IN PICTURES: Somalia’s Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen, Part 6: Al-Shabab Military Forces in Baraawe, Late April 2013

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 1__________________________


-Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)

A photo essay essay on the Somali insurgent movement Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen:

-Part 1 can be viewed HERE

-Part 2 can be viewed HERE

-Part 3 can be viewed HERE

-Part 4 can be viewed HERE

-Part 5 can be viewed HERE

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 2

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 3

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 4

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 5

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 6

Muhammad Abu Abdullah (Al-Shabab, Al-Shabaab) governor of Lower Shabelle

Muhammad Abu ‘Abdullah, Al-Shabab’s governor of Lower Shabelle

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 12

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 11

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 10

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 9

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 8

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 7

Stereotyping Muslims: One Direction’s Zayn Malik, Pop Culture, and the Diversity of Lived Religious Identity

The face of fitna or the face of Al-Qa’ida’s “stealth jihad” ?

-Christopher Anzalone (Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University)

With album sales of 2.7 million worldwide, a commercially successful world tour, a debut atop the Billboard 200 in the US, and a ubiquitous radio single, “What Makes You Beautiful,” British boy band One Direction are one of the most successful musical acts in the world.  The group is made up of five former contestants on the popular British televised singing competition The X Factor, Zayn Malik, Niall Horan, Harry Styles, Liam Payne, and Louis Tomlinson.

Aside from their global commercial success, One Direction recently attracted a spurt of media attention for the personal religious persuasion of one of its members, 19-year-old Malik.  Last week Malik’s religion, which first attracted media attention in a 2010 article in British tabloid The Sun, was discussed in an online MSNBC article that highlighted the seeming dichotomy between being a rockstar and a Muslim.  On June 6, a right wing American blogger took aim at the teenage pop star and accused him of trying to “pimp” Islam under the cover of One Direction’s pop harmonies and catchy, if somewhat formulaic, lyrics.  Muslims, fans and non-fans, have been discussing his religion and whether some of his life choices are or are not “Islamic” since his appearance on The X Factor.

The recent attention to Malik’s religion and much of the ensuing discussion about it highlights the ways in which Muslim identity is simplified and stereotyped in the minds of many people.  For some Muslims, Muslim identity rests on a simplified notion of who is and is not a Muslim, one that ignores 1400 years of cultural history and the complexity of identity, while for anti-Muslim polemicists Muslim identity rests on stereotypes and ignoring, or outright ignorance of, reality.

One Direction: Ambassadors of “Boy Band Jihad” ?

Last year, Muslim fans of One Direction picked up on and discussed online a series of Tweets he posted on Twitter last August related to Islam, which are discussed further below.  These Tweets, alongside his televised comment during a Christmas dinner for X Factor contestants that he doesn’t eat pork, were discussed and debated in numerous online discussions on One Direction fan sites, blogs, YouTube (by both fans and YouTube commentators), and even communal question-and-answer web sites such as Ask.com about his religion and whether his life choices, such as smoking, getting tattoos and ear piercings, and being a pop star, were compatible with being Muslim.  Though many were supportive of his decision to not hide his religious identity while also achieving mainstream success in the music business, some self-identified Muslims looked disapprovingly on some of his life choices, saying that they are “un-Islamic.”  Many wrote that because of these he could not be a very “good” or “pious” Muslim, expressing a normative view of piety and religious identity.  However, Malik also has a dedicated group of Muslim fans who have publicly announced their support not only in response to online questions about his religion but also in Facebook fan groups, for example the group “Zayn Malik’s Muslim FANS.”

Malik’s status as a pop star even elicited a legal opinion (fatwa) on an English-language question-and-answer web site, Islam Answers.  In response to a request from a questioner for proof that Malik’s choice to be a singer was forbidden (haram) “for Muslims” so his “very large” Muslim fanbase can be shown his deviance, respondent Abu Zahra, whose specific scholarly credentials are unclear, marshaled selected Qur’anic verses, hadith, and exegetical and juridical references attacking music and pursuing a career as a singer.  Alleging that the teenage singer is causing social discord (fitna), Abu Zahra wrote, “It is indeed very saddening to see that the majority of the Muslim Ummah [worldwide community] has fallen into one of the greatest traps of shaytan [Satan]—Music,” he wrote.  “Not only that, shaytan has blinded them so much that they think there is nothing wrong with it.  This unfortunate reality is indeed one of the signs of the end of times.”  Music, it seems, is not only haram but eschatologically so.  His ultimate verdict was that listening to or being a pop star are “totally forbidden in Islam” and the one who does either is “a major sinner.”  The flourishing of music in Muslim societies around the world is a socio-historical phenomenon that seems to have escaped him.

Yemeni musicians

To buttress his opinion that music can only ever be a tool of the Devil, Abu Zahra, in the bulk of his response, cites a long list of selected Qur’anic verses, hadith, and quotes from famous medieval Muslim jurists and exegetes such as Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, and Malik ibn Anas.  In summation, Abu Zahra wrote, “It should be clear that it is totally forbidden in Islam to become and listen to ‘pop-stars,’ and that such a person is a major sinner.”  He concludes by claiming not to be encouraging hatred of Malik per say but rather hatred toward what God and His prophet have declared worthy of enmity, in this case music.  Muslim youth should also be careful, he wrote, in choosing role models because on the Day of Judgment people will be grouped with those that they kept company with in life.  Therefore, he finished, those who strove to be like the Prophet Muhammad and God’s other righteous prophets and messengers will benefit from their company whereas those who chose singers will join them in hellfire.  It is important to note that prohibitions on music or certain forms of music are not unique to Muslim conservatives and indeed are held by many Muslim jurists, Sunni and Shi’i.  The juridical discourse on the issue is deserving of a post on its own and is beyond the scope of this piece.  However, the purpose of this post is not to venture an opinion on what “is” and “is not” permissible according to the views of Muslim jurists or to pass judgment on their views.  Rather, it is to argue that lived religious identity is multifaceted and highly individualized, thus defying imposed templates seeking to establish “normative” identities.

Traditional Afghan musicians

Abu Zahra’s response led to a debate in the comments section between those supportive of his opinion and those who disagreed.  The debate centered on whether all singing has been judged by religious scholars to be forbidden.  Some commenters argued that there is a difference between the recitation of religiously-themed songs (anasheed) and pop songs.  Others stated that it is Malik’s behavior, such as smoking and his decision to get tattoos, which is haram, not his singing per se.  Similar sentiments are expressed in threads about Malik’s religious persuasion mentioned previously.  Concern is more frequently expressed with regard to certain behavior rather than his status as a musician.  These arguments were met with fierce criticism from other commenters who fully endorsed Abu Zahra’s opinion.

On the opposite end of the ideological spectrum , in a June 6 blog post, Debbie Schlussel, a far right wing American blogger well known for her anti-Muslim writings, dubbed One Direction “boy band jihad” and zeroed in on Malik, accusing the teenager of “pimping Islam” on “millions of young girls” around the world.  To support her claims she pointed to his four Tweets discussed previously and engages in a “close reading” of them that would make a textual critic nauseous.  Malik, she wrote, fasts during Ramadan and Tweeted the “shehada (sic),” which she described as “the militant statement Muslims say in their prayers every day” and the “Muslim oath of martyrdom that comprises conversion to Islam.”  She went on to prove further her ignorance of the faith she hates so much, writing that the meaning of the shahada is that “only Mohammad is a real prophet” of the monotheistic, Abrahamic God.  In reality, the shahada affirms Islam’s core beliefs that “there is no god but [the one] God and Muhammad is His messenger” and if Schlussel had consulted any introductory book or class on the religion she’d know that the Islamic tradition recognizes many other prophets in addition to Muhammad, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.

