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 Academia.edu 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):

“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.

COMMANDER HAJJ QASIM SOLEIMANI, THORN IN THE EYES OF THE ENEMIES:
“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).

UPDATED JANUARY 27:

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.