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ICSR Report: Lights, Camera, Jihad: al-Shabaab’s Western Media Strategy

In recent years, dozens of young Muslims from Britain, Europe and North America have gone to Somalia to fight with the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab.

ICSR’s latest report - Lights, Camera, Jihad: Al-Shabaab’s Western Media Strategy - is the first to provide a comprehensive analysis of how al-Shabaab is reaching out to Western audiences, using high quality videos, Twitter, and carefully crafted messages that resonate with the concerns of young Western Muslims.

To download the report, please see below. Also see below for full video of the report’s launch event.

Executive Summary

While the threat that al-Shabaab poses to the West can easily be overstated, its outreach to Muslims living in Europe and the United States has been successful relative to other al-Qaeda-linked groups and warrants exploration. The organisation has recruited dozens of foreign fighters from the West. It also holds the dubious distinction of being the first jihadist organisation to recruit an American citizen to commit an act of suicide terrorism. Its recruitment strategy is therefore worthy of examination as a case study of how jihadist groups formulate strategies to lure Western Muslims.

Through a combination of primary source analysis, background interviews in East Africa and an in-depth quantitative analysis of the group’s Twitter output, this paper aims to go beyond the simple statement of this problem by explaining how al-Shabaab markets itself to Muslims beyond its borders and what methods it employs. It also explores how the group is using social media to engage its followers in ways that other actors in the global jihad movement have not yet mastered.

Understanding the Threat

Over the last six years, approximately 1000 ethnic Somalis and 200–300 non-Somalis have been recruited to al-Shabaab from outside Somalia. While radical Islam has been present in Somalia for decades, this alone cannot account for the group’s success in recruiting Western Muslims. Western governments were slow to proscribe the group, allowing it to develop a sophisticated communications infrastructure and exploit nationalist, anti-Ethiopian and anti-Western sentiments within the Somali diaspora in the aftermath of the Ethiopian invasion and occupation of Somalia in 2006. As a result, al-Shabaab’s interaction with Muslims beyond its borders has not always relied exclusively on Islamist ideology.

The Foundations of al-Shabaab’s Propaganda: Hijrah, Jihad and the Caliphate

Al-Shabaab presents its mission in cosmic terms, invoking a civilisational conflict between the forces of Islam and non-Islam. This is coupled with attempts to develop an ‘ummah consciousness’ in potential recruits, encouraging them to identify with Muslim causes worldwide. Typically, the suffering of Muslims around the world is juxtaposed with the ease of life in the West. The central tenet of this messaging is that faith necessitates action, and Muslims need to recalibrate their priorities by placing the liberation of Muslim lands ahead of esoteric matters of faith.

Omar Hammami (also known as Abu Mansur al-Amriki), an American recruit and military commander in the group, emerged as one of its most effective spokesmen by explaining his reasons for joining a conflict with which he has no tangible connection. Much of his message invokes classical concepts such as the importance of making hijrah, or migrating from one place to another for the communal defence or betterment of Islam, as a precursor to waging jihad. Hammami’s propaganda demonstrates his commitment to what he views as the long-term objectives of the global jihadist movement: the establishment of the Caliphate. Hammami argues that these long-term goals should not be confused with the short-term tactics of expelling occupiers and establishing local Islamist rule. This view is controversial within the movement and there is evidence that some within al-Shabaab believe their localised struggle has been hijacked by those with a more global agenda.

Al-Shabaab’s Propaganda War and Alternative Media

Al-Shabaab has become adept at producing material that provides its Western followers with an alternative to mainstream media. Relying heavily on digital video and Twitter, the group projects an image of itself as an effective and united force carrying out the will of God by implementing Shariah and fighting the enemies of Islam. Twitter has allowed the group to do much of this in real time, offering supporters instant interpretations of events and rebuttals of critiques.

At its core, al-Shabaab has a sophisticated and diverse communications strategy aimed at influencing Muslims living in the West. This strategy is infused with culturally relevant material that resonates with members of the Somali diaspora, while also positioning Somalia as a key battleground in the struggle between Islam and the West. As this paper demonstrates, this is a strategy that has enticed many to embrace al-Shabaab’s cause over the years.

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