Sorry Anwar, you’ve been replaced as the “pied piper of jihad,” at least in Schlussel’s universe

Schlussel also cited Tweets Malik wrote about Ramadan, the Islamic lunar month of fasting.  On August 1 of last year he wrote, “First day of rosay tday, who’s fasting?,” using an Urdu word (روزے) for the fasting Muslims do during the Islamic lunar month of Ramadan.  He followed this Tweet with a second the same day writing, “Ramazaan Mubarak to everyone that is :).”  At the end of the month, on August 30, he Tweeted “Eid Mubarak to everyone today :).”  Five days before, on August 25, he re-Tweeted a Tweet in Arabic of the Muslim testament of faith, the shahada, “there is no God but the [one] God and Muhammad is His messenger,” following it the same day with its transliteration into English.  She neglects to mention that he also Tweeted on Christmas as well to his Twitter followers (for example, here and here), not to mention for New Year’s Eve.

If her textual prowess isn’t convincing enough, Schlussel pointed to a photograph of Malik wearing a keffiyeh scarf, which in her mind is the “official garb of Islamic terrorism” rather than a popular form of traditional attire in much of the Middle East, Africa, Iran, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and the Indian Subcontinent as well as a popular recent fashion item.  She missed the photograph of him wearing the red poppy badge (see below) that in British Commonwealth countries is worn as a sign of respect for soldiers killed in battle.

Need more proof?  If so, Schlussel pointed to the Arabic tattoo on his chest.  Her alarmism at any use of Arabic, which is also spoken as the mother tongue of millions of non-Muslims, would likely be assuaged if she could actually read Arabic and thus tell that his tattoo is actually the name “Walter,” his grandfather.  Then again, sustained Google research would have also revealed this fact.  To Schlussel, any practice of Islam as a faith tradition is a form of “extremism,” thus she sees “jihad” in lyrics such as “Baby, you light up my world like nobody else, the way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed, but when you smile at the ground it ain’t hard to tell, you don’t know you’re beautiful.”  This is an Al-Qa’ida nasheed if ever there was one.

Media coverage of Malik’s personal religious beliefs, as well as many of the reactions to it by both Muslim and non-Muslim discussants online, are predicated on notions of monolithic, “normative” typifications of Muslim identity.  For many, non-Muslims and Muslims alike, his status as an international pop star with pierced ears and tattoos wearing designer jackets and jeans stands in contrast to their constructions of what a Muslim is and is not.  To some Muslims his lifestyle puts him outside the faith and they have essentially rejected him from the fold, considering him at best to be a lapsed and impious Muslim.  Ironically, anti-Muslim polemicists are at the same time working in overdrive to “prove” that the British teenager is not only a Muslim but that any practice of Islam is akin to joining Al-Qa’ida.

Musician or Schlussel’s “lone wolf” ?

In reality, Islam is a diverse and often contested religious tradition and individual Muslims interpret their faith in a myriad of different ways.  Muslim identity (or really a diverse array of individualized identities) cannot be boiled down to only a literal textual reading of certain sources, as some Muslims do, nor can it be accurately equated with fringe groups such as Al-Qa’ida and other militant groups, as some polemicists attempt to do.  Religious identity is lived and thus highly individualized even in faiths that emphasize the importance of the collectivity.  In an ideal world this would be more widely understood with regards to Islam and the world’s Muslim communities, as it is with other religious traditions such as Christianity and Judaism, to name just Islam’s Abrahamic cousins.  Of course, in an ideal world the personal religious beliefs of a teenage British pop singer from Bradford would also be deemed neither threatening nor newsworthy.

Al-Qa’ida Central’s Ascendant Battlefield Theologian, Khalid bin ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Husaynan

For those interested, a new article of mine was published yesterday at Foreign Policy magazine’s AFPAK Channel on Khalid bin ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Husaynan, a rising but relatively little known Al-Qa’ida Central (AQC) ideologue.  The article provides a biographical sketch of the Kuwaiti preacher and an analysis of his role in AQC’s media campaign as well as his battlefield role as a missionary preacher and warrior theologian:

“The last two years have not been kind to al-Qaeda Central (AQC). U.S. drone strikes over Pakistan’s Pashtun tribal regions have decimated its leadership ranks, killing a number of senior operational leaders and ideologues. These killings have eroded the ability of AQC and the transnational Sunni jihadi current to propagate its message.  Despite these losses, however, AQC still has a number of charismatic voices that it is able to, and frequently does, deploy.  One of these is the group’s chief juridical voice, Abu Yahya al-Libi. A second is the Kuwaiti preacher Khalid bin ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Husaynan, a much lesser-known ideologue who has played an increasingly prominent role in AQC’s media productions since his debut in an often comedic “quiet dialogue.” This “dialogue” was actually a rhetorical monologue aimed at U.S. president Barack Obama, released by the group’s al-Sahab Media Foundation in August 2009.   Since then, al-Husaynan has emerged as both the spiritual guide to AQC’s armed cadres in the AfPak region and the group’s missionary ambassador tasked with wooing new recruits from abroad.”

Read the rest of the article HERE.

The Call to Islam: Hitin Urdu Magazine Interviews al-Qa’ida’s Head of Da’wah Khalid bin ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Husaynan

Over the past year or two, with the death of many senior leaders as well as al-Qa’ida’s longing for religious legitimacy, Khalid bin ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Husaynan (Abū Zayd al-Kūwaytī) has risen in the ranks and has been described by Jarret Brachman as “Zawahiri’s in-house version of Awlaki” and by Christopher Anzalone as part of al-Qa’ida’s “missionary vanguard.” I would simply describe al-Husaynan as al-Qa’ida’s head of da’wah (the call to Islam/proselytization). Surprisingly, little has been written about al-Husaynan.

With the rise of Abu Yahya al-Libi from 2005-2008 many saw al-Libi as a potential Bin Ladin successor or at least al-Qa’ida’s main religious mouthpiece. Indeed, al-Libi has touched upon religious areas and performed al-Qa’ida’s khutabahs for ‘Id al-Fitr and ‘Id al-Adha, but al-Libi has also been a figure that discussed political issues just as much as religious ones. In contrast, al-Husaynan more or less has stuck to purely religious topics, not mixing his lectures with political overtones. This is important to note because many in the Muslim and non-Muslim world have questioned al-Qa’ida’s Islamic character (and not to mention the fact that 9 in 10 individuals al-Qa’ida has killed over the years have been Muslims) and bona fides. As such, one could argue that al-Husaynan is al-Qa’ida’s answer to its critics by showcasing a purely religious side of its media releases. In 2010, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, al-Husaynan released twenty-eight lessons related to religious life that one should ponder during Ramadan. Similarly, in April 2011, al-Husaynan began a series of “Da’wah Lectures” dealing with similar purely religious topics. For instance, the most recent was “Lecture 12: The Virtues of the Night Prayer.”

Besides his lectures though, not much is known about al-Husaynan’s background besides that he is from Kuwait and was a religious teacher employed by Kuwait’s Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs. As such, Issue #7 of Hitin’s Urdu Magazine (translated by Flashpoint Partners into English) that interviewed al-Husaynan sheds more light on his background, religious upbringing, reason for joining al-Qa’ida, and general worldview.

Background and Education

To begin the interview, Hitin Urdu Magazine describes al-Husaynan as “responsible for the religious training and the salvation of the soldiers of the al- Qa’ida network.” This provides a little more knowledge, besides his online media releases, what his actual role is in al-Qa’ida Central. The magazine then asks about al-Husaynan’s background. He was born in 1966 putting al-Husaynan at the age of 45 or 46 depending what month his birthday is in. In terms of key jihadi events, al-Husaynan was in his teens during the anti-Soviet jihad, early twenties during the Gulf war, and in his mid-thirties during 9/11 and the beginning of the Iraq war. Al-Husaynan continued by stating:

[I was] raised in such a household that gave special attention to the knowledge of religion. Our father regularly trained us to pray in a congregation. This was the time when I was admitted into a madrassah that was superior to others when it came to the education of Islamic laws. Then I went to the Arabian Peninsula where I completed my religious studies from a famous institution.

