Should we knock terrorists off the Internet? Maybe!

J.M. Berger published a fantastic challenge to conventional wisdom this week providing some insightful and unique analysis of recent ‘Found experiments’ occurring with terrorists’ use of the Internet and social media. In his Foreign Policy article “#Unfollow”, @intelwire describes the latest revelations of al Shabaab being booted from and then reconstituted on Twitter. Thus far, the outcome of this recent event has countered conventional wisdom about terrorists being denied access to the Internet.

Just a few weeks back, Twitter closed the account of al Shabaab, @HSMPress, for violating Twitter’s terms of service. Shockingly, a terrorist group (al Shabaab) used Twitter to issue “a direct threat of violence”. No way! Who saw this coming?

@intelwire points out that there have been two arguments about why the U.S. should not push terrorists groups offline.

“Stopping terrorists from spreading their propaganda online (using U.S.-based Internet companies to boot) seems like a no-brainer to many. But within the terrorism studies community, there are two common and sincere objections to disruptive approaches for countering violent extremism online.”

As expected, al Shabaab quickly returned to Twitter under a new account name similar to its past one. However, Berger has noted through some excellent charts that so far, Shabaab’s audience has not been sufficiently resurrected. As of today, they have about 10-20% of the audience they had before being knocked off line. At this rate, Shabaab will end up spending a large amount of time regenerating its audience on Twitter suggesting the disruption approach would limit terrorist groups’ reach while also wasting their time. Cool!

As for the loss of intelligence, @intelwire’s piece notes that disrupting Shabaab’s Twitter account may actually result in an intelligence gain. While many followers were lost, the most hardcore supporters of Shabaab returned very quickly effectively outlining where Shabaab’s greatest support resides.

“The former followers who quickly signed up for al-Shabaab’s new Twitter account — just 882 users — have a serious interest in the al Qaeda affiliate’s activities….. We know these users are more likely to be very interested in al-Shabab, and the number is manageable enough that a single analyst can look at each account individually to make a more sophisticated evaluation.”

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I’ve been dismissive of focusing too much energy on disrupting terrorist websites and their more recent migrations to social media like Twitter and Facebook. However, the case of Shabaab on Twitter is quite instructive. I still have a few questions.

  • Is Shabaab an anomaly or a trend? – @intelwire compares Shabaab with the fall of al Qaeda forums in recent months. However, Jubhat al Nusra has maintained a consistent and growing presence online. So, are the challenges found by al Shabaab attempting to reclaim its online audience the result of effective disruption or a side effect of the group’s general decline and loss of audience?
  • On social media like Twitter and Facebook, are terrorist groups inadvertently censoring themselves? – Recent takedowns of terrorist websites have resulted in online extremists encouraging their followers to migrate to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook where they can establish individual accounts that are more difficult to disrupt. However, in doing so, extremists are actually censoring themselves as social media sites are governed by terms of service that restrict the violent images and language so cherished by extremists and critical for recruitment. So, when extremists move to social media, are they actually censoring themselves and over the long run taming their messages and reducing their effectiveness?
  • Is the greatest counter to extremists online actually the public? – Government struggles at disruption of online extremists as it requires considerable resources and creates a tension with civil libertarians that worry about government violations of citizen privacy and restricting freedom of speech. However, the public has no such limitations can identify terms of service violations and report them without much restriction. So, Americans, if you don’t like extremists on line, help Twitter and Facebook police them by reporting violations.

Who is protecting Hammami from Shabaab in Somalia?

Omar Hammami’s saga turned over another chapter last night.  After spilling all the beans earlier in the week about how he was betrayed by al Shabaab and Ahmed Godane in the new hit show ‘Game of Thrones –  Somalia Edition’, Omar must have been nervous that al Shabaab would move up their 15 day deadline requiring him to relinquish his weapons and potentially face death (I would guess).

Here’s a quick summary of events since Monday night and I’d like to hear from Somalia experts what they think is going on. Please leave your thoughts down below.  After I posted some of my initial assessments of Hammami’s Monday revelations, I also received a quip from Omar.

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Oh, don’t be hating brother! At least I’m listening. You say its for the ummah and history.  As for the ummah, they don’t seem to be paying much attention as I’ve only really seen Westerners talking about your situation. As for history, well if I don’t write about you, I’m not sure how you will be remembered.  It doesn’t look like al Qaeda is writing about you and I’m sure old Adam Gadahn in Pakistan is working hard to make sure he is the American al Qaeda member that is remembered in history – not you.

