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Jihadist propaganda ramps up as groups fight for recruits

Al Shabaab and IS are increasing their media operations as the two groups battle for supremacy in east and central Africa

Cabo Ligado Monthly: December 2021

Somalia’s Al Shabaab released eight Swahili language recruitment videos between mid-December 2021 and mid-January 2022. When viewed in comparison with official and unofficial Islamic State (IS) online propaganda, they indicate competition for recruits between Somali Al Shabaab and IS across east and central Africa. They also display the continuing struggle between the two groups to be the true inheritors of the late Sheik Aboud Rogo, East Africa’s only significant jihadist figurehead cited by groups across the region, including in Cabo Delgado. This heightened focus on the region by both groups will shape the security challenge faced by regional governments.

The videos are the latest in the series Wahimize Waumini/Inspire the Believers, but come after a hiatus in the series of over four years. Each video is a call to hijra, meaning to leave home and defend Islam, and follows a strict format. A speaker gives either personal testimony or scriptural justification for violent jihad, followed by footage of fighters singing a jihadist anthem. Seven of the eight videos close with recordings of Rogo, long associated with Somali Al Shabaab, to underline the message of each speaker. The remaining video closes with a recording of an Al Qaeda figure, Sheikh Anwar Al Awlaki, an American cleric assassinated in Yemen in 2011. Of the seven speakers featured, two are identified as being Tanzanian, while another two speak fluent coastal Swahili.

The first six videos in the series released in July and August 2017, were also calls to hijra for foreign fighters. Only one of the six videos featured a Kenyan recruit. At the time of their release, violent jihadist groups in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Tanzania, and Mozambique were becoming increasingly networked with each other. Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in DRC are thought to have reached out to IS at that time, the active insurgency in Cabo Delgado was just two months away, and Tanzania was rooting out a nascent insurgency in Pwani Region that was linked to both DRC and Cabo Delgado.

The latest set of videos also come at a time of heightened IS interest in Africa generally, and East Africa in particular. At ground level, IS-affiliated insurgents in northern Mozambique are proving resilient in fighting against pro-government forces. Meanwhile, in DRC, a Ugandan intervention, launched following IS attacks in Kampala, has not led to a noticeable decline in attacks in North Kivu province.

This is reflected in IS’s formal and informal communications. There has been a sustained increase in Arabic-language IS Central Media Bureau incident reporting for northern Mozambique since November 2021, through daily reports and high profile coverage in the weekly Al Naba publication. More broadly, in issue 320 of Al Naba, IS threatened to expand into new territory in Africa. They have likewise consistently disseminated visual propaganda for IS West Africa Province (ISWAP) with high production values. Such propaganda resonates across the continent. ISWAP’s latest video – released mid-January and featuring training of child soldiers – has already been edited for an East African audience, with a new Swahili and Arabic soundtrack. It has been distributed through an IS supporting Facebook account. The accompanying post notes that the towns of Zanzibar, Kigoma Ujiij, Lamu, Mombasa, and the coast from Somalia to Mozambique will be saved by jihad.

IS Swahili language communications are less consistent. While daily incident reports have not been issued in Swahili since 8 December, a round up of Al Naba reports and features has been put out in podcast form on a weekly basis since May 2021. It is distributed through postings in popular, mainstream Muslim interest Facebook groups that reach hundreds of thousands of Swahili speakers. A second weekly Al Hijrateyn podcast distributed in the same way focuses on solutions to moral dilemmas, and has been running since October 2021.

More dynamic is the informal Swahili language material produced and distributed by supporters that directly targets East Africa. The most important site for this is Facebook, with dozens of IS-supporting accounts recycling mainstream media reports of incidents, denunciations of secular government, and calls to jihad. Woven into this are clips of the aforementioned Rogo which are used to support the cause. These sit alongside sustained diatribes against Al Shabaab.

Rogo, based in Mombasa, was assassinated in August 2012, less than a month after being placed on a United Nations sanctions list for involvement in terrorism. He was believed to be a recruiter and financier for both Al Shabaab and its Kenya affiliate Al Hijra. A charismatic speaker, clips of his talks where he openly advocates terrorism, at times urges hijra to Somalia, and condemns secular, non-Islamic authority remain popular online. Though quite successfully scrubbed from YouTube, clips of his talks circulate freely on Facebook and TikTok. His denunciations of secular authority and of hypocritical clerics are easily transposed into an IS ideological context.

The propaganda from both Al Shabaab and IS has a purpose. On the ground in East and Central Africa, there is evidence of increased competition for new recruits between the two organisations. Somali Al Shabaab dominated recruitment in East Africa prior to the arrival of Islamic State. Their recruitment networks were well established in Tanga region and Zanzibar in Tanzania, while operations could be launched as far as Uganda. Al Shabaab still recruits across the region –  in 2018, three Zanzibaris were arrested in Kenya trying to cross to Somalia, almost certainly to join Al Shabaab. However, Al Shabaab now faces competition from IS in key sites such as coastal areas of Tanzania, Zanzibar, and Kenya, and is now active in recruitment as well as actions in Uganda.

This situation complicates matters for governments in the region in three ways. Firstly, recruitment competition drives spending among non-state armed groups. IS’s current strategic focus on Africa is likely not just reflected in its media spending, but in actual support to affiliates. Somali Al Shabaab, though primarily focused on Somali issues, is cash rich, and so has the finances to leverage its existing networks in recruitment. This all means more support is likely to flow to pro-IS and pro-Al Shabaab groups in the near future. Secondly, easily accessible propaganda based on themes resonant within the region, and voiced by a famous figure in the region, may have unpredictable consequences outside usual conflict sites. Hamza Mohammed, perpetrator of an August shooting in Dar es Salaam, operated alone but was exposed to online material from both Somali Al Shabaab and IS. Finally, for Cabo Delgado, strengthened online networks for both Al Shabaab and IS in the region will serve to nourish the real world networks that bring fighters to the province from across the region.