Al-Shabaab, despite being forced to withdraw from most of Somalia's major urban centers between 2011 and 2014, has proven to be markedly resilient in the face of numerically, economically, and technologically superior enemies, including the Somali Federal Government (SFG) and its main international supporters, the United Nations, United States, European Union, and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces. (1) It continues to retain significant, deadly military capabilities as well as the ability to plan and successfully execute mass-casualty attacks in the heart of Somali cities, including the federal capital, Mogadishu, and on government military bases. (2) The Somali militant group, which engages regularly in anti-civilian violence both in its terrorist attacks and as a tool of the proto-state governance of areas under its control, also continues to run a highly capable media operations apparatus that produces glossy propaganda material aimed, often in the same media product, at domestic Somali, regional East African, and international audiences. (3)
Al-Shabaab's media apparatus is particularly adept at PSYOPS (psychological operations), (a) targeting both the rank-and-file soldiers in the forces of its enemies--for example, AMISOM--as well as the voting publics in enemy countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, Kenya, Uganda, and Burundi. (b) PSYOPS are part of the group's broader information operations and warfare campaign. (c) In its PSYOPS messaging, the Somali militant group seeks to influence domestic politics in these countries, (d) particularly those in East Africa, as a way of gaining an advantage on the battlefield in Somalia, where a relative military stalemate exists. This stalemate is the result of al-Shabaab remaining capable of carrying out small- to large-scale attacks on a weekly basis but incapable of capturing the Somali state and overthrowing the SFG.
This article examines the history of al-Shabaab's PSYOPS by analyzing six al-Shabaab messaging campaigns, paying particular attention to the broader military and political contexts in which this messaging occurred. The six case studies look at al-Shabaab PSYOPS in relation to the:
(1). The January 2020 Manda Bay airfield attack
(2). The 2010 stalemate between al-Shabaab and AMISOM forces in Mogadishu
(3). The 2011 ambush of Burundian AMISOM forces in Day-niile
(4). The 2014 attacks in and around Mpeketoni in Kenya
(5). The leadup to Kenya's 2017 general election
(6). Mass shootings and wildfires in the United States in 2019
In its PSYOPS messaging in each of these cases, as well as in the aftermath of its January 2016 and January 2017 attacks on and capture of the Kenyan military bases in El Adde and Kulbiyow, Somalia, respectively, al-Shabaab has sought to not only broadcast its own claims about the events in question but has also taken advantage of questions about the extent--or even lack--of government transparency in some cases concerning facts on the ground, including casualty figures and the chronologies of attacks. This lack of official transparency eases the way for al-Shabaab's own messaging to muddy the waters further by playing off of preexisting questions and exacerbating doubts about governments' official narratives. The militant group has further sought to take advantage of continuing questions regarding the numbers of civilian casualties in U.S. air-strikes and other military operations in Somalia, playing off of the problems in verifying information on the ground. (4) (e)
Case Study 1: The January 2020 Manda Bay Attack
On January 5, 2020, an al-Shabaab team from its elite "martyrdom-seekers brigade" (Katibat al-Istishhadiyyin) (5) composed of an unknown number of fighters launched a dawn attack on the Manda Bay Airfield in Kenya's Lamu county, successfully penetrating part of the base's perimeter and killing a U.S. soldier and two Department of Defense contractors while also damaging a number of aircraft and vehicles. (6) Cutting off power to the nearby county ward of Hindi before the attack, (7) the al-Shabaab force--which reportedly included fluent Swahili-speakers (8)--took photographs during the attack, 17 of which were released the day of the attack by the Somali militant group's external media department, the Al-Kataib Media Foundation. (9) (f) Al-Shabaab also prepared and released three print statements during or immediately after the attack, (g) prioritizing the release of propaganda in "real time" to capture the attention of news media in a manner reminiscent of its media strategy during its September 2013 assault on Nairobi's Westgate Mall. (10h)