Based on the reaction of some watching Omar’s YouTube video, I can better understand Omar’s conundrum with the local focus versus global focus problem there in Somalia.

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Overall, it seems Omar is in a tough spot.  As once being a young American man, I can understand how the thrill of adventure and the excitement of violence can be appealing – I just happened to channel mine in a different direction.  The flight of foreign fighters has been described for decades. Ernest Hemingway provides one of the best accounts in the book For Whom the Bell Tolls.  Hemingway’s story of an American foreign fighter heading off to the Spanish Civil War seems to have many similar elements to Omar’s true story.  Ironically, as was mentioned this week in a Tweet by someone, foreign fighters to the Spanish Civil War were also turned on by their Communist insurgent partners. Quite similar to Omar being turned on by al Shabaab.

Omar has been turned on by both al Shabaab and al Qaeda.  He wanted to join their team and he continues to use ideological parallels to try and make the crowd he so desperately seeks (al Qaeda & their supporters) pay attention to him.  He continues to chase them despite their rejection of him.

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A smart strategy, but ultimately the comments on Twitter and YouTube seem to suggest that Omar is an outsider to Somalia and al Qaeda.  The problem for Omar is that he believes the only way forward is to stay in Somalia and fight to the death.  While that is a cool movie plot, in reality Omar could recover from his past terrorist intentions and move on to do something positive with his experience. Omar could use his story to prevent other young men from making the same mistake – chasing a fantasy al Qaeda utopia. Al Qaeda’s ideology and objectives, when they try to implement them, quickly collapse under the strain of human weakness.  Man’s thirst for power, greed, and jealousy undermine al Qaeda’s fantasy.  Omar is witnessing this first hand.

Over the past few months, Omar has been smart to publicly detail his plight in Somalia. His videos, pictures and pronouncements make it more difficult for Shabaab to make him disappear without hurting themselves. And his appeals may have engendered him more protection. This morning, Hammami claims the Raxanweyn clan has committed to protecting him.

Omar has been overtly seeking out the support of the Raxanweyn tribe throughout the past week, appealing to the fact that they provide the majority of troops to Shabaab but have the smallest voice in Shabaab’s leadership. Coincidentally, I believe Mukhtar Robow (whom Hammami apparently advocated for/aligned with resulting in his banishment by Godane) is from Raxanweyn clan.

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So what does this mean? It could mean one or more things.

  • Hammami is bluffing and using an alleged connection to the Raxanweyn to scare off Shabaab coming to get him at the end of the 15 day period.
  • Hammami, through marriage, other connections or his crafty appeal to the Raxanweyn on Twitter, has gained the support of the clan to protect him.
  • Hammami has received support from Mukhtar Robow who has committed to backing Hammami against Shabaab.  If true, this could be a major development and signal a major internal conflict inside Shabaab in Somalia.
  • This account may not be Hammami and is just a propaganda machine uploading old pictures of Hammami and bashing Shabaab. (I don’t think so, but maybe)

I’m sure there are many other scenarios but these are my initial thoughts.  The tweet says that, “Scholars are warning against such war.”  What ‘scholars’ are they referring to?  I hope he’s not referring to me, I work for a living.

Another interesting jab comes via this tweet which says another high level member of Shabaab and associate of Hammami has been detained by Shabaab, presumably for challenging its leadership.

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What’s particularly interesting about this claim is that Omar is claiming that the person detained was both Somali and Issaq clan – the clan allegedly of Godane.  Who knows if Omar’s claim is true. But Omar is making an intelligent jab at Godane suggesting the Shabaab leader is turning on local Somali fighters and members of his own clan.  Smart move Omar!

I’m interested to see what happens in the next few days.  If the claim that he has ’15 days to turn over his weapon’ are true, I’m guessing al Shabaab has no later than the 19th of January before they will be failing to live up to their promises.  Keep in mind, this Twitter account could end up being a fraud as only someone sitting with Omar can know for sure that any of this accurate.  Either way, it’s interesting.

Omar Hammami finally figures out “Joining Shabaab is a Bad Idea!”

