A Few Notes on Shi’ism in Syria and the Emergence of a Pro-Asad Shi’i Militia, Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas (Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas)

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas martyr  كرار عبد ألامير أبو أسدLiwa’ Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas “martyr” Karrar ‘Abd al-Amir Abu Asad: “We’re [all] Your ‘Abbas, O’ [Sayyida] Zaynab

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

July 26, 2013: Read my article, “Zaynab’s Guardians: The Emergence of Shi’a Militias in Syria,” CTC Sentinel (July 2013)  HERE.

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UPDATED MAY 22

A few initial notes/observations about Shi’i historical presence in Syria and the emergence of a pro-Syrian government militia, Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas (Brigade of Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas/Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas; Liwa’ Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas)  in Syria:

(1) It is clear that the Iranian government has an interest on the part of the Iranian government and its regional allies in expanding their sphere(s) of influence in the Middle East and North Africa and the wider world, particularly in Muslim-majority countries and among Muslim communities, Shi’i and Sunni.  While recognizing this desire and organizational, economic, and military support from the Iranian government to allied groups in countries such as Iraq, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, it is important to also understand the goals of these local actors in accepting such support.

Iranian government missionary activity and the emergence of Qum as the premier location of Twelver Shi’i religious education following the expulsion of foreign students and intensification of Iraqi Ba’th targeting of the Shi’i religious leadership and political activists in the late 1970s has allowed the Iranian government to expand its influence to other parts of the Middle East and North Africa as well as to Western Europe, West Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Southeast Asia.  It is important to recognize, however, that the Iranian government’s goals are not shared by all Twelver Shi’is and the claimed religious authority of ‘Ali Khamenei is not universally recognized.  Critiques of the late Grand Ayatullah Ruhollah Khumayni’s conception of wilayat al-faqih emerged the very year of Iran’s Revolution and have continued to be written to the present day.  The politics of Iranian government attempts to expand its sphere of influence and the local factors aiding and hindering such expansion are complex and should be considered in any analysis of Twelver Shi’i communities and political activism.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas 1A photograph showing members of Liwa Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas with men who appear to have been performing one of the mourning rituals involving bloodletting during the Muharram mourning for Imam Husayn and his party.  Not all Twelver Shi’is perform these rituals and Shi’i mujtahids have taken different positions on the permissibility of such rituals.  Some have noted that none of the Twelve Imams, according to Shi’i tradition, performed such rituals, even in mourning for the Ahl al-Bayt.  The rituals are particularly popular among segments of the South Asian, Iraqi, and Afghan Twelver Shi’i communities as well as followers of the Lebanese AMAL party and adherents (Shiraziyyin) to the Shirazi family of religious scholars, a member of whom founded Damascus’ Zaynabiyya seminary (hawza).

(2) Individual motivations for joining groups such as Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas may differ from the reasons the Iranian government or other state or powerful non/quasi-state actors have for supporting, organizing, or backing such groups.  As Thomas Hegghammer has noted in his studies of the Muslim foreign fighter phenomenon, it is often very difficult to know exactly what the motivations were for specific individuals in becoming a “foreign fighter” since martyr biographies and accounts (martyrologies) released after their deaths often address/justify their decision and involvement in certain conflicts after the fact.  Thus, they are not always reliable in understanding the actual motivations, outside of hagiographical narratives.  There may (and in my opinion, likely are) personalized pietistic reasons (from the viewpoint of volunteers/recruits) at play in the decision of at least some of the individual Shi’is fighting under the Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas banner.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (Ali in bullets)“[Imam] ‘Ali”

(3) It’s very important to note the deep-rooted reverence and love Twelver Shi’is have for Zaynab bint ‘Ali (Sayyida Zaynab), which, in my view, almost certainly has played a role in motivating at least some of the individuals who have traveled to Syria to, as they see it, defend her shrine and other important Shi’i shrines from destruction and desecration by some of the Syrian rebel groups.

Among her roles in Shi’i tradition, Zaynab is believed to have been one of the main reasons that the message of Husayn (Hussein, Hussain), the third Shi’i Imam, and thus Islam (according to the Shi’i point of view) was preserved even after his martyrdom at the hands of the Umayyad army of Yazid bin Mu’awiya.  Her defiant speech in front of the Umayyad caliph himself is particularly heralded in the Shi’i tradition, particularly during the annual Muharram rituals of ‘Ashura, which commemorate the death of Imam Husayn and many of his small party (including his half brother, al-‘Abbas, whose honorific “Abu al-Fadl”/”father of” denotes his eldest son, Fadl.)  His mother, Fatima bint Hizam al-Kilabiyya, was one of Imam ‘Ali ibn Talib’s wives and, according to Shi’i tradition, raised his sons by Fatima al-Zahra/Fatima bint Muhammad (the Prophet) as if they were her own.  Al-‘Abbas, to Shi’is, is one of the heroes of Karbala, of whom portraits are painted and nasheeds and mourning recitations (latmiyas) recited during Muharram.