Al-Husaynan does not mention the specific institution, but he later remarks that he started his religious studies in 1986 and focused on Islamic theology and jurisprudence. He mentions he studied under Shaykh Muhammad ibn al-Uthaymin for three years. Therefore, al-Husaynan most likely attended Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University, which was where al-Uthaymin was on the faculty of Shari’ah. Al-Uthaymin, along with ‘Abd al ‘Aziz ibn Baz and Muhammad Nasir ad-Din al-Albani, all three of whom passed away between 1999 and 2001, are considered three of the most eminent Salafi scholars of the modern era. Additionally, al-Husaynan stated he also studied for three years under Shaykh Sulayman bin Nasir al ‘Alwan, who is considered a favorite cleric of individuals that sympathize and support al-Qa’ida’s worldview. In the second edition of “A Mujahid’s Bookbag,” a collection of works that are recommended for jihadis to read on the online forums, al ‘Alwan’s works were listed in it 101 times, making him one of the top five ideologues in the “bookbag.” On a side note, al-Husaynan only had three works listed in the second edition (released in December 2009), while he had forty-three in the third and most recent edition (released in June 2011), further illustrating al-Husaynan’s rise in significance over the past few years (in contrast, Abu Yahya al-Libi went from 25 to 32 to 45 works listed in the three editions). As such, al-Husaynan was schooled in the orthodox Salafi school of thought by al-Uthaymin, as endorsed by the Saudi state, but was also exposed to more radical interpretations of Salafism when studying under al ‘Alwan.

Teaching Back in Kuwait

The Hitin Urdu Magazine interview then moves onto questions related to his time back in Kuwait when he begins to teach. Al-Husaynan states his main motivation for calling individuals to Islam is based on this saying from God: “Who else has better words to say than the one who invites people towards God, do good deeds and say, no doubt, I am from amongst the Muslims.” His style in teaching is also touched upon. Some have noticed and described al-Husaynan in his video lectures for al-Qa’ida as cartoonish. Based on the interview, he believes it is a helpful way to grab the attention of the youth (emphasis mine):

The main focus of our proselytizing and training were the youths. And because most of the youngster do not come to masjid (mosque) to offer their prayers, we would go to the colleges and universities to deliver sermons there. We would present to them incentives and deterrents in the style, which Qur’an adopts. To get their attention and in turn change their thinking we would first make them get familiar to us. For this purpose, we would joke and get funny during our speeches. And the truth of the matter is that once a person starts loving someone, he accepts what he is told and is also influenced easily. That’s why we would converse with them in an exciting way. We would make them laugh and kid around with them. Thank God this method was very effective on the youth.

During his time in Kuwait, al-Husaynan also states that he prepared pamphets for da’wah, providing some examples: (1) More than 1000 day-to-day practices of the Prophet; (2) More than 1000 day-to-day prayers; (3) Answers to 1000 problems of the women; (4) How do we get to the destinations of Allah’s people; (5) This is how good and pious are supposed to be; and (6) How are you preparing for your reckoning?

Entering the Fields of Jihad

According to the interview with Hitin Urdu Magazine, al-Husaynan decided to go to Afghanistan to join with the “mujahidin” sometime in 2007 (1427 H). He felt obliged and points to this edict from God that finally pushed him:

Oh Prophet [Muhammad], tell them that if you fear for the loss of your fathers, your sons, your brothers, your wives, your families, the goods that you earned and your trade, and if these are the things that are more dear to you that fighting in the way of your God (jihad fi sabil Allah) and His Prophet [Muhammad], then wait until calamity from God arrives on you. And God does not bring unrighteous to the right path.

Al-Husaynan further explains his reasoning for going to Afghanistan: “jihad in the name of God is more important to me than anything else. And these can’t be achieved through talk, sermonizing or listening to sermons, but by illustrating through sacrifices, self-giving, migration and jihad.” Therefore, although he felt his teaching methods were reaching the youth of Kuwait, apparently it was not enough. Moreover, al-Husaynan believes that “jihad is the shortest way of reaching heaven so we give our lives for it, and become martyrs in the path of God. With these thought I opted for the way of jihad and came here.” Thus another aspect for joining the “mujahidin” was to attain martyrdom and securing his spot in heaven.

The Take Away

The Hitin Urdu Magazine interview concludes with more politically oriented questions and boiler plate answers, which if one is interested in reading can be read in the above link to the interview. More importantly, the interview points to al-Husaynan having some legitimate religious bona fides compared to Abu Yahya al-Libi’s, which are still shrouded in some mystery. It is no surprise then that al-Qa’ida is primarily using al-Husaynan in the role of the head of its da’wah (or religious outreach). Whether it will help with recruitment and recapturing its image as well as portraying itself as a truly Islamic movement that remains to be seen. For once in al-Qa’ida’s history, though, it has an individual in al-Husaynan that has the educational experiences and knowledge that could provide it at least nominal religious credibility. The jury is still out on if the damage has already been so excessive that it does not matter anymore. That said, in light of potential openings in Yemen and Syria, as well as the possibility of disappointment from failed expectations in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, al-Husaynan could provide al-Qa’ida the religious swagger it needs to gain sympathy from some newly or future disillusioned youth.

Signs Beyond Western Eyes: Unpacking The Announcement of the al-Bara’ ibn Malik Martyrs Brigade

This past Thursday, on February 16, a group of around twenty individuals claiming to be part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), released a video message to YouTube announcing the formation of a new battalion named the al-Bara’ ibn Malik Martyrs Brigade. It should be noted that during the Iraq war, al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) also named one of their battalions the al-Bara’ ibn Malik Martyrs Brigade. There is no definitive proof that the new battalion established by the FSA is connected with the old al-Qa’ida in Iraq networks. That said, one should be cognizant of the expansive facilitation networks there were for foreign fighters attempting to join the Iraq jihad in Syria.

There are many layers to unpack from the video itself as well as the name chosen for the martyr brigade and its potential illusions.

With the recent revelations that al-Qa’ida was allegedly behind a series of suicide bombings in Syria over the past few months, along with Ayman al-Zawahiri’s recent video giving support to the Syrian “mujahidin;” much worry has risen over the specter of al-Qa’ida influencing and/or hijacking the opposition movement in Syria that hopes to topple Bashar al-Asad and his current regime.

The Flags

Many will point to the flag in the background used in the above video as a sign that these individuals are indeed al-Qa’ida since it looks strikingly similar to the one used by al-Qa’ida’s Islamic State of Iraq (For more background on al-Qa’ida’s use of flags and its context in Islamic history read here):

FSA background flag

Islamic State of Iraq's flag.

Islamic State of Iraq's flag.

Indeed, it is a worrying sign. At the same time, one should also note that in the above video, they also bear the old Syrian flag:

As such, for any student of al-Qa’ida and jihadism, the use of a Syrian flag shows direct support of a nationalist project, which is contrary to al-Qa’ida’s worldview. This is because the nation-states carved out were established not by God, but rather by the British and French. From this, one could posit that the al-Qa’ida looking flag used in the above video has become popularized to a broader audience then just a global jihadist one. More specifically, “the Che Guevara-ing” of the flag insofar as it has just become a symbol of resistance than necessarily a sign that the group has allegiance to al-Qa’ida. At the same time, the name used for the martyrs brigade (as AQI did, too) may abrogate or disprove this potential theory.

Who is al-Bara’ ibn Malik?

