- Over 40 Americans and dozens of Europeans are already fighting for al-Shabaab.
- Thanks to the success of al-Shabaab, at no other time since before 9/11 has al-Qaeda been as well positioned to oversee terrorist attacks on Western soil.
- Although the majority of al-Shabab’s Western recruits are of Somali origin, the group also has significant support among radicalised Muslim converts in the West.
To date, no other al-Qaeda franchise has seen as high a level of Western recruitment than al-Shabaab.
In September 2011, the head of the United Kingdom’s MI5, Jonathan Evans, warned that the country faced an imminent terrorist threat from British residents trained by al-Shabaab. He stated that he was “concerned that it’s only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those who are today fighting alongside al-Shabaab.” This alarm was not without foundation. The past years have witnessed a number of UK-based Somalis and other Muslims traveling to the region to train and fight for the Somali jihadists. In October 2007, an unnamed British-Somali was among the first Western-based jihadists to die for al-Shabaab when he detonated a suicide vest at an Ethiopian army checkpoint in the town of Baidoa, killing himself and around 20 soldiers.
In the United States, the problem is equally serious, with some American Muslims either joining or providing material support to the militia. Among the first to become involved was American convert Zachary Adam Chesser (also known as Abu Talha al-Amriki), who in February 2011 was convicted of providing material support to the terrorist group. Another example is Somali-American Shirwa Ahmed, who traveled from Minnesota to Somalia where he conducted a suicide bombing in October 2008.
Therefore, al-Shabaab’s appeal to Western Muslims is not a new development. It is in the last few months, however, that a more concerted strategy to target Western Muslims has taken shape.
Use of New Media
Al-Qaeda and its affiliates have long known that to capitalise on the popularity of individual preachers and produce effective propaganda, they require an entire media apparatus that provides a clear alternative to mainstream Western media, which they consider to be hostile to Muslims. Through its media centre, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was able to consolidate all of its propaganda, and package it effectively, with al-Awlaqi at the centre of the products designed for Western Muslims. Al-Shabaab has followed suit, and in July 2010 began to produce lengthy English-language propaganda through its media wing, al-Kataib.
In the past, al-Kataib has produced videos designed to appear like Western news reports, only with a clear jihadist slant. In the videos, the reporter, whose face is concealed by a scarf, speaks in a British accent and travels the battlefields of Somalia singing the praises of the mujahidin and claiming victories where other media have reported great losses for the group.
Other types of video concentrate more on tailoring jihadi ideology so that it appeals to Western Muslims.