Sayyida ZaynabSayyida Zaynab bint ‘Ali

(3) The neighborhood around Sayyida Zaynab’s shrine in Damascus has long been a center for a community of Twelver Shi’is and popular devotees to the Ahl al-Bayt (the Prophet Muhammad’s family), both residential and scholastic (it’s been the site of a seminary, the Zaynabiyya, affiliated with the Shirazi family of scholars since the 1970s) as well as a center of Shi’i pilgrimage. Shi’i shrines, however, are also located in other areas of the city, such as that of Ruqaya bint ‘Husayn and Sukaina bint Husayn.  These shrines have benefited from Iranian and Syrian governmental funding of restoration and expansion projects, but their importance as local holy sites and the sites of pilgrimage for the region’s Shi’is predates the advent of Iran’s “Islamic Republic.”   These sites, however, have benefited from state patronage, which helped them become fully integrated as regular stops for Shi’i pilgrims from abroad (at least before the start of the uprising against Bashar al-Asad).  Before the Syrian civil war, it and other important shrines in Damascus were regular sites of Shi’i pilgrimage, often as part of pilgrimage (ziyarat) trips that also visited Shi’i shrines in Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

Iranian and Syrian state support and promotion of the Syrian Shi’i shrines in the 1980s was a part of both countries’ shared opposition to the Iraqi Ba’th government, which had imposed itself on the Shi’i shrines in Iraq, going as far as to appoint its own officials to “supervise” the sites in cities such as Najaf, Karbala, and Kufa.  Similarly, the Zaynabiyya hawza benefited from an influx of seminary students, including a number of Afghan Hazara Shi’is, from neighboring Iraq expelled by Saddam in the second half of the 1970s.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (Wahhabis)“We’re coming, O’ Zaynab…Thirsty for blood of the Wahhabis (al-wahhabiyya)…BANNER: We Heed Your Call/are at your service, O’ Zaynab,” denoting the Salafi foes that, according to the few available sources, Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas see themselves as fighting.  Pro-Brigade Facebook pages and Internet postings often include photographs of killed “Wahhabis” and members, the sites claim, of puritanical Salafi rebel groups such as the Al-Qa’ida in the Land of the Two Rivers (Iraq)-connected Jabhat al-Nusra.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas“We Heed Your Call/are at Your Service. O’ Asad”

(4) Shi’i presence and shrines have existed in Syria, including in the north, from much earlier periods.  Many of the Sunni rulers during the medieval period also had pro-‘Alid inclinations even if they themselves were not Shi’is.

(5) Syrian Sunnis (or some of them) also revere these figures. Salafis, due to their iconoclasm, oppose such shrines to varying degrees, the most extreme being actively targeting them for destruction.

(6) Some individual members and supporters are likely swayed by the claimed “axis of resistance” image heralded by the Iranian and Syrian governments as well as Hizbullah in Lebanon.  According to this worldview, support for the besieged Syrian government is a way of resisting what is seen as U.S. hegemony in the region and the broader world.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (Hasan Nasrallah & Bashar al-Asad)An Internet poster from a pro-Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas Facebook page showing Hizbullah’s secretary-general Hasan Nasrallah (right) and Syrian president Bashar al-Asad.  The photograph of Nasrallah was taken after the 2006 Hizbullah-Israel war and has clearly been edited to show light emanating from the book (presumably the Qur’an).  The same is true of the posed image of al-Asad.  Both are shown by the designer as pious (thus, presumably, deserving of support).

(7) The membership (and death) of a number of Iraqi Shi’is with Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas in Syria may have much to do with both the presence prior to the civil war of a large Iraqi expatriate community and contention in Iraq over who truly represents the legacy of the late grand mujtahid Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr.  Though one of his sons, Muqtada, leads what can be termed the “mainstream” Sadrist trend (Tayyar al-Sadr, al-Sadriyyun), which is composed of political, social, and paramilitary branches, he faces competitors from among those who studied or claimed to have studied (and excelled) with this father in the seminary.  These include movements with varying degrees of messianist outlook such as that led by Mahmoud al-Hasani as well as individuals widely considered (or who consider themselves) mujtahids or grand mujtahids such as Kazim Ha’iri and Muhammad al-Ya’qubi.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (Qays al-Khaz'ali, Qais Khazali), Ali Khamenei, & Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr“Lion of the League [of the Righteous], Yahya Sarmud Muhammad al-Fayli,” pictured with the late Iraqi mujtahid Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr (top left), Iran’s supreme leader (rahbar) ‘Ali Khamenei (top right), and ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq secretary-general Qays al-Khaz’ali/Qais Khazali (bottom right).

