My New Article, "Addressing the Enemy: Al-Shabaab’s PSYOPS Media Warfare" (CTC Sentinel)

The article examines 6 cases of Al-Shabaab’s psychological warfare (PSYOPS) & information and influence and information warfare operations:

(1) the group’s January 2020 Manda Bay airfield attack in Kenya on a military base used by U.S. forces;

(2) 2010 Mogadishu stalemate between Al-Shabaab and the African Union & the start of the Somali insurgent group’s new “jihadi journalism media campaign;

(3) 2011 Dayniile ambush by the group killing scores of Burundian African Union troops;

(4) 2014 Mpeketoni raids by Al-Shabaab on a town and its environs in Kenya blamed by the country’s president (falsely) on his political opponents despite clear evidence to the contrary;

(5) Al-Shabaab’s multi-part campaign to sway the outcome of Kenya’s 2017 general elections;

(6) Al-Shabaab’s leader addressing Americans about the use of national resources abroad despite record mass shootings & natural disasters in U.S. during 2019;

In addition to examining the specifics of each case, I look at how Al-Shabaab attempts to broaden the reach of its PSYOPS propaganda products by attracting attention from external news media. Sometimes successful, its success rate is also mixed. Media warfare demonstrates both Al-Shabab’s significant capabilities but also its limitations, particular operationally in its bid to take over the Somali state.

The article can be read online at the CTC Sentinel’s WEBSITE.

A downloadable PDF of the article is available at my profile page.

Jihadi Visual Culture and the Power of Images: A Tale of Two Flags in Somalia

Symbolism is central to proto-state jihadi visual culture and media operations campaigns. From flags to uniforms, insignia, posters and billboards, and street and building names and signage, groups like Al-Shabab in Somalia, like nation-states, understand the power of images, language, and the (idealized) framing of history.

Here in photographs taken by Al-Shabab after its temporary capture of the Somali government’s El-Salin (El-Salini) military base in the Lower Shabelle region, the insurgent group juxtaposes victorious militants with defeated (and fallen) Somali National Army soldiers, represented by a fallen or discarded army flag.

Of Flags and Badges: Hurras al-Din & the Incite the Believers Operations Room in Syria

The flag of the Syrian jihadi-insurgent group Hurras al-Din and a fighter wears another, better-known flag badge on his chest.

UPDATE (January 17, 2020):

Arm badge of the “Black Flag” made most (in)famous by Islamic State worn by a fighter in the Incite the Believers Operations Room rebel umbrella in Syria. Though the flag is most widely associated with Islamic State it is also used by a number of other Sunni militant Islamist groups including Al-Qa’ida-affiliated groups.

UPDATE (January 19, 2020):

“Story of a Martyr”: The Martyrology of Islamic State-Somalia’s ‘Abdul Hakim Ahmed Ibrahim (Abdulhakim Dhuqub/Dhoqob)

Islamic State, in its most the 216th issue of its weekly Al-Naba newsletter, profiled the former deputy amir of its Somalia branch, Shaykh ‘Abdul Hakim Ahmed Ibrahim (‘Abd al-Hakim al-Somali) his name has also been reported as “Abdihakim Mohamed Ibrahim”), covering his “three decades of da’wa (missionary propagation/”calling to God”) and struggle (jihad) in God’s path.” Some of his family members blamed other members of IS-Somalia of killing him at the time as part of a possible power struggle.

Born on the savanna area of eastern Somalia in 1390 Hijri, corresponding to (March 9, 1970 to Feb. 26, 1971), Ibrahim is portrayed as a pious youth who “sought knowledge” and attended the mosques in the port city of Bosaso in the semi-autonomous Somali region of Puntland where he studied Islam and prayed. He was dedicated to “true monotheism” (tawhid) and the sunna of the Prophet Muhammad, rejecting the heretical innovations (bid’a) of local Sufis such as the visitation of the graves and tombs of dead holy men and other shrines. He began his career in the field of missionary propagation (da’wa) by trying to get his family members and fellow clansmen to abandon bid’a and begin practicing “true” Islam. He and his companions then began to conduct da’wa in the Somali-majority region of Ogaden in eastern Ethiopia.

He was an active supporter of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) umbrella and adopted a militant/armed stance with regard to his da’wa activities when he faced opposition from “apostates,” exhorting his audiences to fulfill their duty of military jihad. He and his “brothers, the monotheists” (muwahhidun) worked tirelessly as righteous reformers (ahl al-salah) to fight the corruption from the Sufi spreaders of corruption and sedition (ahl al-fasad min al-Sufiyya).

