indirect admission of insurgent setbacks in Mogadishu, the conference was held in Afgoye, just to the south of the capital city. In attendance were some of the movement’s most senior leaders including Mukhtar “Abu Mansur” Robow, Hasan Dahir Aweys, and Fu’ad Muhammad Khalaf “Shongole.”

Second, in late August al-Shabab organized the communal Eid al-Fitr prayers that mark the end of the Islamic lunar month of Ramadan. Photographs from communal prayer events in three key areas, the outer districts of Mogadishu, Lower Shabelle directly to the south of the capital, and the vital port city of Kismayo were issued by the movement along with a statement.[19] All three events were held in areas where the movement has faced increased military and social pressures since mid-February. Historically, the ruling authority in a region has held the communal ‘Eid prayers at the end of Ramadan and the Hajj pilgrimage season under its auspices, which serves as a claim of legitimacy.

Al-Shabab and the Clans
Following the start of the AMISOM/TFG and ASWJ offensives in mid-February, al-Shabab leaders have sought to garner support from some of Somalia’s clans through a series of meetings between senior insurgent leaders and clan elders. Since its founding in 2006, al-Shabab has included leaders and members from a relatively diverse array of Somalia’s clans, allowing the movement to project an image of transcending “clanism.” Its current leadership includes members of several Hawiye sub-clans including the Habir Gedir/‘Ayr and Murasade, the Isaaq and Rahanweyn clans, and smaller clans in the southern part of the country. Though critical of blind, politicized clanism that has played such a major role in Somalia’s civil war, insurgent leaders have not sought an open confrontation with the country’s important clan structures. Instead, they have tried to navigate the complex and often dangerous waters of clan politics through engagement and outreach.

The movement’s leaders have increased their outreach to the clans since the beginning of the AMISOM, TFG, and ASWJ offensives. Mounting battlefield setbacks, which reportedly included high losses in casualties and captured equipment, have emphasized the need for the insurgents to seek support from clan elders and other key clan members, who wield significant societal influence. Al-Shabab’s press office and affiliated media networks have publicized its outreach to the clans in a series of statements and releases of photographs. Insurgent leaders have met with clan leaders from the Digil and Mirifle sub-clans, which make up the larger Rahanweyn clan group in Bay and Bakool, as well as Hawiye clan leaders in and around Mogadishu.[20] Senior al-Shabab leaders including Aweys and the movement’s district governors have participated in these clan outreach events, which have served as prominent calls for support against the movement’s enemies.[21]

Response to the Famine
The ongoing famine, which threatens the lives of millions of Somalis, presents al-Shabab with perhaps the greatest strategic challenge it has ever faced since establishing its control over most of southern and central Somalia. There are reportedly growing rifts among insurgent leaders over how to respond to the famine.[22] Al-Shabab also faces a mounting public relations disaster with regard to its reported banning of international humanitarian agencies from regions under its control, although the insurgent movement has not banned, as is often reported, all such agencies from operating and it has welcomed many Muslim charities, some of them from Somali diaspora communities, to work in its territory.

Al-Shabab officials have sought to deliver food, water, medicine, and other aid to Somalis suffering from the famine since at least last autumn. These projects are well publicized in insurgent media in the hopes of countering some of the mounting bad publicity by the movement’s intransigence in other areas. A significant amount of the aid seems to have come from the zakat donations required of financially capable Muslims for the poor as well as through insurgent taxation of merchants and traders in Mogadishu’s Bakara Market and the port cities of Kismayo and Marka. Insurgents have also reportedly forcibly taken livestock and other forms of taxes from local populations.[23] By carrying out its own relief projects, al-Shabab is seeking to show that it is capable of helping the populace without the involvement of the international community.

Many of the movement’s most publicized efforts have been carried out by its “emergency relief committee,” currently headed by Hussein ‘Ali Fidow.[24] A video produced by al-Shabab’s al-Kata’ib Media Foundation and released on April 1 showed footage of rotting food from the World Food Program (WFP), which al-Shabab banned from operating in regions under its control in February 2010, and showed its relief committee’s work distributing aid to the needy.[25] The video also included a lengthy interview with the movement’s Office of Zakat and former head of the relief committee, Sultan bin Muhammad Al Muhammad, as well as purported testimonials from thankful civilians.