Others, such as Qays al-Khaz’ali (leader of the Iraqi Shi’i militia ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq/League of the Righteous, which is believed to enjoy Iranian state support), have donned the turban (‘amama) in a bid for religious scholarly legitimacy, despite often questionable education credentials.  Though a number of the pro-Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas videos, many which appear to have been made and uploaded by “fans,” include photographs of Muqtada, it is possible that intra-Sadrist (using the term “Sadrist” to refer very broadly to a number of different movements claiming at least part of their legitimacy from the contested legacy of the late Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who is considered a martyr at the hands of the Iraqi Ba’th, who assassinated him and two of his sons in February 1999) is also at play in the organizing of volunteers/recruits to fight in Syria.

Qays Khaz'aliQays al-Khaz’ali (seated to the right) in front of a picture of the man whose legacy he claims to be upholding, Grand Ayatullah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr.

Qays al-Khaz'ali (Facebook)“His eminence, the Shaykh Qays al-Khaz’ali, the general-secretary of the Islamic Movement of the Righteous [People of Truth].”

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (Hasan Nasrallah, Ali Khamenei, Qays Khazali)Liwa’ Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas martyr Karrar ‘Abd al-Amir Abu Asad (lower left) pictured with Iran’s supreme leader (rahbar) ‘Ali Khamenei (top), Hizbullah’s secretary-general Hasan Nasrallah (right), and ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq secretary-general Qays al-Khaz’ali (far right).  There is also part of a verse (13) from the Qur’an, chapter (surah) al-Saff (The Ranks): “Help from God and victory is near.”

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas 2 (Surah al-Kahf)Liwa’ Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas martyr Karrar ‘Abd al-Amir Abu Asad (lower left and right) pictured with the logo of ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, which includes a part of a verse (13) from the Qur’an, chapter (surah) al-Kahf (The Cave), which reads: “Lo, they were young men who believed in their Lord and We [God] increased them in guidance! [We/God guided them].”

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas martyr Muthanna Ubays Khafif‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq “joyful martyr” (al-shahid al-sa’id) Muthanna ‘Ubays Khafif (right) pictured alongside ‘Ali Khamenei.  Khafif is listed as having “self-sacrificed” (istishhad) in defense of the holy places (al-muqaddasat) on May 15, 2013.

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Given my research focus on martyrdom, the study of political Islam, and Shi’ism in the contemporary period, I hope to write more in both the near future on these topics as well as, probably, down the road for my dissertation.

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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.

IN PICTURES: Somalia’s Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen: Hasan Dahir Aweys, a Photo Essay Sourced from Insurgent Media: Part 5

Hasan Dahir Aweys (Eid al-Adha 1432 prayers in Lafoole, Lower Shabelle)

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-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

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Hasan Dahir Aweys & Ali Rage (Ali Dheere) at the public event marking the merger of Hizbul Islam with Al-Shabab in late December 2010

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Hasan Dahir Aweys & Ali Rage, Al-Shabab’s spokesman, at a public event in February 2011 during which a captured Burundian AMISOM soldier was displayed

Hasan Dahir Aweys at Al-Shabab’s conference in mid-May 2011 commemorating the killing of Usama bin Laden conference

Hasan Dahir Aweys (Eid al-Adha 1432 prayers in Lafoole, Lower Shabelle)

Hasan Dahir Aweys with Mukhtar Robow at ‘Eid al-Fitr congregational prayers in Lower Shabelle (August 2011)

Hasan Dahir Aweys leads ‘Eid al-Fitr congregational prayers in Lower Shabelle in August 2011

Hasan Dahir Aweys (Meeting with ‘Ayr clan leaders, November 2011)

Hasan Dahir Aweys visits Al-Shabab’s refugee camp in Lower Shabelle, Al Yasir (July 2011)

Hasan Dahir Aweys, Mukhtar Robow (middle), & Muhammad Abu ‘Abdullah, governor of Lower Shabelle, at a conference for Somali ‘ulama in Bay and Bakool regions (December 2011)

The End of a Romance? The Rise and Fall of an American Jihadi: Omar Hammami’s Relationship with Somalia’s Al-Shabab

-Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)