Following the Ethiopian (Christian) invasion and the collapse of the UIC after its military defeat, Ibrahim’s and his companions’ efforts were betrayed by the “apostate” Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-murtaddin), which eventually allied with Somali Sufis, other Muslims in error (ahl al-dalal) as well as the “Crusaders.”

Following the collapse of the UIC and the occupation of parts of Somalia by Ethiopia, Ibrahim met young Somali “mujahidin” seeking to migrate (hijra) to Yemen, one of the other “arenas of jihad,” the travel routes of which ran through northeastern Somalia/Puntland, specifically the coastal Bargal area.

After a small group of 11 Somali mujahidin were attacked in an airstrike, Ibrahim successfully helped them escape a blockade by “apostates,” evacuating them to Yemen by sea.

He joined Al-Shabab, which at the time, the Al-Naba article acknowledges, was the best insurgent factions in Somalia (afdal al-fasa’il al-muqatila al-mawjuda fi-l-Sumal). Unlike other members of Al-Shabab, though, Ibrahim was dedicated only to tawhid and the Prophet’s sunna and was not corrupted by “pre-Islamic” clannism or “regional” loyalties). He was dispatched to Puntland by Al-Shabab commanders as part of “security detachments” (mafariz amniyya) operating against Somali “apostate” government forces.

In Puntland he participated in the attempted assassination of “one of the biggest agents of the Crusaders, Diyano,” probably Puntland senior military commander Asad Osman Diyano. Diyano survived though several of his companions were killed or wounded.

The article said that Ibrahim was eager to strengthen jihadi efforts in Puntland while the bulk of Al-Shabab remained focused on southern (and central) Somalia. He requested a meeting with the group’s leadership in order to lay out his plan and his reasons to widen military operations in northeastern Somalia. He ended up spending nearly two years fighting in the south before returning to Puntland. He gained experience in procuring weapons and ammunition, a skill that would prove helpful later on.

Ibrahim took the decision to join the “unified community of the Muslims” (jama’at al-Muslimin) after observing events in Syria, chiefly the betrayals of the “mujahidin” by Al-Qa’ida and its amir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and its allies in the “apostate” Ikhwan and the Sururiyya. He and many of his friends were inspired by the expansion of Islamic State.

They saw joining Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s group as being a religious duty because of Islamic State’s implementation of shari’a and establishment of an Islamic state, culminating in the declaration of a caliph-imam to unite the Umma. Ibrahim and his companions started to engage in da’wa to convince others to pledge allegiance (bay’a) to al-Baghdadi and reject divisions between the different mujahidin factions that had “torn apart the mujahidin.” The martyrology, unsurprisingly, said that he was successful and convinced many mujahidin to pledge bay’a and abandon their membership in their previous groups.

However, Al-Shabab’s leadership mocked Ibrahim and the other defectors, with the article alleging that Al-Shabab’s commanders had become used to being subordinate to Al-Qa’ida, which led them to religious discord (fitna) and mixing unbelief (kufr) and heretical innovation (bid’a) despite this going against the tenets and requirements of Islam. The biography says that Al-Shabab’s leadership at that time began to dispatch intelligence agents (“spies”), presumably from the feared Amniyat security wing, to tail Ibrahim and other Islamic State sympathizers.

Al-Shabab, the article details, started open repression once a public bay’a was declared by one group, seemingly referring to Shaykh ‘Abdi Qadir Mu’min’s faction in Puntland in late October 2015. Al-Shabab arrested and imprisoned or killed Islamic State sympathizers and defectors. The article equates Al-Shabab’s actions against Islamic State and its loyalists in Somalia with a theological offense against Islam itself. The repression was particularly bad, the article said, in southern Somalia.

The article says, however, that Al-Shabab arrested anyone suspected of sympathizing with Islamic State and not only actual sympathizers, an allegation previously made by other anti-Shabab jihadis. Anyone who even watched a video or listened to a nashid produced by one of Islamic State’s media outlets was arrested or killed by Al-Shabab, the article claims.