Prior to discussing the significance of the name of the martyrs brigrade in the context of al-Qa’ida, it is worthwhile to delve into the figure al-Bara’ ibn Malik to try and better understand why the FSA (and AQI) would invoke this figures name. Ibn Malik was one of the Muslim prophet Muhammad’s sahabah (companions) and considered an ansar (supporter) from the tribe of Banu al-Khazraj since they established relations with Muhammad’s nascent movement of mu’minin (believers) following the hijra to Medina (originally Yathrib). Ibn Malik is the brother of the famous sahabi Anas ibn Malik, an aide to Muhammad and who is one of the major narrators of hadith.

al-Bara’ ibn Malik originally took part in the Battle of Yamamah, which was part of the Riddah (apostasy) wars following the death of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. After the ascension of Abu Bakr as-Sadiq as the first Caliph some tribes and individuals apostatsized from Islam and attempted to return to their original religious practices. Abu Bakr called for war against them leading to a series of battles in 632-634 CE/11-13 H. The Battle of Yamamah is most famous for the deaths of a large portion of Qur’anic reciters, which led Abu Bakr to start the codification of the Qur’an into a written mushaf, since beforehand the Qur’an was recited orally. In the latter part of the Battle of Yamamah, when the opposition forces led by Musaylimah (referred in Islamic historiography as al-Kadhab or the Liar) were beginning to lose the battle they hid behind a gated garden. Prior to launching an assault on the garden, al-Bara’ ibn Malik stated: “يا أهل المدينة، لا مدينة لكم اليوم، إنما هو الله، والجنة” or “Oh People of al-Madinah, there is no al-Madinah for you after this day. There is only Allah, then Paradise.” Ibn Malik was hoisted upon a fellow soldiers shield to try and jump over the gate, which he succeeded. He sustained wounds, but was able to break open the gate allowing the rest of the Muslim army to defeat Musaylimah’s men. The episode would later refer to the “Garden of Death.” Although Ibn Malik had injuries, he recovered and later fought and was “martyred” in the Battle of Tustar against the Persian Empire in 640 CE/19 H.

There are three key points that should be highlighted from the above description of al-Bara’ ibn Malik: (1) he had an important role in defeating “apostates;” (2) his quote from above shows his willingness for martyrdom in the face of tough odds; and (3) he fought against the Persian Empire, which although Persians were not Muslims or Shi’a for that matter at that time one can imagine the symbolism of Ibn Malik fighting against the Persians. Jihadis today describe Shi’a (many being Persian) today as rawafid (Dissenters/Defectors/Deserters), which is a derogatory term, and do not believe they are true Muslims.

Contextualizing al-Bara’ ibn Malik Martyrs Brigades Today

Returning to the modern context, in both cases (AQI and the FSA), the name of the martyrs brigade fits and alludes to the three points made above regarding the biography of Ibn Malik. Regarding the first point, in both Iraq and Syria the fighters believe they are fighting apostate regimes. In Iraq against the ascendent Shi’a Mahdi Army and newly formed majority Shi’a Iraqi government and in the case of Syria al-Asad’s Alawite regime (seen as a sect of Shi’a Islam and viewed as heretical by even non-jihadi Sunni Muslims). As for the second point, it is quite obvious that they are martyrdom brigades and are therefore willing to sacrifice themselves in the face of great odds. And thirdly, the Iranian government was viewed in the Iraq war as assisting the Shi’a militias, while in the current context in Syria, the al-Asad regime is a known proxy of the Iranian regime. As such, in a round about way, in both the Iraq and Syrian versions of the al-Bara’ ibn Malik Martyrs Brigades they would be fighting the “Persian Empire” similar to Ibn Malik himself.

General Concluding Remarks About the Current State of Jihadism in Syria

The establishment of the FSA’s al-Bara’ ibn Malik Martyrs Brigade should give pause to talk of blindly arming the FSA as an alternative to the failed resolutions in the UN Security Council. That said, it is believed the FSA is a loose confederation without much centralization and therefore this battalion is most likely independent and doing its own thing. With the news of the potential release of Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, the creation of a new local jihadi group Jabhat al-Nusrah, and reports of a foreign fighter from Kuwait being killed in Syria, it is clear Syria has become another important front in the jihadi war. The penetration of al-Qa’ida in Iraq into Syria and potential of foreign fighters arriving, should be watched closely. At the same time, ones support for the uprising to defeat the authoritarian al-Asad regime should not be looked at completely through the prism of al-Qa’ida nor should it preclude or discredit any attempts for supporting some elements within the opposition. There are certainly risks involved, but identifying and vetting elements within the Syrian opposition is something that needs to be further acted upon in a precise manner versus providing weapons haphazardly just because of horrific scenes of slaughter on YouTube that one views without fully thinking through the potential second and third order consequences.

The Formalizing of an Affiliation: Somalia’s Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen & Al-Qa’ida Central

‘Ali Mahamoud Rage (‘Ali Dheere), Al-Shabab’s spokesman, at a press conference on the killing of Usama bin Laden on May 6, 2011.

-Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)

UPDATE (23 February 2012): Al-Shabab’s Political and Governorates Office has issued two statements today.  The first congratulates the Muslim Ummah on its formal affiliation with Al-Qa’ida Central and gives “special thanks to our amir, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri.”  It states that the Somali insurgent movement’s resources now fall under his authority.  It has yet to be seen if this leads to a significant change in Al-Shabab’s Somalia-centric insurgency.  The second thanks AQC’s Al-Sahab Media Foundation for producing the video announcing the affiliation as well as the Global Islamic Media Front for its longtime online distribution support of Al-Shabab.

UPDATE (17 February 2012): See insurgent photographs from a rally in Baidoa HERE.

UPDATE (14 February 2012): See a second set of insurgent photographs of the rallies HERE.

UPDATE (13 February 2012): Al-Shabab leaders have hosted celebrations across Lower Shabelle for the formalization of affiliation between their movement and Al-Qa’ida Central.  Among those leaders present were spokesman ‘Ali Mahamoud Rage (‘Ali Dheere), governor of Banaadir Muhammad Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman, governor of Lower Shabelle Muhammad Abu ‘Abdullah, and preacher ‘Abd al-Qadir Mu’min.  Noticeably absent, at least in insurgent photographs and the official statement announcing the celebrations, were Mukhtar “Abu Mansur” Robow and Hasan Dahir Aweys.  This may or may not mean the latter two were not present.  If they were not present it may be a sign of a rift, though the nature of cleavages in the movement remain hotly debated.  It is not the first time that not all the “public faces” of Al-Shabab were not present at a major event.  For example, ‘Ali Rage was not pictured in insurgent photographs or video footage of the movement’s conference marking the killing of Usama bin Laden in May 2011. Signs and banners held by civilians present express “joy” at the “union of the mujahideen” and “jihadi movement.”  To see insurgent photographs and read the official statement, see my post at VIEWS FROM THE OCCIDENT.

In a new media release, half audio message and half video message, released on Thursday, February 9 by Al-Qa’ida Central’s (AQC) media outlet, the Al-Sahab (The Clouds) Media Foundation, the group’s amir, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Ahmed Godane, the amir of the Somali insurgent movement Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Movement of the Warrior-Youth; Al-Shabaab) formally announced the official affiliation of Al-Shabab with AQC.  The announcement, which was teased a day prior to its release on jihadi-takfiri Internet forums, formalizes the relationship between the two groups following a lengthy history of ideological affinity and cooperation between them.  Its release has renewed discussions about how Al-Shabab should be classified, as mostly a local or regional insurgency, a transnational militant movement akin to AQC, or a mix of the two.  This post, like much of my current research and writing on Al-Shabab, attempts to make a modest contribution to this discussion.  I have and continue to argue that Al-Shabab is most accurately seen as a type of “glocal” militant movement, a mainly localized militant movement that uses transnational rhetoric and maintains an operational capability to carry out attacks outside of its home base inside Somalia, primarily but not necessarily limited to regional countries in East Africa.

