Stuart Price / AU-UN IST View of Mogadishu fishing harbour from the Aruba Hotel in the Somali capital Mogadishu,  August 6, 2012.

The Softer Side of Jihad

To Win Westerners, Al Shabab Goes on Safari

Hunting giraffes with an AK-47 is not an activity that most people associate with the life of a terrorist, but for al Shabab, big game hunting is but one of the many perks of membership. A recent al Shabab video depicted fighters stalking and shooting giraffes, antelope, and buffalo, frolicking in a swimming hole, and sharing large plates of fresh fruit within Somalia’s lush expanses. Compared to the brutality of recruitment videos from the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), al Shabab is peddling a softer version of jihad.

This take on jihadi life is not always standard fare for the Somali terror group. Al Shabab’s cinematic efforts often feature brutality and violence. This video, however, is part of an attempt to reinvigorate a key element of its rise that saw it become, for a time, one of the world’s most prominent terrorist organizations. By casting jihad as a life of adventure and excitement, al Shabab is again trying to lure Western recruits. And its chances of success grow daily.

Al Shabab has always prized foreign recruits. In 2008, its spokesman Mukhtar Robow extolled foreign fighters as a “precious element” the group needed to attract. Particularly valued were battle-hardened terrorists from other conflict areas, including Afghanistan and Iraq, who brought fighting acumen, technological skills, and leadership experience. At one time, more than half of al Shabab’s governing council was thought to be non-Somali.

Unskilled recruits from the West have been useful as well. Anywhere from 20 to 60 Somali-Americans joined al Shabab as novice fighters. At least three of them became suicide bombers; others became foot soldiers or propagandists. Several non-Somali Americans also joined the group, as did citizens of Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

A still from Al Shabab's recruitment video, geared toward Western recruits.

A still from Al Shabab's recruitment video, geared toward Western recruits.

Al Shabab’s Western recruitment efforts dried up as word of the group’s brutality toward Somalis and non-Somalis (even those within the group) began to spread. Several attacks within Somalia also soured the public on al Shabab, notably the 2008 suicide attack on a Mogadishu medical school graduation. Its decision to bar aid from southern Somalia during the 2011–2012 famine did not help either; it led to a quarter of a million starvation deaths and destroyed what little support the group had within the Somalian diaspora.

Since 2009, there have been few reports of Somali-Americans joining the group; radicalized Somali-Americans instead have preferred to join Middle Eastern terrorist groups such as ISIS. Still, al Shabab tries to woo Westerners back from time to time, and the giraffe-hunting video is the latest attempt. It features English narrations and subtitles, something the first two videos in the series did not, and shows several white terrorists speaking in what sounds like a British accent. And in place of executions and sermons that pepper many of their videos are bucolic scenes of bonhomie and carefree pleasures.

This is typical of the propaganda that terrorist groups tailor to Westerners. ISIS, the most successful terrorist organization in terms of recruiting foreign fighters, has published an English-language guidebook on life in its self-styled caliphate that rhapsodizes about the ice cream one can supposedly get there. An al Qaeda manual for recruiters emphasizes building friendships with targets and convincing them that the media unfairly vilifies Islamist terrorists.

A still from Al Shabab's recruitment video, geared toward Western recruits.

A still from Al Shabab's recruitment video, geared toward Western recruits.

Al Shabab is working hard to rehabilitate its reputation with Muslims as part of its new tack. Over the last several years, the group has avoided civilian-focused attacks inside of Somalia in favor of government and military targets. In Kenya, a frequent al Shabab target, the group has also taken a softer approach toward Muslim communities, making a show of sparing Muslim lives during attacks as it tries to cast itself as a defense force against Christian aggression.

Al Shabab’s competition with ISIS for attention, funding, and fighters may lead it to send some of its members westward to sow terror. There are unfortunate trends within Somalia that increase the chances of success for al Shabab’s charm offensive. A 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia prompted a nationalist backlash that swelled al Shabab’s ranks. Ethiopia demolished a coalition of sharia courts known as the Islamic Courts Union that had conquered swathes of southern Somalia, but ended up strengthening al Shabab as a result. Recruitment was not limited to Somalis, either: Westerners also joined in the invasion’s wake, eager to fight Ethiopian “crusaders.” Ethiopia has since retreated, but is now back in Somalia as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia. And although many Somalis welcome AMISOM’s efforts, some of its troops have been accused of raping and murdering civilians, stirring the population’s ire. The risk of a nationalist backlash against AMISOM grows daily, and is always good fodder for al Shabab recruitment.

The danger of further Western recruitment is self-evident. It is rare for foreign fighters to return to their country of origin to continue the jihad, but the recent ISIS attack on Paris, which appears to have involved at least one terrorist returnee from Syria, could be a harbinger of things to come. If it is, al Shabab’s competition with ISIS for attention, funding, and fighters may lead it to send some of its members westward to sow terror. Doing so would provide the group with a reputational boost in a crowded market.

Fortunately, al Shabab’s attempts to win Westerners have been largely unsuccessful. Its continued unpopularity is part of the problem, but the rise of ISIS has contributed to the group’s troubles as well. ISIS is now dominating Western recruitment efforts, even among Somali-Americans.

This does not mean, however, that the United States can be complacent. The U.S. government has focused on building bridges with the Somali-American community ever since it began losing citizens to al Shabab recruitment campaigns, and later to ISIS. But every day that AMISOM remains in Somalia to prop up Mogadishu’s sputtering central government, the risk that al Shabab can capitalize on nationalist resentment grows. ISIS may also have its own reputation problem brewing as unrest over its taxation and extortion practices mounts, which would make al Shabab’s cultural, linguistic, and religious overtures more attractive for radicalized Somali-Americans.

Al Shabab is fighting an uphill battle, but there are several trends working in its favor. The United States is focusing its efforts on fighting ISIS and ISIS recruitment, for example. This is a worthy goal, but Washington cannot afford to overlook the threat posed by al Shabab. It is canny, adaptable, and determined to again win Western recruits—this time with potentially far worse consequences for the West.

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