In a 1:10-minute video posted on YouTube on March 16, Omar Hammami, until now the most prominent non-Somali foreign member of the Somali insurgent-jihadi movement Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Movement of the Warrior-Youth; Al-Shabab/Al-Shabaab), issued an “urgentmessage (sic)” to “whoever it [the message] may reach among the Muslims” in which he said that he feared for his life following a dispute with Al-Shabab following “differences” over matters of “shari’a and strategy.”   Sitting in front of the black-and-white flag emblazoned with the Muslim testament of faith (shahada) that Al-Shabab uses, Hammami, who is referred to in transnational Sunni jihadi (hereafter “jihadi“) circles as “Abu Mansur al-Amriki [the American],” does not elaborate on the nature of his dispute with Al-Shabab or whether the dispute was with the movement’s leadership generally or specific members of the insurgent leadership cadre, in which they are also reportedly divisions and disputes over several issues including the response to the famine threatening the Horn of Africa and local or glocal versus full-fledged transnational militancy. The room appears to be the same one, or similar to the one, in a photograph of Hammami that was posted to jihadi Internet forums in December 2011, though it is impossible to tell for sure.

The release of this video from the American citizen who is perhaps most famous for his terrible hip hop songs such as “Send Me a Cruise” and “Blow by Blow” has caused considerable consternation among segments of the cyber jihadi community.  The dispute appears to be genuine has become stronger with the release of multiple messages via Al-Shabab’s official or affiliated media outlets earlier today.  Given the potential importance of this news, it is worth reviewing Hammami’s lengthy relationship with Al-Shabab.

Hammami (b. 1984), a native of Daphne, Alabama and son of a Syrian Muslim father and a Protestant Christian American mother, traveled to Somalia in late November 2006 from Egypt.  According to his former best friend Bernie Culveyhouse, he likely traveled to the East African country because of a desire to aid the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), an umbrella movement that, in 2006, brought the first real semblance of law and order to civil war-torn Somalia  since the fall of dictator Siyaad Barre in 1991.  It is believed that Hammami joined Al-Shabab, which formed part of the UIC’s military wing.  In 2007, wearing a kuffiya scarf over his face and only showing his eyes, he was interviewed by Al-Jazeera Arabic and made an appeal to Americans to heed the example of Somalia.

Hammami became most well known, however, following his starring role in Ambush at Bardale, a 31-minute video released in late March 2009.  The video, produced by Al-Shabab’s media department, then simply referred to as such, documents an ambush by insurgents led by Hammami against an Ethiopian military convoy near the city of Baidoa, capital of the Bay region, in western Somalia in early August 2008.  In the video Hammami, speaking in English, lectures a group of Al-Shabab fighters on hadith, the Qur’an, and strategic and ideological matters concerning the movement’s “jihad” and standing in “ribat,” or guardianship over Muslim lands.  Ambush at Bardale also includes Hammami’s first two hip hop songs, “Blow by Blow” and “Hum Hum,” which feature him and a second unidentified English speaker. Hammami later addresses the camera in Arabic.

Despite his very public persona in the news media, particularly in North America, Hammami’s exact position and role in Al-Shabab has largely been the subject of speculation.  According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s designation of him as an international terrorist, Hammami is (or was) a “military tactician, recruitment strategist, and financial manager” for Al-Shabab.  The designation also accuses him of being involved in the planning of an October 2008 suicide attack in Puntland carried out by U.S. citizen and Al-Shabab fighter Shirwa Ahmed.  Open source material with regard to his role, particularly insurgent primary sources, is generally ambiguous.  In the three official Al-Shabab videos that he’s appeared in, he has been referred to as “shaykh” and “the brother (al-akh).”  The first title is traditionally an honorific title describing either a societal or religious leader though jihadi groups use the term so frequently that the term’s meaning is often of limited use with regards to determining an individual’s specific role.  The second is a term of endearment used by Muslims generally to describe a fellow male Muslim.  In the statement reporting the Hammami-led ambush of Ethiopian forces at Bardale, the Daphne native was referred to as a “field commander” (al-qa’id al-maydani).  His exact role, if any, in the upper echelons of Al-Shabab’s leadership cadre is unclear, at least in open source materials.