Entitled, Glad Tidings from the Two Shaykhs, Abu al-Zubayr and Amir Ayman al-Zawahiri, the announcement is roughly evenly divided between an audio message from Godane, who is more commonly known in jihadi circles by his nom de guerre “Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr,” and a video segment from al-Zawahiri, who stoically gives “glad tidings to the Muslim Ummah (worldwide community), in particular to the mujahideen” regarding Al-Shabab’s joining of the Al-Qa’ida organization-led jihadi movement (al-harakat al-jihadiyya) against the alliance of Crusaders, Zionists, and their allies and agents, the munafiqeen (hypocrites, a term used for those who claim to be Muslims but whose actions prove otherwise).  He welcomes “our brothers” Al-Shabab and praises the steadfastness of the movement against the mounting Crusader attacks on it by the United States, Ethiopia, and Kenya, all of whom have become increasingly involved in the Somali civil war that pits Al-Shabab against the weak but internationally-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which depends on the nearly 10,000 African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) soldiers for its survival.  Al-Zawahiri also urges Somalis to stay away from those religious scholars (‘ulama) who seek to lead them astray and who support the corrupt TFG leaders who have allied themselves to “Crusader” forces.

Al-Zawahiri sits in front of a green curtain, which appears to be felt.  He has sat in frot of the same or a very similar curtain in a number of other recent video messages including Days with the Imam: Part 1, released November 15 of last year, The Glory of the East Begins with Damascus, released July 27, and And the Defeats of the Americans Continue, released October 11.  The background setting of the AQC amir’s location suggests that the video segment featuring him was recorded fairly recently, within the last seven months.

Godane, as Al-Shabab’s amir, declares his loyalty to “our amir,” the “beloved amir, the blessed/honorable shaykh,” al-Zawahiri.  During his audio segment, a static background identifies Godane as the speaker and includes a still photograph from the conference in December 2010 at which Al-Shabab announced the joining to it of Hizbul Islam, the Somali Islamist insurgent group formerly headed by Hasan Dahir Aweys, who is now a senior Al-Shabab leader.

The issuing of this announcement now, during a period when both AQC and Al-Shabab are facing mounting pressures, is telling.  It is unclear at the current time who initiated this formal affiliation of Al-Shabab with AQC, or whether it was mutually initiated.  AQC, faced with the loss of its founder, Usama bin Laden, and a senior operational leader and ideologue, ‘Atiyyatullah al-Libi (Jamal Ibrahim Ishtaywi al-Misrati), last year is reeling from losses inflicted by U.S. drone missile strikes and is struggling to remain a relevant force.  Of the two groups, it arguably has the most to gain from formalizing its relationship with Al-Shabab, which continues to control vast swaths of territory in central and southern Somalia.  The insurgent movement or its allies also reportedly have made significant inroads into parts of northern Somalia, both in the autonomous region of Puntland and a contested area between Puntland and the self-declared republic of Somaliland.  Despite significant military setbacks since last spring, Al-Shabab remains a potent force within the country and its military power, even if it is in decline, remains the subject of pride for the Sunni jihadi current.  With the exception of Ansar al-Shari‘a, which is at the very least affiliated with AQAP, no other AQC affiliate controls any significant amount of territory.  The jihadi-insurgent “golden age” in Iraq from 2003 to 2007, during which AQ in the Land of the Two Rivers, the Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen (Mujahideen Shura Council), its successor the Islamic State of Iraq, controlled villages and cities in certain regions, such as Al-Anbar, has long since ended.  The control and governance of territory has long been a transnational jihadi dream and Al-Shabab’s exercise of governing authority, however basic, over large parts of southern and central Somalia is thus something that AQC leaders and transnational jihadis online have long heralded as one of the best examples of what a “jihadi state” can accomplish.  Despite its delusions of grandeur with the Islamic State of Iraq, which, in terms of its actual ability to exercise significant governing authority over territory, exists mostly on paper rather than in practice, the transnational jihadi current’s attention has been shifting away from Iraq and toward other theaters, such as Somalia.

AQC leaders, from Bin Laden to al-Zawahiri to Abu Yahya al-Libi, have long held up Al-Shabab as a source of pride to the transnational jihadi current.  During its heyday from roughly 2008 through the summer of 2010, Al-Shabab represented, for both AQ, broadly defined, ideologues and online jihadis one of the best examples of what can be accomplished, in terms of controlling and governing territory, by “steadfast mujahideen” with few resources in the face of a numerically and technologically-superior set of adversaries, in this case AMISOM, Ethiopia, and their U.S. backers.  This was highlighted, for example, by Abu Yahya al-Libi in Al-Sahab’s 2008 “9/11 anniversary” video, The Results of Seven Years of the Crusades, and he more recently argued that the Kenyan military intervention in Somalia is a step on the way to victory for the “mujahideen” since it will lead to further economic catastrophe for Kenya and the U.S.  AQAP’s deputy amir, Sa’id al-Shihri, also praised Al-Shabab in a February 2010 audio message in which he urged increased cooperation between the two groups.

The fact that Al-Shabab’s successes in Somalia were only made possible by a unique set of circumstances that do not exist and are likely not reproducible in other regions seems not to have been considered by them.  In other words, Al-Shabab’s success at capturing and holding territory has provided AQ and other likeminded jihadis with hope that it is possible for “mujahideen” to implement “God’s rule,” a harsh implementation of a rudimentary form of shari‘a, and act as executors of a kind of state power.

Anwar al-‘Awlaqi, the late American militant preacher affiliated with AQAP who was killed in a U.S. drone missile strike on September 30, was perhaps the most outspoken in his view that Al-Shabab represents the potential of a jihadi state.  In a December 21, 2008 post on his blog, he lauded and congratulated Al-Shabab for its victories in Somalia against the Ethiopians, AMISOM, and the TFG, writing that they filled “our hearts with immense joy.”  He went on to describe Al-Shabab’s project in Somalia as a “university” that “will graduate” distinguished alumni who can share their experiences with and educate other “mujahideen” in implementing a similar social and governing program in other regions.  The Somali theater, he wrote, “will provide its graduates with the hands-on experience that the Ummah greatly needs for its next stage.”

Al-‘Awlaqi reiterated his positive assessment of Al-Shabab in his first, and thus far only publicly released, interview with AQAP’s Al-Malahem Media Foundation, which was released in May 2010.  When asked to clarify his position on the Somali insurgent movement, he said, “The various Islamic movements are searching for a solution for the Ummah, as are the scholars…Today we are seeing the solution in front of our very eyes in Somalia.  This small hand of mujahideen, with limited resources, has been able to establish a state and rule with God’s almighty Shari‘a.  Today, they are providing solutions for the people…Today, they are dealing with the realities and providing solutions from the Islamic Shari ‘a.  For this reason, as I mentioned, this is a unique experience from which the Ummah must derive benefit.”  Clearly, this is a heavily selective description of Al-Shabab’s execution of governing authority over wide swaths of Somalia.  However, al-‘Awlaqi’s response clearly shows how important the Somali theater has been to jihadis as a model to emulate.

SEE HERE FOR A VIDEO CLIP OF ANWAR AL-‘AWLAQI’S DESCRIPTION OF AL-SHABAB.

Despite Al-Shabab’s importance in illustrating how a jihadi state can be run in praxis, the movement’s leaders have not been as frequently cited in videos produced by AQC and its affiliates as the reverse.  An audio clip of Godane was used in Ghazwat al-Mansura, a video in AQIM’s series The Shade of Swords, released on July 22, 2010, to my knowledge for the first, and so far only, time.

For its part, Al-Shabab has for a long time closely affiliated itself ideologically with AQC and the transnational jihadi current in the hope of garnering benefits from this relationship that would otherwise not be available to it.  This has been particularly true in terms of the movement winning financial support and potentially new recruits from outside of Somalia, particularly when the number of diaspora recruits from North America and Western Europe began to slow following the Ethiopian military withdrawal in January 2008.