Ibrahim was, the biography claimed, one of the first to join Islamic State in Somalia and defect from the “evil, criminal” Al-Shabab. The fact that he was based in Puntland far from Al-Shabab’s strongest forces helped him and this allowed him to more securely engage in da’wa to win over more defectors to Islamic State-Somalia. Al-Shabab tried to prevent recruits from traveling to Puntland but God intervened for the emigrants (muhajirin) and protected many of them. Ibrahim was instrumental in securing weapons, ammunition, and other equipment for the new recruits, enabling them to restart their jihad anew.

As a soldier among the “caliphate’s” soldiers (jundi min junud al-Khilafa) Ibrahim was at the forefront of IS-Somalia’s clan outreach, inviting them to enlist their children, and he was, the article claims, successful because of his good reputation in the region.

Following IS-Somalia’s capture and occupation of the port town of Qandala in October 2016 Ibrahim participated in the battles between Mu’min’s insurgents and Puntland government and allied clan forces. Ibrahim was protected by God and was away from his brothers in IS-Somalia when Al-Shabab sent a force of several hundred to eradicate IS-Somalia (the force was instead soundly defeated by a coalition of of Puntland and Galmudug government forces and allied clan militias near Gara’ad.)

Ibrahim remained a key player in IS-Somalia and its campaign against the “apostate” soldiers of al-Zawahiri (junud al-Zawahiri al-murtaddin), humiliating Al-Shabab and helped swell the ranks of IS-Somalia by the hundreds.

With his growing formidable reputation in Puntland, however, came dangers as Ibrahim came to the attention of the “Crusaders” (U.S.) and their Somali “apostate” allies. He was targeted and killed in a drone missile strike in Rajab 1440 Hijri, corresponding to March 8 to April 6, 2019. The biography defends Ibrahim’s reputation from claims by Al-Qa’ida and Al-Shabab that tried to sully his memory by seeking to link him to the enemies of Islam. The death date window given differs slightly from U.S. AFRICOM’s date of April 14, 2019 noted in its press release announcing his killing.

“In the Footsteps of Husayn”: The Visual Legacy of General Qasim Soleimani

The targeted killing of the head of the Quds Force, the external operations arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (“Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution,” Sipah-e Pasdaran-e Inqilab-e Islami; IRGC) by the U.S. at the Baghdad International Airport has unleashed a debate and commentary storm about a range of issues from the most likely to possible fallout and results of the drone strike, whether or not Soleimani is replaceable, whether the assassinations were “legal” or not, what this means for U.S. interests in the Middle East and its forces there and in Afghanistan, among others.

Soleimani’s long career in the IRGC and the creation of his prominent media image, which was fed both by the Iranian state and external news media coverage and the commentariat including in the West, together with his network of interpersonal relationships with a range of non-state and quasi-state armed groups and political actors in the Middle East and wider Muslim-majority world is indisputable even if the results of his killing and the public acknowledgement of it by the U.S. government is still unclear. Soleimani was intimately involved in maintaining and strengthening the Iranian state’s regional network of allied and client groups including Lebanon’s Hizbullah, the Houthi movement (Ansarullah) in Yemen, a host of Iraqi and Syrian armed groups and political parties, and Afghan and Pakistani paramilitary units attached to the IRGC, the Lashkar-e Fatimiyyun and Lashkar-e Zaynabiyyun respectively. He oversaw Iran’s asymmetrical and covert warfare against the U.S., Israel, and the former’s regional allies including Saudi Arabia beginning in the years following the U.S. and British invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. Though most frequently associated with Shi’i groups he also maintained ties with other groups including Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government including in its fight against Islamic State in 2014.

The late general also leaves behind a legacy in the visual culture and production of the Iranian state and its array of allied and client groups in the Middle East and farther abroad, which is, as is much of my academic research, the subject of this post.

“Among the Believers are men true to their covenant with God. Among them is the one who has fulfilled their vow [unto death] and among them is the one who awaits their opportunity, and they did not alter [their commitment] in any way.” [Qur’an 33:23]

Soleimani with the Afghan founder and Iran-Iraq War veteran ‘Ali-Reza Tavassoli, who was killed fighting for the IRGC in Syria in February 2015

