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.

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.

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.

New Book on Radicalization

Recently, I’ve been doing some reading on radicalization processes.  In general, I’ve been completely dissatisfied with the post-9/11 writings on radicalization as they focus narrowly on al Qaeda and usually repeat common narratives of terrorism shown endlessly on Saturday afternoon National Geographic specials chronicling Osama Bin Laden.

However, there have been several studies of radicalization published recently that buck the post-9/11 research trend.  I’ve already noted the work of Brooks, Kurzman and the UK Home Office.  Today, I’m reading the new book of Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko entitled Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us

From what I’ve read so far, this is a really well done set of research by two specialists in social psychology – a good and alternative perspective to political science.  The book goes back through the history of terrorism and explores radicalization through a variety of different contexts from the individual, group and mass movement levels.  Each section demonstrates a series of case studies.  I’m not done with the book yet but so far I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read and find it a useful way of examining the differing varieties of AQ radicalization seen over the past decade (Core, affiliate, inspired, etc.). The book provides a well-structured analysis if nothing else and a different perspective from mainstream al Qaeda research.

Here are some of my favorite quotes thus far (page 5) reference ideology – which they see as a factor but not the direct cause of radicalization:

“A common view of jihadist terrorism, for instance, is that it is the product of a strand of Islamic extremism associated with Wahhabism and Salafism.  This is both too simple and too general to be useful for understanding radicalization…The first difficulty is that most Wahhabists and Salafists do not support terrorism…The second difficulty with making bad ideology the explanation of terrorism is that ideas are not the same as action…still another difficulty with the bad-ideology account of terrorism is that it is not easily generalized from one kind of terrorism to another.”

CT Survey Respondents & Zawahiri Agree: Arab Spring Is The Place to Be

This morning I posted AQ Strategy poll result #9 aggregating the responses of 266 voters who were asked “what will be most critical to AQ’s survival and resurgence over the next five years?”  While there was no consensus, the most popular voter choice was “Infiltrating Arab Revolutions.”

Zawahiri issued his 10th anniversary of 9/11 statement today and didn’t disappoint survey respondents based on Tim Lister’s CNN blog I found:

He (Zawahiri) says that contrary to what is claimed by the western media, al-Qaeda supports the revolutions in the Arab world and hopes they will establish true Islam and government based on Shariah, or Islamic law. He also claims the revolutions are a form of defeat for the United States, just as the 9/11 attacks and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq were also defeats.

I think most everyone agrees that AQ missed out on the revolutions and they need to find their place amongst them for fear of becoming irrelevant.  But do we really think those in the middle of the Arab Uprisings will really give credit to late-to-the-party AQ?  I don’t think so.  I imagine those battling it out in the streets of Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Syria will not really be keen to listen to AQ preach its philosophy.

On a more entertaining note, how do you know AQ is losing?  When they start copying the narratives of GOP presidential candidates.  Here’s a great example from the CNN post describing the audio of Bin Laden’s video also released today:

In his message, bin Laden also recommends that Americans read the book “Obama’s Wars” by Bob Woodward, saying that they should realize that Obama’s government has not lived up to his campaign slogan, “Yes we can.”





Debates over Extremism on the Internet

Andrew Sullivan from the Daily Beast posted some of my old data on terrorist use of the Internet and pointed to Will McCants and Josh Foust posts on Google’s new venture to counter violent extremism on the Internet.

Contrary to common perceptions, I’m a big fan of social media and respect the changes its had in our society. I have a blog, I use Twitter- I get it, I like it. That being said, I’ve been skeptical about “Tweet out evil” approaches for years.  I think American obsession with terrorist use of the Internet went overboard a long time ago.  Thus, I only listen to a couple folks when it comes to countering violent extremism on the Internet.

I will write a more extended article in the coming days, but in the meantime, I’ll through up some of my thoughts on terrorist recruitment on the Internet circa Dec. 2007 to February 2008 pulled from an article I wrote called Foreign Fighters: How are they being recruited?.