Mukhtar Robow

Al-Shabab from its early stages embraced and has been strongly influenced by the charismatic persona of Bin Laden.  His image and clips of his audio and video messages have been used in the insurgent movement’s video productions since at least 2008.  For example, his image and audio clips of him were used prominently in Al-Shabab’s video series Martyrdom Operations in Somalia.  Insurgent leaders, from Godane to Mukhtar “Abu Mansur” Robow, ‘Ali Mahamoud Rage (‘Ali Dheere), and Hasan Dahir Aweys have continuously spoken with great affinity for Bin Laden and the late AQC founder continues to occupy a place of prominence in Al-Shabab’s media productions.  The insurgent movement held a major conference entitled “We Are all Usama” in mid-May following his killing in Pakistan.  Senior Al-Shabab leaders including Aweys, Robow, Fu’ad Muhammad Khalaf “Shongole,” and its governor of the Banaadir region, Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman, and ‘Abd al-Qadir Mu’min were present, as was American member Omar “Abu Mansur al-Amriki” Hammami.

Hasan Dahir Aweys

The clearest example of Al-Shabab’s ideological affinity for Bin Laden is a 48-minute video entitled Labbayk Ya Usama, which translates approximately to, “We Heed Your Call” or “At Your Service,” released on September 20, 2009 by Al-Shabab’s media wing.  In the video, Godane refers to Bin Laden, whom he calls by his kunya Abu ‘Abdullah, as “shaykh-i-na wa amir-i-na” (our shaykh and our amir).  Godane and other Al-Shabab leaders, such as Robow, Rage, and Aweys, have long described Bin Laden as the epitome of Muslim resistance to Western imperialism, epitomized by the United States, and its local clients such as Somalia’s TFG.

Insurgent ideological affinity for the transnational jihadism represented by AQC has not been limited to the personage of Bin Laden.  Al-Shabab’s media apparatus, originally called simply “Media Department” and now the “Al-Kata’ib (The Brigades) Media Foundation,” has also made frequent use of video and audio clips from other prominent transnational jihadi ideologues including Al-Qa’ida Central’s Abu Yahya al-Libi (a clip of whom appears in an early Al-Shabab media production, the July 2008 Al-Shabab video eulogy for its founder, Adan Hashi Farah ‘Ayro), the late Al-Qa’ida Central commander in Afghanistan Mustafa Abu’l Yazid, and Al-Qa’ida in Iraq/Islamic State of Iraq leaders Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi (after which it named a research institute that published one issue of its Internet magazine Millat Ibrahim), Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi, and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir.  Materials studied by Al-Shabab fighters and missionaries, at academies named after ‘Abdullah ‘Azzam, include, in addition to classical and medieval books on Arabic grammar, Qur’anic commentaries, books of hadith, and prophetic biography, books by Ayman al-Zawahiri (al-Wala’ wa’l Bara’) and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (Millat Ibrahim).

In addition to the significant ideological affinity that Al-Shabab’s leaders have for Bin Laden and other transnational jihadi ideologues, the former also get strategic benefit from their affiliation with Al-Qa’ida and the transnational jihadi community it represents.  By distributing its media materials on major jihadi Internet forums through the Global Islamic Media Front and embracing Bin Laden and other jihadi leaders, Al-Shabab is able to reach a broader audience of potential and actual supporters than it would otherwise be able to.  In tandem with its recruitment networks in East Africa, Europe, Australia, and North America, this has enabled it to win new supporters, some of whom have traveled to Somalia in order to join the movement.  It is important to note, however, that Al-Shabab maintains multiple tiers of media communication and messaging: (1) media aimed at transnational jihadis online, (2) Somali domestic and diaspora audiences via Somali language media outlets, which are as or more important than #1, (3) communications aimed at external enemies, for example via the “HSM Press” Twitter account and some of Al-Kata’ib’s videos.

On the operational front, AQC operatives in East Africa played a key role in training and providing ideological guidance to Al-Shabab in its formative days, though their exact roles remain hazy.  Chief among these operatives were Abu Talha al-Sudani (killed in 2007 or 2008), Saleh ‘Ali Saleh al-Nabhani (killed in a U.S. military strike in southern Somalia on September 14, 2009), and Fazul ‘Abdullah Muhammad, also known as Fadil Harun (killed in a chance encounter in June 2001 at a Transitional Federal Government checkpoint in Mogadishu).  Of the three, al-Nabhani occupied the most visible role in aiding Al-Shabab, appearing in a 24-minute video released by Al-Shabab’s media department in August 2008 in which he called on Muslims outside of Somalia to come and aid “their brothers” in that country.  He made specific calls to Muslims in Sudan and Yemen, saying that “we are waiting for reinforcements from Sudan and Yemen, the places of wisdom (al-hikmah) and faith (al-iman).”  Al-Nabhani is shown briefly instructing military exercises alongside Mukhtar Robow in the video.  A day after al-Nabhani’s death, Al-Shabab issued a statement eulogizing him.

During a period of severe crisis in which it is dealing with the effects of a severe famine, declining diaspora financial and manpower support, and growing military pressures from AMISOM, the TFG, Ethiopia, Kenya, their allied militias, and the U.S., Al-Shabab may be wagering that by formally affiliating itself with AQC it will receive financial support or recruits that it may otherwise not have had access to.  Questions remain, however, as to the timing of this announcement.  AQC likely has little spare financial support or manpower that it can send to Al-Shabab, given the former’s needs in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If it was hoping for another safe haven in Somalia, AQC will likely be disappointed in Somalia since the “golden age” of Al-Shabab’s insurgent state is likely over.  However, it may not be direct AQC support that Al-Shabab is aiming for but rather support from non-Somali jihadis who are sympathetic to AQC’s ideological message who may choose Somalia as their field of “jihad” and thus provide the insurgent movement with badly needed reinforcements.

On the operational level, it is unclear whether AQC still has key operatives in East Africa.  The group’s original core group of operatives has died or been killed, likely leaving a vacuum that will be difficult for AQC to fill, particularly given its weakened state and need for all the financial and manpower resources it can get for the Afghanistan-Pakistan front.  The only suspected AQC operative that has been revealed publicly since the chance killing of Fazul ‘Abdullah Muhammad at a TFG checkpoint in Mogadishu on June 8 of last year, has been Abu ‘Abdullah al-Muhajir, who the FBI believes to be American citizen Jehad Serwan Mostafa.  He was present at a major media event staged in October by Al-Shabab and AQC at the insurgent movement’s flagship refugee camp, Al-Yasir, in the Lower Shabelle region, which has since been closed.  The masked al-Muhajir delivered humanitarian and other aid to Al-Yasir.  On banners present at the event, the identities of “AQ” and Al-Shabab were kept distinct and separate.  The aid was labeled as being from “AQ” but distributed in coordination with Al-Shabab.  Al-Muhajir’s exact role in AQC, if any, have not yet been specified in any detail by the group, nor was the aid distribution discussed in any detail, at least yet, in AQC media releases.  Without significant infrastructure in the form of skilled operatives in Somalia, it is unlikely that the official announcement of Al-Shabab’s affiliation with AQC will bring about any immediate significant changes on the ground for the insurgent movement.  The official announcement of affiliation does, however, potentially provide AQC with a propaganda coup in that it is able to continue presenting itself as relevant and it could also provide a new cause for its supporters to unify around.

‘Ali Mahamoud Rage (left) with Abu ‘Abdullah al-Muhajir at Al-Yasir camp in Lower Shabelle in mid-October

Al-Shabab is also likely to remain focused on the ongoing conflict inside Somalia, though it will also likely continue to carry out attacks in Kenya and other neighboring countries that either have soldiers inside the country or have sent soldiers to join the AMISOM force.  Given the reportedly high numbers of non-Somali foreign fighters that have joined its ranks (numbers remain unclear), it is possible that as Al-Shabab becomes increasingly desperate it will attempt to carry out more attacks against countries that are militarily engaged in Somalia.  Al-Shabab has already, it seems, solidified an operational relationship with militant elements within the Kenyan Muslim population and it is likely that Al-Shabab has already and will continue to attempt to form relationships with other Muslim militant groups in the Horn of Africa.  It is important to note that, unlike other AQC affiliates with the exception of AQAP and Ansar al-Shari‘a in Yemen, Al-Shabab has a significant domestic population over which it rules, a constituency so to speak, though clearly not all of the people support the movement’s rule.  Domestic politics and social relations will likely continue to play a major role, if not the most important role, in determining Al-Shabab’s trajectory.