Soleimani with IRGC major general Khayrullah Samadi, who was killed in 2017 during Iraqi and Iranian operations against Islamic State in and around Albu Kamal.
Soleimani, Iranian supreme leader of the Islamic Revolution (rahbar-e Inqilab-e Islami) ‘Ali Khamenei, and Lebanese Hizbullah secretary-general Hasan Nasrallah.
Poster for a memorial event for the 40-days following the death of Lashkar-e Fatimiyyun “martyr” Murtaza Hossein-pur Shalimani featuring Soleimani as a speaker.
Poster showing Soleimani alongside IRGC general Gholam-Reza Sama’i, who was killed in Syria in 2016.
Cartoon poster showing Soleimani knocking out Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Photograph from the Iran-Iraq War showing Soleimani with other future IRGC officers including Brigadier General Hossein Hamedani, killed in Aleppo in an Islamic State attack in October 2015.
“Your victory is the victory of the downtrodden of the Earth.”
“The victory of the soldiers of Islam is blessed.”
“Israel will disappear.”
Soleimani at the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab in Damascus, Syria.
Lebanese pose at the country’s border with northern Israel with pictures of Soleimani.
Soleimani visits the grave of the late Iraqi President and Kurdish politician Jalal Talabani in October 2017.
“The distance (difference) between the Islamic Revolution and the Pahlavi regime.”
“General Soleimani, the Malik al-Ashtar of today,” referencing one of the chief supporters of Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib and governor of Egypt who was assassinated on the orders of the Umayyad caliph Mu’awiya I.
Lashkar-e Fatimiyyun members send their Nowruz greetings from Syria in March 2018.
“We will have our revenge”: Poster with Soleimani commemorating the “martyred” IRGC soldiers killed in an Israeli airstrike on the Tiyas (T4) airbase in Homs, Syria in April 2018.
Poster showing Soleimani as a “martyr” being embraced by Imam Husayn.
“We sacrifice ourselves for you, O’ (Sayyida) Zaynab!”
“We will avenge you”
Soleimani is greeted by the “martyrs” of the Iran-Iraq War in Janna.
Soleimani, who obeyed the command of Imam Husayn, greeted in Janna by, among others, Ayatullah Ruhollah Khumayni, Imam Husayn’s half-brother and standard-bearer at Karbala Abu Fadl (Fazl) al-‘Abbas, Hizbullah’s late military commander ‘Imad Mughniyya (assassinated in Damascus in February 2008), Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, IRGC brigadier general Ahmad Kazemi (killed in a plane crash in Jan. 2006), IRGC brigadier general Hasan Tehrani Moghaddam (killed in Nov. 2011), and IRGC lieutenant Mohsen Hojaji (executed by Islamic State after being captured near the Iraq-Syria border in Aug. 2017).


Soleimani, Mohsen Hojaji, and other IRGC “martyrs” with Khumayni.
Soleimani pictured with other “martyrs” including Ayatullahs Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, Murtaza Mutahhari, and Muhammad Beheshti, Hizbullah chief ‘Abbas al-Musawi and military commander ‘Imad Mughniyya, Musa al-Sadr, Houthi leader Husayn al-Huthi, and a host of IRGC commanders and officers. Also present is Afghan Northern Alliance chief Ahmad Shah Massoud.
“Come to jihad”
Re-purposing the iconic Iwo Jima image.
The Successor: General Isma’il Qaani.

The Haqqani Network’s Branding

The Haqqani Network, in addition to being one of the most capable armed factions within the “Quetta Shura” Afghan Taliban, is also adept at media/information operations and branding. Here in photographs and images from Haqqani communal da’wa events in 2018 and 2019 the logo of the group’s media outlet, Manba’ al-Jihad (Fountainhead of Jihad), can be seen on print-outs, banners, vests of its media operatives and fighters, and even plastic bags for books, pamphlets, pens, mp3 files, and even medicine (Panadol, a brand of Acetaminophen).

An interesting heart-pierced-by-an-arrow doodle on a Haqqani Network member’s rifle carrying strap.

Suggested Reading:

On the history of the Haqqani Network and the important role of its Afghan-Pakistan founder, the multilingual Jalaluddin Haqqani, see the excellent book Fountainhead of Jihad: The Haqqani Nexus, 1973-2012 (Oxford University Press) by Vahid Brown & Don Rassler.

“Strike Them When They’re Drunk”: Islamic State vs. New Year’s Eve

Islamic State supporters conflate (stereotypical) behavior for Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations and the issue of drunkenness or otherwise encourage “lone wolf” or “inspired” attacks during the dominant Western European and North American (Christian) holidays.

Islamic State media encourages its “lone wolf” supporters to carry out attacks when the “Crusaders” are “drunk” during Christmas and New Year’s Eve in a December 2017 propaganda video.