Since Omar Hammami’s plea for help last March and autobiography Part 1, there has been only limited evidence that Hammami is alive.  A tweet here, a silly YouTube video there, but one had to wonder over the past six months as Shabaab’s turf continued to shrink if Hammami had finally been rubbed out by Shabaab.

Well, recently al Shabaab in Somalia officially distanced themselves publicly from Hammami and the terror group appears to be deliberating over what to do with him.  This seemingly has brought Hammami out into the media again via a Twitter account most believe belongs to the American foreign fighter. The account could be someone impersonating Hammami, or a close contact of Hammami, but I’m inclined to believe @abumamerican is actually Omar Hammami (despite his occasional lame attempts to appear to have a spokesman.)

Again, Omar doesn’t disappoint.  He has apparently come to learn that joining al Shabaab was/is a bad idea. Who would have thought a group of terrorists, like al Shabaab, might be untrustworthy, corrupt and devious?  Gosh Omar, no one could have seen that coming, except of course the al Qaeda operatives that traveled to Somalia in the early 1990’s where they fell into the same clan chaos you are now experiencing.  Instead of reading jihadi propaganda before you took off to Somalia, you should have been reading this.

So what does Hammami or his messenger have to say?  Well quite a bit, and it sounds like his time is running out.  For the latest Twitter transcript click here.

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And potentially with a limited amount of time to communicate, what does Hammami have to say to the world? Let’s break it down.

Shabaab is corrupt.

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Shabaab’s leadership doesn’t care about the troops.

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Shabaab is killing off foreign fighters that join its ranks. As was suspected months ago, Shabaab has been killing its own foreign fighters that travel from abroad to join its ranks in Somalia.

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Shabaab restricts foreign fighters from trying to run campaigns outside Somalia. (A surprising claim)

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Shabaab isn’t really about sharia law or al Qaeda’s ideology.  (Which was no surprise to most, but really reflects on Zawahiri’s poor leadership and judgement formally aligning with Shabaab last winter.)

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Shabaab is money hungry and greedy.  

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Shabaab is dumb militarily. 

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If you are young man thinking about joining Shabaab, please read the first hand account of Hammami at his Twitter page and Part 1 of his auto biography.  If you still want to join Shabaab or any al Qaeda affiliated terror group after reading his account, then you problems aren’t ideological, they are psychological.

Speaking of delusional, Hammami continues to purport that al Qaeda as a whole is still a worthwhile movement and jihad is good all the while bashing al Shabaab.  Hammami seems to think what he has witnessed with Shabaab is just a case of bad luck and that some other jihadi group or al Qaeda affiliate would somehow be better, more ideologically pure and committed to Islamic law.  What Hammami refuses to accept is that all of al Qaeda’s affiliates are corrupt in one shape or another and the pure jihad he seeks doesn’t really exist. Hammami, I’m sure trying to cope with his poor decision-making and unwilling/unable to turn himself in, is continuing to chase the fallacy that al Qaeda ideology has merit.  Despite his misfortune this past year and his rambling strategic thesis citing Islamic history, Hammami has failed to deeply study al Qaeda’s own history, which is rife with the alleged sins he has cast on Shabaab.

Hammami claims Shabaab members are killing off foreign fighters for unjust reasons, but this is not uncommon in al Qaeda’s history.  Foreign fighters arriving in Iraq were routinely shuffled off on suicide missions having nothing to do with al Qaeda and everything to do with tribal infighting.  The GIA (an early attempted alliance of al Qaeda) in Algeria is rife with accounts of subterfuge and infighting between Salafists killing each other off for more power.  Al Qaeda’s first trip to Somalia encountered persistent clan fighting sufficient for al Qaeda to cite in its documents, “Leave it, it is rotten “tribalism”.  Finally, one must still wonder about the death of Abdullah Azzam – one of the founders of the mujahideen movement in Afghanistan.  While I’d imagine the common tale in al Qaeda circles is that Azzam was killed off by the Pakistani government (ISI, military, etc.) or the CIA, it is equally likely that Azzam might have been killed off by other mujahideen or even a power hungry Bin Laden building a new outfit called al Qaeda.  While Azzam’s death is clouded in mystery, there is the potential that the jihadi group Hammami fantasizes about, al Qaeda, actually formed from the exact conditions and sins that Hammami now so despises.

So to Omar, when are you going to realize that you are chasing a fantasy?