Al-Shabab is a hybrid movement, part domestic insurgency and part jihadi movement with a transnational flare.  It is a “glocal” militant movement that, while focused mainly on waging a domestic insurgency, has deliberately cultivated relations with AQC, AQAP, and the transnational jihadi current which they represent, in part due to real ideological affinity and in for strategic reasons, mainly to expand its limited base of potential recruits and supporters.  Its desire and ability to move fully into the transnational arena, defined here as outside Somalia and the Horn of Africa, remains an open question.  It is possible that the movement will be ultimately uninterested in or incapable of, like AQIM, of moving fully into transnational militancy.  Al-Shabab, despite facing major setbacks during the past year, has succeeded in establishing clandestine recruiting networks on several continents, developed a sophisticated set of media operations, and continues to prove that it remains a potent force inside Somalia, though how long it can remain so under increasing military pressure is unclear.

The possibility of fractures emerging in the movement, particularly as pressure mounts, remain perhaps the greatest danger to Al-Shabab’s existence as a unified, or fairly unified, militant force inside the country.  These fractures will perhaps emerge following the formal affiliation of Al-Shabab with AQC, if consistent reports of a rift between Godane and more Somalia-centric Al-Shabab leaders are true.  These fractures, however, may not emerge in the short term, as the insurgent movement has proven remarkably resilient in the fact of major crises such as the famine.  The Al-Shabab media reaction, in the form of its own press statements, videos, and other media releases, to the official announcement of affiliation will also be telling with regard to how the insurgent movement itself, and not AQC, presents the affiliation.  It also remains to be seen whether the distribution network of Al-Shabab media materials online changes, moving from the Sada al-Jihad (Echo of Jihad) Media Center of the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF) to the Al-Fajr (The Dawn) Media Center, which distributes AQC, AQAP, ISI, and AQIM media materials exclusively, in addition to some of its own material.  Even close allies of AQC in other regions, such as the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, do not have their media materials distributed via Al-Fajr.  Such a shift would be a further sign of Al-Shabab’s full adoption into the AQ family.

As the idiom says, “watch this space.”

On Flags, Islamic History, and al-Qa’ida

After writing my post on Libya, AQIM, and the spotting of a flag that appeared to be al-Qa’ida in Iraq’s (AQI) hanging over a court building in Benghazi there has been much written over the past few days regarding this flag as well as one waved at a rally also held in Libya that showed the Islamic State of Iraq’s (AQI’s successor group) flag.[1] Earlier this morning, it sparked an interesting debate between Ed Husain and Will McCants on Twitter. The flags in question were the following two:

al-Qa'ida in Iraq's flag. This was the one that appeared on top of the court house in Benghazi.

Islamic State of Iraq's flag.

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Husain contended that one should not describe this flag as an “al-Qa’ida flag,” stating: “By calling it AQ flag we give them what is not theirs. The Prophet used those colours in his raids against pagans.” On the other hand, McCants argued that Muhammad may have used similar colors (i.e. black and white), but no other Islamic movement uses the exact same styled flag as the Islamic State of Iraq. Husain mentioned Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT) as a counter example, yet that does not hold up to scrutiny, see:

Hizb ut-Tahrir's flag

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Indeed, in the case of the AQI and HuT flags they both use black as the background and contain the shahada (Islamic testament of faith: ‘There is no God, but God; and Muhammad is the Messenger of God’). While the Islamic State of Iraq’s only has the first half of the shahada at the top while on the bottom is the seal that Muhammad used in official documents. They all differ a bit though since they have different styled typeface. Further, if one were to contend as Husain did that “we” are giving al-Qa’ida something that is not theirs then we should look back and see what flags the Muslim prophet Muhammad actually used as well as the Rashidun Caliphate, Ummayad Caliphate, and the Abbasid Caliphate.

Muhammad used two flags depending on the type of raid or battle he was in. One was a solid white flag while the main flag he used was a solid black flag called rāyat al ‘uqāb (flag of the eagle). Neither flag had markings or symbols. The black flag derived from Muhammad’s tribe Quraysh’s flag, which was called the same thing, but actually did have an eagle on it. Muhammad’s two flags would have looked as follows:

Muhammad's black flag

Muhammad's white flag

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Following the death of Muhammad, the Rashidun Caliphate continued to use Muhammad’s black flag as seen above. The Ummayad’s used the white flag in both Damascus and al-Andalus. Whereas the Abbasids used the black flag once more. As such, if one looks at early Islamic history there is no connection to the flag that al-Qai’da in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq adopted. Of course the Islamic State of Iraq uses the shahada on its flag to try and show Islamic legitimacy. The Islamic State of Iraq also incorporated the seal that Muhammad used in official correspondance:

Muhammad's seal

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That said, it does not necessarily mean one cannot state that the Islamic State of Iraq’s flag is not the al-Qa’ida flag since no one has ever used that specific design, typeface, and set up in the history of Islam.

[1] According to Leah Farrall, the Islamic State of Iraq’s flag was first designed and flown by the original al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, which was located in Saudi Arabia in the early 2000s. It was popularized, though, by the Islamic State of Iraq.

Al-Qa’ida Representative Delivers Humanitarian Aid to Harakat al-Shabab Refugee Camp in Lower Shabelle

-Christopher Anzalone (Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University)

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Harakat al-Shabab’s chief spokesman, ‘Ali Mahamoud Rage (left), with the alleged “Al-Qa’ida” representative Abu ‘Abdullah al-Muahjir

Yesterday, at a carefully choreographed media event, the Somali Islamist-insurgent movement Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Movement of the Warrior-Youth, “Al-Shabaab,” Xarada Mujaahidiinta Al-Shabaab) welcomed in a significant amount of humanitarian aid for victims of the severe drought afflicting the country and the Horn of Africa at large.  The aid was delivered by a young man, “Abu ‘Abdullah al-Muhajir” (The Emigrant), who claimed to represent the “Al-Qa’ida organization (Tanzim Qa’idat al-Jihad, literally “the Jihad base organization”), to the Al-Yasir refugee camp in the region of Lower Shabelle, immediately to the south of the capital city of Mogadishu.  Al-Yasir has become Harakat al-Shabab’s flagship refugee relief center, the place at which it stages much of its aid distribution, much of which is carefully recorded by the insurgent’s own media office or by sympathetic or affiliated media outlets.

‘Ali Mahamoud Rage & Abu ‘Abdullah al-Muhajir

In an official press statement issued today by Harakat Al-Shabab’s Al-Kata’ib (The Brigades) Media Foundation, the aid delivered to Al-Yasir by Abu ‘Abdullah al-Muhajir included rice, dates, cooking oil, 4,000 packets of powdered milk, medicines, and 1,500 copies of the Qur’an and 1,500 books of du’a (prayers of supplication to God) for teaching and religious purposes, and $17,000 in local currency.  The relief mission was dubbed the “Charitable Campaign of the Martyr Bin Laden for the Relief of Those Affected by the Drought” and professionally-printed banners announced that “Tanzim al-Qa’ida” was the donor.

Abu ‘Abdullah al-Muhajir was accompanied by Harakat al-Shabab’s chief spokesman, ‘Ali Mahamoud Rage, who is also known as ‘Ali Dheere.  Al-Muhajir extolled the life and career of Usama bin Laden, who he said had sacrificed his wealth and ultimately his life for “the Muslims” in the “path of jihad.”  Rage praised the donation and said that it was accepted because of the “shared monotheism” of Harakat al-Shabab and Al-Qa’ida Central (AQC).  Al-Muhajir urged Muslims outside of Somalia to donate aid to assist Somalis suffering from the worst famine to hit the Horn of Africa in 60 years.