In early September, al-Shabab’s frontline military force, Jaysh al-‘Usrah, also participated in the distribution of aid in a refugee camp, al-Yasir, in the Lower Shabelle region.[26] This clever strategic move may have been meant to show that al-Shabab’s fighters, though heavily engaged in Mogadishu and other areas of the country, were still capable of carrying out other duties. The al-Yasir Camp has become al-Shabab’s flagship refugee center, the location of many insurgent press conferences and carefully choreographed media events. Senior insurgent leaders, including Aweys and Muhammad Abu ‘Abdullah, the movement’s governor of Lower Shabelle, have visited and been photographed by the insurgents’ media office as well as affiliated and sympathetic Somali media networks. Visiting delegations from Turkey and Egypt have also visited the camp, leading the TFG to ban international humanitarian workers or journalists from traveling to insurgent-held areas.[27] On October 13, al-Yasir was the site of a significant media event, the delivery of humanitarian aid, Qur’ans, prayer books, and a cash donation by a young English-speaking man, Abu ‘Abdullah al-Muhajir, who claimed to represent al-Qa`ida. He was accompanied by al-Shabab spokesman ‘Ali Rage, and banners at the event stated that the insurgent movement “coordinated” the aid delivery.[28] The fact that the identities between “al-Qa`ida” and al-Shabab were separated on the official banners at the event is potentially significant considering speculation about whether the Somali insurgents will formally merge with al-Qa`ida.

The sheer scale of the famine far surpasses al-Shabab’s ability to adequately respond, and the movement has come under increasing pressure to relent on its ban of many of the largest international humanitarian aid agencies, such as the WFP. In early July, al-Shabab spokesman ‘Ali Rage announced that the movement would allow some international aid agencies, Muslim and non-Muslim, to work in insurgent-held areas. At a press conference in Mogadishu on July 21, however, Rage accused the United Nations of politicizing the famine and said that the WFP and other previously banned aid agencies remained banned.[29] This type of intransigence, together with increasing backlashes from growing segments of the population angered by al-Shabab’s interpretation of Shari`a, risks further alienating the movement from the public upon whose support, acquiescence, or indifference it largely depends on for its continued survival as a viable social entity.

The difficulties posed by the famine are compounded with battlefield setbacks in Mogadishu, Banadir, and areas along Somalia’s western border regions. In addition to the military threat of AMISOM, the TFG, and ASWJ, the chances that other powerful social groups, such as militias formerly affiliated with al-Shabab, will revolt and break away also potentially endanger the insurgents’ continued territorial control. Claims of al-Shabab’s imminent collapse, however, are exaggerated and belied by the movement’s continued ability to launch major attacks inside Mogadishu as well as inflict significant numbers of casualties on AMISOM and TFG forces.[30]

Christopher Anzalone is a doctoral student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University where he studies modern Muslim socio-political movements including transnational jihadi groups, Shi’ite Islam, and Islamist visual culture. Much of his current work and recent publications are focused on Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin in Somalia.

[1]  Christopher Anzalone, “Military Success but Political Failure: The Fight against Al-Shabab in Somalia,” Open Security, June 28, 2011.

[2] “The Worst Famine to Hit Africa in 60 Years,” Relief International, August 11, 2011.

[3] The movement’s press statements, conferences, videos, and photographs provide a wealth of information about the evolving efforts of al-Shabab to shape its public image in the eyes of in-country and diaspora Somalis as well as internationally beyond the Somali community. These primary sources are particularly important because of the inability for researchers to do extensive field work in most of central and southern Somalia, both in insurgent-held areas and those territories nominally under AMISOM and TFG control. Al-Shabab’s media materials certainly must be used with care since they are a form of propaganda that seeks to portray the movement’s side of events while glossing over or neglecting negative news and alternative interpretations. Insurgent claims made in their media materials can often be cross-checked with reports from local and international media outlets. Al-Shabab’s primary sources are most useful for examining how the insurgent movement itself wishes to be seen, how it portrays itself to its audiences, Somali and non-Somali alike.

[4] Ibrahim Mohamed, “Somali Rebels in Recruitment Push to Repel Offensive,” Reuters, March 1, 2011; Mohamed Ahmed, “African Somalia Force Sees Progress against Rebels,” Reuters, March 5, 2011; “Ahlu Sunna Threatens Purging Al Shabaab from Central Country,” Shabelle Media Network, August 27, 2011.