• Foreign fighters from the Sinjar batch (2006-07 recruitment class) showed little recruitment via the Internet. Remember, this is based on 2006-2007 data and the Internet has proliferated dramatically in North Africa and the Middle East over the past 4-5 years. Here’s my 2007 thoughts:

“Western journalists and academics increasingly focus on the Internet as a source for terrorist recruitment. Although the Sinjar records do not explain how young men are radicalized, they do eliminate the Internet as a major factor for three reasons. First, Sinjar recruits rarely mention utilizing the Internet to reach Iraq. Second, many North African and Middle Eastern countries have limited access to the Internet. Third, most North African and Middle Eastern countries producing large numbers of foreign fighters access militant websites with less frequency than Western countries that produce far fewer foreign fighters.”

• Western recruits are more likely to be brought in via the Internet than Middle Eastern and North African recruits because they have higher access to the Internet, less direct contact with AQ militancy in person, and thus need the Internet to build an affinity for and a connection to AQ.

“Western fixation with AQ’s propaganda has resulted in over-focus on countering media outlets that likely have limited and at best a secondary recruiting impact in high foreign fighter producing cities and countries. While AQ mass media propaganda is an important factor in the war of ideas, it should be addressed more in Western counterterrorism efforts in Western countries where socially isolated second and third generation Muslims and Western converts have limited direct access to militant ideologies, limited access to veteran foreign fighters, increased access to the Internet, and a propensity to access militant websites. The two non-Western exceptions to this might be Saudi Arabia and Morocco, which appear to have sufficient access and desire to utilize militant websites. However, the plethora of former foreign fighters in Saudi Arabia and Morocco is far more likely the radicalization culprit with the Internet acting as a distant second factor.”

• Western recruits are a small minority of AQ’s global foreign fighter recruitment. Here is my 2007 model of AQ recruitment. Thus the question remains, how many Americans are really being recruited via the Internet and how much money and technology must we commit to stop this infrequent event?  I have some ideas that I’ll write in the coming weeks.  In the meantime, here’s my recruitment construct, which I still believe is applicable today.

“Certainly, official AQ members at times directly initiate recruitment in North African and Middle Eastern countries. Occasionally, individuals self-radicalize and independently seek out the greater jihad, possibly using the Internet for ideological indoctrination and communication with facilitators. However, both of these scenarios represent only a portion of foreign fighter recruitment. Most North African and Middle Eastern foreign fighters are instead recruited through social, family and religious networks empowered by former foreign fighters who catalyze the radicalization process. These local networks are efficient, built for the community and adaptable to local conditions. Such networks are difficult to create in either a hierarchical AQ Central (top-down) or a self-selecting (bottom-up) system.
An alternative foreign fighter recruitment model might reflect all three patterns described above. My hypothesis for future research estimates that global foreign fighter flow consists of roughly the following:
-Self-selecting (bottom-up) recruitment accounts for 10 -15 percent of global foreign fighter recruitment. These self-recruits consist largely of second and third generation Muslims and converts to Jihadi doctrine based in Western countries, the majority of which reside in the EU. Their increased Internet access and propensity for militancy help radicalize them locally before moving through select intermediaries to more formal networks. These individuals are inexperienced, untrained and often a liability to the larger AQ movement as their conduct may stray from AQ’s global message, and their operational and security mishaps endanger the group. However, their access to Western targets and their propaganda value remain a coveted prize for AQ and a worthwhile risk.

-AQ hierarchical (top-down) recruitment accounts for an additional 10 – 15 percent of global foreign fighter recruitment. AQ, under intense pressure from Western military and intelligence, expends effort to specifically recruit individuals that maintain valuable skills in weaponry, media, operational planning, finance and logistics. These recruits pose the greatest threat globally as their knowledge, skills, and experience create hallmark AQ attacks and maintain organizational coherence. While self-recruits are dangerous due to their access, these direct recruits are dangerous due to their ability.

-Former foreign fighters embedded in family, religious and social networks in flashpoint North African and Middle Eastern cities produce between 60 and 80 percent of global foreign fighter recruitment. Jihadi veterans and their networks are the center of gravity not only for al-Qa’ida but also for decades of Jihadi militancy. These communities are motivated not only by militant ideology but by their perceived oppression from the West economically and politically, frustration over Palestinean-Israeli conflict, and the influence of Western values on their culture. High foreign fighter producing communities sustained the Afghan jihad during the 1980’s, provide for current campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and will be the thread for future militant efforts at the close of current conflicts.”