Harakat al-Shabab’s affinity for Bin Laden and other Al-Qa’ida ideologues is well known and not something that the movement’s leaders have attempted to hide.  However, yesterday’s delivery of aid by al-Muhajir is the most public acknowledgment by the insurgents of the presence of alleged Al-Qa’ida operatives in Somalia.  Al-Muhajir seems to be a fluent English speaker, based on poor quality audio of his short speech at Al-Yasir.  He wore a kaffiyeh scarf over his face and nothing but his eyes were visible.  His voice, in my opinion based on the audio, is different from that of Omar “Abu Mansur al-Amriki” Hammami, the American Harakat al-Shabab member, though the two have similar lanky builds.  In a video produced by Harakat al-Shabab’s media office and released in the late summer of 2008, the late AQC East Africa operative Saleh ‘Ali Saleh al-Nabhani urged Muslims from outside Somalia, particularly those in Sudan and Yemen, to join insurgent ranks.

The exact meaning of this public unveiling of a continued AQC presence in Somalia is currently unclear.  It is telling that Harakat al-Shabab leaders have apparently decided to maintain a separate identity, despite talks of unity through belief in monotheism (Tawhid), from “AQ” in Somalia.  The relief delivery was, according to banners at Al-Yasir, “coordinated by Harakat al-Shabab” but from “AQ.”

“Qa’idat al-Jihad Organization: The Charitable Campaign of the Martyr (al-shahid) Bin Laden for Relief of Those Affected by the Drought, with the coordination of Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen”

I discuss Al-Yasir camp and its place in Harakat al-Shabab’s media campaign and famine relief efforts in a forthcoming article on the insurgent movement, which should be published by the end of the month.  I will also be following this development in future posts here at Al-Wasat.  It remains to be seen, for example, if AQC itself will announce the aid delivery in its own statement.

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*All photographs in this post were released by Harakat al-Shabab’s media office*

What’s in a Name: The Death of the al-Qa’ida Brand?

This is my first piece back after doing Middlebury’s Arabic program this past summer. Clearly, I couldn’t wait to write since I wrote this on the plane ride back this past Saturday. Looking forward to your feedback.

Last week, Ansar al-Shari’ah, (Supporters of Shari’ah), based in Yemen, released its first video titled “The Opening [Conquests] of Zinjibar.” Since mid-April, many analysts and scholars have wondered where this apparently new group came from, who its members were, and what connections it has to al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

The name Ansar al-Shari’ah was first mentioned in an unofficial audio release by AQAP’s leading shari’ah official, Shaykh Abu Zubayr ‘Adil bin ‘Abdullah al-Abab, who conducted a question and answer session with online global jihadi activists through PalTalk in Ghorfah Minbar al-Ansar (Pulpit Room of the Supporters). The first question was “What is the general situation of the mujahidin in Yemen and the status of the Shabab Ansar al-Shari’ah?” al-Abab responded that when they recruit new members to AQAP, they first introduce themselves under the banner of Ansar al-Shari’ah. But why would they need to do that? Has the AQ brand really become that tarnished? And is Ansar al-Shari’ah really AQAP?

Some have been skeptical of links between AQAP and Ansar al-Shari’ah. While conclusive evidence is lacking, there are several strong indicators. Ansar al-Shari’ah’s first video release, which was not published by AQAP’s media outlet al-Malahim (the Epics), highlighted “martyrs” who were also eulogized in the most recent issue of AQAP’s Inspire Magazine — Abu ‘Ali al-Harithi, ‘Ali bin Salih bin Jalal and ‘Amar ‘Abadah al-Wa’ili. Although this is not proof of collusion, there clearly seems to be some overlap. Ansar al-Shari’ah may be a subsidiary of AQAP used for recruitment and foot soldiers in Yemen’s incipient civil war. It is telling that AQAP may be recruiting individuals using a different name.

We have also recently learned that Usama bin Laden may have been looking to change the name of al-Qa’ida central. According to press reports based on leaked information from the raid that killed bin Laden, al-Qai’da’s central leadership in Pakistan was debating a couple of options for its name. This was spurred in part by the Western habit of referring to the group as al-Qa’ida, rather than its official name of Tandhim Qa’idat al-Jihad (The Base Organization of Jihad). The leadership felt that the West’s habit of omitting the word “jihad” robbed them of some of their religious legitimacy. Unfortunately for al-Qa’ida, the two alternative names on the table were a mouthful – Ta’ifat at-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad (Sect of Monotheism and Jihad) and Jama’at ’I‘adat al-Khilafah al-Rashidiyyah (Restoration Group of the Rashidun Caliphate). Ultimately, they decided to stick with Tandhim Qa’idat al-Jihad.

The name game isn’t new. al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) attempted to rehabilitate its image following the death of its leader,  the notorious butcher Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, in 2006. AQI changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) as a way of rebranding itself because many Iraqis were repulsed by the organization’s overuse of violence, as well as the perception that it was made up of foreigners. The latter is also the reason they announced Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi, a purported Iraqi, as their new leader, although it has been disputed whether he was actually a real person. In the years since, the name change has not done much for AQI’s credibility. It remains a threat, but is a shadow of its former self.

Another place where naming is an issue is in Somalia, where Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin (The Movement of the Holy Warrior Youth) has pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden but has not changed its name to become an al-Qa’ida franchise. Leah Farrall recently wrote an excellent overview on this topic in the most recent issue of the CTC Sentinel. Although it is a great addition to the literature, there were also other explanations for the lack of formal name change. Reportedly, al-Qa’ida itself opposed the name change because it did not want al-Shabab to sully its so-called “street cred” by using its polarizing brand. It is difficult to ascertain whether these reports are credible. But the very discussion shows the growing pitfalls of the al-Qa’ida brand.

All told, the al-Qa’ida brand is not favorable anymore – even for its senior leadership. It’s a big problem if AQAP is able to recruit more individuals by rejecting the brand and taking on a name with more religious significance.[1]

Even if the brand name is discredited, AQ’s ideas still resonate with many, especially if it can be repackaged for local contexts, as in the apparent case of AQAP. As we have seen in the past, AQ is a very nimble organization that learns, evolves, and quickly adapts to a rapidly changing “battlefield.” It would be wise for our policy makers and government officials to heed these subtle changes in its counterterrorism strategies. Otherwise, we are fighting an imaginary enemy, one that only exists in our minds or that existed in 2001 or 2008, but not in 2011.


[1] Ansar or the supporters played an important role in early Islamic history when the Muslim prophet Muhammad was still preaching and calling people to Islam. Ansar were the individuals in Medina that helped Muhammad and his followers following its hijra from Mecca. Therefore, the use of the term Ansar acts as a strong link to the past that appeals to the average Muslim. Further, when attaching it to the Shari’ah, which has primacy in the lives of religious Muslims, Ansar al-Shari’ah becomes a catchy and useful name that is stronger in Islamic terms than Tandhim Qa’idat al-Jihad.

The Social Media Front: Jihadi Media Elite Outlet Lauches New Web Site, YouTube Channel

-Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)

The Jihadi Media Elite (Nukhba al-’Ilam al-Jihadi; JME), a shadowy transnational jihadi-takfiri media outlet that churns out Arabic-language transcripts of media material produced by groups such as Al-Qa’ida Central (AQC), has launched a new “primary” web site and a YouTube Channel.  The announcement was made via established jihadi-takfiri Internet forums yesterday.  The JME produced an eight minute, 38 second video announcing the launch, which was posted for download to these forums.  In an earlier post from April, I wrote about the JME’s lauch of pair of web sites and a Twitter account, all of which are still operational.

As of this writing (1:55 P.M. EST), the JME’s YouTube channel has nine subscribers.  When I took screen captures late last night, there were five subscribers.  Of the nine, three claim to be from Saudi Arabia or the “Peninsula of Muhammad”, one from Germany, one from Egypt, one from Iraq, one from the United Kingdom, one from the United States, and one from Canada.  The JME’s new web site includes scores of links to written documents as well as audio-visual media, much of which is stored at Internet Archive.  The first video was uploaded to the JME’s YouTube channel on July 3.



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