More to follow in an hour or two.

“Who should we call al Qaeda?” – What do you think? Part 2 of 3

For now, I’m holding back on my version of whom we should and whom we shouldn’t call al Qaeda.  Kevin Jackson provided a cool perspective at Jihadology on who is in the organization.  Following up on his excellent breakdown, I now pose a question to all readers; no expert knowledge required and all are welcome to vote.

In the hypothetical scenario described below, would you call the following group “al Qaeda” or an “al Qaeda affiliate”?  A simple yes or no answer.  After you vote, you’ll see the results of everyone that chimed in.
Would you consider the following hypothetical group of armed men to be “al Qaeda?”

  • A group of heavily armed men occupy a remote area in an African/Middle Eastern/South Asian country.
  • 95% or more of the groups’ members are local people from the country where the terror group resides.
  • The group publicly states their intent to institute governance by Sharia law.
  • 2-3% of the group’s members served as foreign fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan after 2001 fighting in coordination with al Qaeda, the Taliban or al Qaeda in Iraq.
  • The group calls itself “Ansar al (fill in the blank)” or “Lashkar e (fill in the blank)” but don’t mention al Qaeda in their name.
  • Some of the groups’ spokesmen, at some point in the past, have publicly praised Osama Bin Laden.
  • It is completely unclear whether any of the group’s members have publicly declared bay’a (allegiance) to Ayman al-Zawahiri.
  • The group records videos of its attacks.  At times, these videos show up on jihadi web forums.  At times, these videos randomly show up on YouTube.
  • The group’s funding streams remain unclear.  News reports of unknown reliability claim the group gets some funding from kidnapping & local extortion and some from Persian Gulf donations.


Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world’s leading questionnaire tool.

“Who should we call al Qaeda?” Part 1 of 3

Kevin Jackson (@alleyesonjihad) provided an excellent breakdown on who is and who is not in al Qaeda thoroughly laying out the complicated system of allegiance known as bay’a in his guest post at Jihadology entitled, “The Pledge of Allegiance and Its Implications.  If you follow the media view of terrorism, you’re likely very confused as to what is al Qaeda and who is in al Qaeda.  I am equally confused at times and have my own thoughts on whom we should count in and whom we should count out of al Qaeda. The implications of this characterization, “Who is in al Qaeda?”, is quite important and defines, in some respects, the U.S. legal authority for using different counterterrorism techniques.  Without al Qaeda and a War On Terror, the pursuit of terrorists becomes quite constrained to largely law enforcement approaches.

Last year, J.M. Berger ran an excellent survey on “who is in al Qaeda?” and I encourage all those interested in the debate to check it out.  In the meantime, take a gander at Kevin Jackson’s post if you want the al Qaeda perspective, to include all the messy political nuances of declaring allegiance.  This includes the distinction between declaring allegiance to Bin Laden and al Qaeda versus actually becoming an official member of al Qaeda: two different things according to Kevin.

On the other hand, a bay’a has to be accepted before one can be considered as a sworn member/organization. This decision falls upon the amir‘s goodwill and depends on the extent to which would-be comers meet the required criteria prescribed by the organization leadership. As a result, groups rendering their allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri cannot be labeled al Qa’ida in the absence of an official recognition from the Pakistan-based leadership. This explains why assertions dubbing some al Qa’ida’s affiliates/franchises on the only basis that an oath has been sworn should be met with skepticism at the very least.



One Year After Bin Laden: What has happened? Vote Now!

Seventeen months ago, I attempted to use crowdsourcing to survey the ‘crowd’ and see if we could collectively predict what will happen to al Qaeda and the world of terrorism after the death of Usama Bin Laden.  The primary question I asked on January 2, 2011 was:

What will be the chief consequence of Usama Bin Laden’s (UBL) death for the global jihadi movement?

Five months later, on May 2, 2011 (one year ago today), U.S. forces killed Bin Laden in Pakistan.  His death triggered a crowdsourcing experiment which re-issued the same question above gathering several hundred responses from terrorism experts and enthusiasts around the world.  My thanks to all participants as your inputs generated significant insights not only about UBL, al Qaeda and the future of terrorism, but provided the basis for today’s assessment:

One year after Usama Bin Laden’s (UBL) death, what has happened with respect to terrorism and al Qaeda?