In January 2008 the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF), a shadowy jihadi media outlet and distribution network that has for years facilitated the distribution of Al-Shabab’s statements and other media material online, released a 5-page essay penned by Hammami and addressed to “the mujahideen in particular and the Muslims in general.”  In the essay, he criticized the UIC and discussed the differences between it and Al-Shabab.  Whereas the former restricted itself to the “boundaries placed by the Taaghoot [Taghut; tyrant-rulers],” Al-Shabab had “a global goal” that included the formation of a jihadi caliphate, a transnational state, in “all parts of the world.”  Hammami criticized the UIC’s poor treatment of foreign fighters, the “muhajireen” (emigrants) who traveled to aid their Somali Muslim brethren.  Toward the end of his essay, the American discusses Al-Shabab’s purported program or “path” (Minhaj).  How definitive in terms of guidance his discussion of the movement’s program was, however, is unclear.  Al-Shabab’s Somali leaders and more important non-Somali foreign leaders and affiliated Al-Qa’ida Central operatives, such as the late Saleh ‘Ali Saleh al-Nabhan and Fazul ‘Abdullah Muhammad, were likely more influential on the formation of the movement’s ideology.  If continuous reports about purported internal divisions are true, Al-Shabab’s leaders are divided on a number of issues, though this cleavages have not yet precipitated the actual break-up of the movement.  Currently Al-Shabab has a leadership cadre that includes a number of prominent Somali preacher-ideologues, including some who have lived in diaspora communities such as Fu’ad Muhammad Khalaf and ‘Abd al-Qadir Mu’min.  Together with political leaders such as the movement’s amir Ahmed Godane, spokesman ‘Ali Mahamoud Rage (‘Ali Dheere), Robow, and Aweys, these individuals have likely been more influential over the construction of Al-Shabab’s ideology as a movement than Hammami.

Hammami has appeared a number of times at public Al-Shabab functions including a celebration for the children of the movement’s “martyrs” in 2009 or 2010.  His most high profile appearance was at a lengthy conference entitled “We are All Usama” held by Al-Shabab in the Lower Shabelle region south of Mogadishu in mid May 2011 following the killing of Al-Qa’ida Central founder-leader Usama bin Laden by U.S. forces earlier that month in Pakistan.

In photographs released by Al-Shabab and affiliated/sympathetic media outlets, Hammami was pictured alongside a number of senior Al-Shabab leaders including Rahanweyn leader Mukhtar “Abu Mansur” Robow, Hasan Dahir Aweys, Lower Shaballe governor Muhammad Abu ‘Abdullah, preachers ‘Abd al-Qadir Mu’min and Fu’ad Muhammad Khalaf “Shongole,” and Banaadir governor Muhammad Hasan ‘Umar Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman.  In Ambush at Bardale Hammami also appeared alongside Robow planning the ambush against Ethiopian forces.  In that footage and in photographs and video footage from the conference dedicated to Bin Laden.two appeared quite friendly with one another.  It is purely speculative, but it is possible, if rumors of a rift among Al-Shabab leaders is true and the evidence is mixed and not concrete, that the row has been caused by a faction attempting to isolate Robow, who has had a longstanding relationship, based on insurgent media, with Hammami.  Robow is one of the leaders who, according to reports of leadership divisions, is opposed to a fully internationalized militancy, instead favoring a more Somalia and Horn of Africa-centered vision, at least for the medium term.

The amount of media attention that Hammami has attracted is likely disproportionate to his actual role and importance to Al-Shabab.  This is not to say that he was not important to the movement’s recruitment efforts, particularly among English-speakers.  It is interesting to note that Al-Shabab had already recruited dozens of mostly Somali youth in the U.S., Canada, and Britain before its public video unveiling of Hammami in Ambush at Bardale, though this fact does not discount the possibility/likelihood that he was involved prior in an advisory role.

Hammami, as mentioned previously, has appeared in three official video releases produced by Al-Shabab’s media wing, Ambush at Bardale, the September 2009-release Labbayk Ya Usama, and an April 2010 release about a celebration held for children of killed insurgents.  In Labbayk Ya Usama Hammami’s makes a brief non-speaking appearance and is shown observing and directing training of Al-Shabab “special forces” and meeting with other Al-Shabab commanders.  He speaks at the celebration for the children of the “martyrs,” though the children seem more interested in their toys and food, alongside ‘Ali Rage.  Hammami’s hip hop songs, both those released independently (or at least unbranded by) of Al-Shabab’s media department and the two featured in Ambush at Bardale, were branded as being from “Ghaba Productions.”  His most recent lecture, “Lessons Learned,” appeared on YouTube and the Ansar al-Mujahideen English jihadi Internet forum on October 7, 2011 and was subsequently released on other web sites including the predominantly Somali language al-Qimma al-Islamiyya (Islamic Summit) forum.  The latter link was later not working and was possibly removed by forum administrators.  In November, the lecture was translated from English into Arabic by the al-Masada (Place of Lions) Media Foundation, the media office of the Shumukh al-Islam (Islamic pride/glory) Internet forum.  Comparisons made by some of Hammami with Anwar al-‘Awlaqi are, frankly, bordering on the absurd.  Unlike Hammami, al-‘Awlaqi had some semblance of religious legitimacy, at least prior to his public embrace of Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and militancy.  While Hammami was able to speak a caricatured youth slang, it is unlikely that his religious arguments for jihad or even his personal life story carried the same authoritativeness and weight of al-‘Awlaqi’s, since the latter gave up a successful public life and leadership role in the U.S. in order to embrace “true Islam,” at least according to the American-Yemeni preacher’s self-image and the image constructed by AQAP and other jihadis.

