al-Shabab’s media capability

al-Katāayb Media Logo

While skimming through an English language Islamist forum I came across a recent propaganda video released by the Somali al-Shabab militia (who have conducted a number of suicide attacks, including two in Kampala during the football World Cup, and more recently against a hotel in which over 30 people were killed). The video, entitled ‘Mogadishu: The Crusaders Graveyard’ is pretty impressive – it looks and feels like a piece of war reporting, with some very high quality video and an English narration throughout. There is a good analysis of the video provided by Christopher Anzalone here, in which he charts the evolution of al-Shabab’s media capability. Also see here for a translation of al-Shabab’s statement reagarding the release of their new media channel logo.

The English narration is interesting, given the recent remarks by the head of the British Security Service (MI5) Jonathan Evans:

‘In Somalia, for example, there are a significant number of UK residents training in Al Shabaab camps to fight in the insurgency there. Al Shabaab, an Islamist militia in Somalia, is closely aligned with Al Qaida and Somalia shows many of the characteristics that made Afghanistan so dangerous as a seedbed for terrorism in the period before the fall of the Taleban…We need to do whatever we can to stop people from this country becoming involved in terrorism and murder in Somalia, but beyond that I am concerned that it is only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those who are today fighting alongside Al Shabaab’.

It seems pretty clear that videos like this are designed to appeal to and draw in potential recruits from the Somali diaspora in the West (for example there are large ethnic Somali population in the UK (over 40,000), and in the US  (Minnesota alone has around 20,000 Somali immigrants). According to recent testimony from Michael Leiter, the head of the US National Counter-terrorism Centre:

the Somalia-based training program established by al-Shabaab and now-deceased al- Qa‘ida operative Saleh Nabhan, continues to attract hundreds of violent extremists from across the globe, to include dozens of recruits from the United States. At least 20 US persons—the majority of whom are ethnic Somalis––have traveled to Somalia since 2006 to fight and train with al-Shabaab.(1)

US-born Somalis who returned to train and fight with al-Shabab have been involved in conducting suicide attacks against targets in Somalia itself. One of the five bombers involved in the October 2008 multiple attacks was Shirwa Ahmed, a naturalised US citizen who lived in Minnesota. (The New York Times has a useful resource detailing some of the other US recruits to the Somalian jihadist group). It was also reported that at least one of the attackers who mounted the September 2009 attacks against the African Union peacekeeping force compound in Mogadishu may have spoken with an American accent.

The attacks in Kampala were the first sign of al-Shabab’s intent and capability to mount attacks beyond Somali itself, targeting a country which contributes to the AU peacekeeping force. In January of this year, another US citizen, Omar Hammami (Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki), told The New York Times that:

“It’s quite obvious that I believe America is a target,”

Presumably however, if al-Shabab intends to attack the US or the West more widely, it would probably not be using American or British passport holders to mount suicide attacks in Somalia, or using them to fight as insurgents. Such individuals would clearly be a great asset in efforts to mount operations back in their countries of residence. This is not to say that al-Shabab’s intent will not change, or that these potentially very valuable human resources will not be co-opted by al-Qaida; after all, a number of British residents and citizens travelled to Pakistan in order to fight in Afghanistan, only to be given training and turned around and told to attack their home country. So the US and UK security authorities are probably right in being concerned by the prospect of their citizens and residents returning from Somalia.

References

(1) Michael Leiter, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center. “Nine Years after 9/11: Confronting the Terrorist Threat to the Homeland” Statement for Record Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee ” 22 September 2010

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Gone in 53 hours

Perusing the charge sheet against Faisal Shahzad, the alleged Times Square failed bomber, a number of interesting little nuggets are apparent.

1. Shahzad had returned to the US from a five-month trip to Pakistan on 3 February, where he claimed to have been visiting his parents. Shahzad appears to be the son of a senior Pakistani military officer. Interestingly he had also left his wife behind in Pakistan (and the NYT notes his two young children). Shahzad has apparently admitted to having recently received training in bomb-making in Waziristan.

2. Inside the failed VBIED, the police found keys to Shahzad’s rented home in Connecticut and to his other vehicle. Despite changing the number plates, Shahzad had failed to remove the VIN or Vehicle Identification Number, allowing police to track down the person who had sold it to him and provided the police with a description of Shahzad.

3. The police were somehow able to tie a pre-paid (i.e. disposable) cell phone to Shahzad. Such phones are supposed to be highly anonymous so it will be interesting to see what details emerge on how they went about this. As the NYT notes:

Though they declined to say precisely how they tracked such an anonymous number, they established not only that Mr. Shahzad was the buyer of the Pathfinder, but also that he got four phone calls from a Pakistani number associated with him in the hour before he made his final calls to arrange the purchase of the vehicle, according to the papers.

Shahzad apparently also used the phone to call a store that sold the fireworks used in the VBIED’s construction.

4. Shahzad’s rented residence gave him exclusive access to a garage, which presumably allowed him to construct his device without being observed.

5. Inside the vehicle officers found at least two firearms.

The apparent carelessness about leaving his residence keys in the VBIED makes me wonder if this was meant to be a suicide detonation that went wrong. Also, the point about him leaving his wife and children behind in Pakistan and the fact he took several days to try and extract himself from the US might support this theory. The use of clocks as timing devices in the vehicle might undermine this however. Of course, he could just be really incompetent and have left the keys behind by mistake. By the same token, it appears that the ‘training’ he received in Pakistan was of limited use.  However, the admission to having been to a camp in Waziristan might lend some credence to the apparent claim by the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) to have been behind the attempted bombing. If so, it says something about the TTP’s ability to project force beyond their immediate areas of control.I wonder if this will turn out to be similar to cases in the UK (7/7, 21/7) where individuals have travelled with a view to fighting in Afghanistan but have been turned around and sent back to conduct an attack in their country of residence.

The discovery of the firearms is also interesting; why – if you are not confident about your explosives capability – risk bungling the attack when you could just walk into a shopping mall and shoot potentially dozens of people, perhaps taking inspiration from Nidal Malik Hasan? Is there something symbolic or talismanic about an causing an explosion that a shooting attack does not satisfy?

The other thing that jumps out of this investigation is that it took the authorities just over 53 hours from the discovery of the VBIED to the making of the arrest. That’s pretty impressive in anyone’s book. Though the revelation that the FBI surveillance team lost track of Shahzad and that he had managed to board a plane bound for Dubai is a little alarming.