Inside al-Shabab’s media strategy

Inside al-Shabab’s media strategy

Somalia’s faltering transitional government seemed to be crying out for help this week, issuing an usually large number of press releases about assaults, attacks, and security woes. But among the more intriguing notes to come out of the government press shop was one from Aug. 28 proclaiming: "Al Shabab Developing Own Media Capability."

Al-Shabab, the Islamist group that today controls much of southern Somalia, has taken to looting private media stations and using their equipment for its own broadcasts, the release explained. And in addition, "Al Shabab is currently undertaking a lot of propaganda in some parts of south and central Somalia using traditional means of communication such as madarassas, mosque lectures, and workshops."

Intrigued about what this meant — and how an organization like al-Shabab gets its message out — I started poking around. I was not able to get comment on the record, because the threat to those who speak out against (or even about) the Islamist group is so great. But here’s what I learned:

Al-Shabab has long been communicating with the international press, primarily through teleconferences and, in rare occassions, personal meetings. They have a single spokesman who arranges interviews with journalists. Their message to the world is funneled through him — supplemented by online media geared at reaching supporters in the Somali diaspora. Al-Shabab is said to be placing an increasing emphasis on this latter aspect, upping its Internet ante.

But the message on the ground is of a different sort. Al-Shabab’s primary means of communication with Somalis is face-to-face meetings. These are sometimes meant to impart a particular policy or message, or at times to undertake a public punishment. In the former case, the story can play off the violence or casualties of the day. Blame — at least in Mogadishu — usually goes to the African Union peacekeepers, who are essentially holed up in the capital, trying to protect the government.

In the aftermath of the attacks in Uganda, the message to the people was simple: When the blood of Ugandans is spilled, the world takes note. But the hundreds of Somalis who die here each week don’t make the international news.

If you’re in Somalia and you see blood on your doorstep everyday, it’s a message that sells.

Daniel Kimmage of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University told me that this is a common strategy: to differentiate one’s message to the international and local audiences, often quite dramatically. In Iraq, for example, jihadist groups’ international message would focus on "a titanic clash of civilizations," he explained. However, "the local messages were a final warning to sheep smugglers, for example, or other local stuff."

And where does al Qaeda fit in to this picture? Al-Shabab claims a connection to the terror group, but there’s no telling how integrated they are. What we do know however, as Kimmage points out, is that the central al Qaeda media shop Al-Sahab has begun releasing products about Somalia. They’ve issued situation updates and calls to help the jihad undertaken there.

What this may indicate is that the claim of al Qaeda affiliation goes both ways. In other words, it may not be al-Shabab that is wholeheartedly embracing the terrorist organization — al Qaeda might be just as pleased to affiliate itself with al-Shabab. "Al Qaeda tries to derive the maximum [media] benefits from the affiliates," Kimmage explains. "Al Qaeda central is hunkered down out there, so they don’t have a lot of operations stuff to take credit for."

And unfortunately, al-Shabab is giving them a lot of material these days.