The open question is why would Hammami make such a public break with Al-Shabab now?  Speculation in some media coverage and on social media networks, primarily Twitter, has been that the dispute may be related to the movement’s formalizing of its affiliation with Al-Qa’ida Central (AQC) in early February.  This is certainly a possibility.  Praising the charismatic persona of Bin Laden is still a step below being an actual member of an AQC affiliated movement or group, which perhaps Hammami finds undesirable, if only for reasons of personal safety particularly after the U.S. government’s targeted killing of Anwar al-‘Awlaqi on September 30 of last year in Yemen.  Given Al-Shabab’s public embrace of the decision to formally affiliate with AQC, demonstrated by a number of high profile public celebrations in regions under insurgent control that have been attended by many but not all of its senior leadership (at least based on insurgent photographs), the reverse seems unlikely, that is that Hammami broke with Al-Shabab because he supported the affiliation while insurgent leaders opposed it.  The possibility that some Al-Shabab leaders are not as supportive of the affiliation remains.  Robow and Aweys, for example, were not in photographs of insurgent-organized public celebrations in Lower Shabelle and other regions and they have only just begun to reappear in insurgent-affiliated media following the announcement by Godane and Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri.  The exact reasons for this, it should be noted, are unclear. It is possible that the break between Hammami and Al-Shabab’s leadership, if true, is unrelated to the affiliation and concerns other issues, such as the insurgent movement’s application of its particularly harsh and philistine interpretation of shari’a.  Al-Shabab has actively promoted its own version of law and order, a harsh one for sure, and has attempted to establish its control over local shari’a courts through its Office of the Judiciary, which has held “training sessions” for judges from all the regions under insurgent control.

Others suggest that the break may be related to suspicions by Al-Shabab’s domestic leadership with regard to “foreign fighters.”  It is important to remember that there are several different types of such fighters in insurgent ranks.  First, there are those, likely the smallest number, who, like Hammami, are non-Somalis.  This group includes Arabs, South Asians or those of South Asian descent, possibly from Horn of Africa countries, Americans, and Europeans.  Second, there are ethnic Somalis from the diaspora.  Third, there are non-Somalis from in and around the Horn of Africa.  Available evidence, including from insurgent media, is that this group remains welcome by Al-Shabab’s leadership and indeed is increasingly the target of insurgent recruitment efforts.  This includes the affiliation of Ahmad Iman ‘Ali and the Muslim Youth Center in Kenya and the appearance of Swahili-speaking Al-Shabab fighters in insurgent videos, particularly since the November 2010 release of Message to the Umma: And Inspire the Believers.

Al-Shabab today, in a series of Tweets via its Arabic and English-language Twitter accounts and in an official statement released on jihadi Internet forums, denies that Hammami’s life is endanger and says that he still enjoys the “benefits of brotherhood” with themujahideen.”  The Arabic Tweets were posted after the English ones and essentially mirror them in meaning.  The affair will remain purely the subject of speculation until more concrete information emerges.

UPDATE (March 18, 2012): For the time being Hammami seems to have achieved his short-term goal, gaining the attention of a variety of audiences including jihadis with his SOS call.  Al-Shabab, or at least its Al-Kata’ib (The Brigades) Media Foundation, has felt pressured enough by the uploading of his video to publicly respond in an official statement and Tweets on its Twitter accounts.  After assuring their supporters that Hammami is not at risk of harm from them, the insurgent movement has, to some degree, boxed itself in.  If Hammami is killed later by them, Al-Shabab will have to either formulate a strong argument as to why they went against the assurances offered in their statement or, perhaps as likely, make his death look either like the doing of another group such as AMISOM, the weak Somali Transitional Federal Government, Kenya, Ethiopia, or one of their allied Somali militias like Ahlu Sunnah Wal-Jamaacah, or an “accident” which they facilitate, as some analysts have alleged insurgents did with Fazul ‘Abdullah Muhammad (though actual concrete evidence of this thus far has not surfaced.)