Claiming to have destroyed seven aircraft and "more than" five military vehicles while inflicting 17 U.S. and nine Kenyan casualties, (11) al-Shabaab's media apparatus, as it did during the Westgate siege via-a-vis the Kenyan government, (12) engaged in a war of words with U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), which also released a series of press statements after the attack. Labeling al-Shabaab's statements as "exaggerating the security situation" in order to "bolster their reputation to create false headlines" at Manda Bay, AFRICOM dismissed the militant group's claims. (13) In response, al-Shabaab accused AFRICOM of an "incoherent" response that attempted to downplay the significance of its attack on the airfield, the site of U.S. air operations in Somalia and U.S. military training for Kenyan forces. (14) Here, al-Shabaab sought to build on its longstanding claim, however unbelievable, to be a reliable and impartial source "meticulously consistent with their facts [corroborating] them with hard evidence," (15) purporting that its media apparatus only reports the 'realities' on the ground hidden by its enemies and their lackeys in the international news media. (16)
Al-Shabaab pursued several lines of messaging regarding the Manda Bay attack. First, it took aim at the U.S. government and military, engaging in a war of words to control the narrative of the attack. Second, al-Shabaab sought to solidify its place as one of al-Qa'ida's most enduringly dangerous and resilient regional affiliates in naming the attack as being part of an ongoing campaign by al-Qa'ida and its regional affiliates to "avenge" the U.S. government's decision to recognize the contested city of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. (1) Third, al-Shabaab used the attack to take aim at members of the Kenyan military, security forces, and civilian electorate, warning them not only of further attacks but also noting the weakness of their military and security forces as well as their national borders: "In order to attack the U.S. naval base in Lamu, the Mujahideen had to traverse large swathes of territory under Kenyan occupation [areas of eastern Kenya with Muslim majorities or large Muslim populations], circumventing several weaker, poorly defended Kenyan military bases en route." (17)
Although al-Shabaab's claimed casualty figures were clearly exaggerated--a common practice for the insurgent group--its series of media releases sought to take advantage more broadly of remaining questions about what exactly happened during the base attack, including how the militants were able to penetrate the base's perimeter, the state of the base's defenses, and the behavior of the Kenyan military during the attack. (18) By attempting to undermine a part of the official Kenyan and U.S. press narrative on the base attack, al-Shabaab sought to influence international reporting in a similar way to its PSYOPS and broader media messaging following its attacks on the Kenyan military bases in El Adde and Kulbiyow, Somalia in 2016 and 2017.
By attacking U.S. forces at the airfield, al-Shabaab said that Kenyans should now understand the "vulnerability of your American masters on whom you so trustingly depend [...] the fragility of the American military might and the humiliating defeat of your trainers." (19) The group threatened Kenyan businesspeople, merchants, and civilians with further attacks that it stated would severely damage the country's economy, tourism sector, and the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport Corridor project (LAPSSET) as well as cost the lives of its soldiers and police unless Kenyans pressured their government to withdraw from what al-Shabaab presented as the unwinnable war in Somalia. (20) Future attacks would be carried out, al-Shabaab strongly hinted, by returning foreign fighters "who speak your language and know your culture" and who have embraced the concept of "al-wala wa-l-bara," loyalty to Muslims and disavowal of disbelievers, a core tenet frequently invoked in militant form by Sunni jihadis. (21)
Al-Shabaab also warned AFRICOM to make a "full public disclosure" about what really happened during the attack before insurgent media "publishes a damaging revelation of the attack," citing the domestic controversies caused by the Kenyan government's attempts to cover up what happened during the January 2016 and January 2017 attacks by insurgents on Kenyan military bases at El Adde and Kulbiyow, respectively. (22)
Further doubt about Kenyan government claims that the El Adde and Kulbiyow attacks had been repelled and the bases had never been captured by the insurgents was cast by al-Shabaab media materials. These materials included photosets, each released within days of the temporary capture of the bases and, later, by the militant group's two lengthy pseudo-documentary films that showed their capture and the retreat of their surviving Kenyan garrisons. (23) The release of these insurgent photographs and, later, extended video footage of the two base attacks increased domestic Kenyan and international questioning of the official government narratives about what happened at the El Adde and Kulbiyow bases, respectively. (24) The Kenyan Ministry of Defence claimed that its forces had only suffered nine dead and 15 wounded in the Kulbiyow attack and also initially denied that...