[5] Christopher Anzalone, “Harakat al-Shabab & Somalia’s Clans,” al-Wasat Blog, March 8, 2011; Christopher Anzalone, “Harakat al-Shabab Continues to Court Somalia’s Clans as Hasan Dahir Aweys Assumes a More Public Role,” al-Wasat Blog, March 21, 2011.

[6] Abdi Guled and Katharine Houreld, “Taxes Hastened Somalia’s Famine, Militant Retreat,” Associated Press, October 1, 2011.

[7] Geoffrey York, “Fear of al-Shabab Brings Mogadishu to a Standstill,” Globe & Mail, September 16, 2011.

[8] “Crusader Soldier from the Burundian Forces Captured,” al-Shabab statement, February 24, 2011; “Video Showing the Burundian Prisoner [captured by] Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen,” Global Islamic Media Front, March 5, 2011.  Also see Christopher Anzalone, “Harakat al-Shabab Display AMISOM Prisoner, Casualties, & Captured Equipment as AMISOM & Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government Launch ‘Offensive,’” Views from the Occident Blog, February 25, 2011.

[9] “Surrender of a Military Car and 3 Soldiers in the Islamic District of Juba,” al-Shabab statement, May 25, 2011; “Surrender of a Soldier from the Militias of Apostasy in the Islamic District of Hiraan,” al-Shabab statement, June 9, 2011; “Repentance and Surrender of a Soldier from the Government of Apostasy in the Islamic District of Hiraan,” al-Shabab statement, June 13, 2011; “Surrender and Repentance of a Soldier in the Islamic District of Hiraan,” al-Shabab statement, August 25, 2011; “Surrender and Repentance of 2 Soldiers in the Islamic District of Juba,” al-Shabab statement, August 29, 2011; “Repentance and Surrender of 14 Soldiers in the Islamic District of Middle Shabelle,” al-Shabab statement, September 25, 2011; “Repentance and Surrender of 2 Soldiers from the Government of Apostasy in the Islamic District of Hiraan,” al-Shabab statement, September 28, 2011. These statements were released by al-Shabab on internet forums used by Sunni jihadists and have been collected and saved by the author. Hashi Muhammad Farah, who al-Shabab claims was a fighter “in the ranks of the Militias of Apostasy,” surrendered to insurgent forces in Hiraan on August 24. See “Surrender and Repentance of a Soldier in the Islamic District of Hiraan,” al-Shabab statement, August 25, 2011.

[10]  “Storming of a Military Barracks of the Crusaders by the Special Forces Brigade,” al-Shabab statement, May 31, 2011.

[11] Representative al-Shabab statements include: “Martyrdom-seekers Storm Ugandan Military Base at Mogadishu’s Port,” June 9, 2011; “Killing of More than 40 Apostates in Explosions in ‘Eil Waq City,” June 9, 2011; “3 Bombs at a Checkpoint in Mogadishu,” June 13, 2011; “Repulsing Apostate Militias backed by Ethiopia in Gedo,” June 20, 2011.

[12]  “Somali Interior Minister ‘Killed by Niece,’” al-Jazira, June 10, 2010.

[13]  “Shoot, O’ Sons of Isma‘il!,” al-Shabab video, September 2, 2011.

[14] “Execution of 2 Men in Reform Square North of the Capital Mogadishu,” al-Shabab statement, March 8, 2011; “Carrying out the Penalty of Apostasy on 2 Spies in the Islamic District of Banaadir,” al-Shabab statement, June 20, 2011; “Carrying out the Penalty on 3 Spies in the Islamic District of Banaadir,” al-Shabab statement, August 25, 2011.

[15] Stig Jarle Hansen, “Shabab Central: Africa’s ‘Taliban’ Grows More Unified,” Jane’s Defence Security Report, July 19, 2010; Christopher Anzalone, “Insurgency, Governance, & Legitimacy in Somalia: A Reassessment of Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen, its Rhetoric & Divisions,” al-Wasat Blog, December 6, 2010.