A year ago, I presented a complex set of questions to the crowd in hopes of teasing out a collective prediction on many different aspects of al Qaeda’s future without its founder.  Today, I ask you to respond to a survey assessing what has happened to al Qaeda over the past year.  If you have the interest and the time, please click the button here to cast your opinions on the current state of al Qaeda:

Click here to take survey
Again this year, all interested in the topic are welcome to participate.  No experience, education or knowledge is required. Nor do you need to have voted last year. With crowdsourcing, the more the better! What do you get for your contributions? The collective insights of all voters and analytical comparison to last year’s collective predictions.

Unlike last year’s survey, this year’s survey consists mostly of dichotomous questions that directly assess the component questions I asked respondents last year.  I believe this year’s survey will be easier for respondents to answer and much faster to complete (Probably 3-5 minutes). Additionally, After many of these questions, I’ll ask you how confident you are in your response. The goal with the confidence questions is to identify a) what issues we are collectively confident about and b) what questions we are collectively less confident about – suggesting the need for further research.

Lastly, if you know of people interested in terrorism studies and al Qaeda, please forward this link to them.
Thanks to all who contribute and I’ll begin publishing the results in the coming weeks.  Here’s a sample question for those that are curious:

8. Since Usama Bin Laden’s death, has al Qaeda inspired recruitment around the world increased or decreased?

McCants on al Qaeda’s Nation Building

The run up to the first anniversary of Bin Laden’s death is on.  With this historic event, the uptick in al Qaeda reporting and analysis has begun.  I’m excited today to see @will_mccants from Jihadica providing a strong assessment of al Qaeda’s new nation building ventures in a piece at Foreign Policy entitled “Al Qaeda Is Doing Nation-Building: Should We Worry?”

McCants notes:

Al Qaeda’s gains warrant serious attention, but they do not represent a shift away from the group’s “far enemy” strategy targeting the United States to a “near enemy” strategy targeting local regimes. For al Qaeda, the two are not mutually exclusive.

McCants uses analysis of an al Qaeda work he translated years ago, Naji’s The Management of Savagery, to explain how AQ might pursue nation building alongside terrorism operations.  Before alarming the world of al Qaeda’s next impending rise, McCants goes on to point out two reasons why the strategy put forth by Naji and contemplated in this article may be doomed to fail.  McCants explains:

The first is the problem visited on the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 2001. How do you protect a new emirate if you incite a foreign power to invade it?

He continues with:

 The second problem is that the only land that can be “conquered” is in countries where the state is weak and tribal politics are paramount. Controlling land and governing people requires greater involvement in local politics than merely securing a safe haven.

McCants paints an excellent portrait of al Qaeda’s current state one year after Bin Laden, and I encourage everyone interested in the topic to read his conclusion as to why we shouldn’t panic about al Qaeda again, at least not yet.


Terrorism Resource: AQ Statement Database

Yesterday, I ran into Dr. Barak Mendelsohn who is an Assistant Professor at Haverford College.  Dr. Mendelsohn has been working with his students to record statements from al-Qaeda (AQ) leaders in what is called the Global Terrorism Research Project. They keep a database of AQ statements, which can be used for research purposes and analysis. An interesting new project and resource for those interested in the ideological aspects of AQ.

al-Qaeda Revelations from Germany

With my head down reading about Shabaab’s fractures, I had missed some of the al-Qaeda primary source material emerging from recent trials in Germany.  Yassin Musharbash of AbuSuSu provides an excellent summary of the key insights of alleged internal al-Qaeda documents, which I encourage readers to check out.  @abususu notes:

According to German security services they were written up by high ranking members of core al-Qaeda in 2009 and/or 2008. The documents concern themselves with

  • Lessons learned from past operations
  • Reports on three past operations (7/7 London; 21/7 London; Airliner Plot)
  • a sketch for a terror campaign in the West

He goes on to point out several of the most interesting contents of these documents.