Comments left on Hammami’s uploaded video on YouTube include the copy-and-pasted text of the HSMPress English Tweets, by user “golbourne1234,” (another commenter posts the main Arabic text of Al-Shabab’s official statement) and  the bemoaning of “fitna” (social discord) by user “missizx2,” who writes, “Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh, Fitna is everywhere, also on the Ard ul Izzah, my brother I dont think Mujahideen would kill their own brother only because of differences in opinion or understanding, have sabr and keep trust in Allah. And if they execute you because they have a reason according to Shariah (for example like the execution of Ebuzer in Khurasan) then may Allah accept you from among the Shuhada.  ‘Verily, with hardship there is relief ‘(Qur’an 94:6).”  The latter comment, even with the prayer for Hammami to be accepted as a “martyr” if Al-Shabab executes him in a shar’i (legal) fashion, is unlikely to comfort the American.

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.”

IN PICTURES: Somalia’s Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen, a Photo Essay Sourced from Insurgent Media: Part 4

-Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)

A photo 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.

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‘Abd al-Qadir Mu’min meeting with Murusade clan leaders (April 2011)

‘Ali Mahamoud Rage (Ali Dheere) at graduation of Jaysh al-Hisbah, Harakat al-Shabab’s police force, members in Lower Shabelle (Feb. 2011)

‘Ali Mahamoud Rage (Ali Dheere) with captured Burundian AMISOM equipment at Dayniile

‘Ali Mahamoud Rage (Ali Dheere) at graduation of Jaysh al-Hisbah, Harakat al-Shabab’s police force, members  in Lower Shabelle (Feb. 2011)

A shari’a court run by Harakat al-Shabab in Lower Shabelle

Distribution of Aid by Jaysh al-‘Usrah (Sep. 2011), Harakat al-Shabab’s front line military force

Distribution of Aid by Jaysh al-‘Usrah (Sep. 2011), Harakat al-Shabab’s front line military force

Bay & Bakool clan leaders at meeting with Harakat al-Shabab officials in Baidoa (July 2011)

Celebration for the Children of the Martyrs in Lower Shabelle (September 2011)

Children attending a graduation ceremony of new trainees of Harakat al-Shabab’s police force, Jaysh al-Hisbah, in February 2011

Hasan Dahir Aweys at Al-Yasir Camp, Lower Shabelle (July 2011)

Muhammad Abu ‘Abdullah (far right), Harakat al-Shabab’s governor of Lower Shabelle, at an Eid al-Adha celebration in Marka (Nov. 2011)

Muhammad Abu ‘Abdullah, visit to Lower Shabelle camp (Sep. 2011)

Muhammad Abu ‘Abdullah, Harakat al-Shabab’s governor of Lower Shabelle, at graduation of Jaysh al-Hisbah members in Lower Shabelle (Feb. 2011)

Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman, Harakat al-Shabab’s governor of Banaadir, with captured military equipment in Dayniile on the outskirts of Mogadishu (October 2011)

Harakat al-Shabab preacher-ideologues Fu’ad Muhammad Khalaf “Shongole” (left) and ‘Abd al-Qaadir Mu’min (in green scarf) on a visit to a refugee camp in Lower Shabelle in September 2011

Suldaan Al Muhammad, the former head of Harakat al-Shabab’s Emergency Relief Committee and head of its Zakat Office, which oversees the collection and distribution of the charity required of financially capable Muslims to aid the poor and other groups, such as soldiers,  at Al-Yasir camp, Lower Shabelle (Oct. 2011)

Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen Releases Statement & Information on Burundian AMISOM Soldiers Slain at Battle of Dayniile

Harakat al-Shabab spokesman ‘Ali Mahamoud Rage (‘Ali Dheere) holding up a cross necklace or rosary belonging to a slain Burundian soldier at a press conference following fierce fighting between insurgent forces and Burundian soldiers from AMISOM in Dayniile, Mogadishu in late October.

-Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)

The Somali insurgent movement Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabaab) released via its press office today a statement and identifying information on a handful of the Burundian African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) soldiers it says it killed during fierce fighting in Dayniile, a suburb of Mogadishu, in late October.  Insurgent spokesman ‘Ali Mahamoud Rage (‘Ali Dheere) claimed at a press conference held soon after the battle, where scores of bodies in Burundian military uniforms were displayed, that 101 Burundian soldiers had been killed but that insurgents had only been able to retrieve 76 of their bodies.  Harakat al-Shabab’s media department, the Al-Kata’ib (The Brigades) Media Foundation released a video documenting the battle at Dayniile on November 12, which I wrote about in detail as part of an article about the rapid evolution of the movement’s media, which was published at openDemocracy.

The statement may be read HERE.

