By Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens and Shiraz Maher
The al-Qaeda affiliated al-Shabaab militia – which operates in Somalia – released a new video yesterday inciting Muslims in the West to join jihadist forces operating in the Horn of Africa. The video, entitled “From the Twin Cities to the Land of Migration,” is presented as the first part of a documentary about groups of Americans from Minnesota who travelled to Somalia in the latter part of the last decade in order to fight for the group.
This well-produced propaganda video fits with a strategy the group has pursued with some success for several years now and which was the subject of an extensive ICSR study: Lights, Camera, Jihad: Al-Shabaab’s Western Media Strategy.
“Minnesota martyrs in the real Disneyland”
- Stories of three men from Minnesota who were killed fighting for al-Shabaab in 2008 form the backbone of the video. Two are ethnic Somalis while one is an American convert named Troy Kastigar (also known as Muhammad al-Amriki).
- Kastigar is featured giving various exhortations to American Muslims to join the jihad in Somalia. In one clip he speaks about the companionship among jihadists, claiming: “If you guys only knew how much fun we have over here, this is the real Disneyland.”
- Kastigar’s presence is also used by al-Shabaab to suggest the Somali conflict is neither an ethnic or national issue.
- Viewers are told the men could no longer justify living in a country that was at war with Islam. “Life became oppressively unbearable” a narrator says.
- The core theme of the video is what jihadists perceive to be a global war on Islam being waged by America and the West.
- Western Muslims who don’t participate in jihad are accused of “a deadly form of complicity.”
Who is featured in the video?
- The video also features celebrated Western jihadists including: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the failed underwear bomber; Mohammed Sidique Khan, ringleader of the 2005 terrorist attacks in London; and Samir Khan, an American citizen who joined al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). He was editor of the jihadist publication Inspire before being killed by a drone strike in 2011. Extracts from Inspire also feature in the video.
- Anwar al-Awlaki also features heavily throughout the video, including extracts from his sermons either urging Muslims to attack America or travel to the “lands of jihad.” He is presented as a role model for Western jihadists, because he lived in America for 21 years before joining AQAP.
Relationship Between al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda Affiliates
- The exact nature of al-Shabaab’s relationship with other al-Qaeda affiliates is opaque.
- However, the trial of Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame in the United States partly illuminated aspects of the relationship between AQAP and al-Shabaab. In court it was revealed that Warsame he had brokered an arms deal between the two.
- The fact that this video also features repeated references to Awlaki and Khan, AQAP’s leading Western propagandists, certainly suggests a degree of ideological affinity.
What does it mean for domestic security concerns?
- Over the last five years it is known that dozens of Western Muslims have joined al-Shabaab.
- Despite the concerns of Western intelligence officials, during this time there have been no reported cases of any recruits returning to the West to carry out attacks at home.
- The main aim of all al-Shabaab English-language propaganda is to encourage Western Muslims to join their cause.
Competition for foreign fighters
- Many jihadist groups around the world try to attract foreign fighters.
- There is a sense that the Syrian jihad has eclipsed other conflicts. As a result, earlier this year both al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Dokku Umarov, a senior figure in the Caucasus jihad movement, issued separate appeals telling jihadists not to forget their campaigns while Syria dominates the headlines.
- While the al-Shabaab video does not make reference to the Syrian conflict, this is the first direct appeal for Western fighters in several months from the militia and should be viewed in context of the increased competition for foreign fighters among different jihadist groups.
Background and context
- The video was released on Wednesday 7 August, the last day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
- Al-Shabaab’s most famous Western recruit, Omar Hammami, has fallen out with elements of the militia’s leadership resulting in him going into hiding. This may have harmed the group’s ability to attract Western Muslims, and this video should therefore be seen as an attempt to assuage any concerns among potential recruits.
Read ICSR’s study on al-Shabaab’s Western media strategy: Lights, Camera, Jihad: Al-Shabaab’s Western Media Strategy.