[16] Representative al-Shabab statements include: “Launching of a Program for the Repair of the Main Roads in Mogadishu,” March 31, 2011; “Closing of a Session for Students in the Islamic District of Banaadir on Thursday,” June 2, 2011; “Launching of the Road Renovation Project between the Cities of ‘Eil Qars and Hiin Diirii,” June 2, 2011; “Launching of a Shari`a Session for Merchants in Beledweyn City, the Capital of the Islamic District of Hiraan,” June 9, 2011; “Martyr Foundation Hold a Celebration for the Children of the Martyrs in the Islamic District of Lower Shabelle,” September 5, 2011.

[17] “Closing of the Sixth Session for the Training of Judges,” al-Shabab statement, June 13, 2011.

[18] “Holding of a Jihadi Conference in the Islamic State of Lower Shabelle, entitled, ‘We are All Usama,’” al-Shabab statement, May 16, 2011. Insurgent photographs from the conference can be seen in Christopher Anzalone, “Harakat al-Shabab in Somalia Hold Conference to Eulogize Usama bin Laden, American Member Omar Hammami Present,” Views from the Occident Blog, May 11, 2011; Christopher Anzalone, “Somalia’s Harakat al-Shabab Release More Photographs of Last Week’s Conference Eulogizing Usama bin Laden,” Views from the Occident Blog, May 17, 2011.

[19]  “Muslims Hold ‘Eid Prayers in the Islamic Districts,” al-Shabab statement, August 31, 2011. Insurgent photographs from the three communal prayer events can be viewed at Christopher Anzalone, “Somalia’s Harakat al-Shabab Mark ‘Eid al-Fitr with Congregational Prayers in Mogadishu, Lower Shabelle, & Kismaayo,” Views from the Occident Blog, September 2, 2011.

[20] “Al Shabab Train Local Elders,” Hiraan Online, June 28, 2011; “Meeting in the Islamic District of Banaadir with Leaders of the Mudulood Clan,” al-Shabab, March 18, 2011.

[21] “Clan Leaders Arrive in Mogadishu and Declare they are Supporting the Fighting against the Crusaders,” al-Shabab statement, March 6, 2011; “Meeting between [Leaders of the] Islamic District of Banaadir with Some Neighborhoods of the Capital,” al-Shabab statement, June 20, 2011; “Meeting between Officials of the District of Banaadir and the Yakhshid and Kaaraan Neighborhoods in the North of the Capital,” al-Shabab statement, June 14, 2011; “Clans in the Islamic District of Juba Donate Weapons for the Jihad in God’s Path,” al-Shabab statement, June 13, 2011.

[22] Mike Pflanz, “Somalia Famine Could Cause Militant Al Shabab Group to Splinter,” Christian Science Monitor, August 9, 2011; Farouk Chothia, “Could Somali Famine Deal a Fatal Blow to al-Shabab?” BBC, August 9, 2011.

[23] Representative al-Shabab statements include: “Start of the Distribution of Zakat in all the Islamic Districts,” November 20, 2010; “The Zakat Office of the Islamic District of Middle Shabelle Distributes Aid to the Needy,” January 25, 2010.

[24] “Drought Relief Team Extend Food Assistance to the Affected Regions,” al-Shabab statement, August 19, 2011.

[25] “Harvest of the Shari`a,” al-Shabab video, April 1, 2011.

[26] “Jaysh al-‘Usrah Distribution of Aid to 10,000 Children in Al-Yasir Camp,” al-Shabab statement, September 5, 2011.

[27] “Turkish Delegate Reach at Al Shabaab Controlled Area,” Shabelle Media Network, September 13, 2011; Abdi Sheikh and Mohamed Ahmed, “Somalia Bans Foreign Aid Workers from Rebel Areas,” Reuters, September 17, 2011.

[28] Jeffrey Gettleman, “Al Qaeda Tries a New Tactic in Somalia: Philanthropy,” New York Times, October 16, 2011; Christopher Anzalone, “Al-Shabab: Between the Battlefield & the Famine,” Open Security, October 21, 2011.

[29] Ibrahim Mohamed, “Somali Rebels say Famine Label used for Politics,” Reuters, July 21, 2011; “Somali Islamists Maintain Aid Ban and Deny Famine,” BBC, July 22, 2011.

[30] Abdi Sheikh and Mohamed Ahmed, “Rebels Kill Scores in Somali Capital Blast,” Reuters, October 4, 2011; Josh Kron and Mohamed Ibrahim, “African Union Peacekeepers Killed in Somalia Battle,” New York Times, October 21, 2011.

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