Among jihadist groups, Al-Shabab has long been noted for running a well-run media machine. The group has included websites, radio stations, and a presence on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Telegram as part of this operation. As part of its information campaign, Al-Shabab frequently publishes interviews with individuals or groups that have purportedly defected to the militant group.
Since the beginning of November 2023, Al-Shabab released eight videos featuring thirteen Somali National Army and Jubaland State Forces soldiers from Lower Juba Region, four SNA soldiers from Bay Region, two Ma’awisley clan-based militia fighters from Hirshabelle State, and one Galmudug State Forces soldier. Notably, the timing of their release coincides with the Somali National Army preparing to launch Phase II of its offensive (Operation Black Lion) against the group in Jubaland and Southwest states.
Al-Shabab Media Operations
Since its establishment in 2006, Al-Shabab has recognized the importance of media, at first radio, to spread its propaganda and expand its influence. From that time, its media machine has grown to include websites, radio stations, as well as accounts on social media sites including Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Telegram. The group frequently produces videos in Somali, Arabic, Swahili, and even Oromo through its al-Kata’ib Media Foundation. Al-Qaeda’s ‘Global Islamic Media Front’ also often distributes these videos via its network of websites and social media accounts.
As a Salafi-Jihadi group, Al-Shabab generally follows the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence as opposed to the Shafi’I school which historically has had greater influence in Somalia. In the more extreme interpretation of Islamic law held by the group view, any person who works for Federal or State-level governments, serves in the Somali National Army or security services, is a member of a pro-government militia, or cooperates with African Union peacekeepers (called ‘Crusaders’) as an ‘apostate‘.
The belief held is that any governance not based on Islamic laws is a form of unbelief (Arabic: kufr), and accusers charge workers or supporters of such a system, like democracy, with having left Islam, a capital offense under Islamic law. However, although the killing and assassination of ‘apostates’ has long been a central feature of Al-Shabab’s military strategy and propaganda, the group also places a strong emphasis on the need for ‘apostates’ to surrender themselves and ‘repent’.
Defection and Repentance
In each of the eight videos released by Al-Shabab between 13 November and 14 January 2024 an individual or group of soldiers – some of whom appear armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles – declare their ‘repentance’ while exhorting soldiers and militia members to surrender themselves to the militant group.
While Islamic law calls for the execution of apostates, it also provides for their repentance (Arabic: tawbah). The classical Hanbali scholar Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani said an apostate must be given three opportunities to repent. Even the so-called Islamic State group in the period of its expansion in Iraq and Syria, would establish locations where soldiers, police, and other government employees could surrender themselves: see “Document of the City” (Wathıiqat al-Madinah).
By accepting the ‘repentance’ of members of soldiers, militiamen, and others, Al-Shabab attempts to demonstrate not only its military strength but also the group’s religious legitimacy as a governing authority over the Muslims of Somalia.
Demonstrating Strength to Hide Weakness
But the release of media pieces, including videos, also coincides with a time of internal division and even conflict within Al-Shabab. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), there have been 13 armed clashes among members of Al-Shabab, resulting in at least 80 deaths as of 10 November 2023, with incidents concentrated in the towns of Ceel Dheer and Ceel Buur (Galgaduud Region), Jilib town (Middle Juba Region), and Harardheere (Mudug Region). This internal instability has even resulted in the defection of some traditional clan elders who helped collect taxes and mobilize clan-based militia forces.
On 10 December, the deputy chairman of security and politics in the Gedo Regional Administration reported that Al-Shabab fighters are gathering and reorganizing themselves in the area in anticipation of the launch of the second phase of military operations against the group. The release of the eight videos at this time likely aims to demonstrate strength despite recent losses of fighters and territory in Hirshabelle and Galmudug states, although Somali Government sources probably highly exaggerate these stated losses.
Al-Shabab remains a dangerous enemy. The group has consistently demonstrated its ability to launch counter-attacks, retake territory, and put recently liberated towns and villages under siege. As the Somali National Army pushes into the group’s strongholds in Bay, Bakool, Gedo, Lower Juba and Middle Juba regions, similar setbacks are also likely to occur.
The Federal Government, State-level authorities, and the National Center for Combating Extremist Ideology (WAANO), also known as Tubsan, must prepare not only for Al-Shabab to release more media pieces of its battlefield victories but also more videos featuring soldiers and clan militia members who have defected to the militant group. Such videos will threaten not only to demoralize forces already facing a hard fight but also support for Phase II of the military offensive against the group among local, regional, and international stakeholders. Developing and implementing a counter-messaging strategy is essential to prevent Al-Shabab from achieving the maximum benefit from this propaganda.