The information released today includes names of a handful of Burundian soldiers with identifying information such as blood type, rank, and military specialization.  Photographs of identification card were also released.  Harakat al-Shabab’s media department has released similar types of identifying information in the past to disprove AMISOM denials that it has suffered casualties.  For example, in October 2010 at least one Ugandan soldier was killed in a brazen Al-Shabab attack on an AMISOM position in Mogadishu.  AMISOM officials denied that their forces had suffered any casualties or lost any equipment to insurgent forces.  Within a week Harakat al-Shabab released a statement with photographs of a slain Ugandan soldier and a large amount of captured military equipment.  This type of media savvy has long been displayed by Al-Shabab’s media department, which has most recently set up a Twitter account to spar with AMISOM, Kenyan, and other opponents online.  It is unclear why Harakat al-Shabab waited this long to release this information when in the past it has been released soon after the event in question.

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PHOTOGRAPHS RELEASED TODAY:

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PHOTOGRAPHS RELEASED IN OCTOBER 2009 AFTER ATTACK ON UGANDAN POSITION:

‘Ali Rage at a press conference displaying Ugandan casualties and captured AMISOM military equipment

Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen’s Press Office Opens Twitter Account

-Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)

The press office of the Somali Islamist insurgent movement Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Movement of the Warrior-Youth) has opened up a Twitter account, @hsmpress.  The account’s first Tweet, “In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful (بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم ),” was posted on December 7.  Every Tweet thus far, save for the first, has been in fairly crisp, idiomatic English, suggesting that the account, if its in fact run by one of Al-Shabab’s offices, is being administered by English-speakers, perhaps some of the English-speaking foreign fighters from the Somali diaspora or other groups in the United States, Canada, or Britain.  Hash tags are also being used, showing that the Tweeter(s) has at least general familiarity with Twitter and its usage.

@hsmpress joins at least two Twitter accounts believed to be affiliated with the Afghan Taliban and a number of other transnational jihadi-takfiri Twitter accounts, some of which have been shut down.  If this account is actually connected to Al-Shabab’s media wing, the opening of @hsmpress is a further sign of the media messaging prowess of the insurgent movement’s media department, at the helm of which is its in-house video production outlet, the Al-Kata’ib (The Brigades) Media Foundation.

Up to this point, @hsmpress is being used mostly to engage in polemics against Kenya, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), and the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG).  The most recent Tweets as of the writing of this post (6:29 P.M. EST) claim that Al-Shabab will release details of the scores of Burundian soldiers from AMISOM believed to have been killed during fierce fighting in the Mogadishu suburb of Dayniile in late October.  In a series of Tweets, @hsmpress writes: “In response to the requests from their families in Burundi, HSM to publish details of some of the #Burundian  soldiers killed in #Somalia.  The details of some of the soldiers will be published Monday 1100h Mecca time and will include names, ID cards, ranks of the slain soldiers.  Note: only families that have contacted us will be given official confirmation regarding the fate of their sons killed in #Somalia battles.”  If this claim is fulfilled it will suggest that the administrator(s) of the account have at least some ties to Al-Shabab’s leadership and/or media department.  It is also possible that the account is simply run by Al-Shabab sympathizers, though the specific claims made with regard to the Burundian casualties, if they pan out, suggest the account’s administrator(s) may have some ties to the insurgent movement.

IN PICTURES: Somalia’s Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen, a Photo Essay Sourced from Insurgent Media: Part 3

-Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)

A photo essay on the Somali insurgent movement Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen
Part 1 can be viewed HERE.

Part 2 can be viewed HERE.

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AL-SHABAB EVENT IN BAY & BAKOOL:

Senior Al-Shabab leader Hasan Dahir Aweys

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AWARD CEREMONY FOR RADIO AL-ANDALUS CONTEST IN SEPTEMBER:

Al-Shabab preacher and former resident of London ‘Abd al-Qaadir Mu’min

Popular Rahanweyn Al-Shabab leader Mukhtar Robow hands the young man who won the contest the prize, an AK-47

Mukhtar Robow and (far right) Muhammad Hasan ‘Umar Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman, the Al-Shabab governor of Banaadir

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GENERAL CONFERENCE FOR SOMALI RELIGIOUS SCHOLARS (‘ULAMA) FROM ALL THE ISLAMIC REGIONS IN BAY & BAKOOL:

Al-Shabab spokesman ‘Ali Mahamoud Rage (‘Ali Dheere)

Hasan Dahir Aweys


Mukhtar Robow

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Al-Shabab’s governor of Lower Shabelle, Muhammad Abu ‘Abdullah, supervises the delivery of humanitarian aid  in that region