  • One of the documents is of particular interest as it discusses ideas for terrorist activities in the West. Here is a number of ideas that are being floated:
  • More attention should be given to operations designed to free prisoners. One idea is to “hijack a passenger ship” as a mass hostage taking should impress Western public
  • Generally, militant Jihad should also be taken to the Seas: attacking maritime transport would be a good way to hurt Western economic interest.
  • Also generally, a double strategy of regular small scale and rare big scale attacks in the West is advised. The author maintains that both concepts are needed.
  • Foreign fighters from the West should not be kept for too long but rather trained swiftly and sent back a.s.a.p. so as to enhance the capability to attack on a more regular level. Recruits who are considered known to the security services should try and deceive these services so as to relief the actual plotters by distracting attention

Lots to discuss from these four points.  Here are my general thoughts:

  • The AQ authors in these documents lack experience.  AQ has limited resources, operatives and operational space.  The “double strategy” notion would require more than double the amount of planning time as the two foci, “regular small scale and rare big scale attacks” would demand excessive amount of coordination, planning, resources and skill.  For a struggling terrorist organization, maintaining the pace of regular small scale attacks requires efficiency in operation and routine processes unimpeded by CT adversaries.  Research has shown that only high performing terror organizations can maintain the pace of attacks whereas groups of almost any level can pull off the occasional big attack.  See the work of Aaron Clauset and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch.
  • The effect of drone operations and overall intelligence pressure against AQ in their Pakistan safe haven seems clear.  Drones have not only decapitated AQ leaders, but have drastically limited the training time provided to foreign fighters for delivering attacks against the West.  Before 9/11, foreign fighters could train indefinitely for an attack.  From 2001 through 2006, foreign fighters could still gain the necessary training resources and time to prepare for an attack in the West.  Today, foreign fighters to AFPAK have merely days or hours to learn and prepare for their attack on the West – if they can get there at all.

Abu Susu added three other important notes:

  • The documents also contain passages about problems that the terrorists face:
  • They have little money and say that this decreases their operational capabilities
  • The fact that they didn’t manage to perpetrate an attack in the West for such a long time is said to frustrate a lot of cadres — to a degree that some of them allegedly have given up plotting altogether
  • Western intelligence and security services are credited with being effective and very hurtful for them

These three points follow closely with other open source reporting on the region.  For those still believing that terrorism is cheap and AQ operates on almost no money, these documents again show the importance of resources for AQ and reiterates the depleted state of their operations.

Next, AQ’s above quote reinforces my argument related to AQ’s “put up or shut up problem” I noted in January:

While they are just as likely today as much as in the past to execute a mass casualty attack, evidence suggests their pace of attack has slowed dramatically and thus their organization is likely shrinking in size exponentially with each delay in attacks.  For al Qaeda to inspire new recruits and rejuvenate their movement, they need to execute a successful attack.  Likewise, executing successful attacks requires persistent recruitment and talent development through training – two constrained inputs to al Qaeda’s operations in 2012. AQ’s propaganda becomes less effective every year they fail to execute a major attack against the West in the West.  Their rhetoric is talk with no action.

My last point from Abu SuSu’s excellent post – virtual training is no substitute for real in-person physical training.  As he notes:

According to one of the documents, the 21/7 London cell had lost contact to its handler in Pakistan. This is why a) when the attempt took place, the author wasn’t even sure whether it was “their guy”s. He b) also claims that the 21/7 cell may have run into the very same problem in the process of cooking their explosives that the 7/7 cell encountered. But while the 7/7 cell still was in touch with their handler and were able to consult him, the 21/7 cell could not solve their allegedly identical problem.

Inside al Shabaab’s Recruitment Process in Somalia

Th Kenyan newspaper The Daily Nation published an excellent, first-hand report of al Shabaab’s recruitment process entitled, “How al Shabaab Captures Hearts Of Somali Youth.” The article traces the path of a Somali refugee, Ahmed, who now resides in Kenya’s Eastleigh slum.

Two weeks ago, I discussed the combination of benefits offered by al Qaeda and affiliated groups (like al Shabaab) to entice new recruits.  I noted that:

Each recruit makes a decision to work based on a perceived wage generated from both pecuniary and non-pecuniary benefits from employment as a terrorist.  Pecuniary benefits represent tangible items received in return for employment: pay, vacation, insurance, etc…and… Non-pecuniary benefits represent intangible items received in return for employment: religious achievement, adventure seeking, group camaraderie, etc. The combination of these benefits presents the wage needed to recruit someone into a terror cell.

Additionally, I discussed how the combination of pecuniary and non-pecuniary benefits needed for recruitment vary based on geographical location:

A terror recruit in Africa may be far more enticed by the tangible, pecuniary benefits offered by al Qaeda while a middle to upper class student recruit from Saudi Arabia might be more interested in the ideological, non-pecuniary benefits of group membership.

The Daily Nation article describing Ahmed’s recruitment exemplifies this recruiting phenomenon where it was a cell phone more than an ideology that initially enticed young recruits in Somalia.

Ahmed was barely 12 years old when he first joined Al-Shabaab. He was a schoolboy in Mogadishu, and when the three-month long holidays approached in 2007, he was nudged by friends to join the insurgents.

“When you join, they give you a mobile phone and every month you are given $30,” he said. “This is what pushes a lot of young people to join.”

Why does this matter? Analysts predominately focus on expensive DC-centric programs to counter al Qaeda’s/al Shabaab’s ideology, eliminate Internet videos and answer evil tweets.  While this may be appropriate for a small handful of Somali Diaspora recruits in the West, the majority of al Shabaab recruits are child soldiers more likely to be pulled from Shabaab’s grasp through the TFG handing out cell phones with $40 of credit every month ($10 more than al Shabaab).

Al Shabaab follows an indoctrination program typical of most all fighting forces (al Qaeda, Taliban, the U.S. military!) that recruit young men: entice them with monetary inducements and social pressure and then solidify their long-run commitment through ideological indoctrination.  Ahmed notes the religious training and attempts to “counter the narrative”:

Preachers delivered sermons for hours about destiny and “the sweetness of the holy war.” They distributed leaflets on Islam and tried “to make the children understand and appreciate suicide bombing.”

In one of these sessions, Ahmed, as a trusted foot soldier now, asked one of the scholars: “Give us a solid proof from the teachings of the Prophet (Muhammad) or the activities of his companions that actually allow suicide bombings.”

The answer, he says, was not forthcoming. Later, he was called aside and was told “that Islam’s biggest scholars had approved of suicide bombings, and that as an ignorant young man, I should keep quiet about it and not defile the mind of the youngsters.

This process of moving young recruits from pecuniary reasons for joining to ideological reasons for staying in the group mirrors the method used by al Qaeda in Southern Somalia between 1992-1994.  As discussed in the report al Qaeda’s (Mis) Adventures in the Horn of Africa and the Harmony documents that informed them, AQ operatives noted:

“the youth started their action in kees mayo city (Kismayo) in southern Somalia by getting engaged in its battle and the tribes men escaped before Aideed. There was 800 brothers in their camps and the escapees asked the youth to protect the city from Aideed provided that they would give up the airport, the harbor and the public utilities in the city for the youth. The youth agreed despite the fact that they smelled the deception…. Nevertheless, their youth learned at last that their elders thoughts is far from theirs. We conclude the following: – The Sheikhs of the group were not Jihadi . the youth were influenced by hearing about the Afghani Jihad. The youth of the young men along with insufficiency of their experience and rashness toward the matters without deliberation hindered their effectiveness.” AFGP-2002-800621

Several other primary source notes from AQ’s recruitment in Somalia can be found at this post.

Some will use Ahmed’s anecdote above to support their preferential focus on countering al Shabaab’s narrative (from DC) as the key element for undermining  al Shabaab’s recruitment.  But one must immediately wonder how developing a feel good CVE website and firing out inspiring tweets will ever influence young boys in Shabaab’s training camps – how would they ever even hear these counter-narratives.

The more important intangible (non-pecuniary) benefit offered by al Shabaab to new recruits comes not from its ideology but its offer of opportunity for those young men amongst Somalia’s less fortunate clans.   The article notes:

Secondly, as incongruous as it may seem, Al-Shabaab is credited for eliminating the boundaries created by the clan systems in Somalia.

Hundreds of young men belonging to the Somali Bantu and minority clans have freely joined the militant group.

In the end, the largest reason recruits defect from al Shabaab comes from al Shabaab’s harsh tactics.  As noted by Ahmed in this article and a year ago by another defector, Mohamed Ibrahim Suley, al Shabaab’s extreme violence turns off both their own operatives and their local popular support.  If a counter-narratives campaign against al Shabaab is deemed necessary, the focus should be on exposing Shabaab’s violent ways more than undermining its religious ideology.

Overall, I believe the greatest counter to al Shabaab’s growth will come from eliminating their base of resources (money and equipment) – resources they use to secure the initial recruitment of vulnerable young men.