Archive for the ‘Prospect’ Category

A new piece for Prospect, looking this time at al Shabaab and its foreign recruitment. A rich topic that I keep coming back to, though one thing I realized I missed after publishing it was any mention of Shabaab’s TV channel. As ever, any tips or thoughts are warmly appreciated.

Jihadi MCs

RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI — 12TH APRIL 2011

The Islamist group al Shabaab is attempting to make jihad trendy. But is it having any success?

“I obsesses not depress for martyrdom success” raps hip-hop enthusiast and keen Islamist, Omar Hammami, in his recent comeback song. This track wasn’t intended to top any charts, but instead to prove that the elusive Omar was still alive. That the Alabama-born twentysomething, who is believed to be a senior figure in the Islamist group al Shabaab, chose to do this through the medium of rap is typical of the Somali terrorist group that has brought the notion of socially networked revolution to a whole new level.

Jihad is a young man’s game. Old codgers like Osama (54) or Ayman al-Zawahiri (59) may be able to provide some ideological and operational support for cells, but for the most part it is young men who are on the frontlines. As a result, Islamist networks trying to recruit fresh blood are increasingly using new media, social networks and other non-traditional means to spread their message. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group behind the “underpants bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and last October’s parcel bomb scare, even produces a flashy magazine called Inspire—full of funky imagery and slang, it looks more like a fanzine than a terror manual. Closer to home, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) releases bilingual videos with colloquial German subtitles to appeal directly to its core audience in Germany.

But it is Somali group al Shabaab (“The Youth”) that is at the forefront of this new media approach. Omar Hammami’s recent hip-hop release is merely the latest from the jihadi MC. In his earlier work “First Stop Addis” he rapped about his earnest desire to become a martyr, over shots of him and his “brothers” training and fighting in Somalia. Released through extremist websites, but also widely available on YouTube, the MTV-inspired videos and songs seek to show kids how cool it is to be a mujahedin. Other videos released by the group show young warriors from around the world speaking happily into the camera as they boast, sometimes in perfect English, of how much fun it is to be fighting against the “kuffar” (unbeliever) government in Somalia.

Videos and songs are all very well, but as any good PR manager will tell you, a multipronged approach is what’s really needed. Recognising this, al Shabaab encourages its young warriors to phone home in order to inspire others and raise money. Using dial-in conference calls, the warriors in the field tell those back home of the fun they’re having, and urge those who cannot come to send money instead. They shoot guns in the background while on the phone, “to see they are working ok” and to show off. And online, members have ongoing conversations with the friends they left behind, sending them Facebook messages along the lines of, “’Sup dawg. Bring yourself over here” to “M-town.” Meanwhile websites like al Qimmah provide a forum for the fighters in the field and the fundraisers at home to interact, keeping the flame of jihad in Somalia alive.

This holistic media outreach program seems to be reaping dividends for the group, who continue to attract a steady trickle of young warriors from across Europe and North America. Most recently, in Canada, police pulled 25-year old Mohamed Hersi off a plane he was about to take to Cairo on his way to join the group. A bored Toronto security guard, it seems he was only the most recent of a number of young Canadians who have joined the group. Similar cases can be found in the United States, United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark and Australia, among others.

The danger for western countries is that while al Shabaab is currently using its trendy web strategy to draw fighters to Somalia, a time may come when they attempt to punish the west directly for supporting Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government. They have already turned their attention to neighbouring Uganda, which contributes soldiers to a peacekeeping mission in Somalia. If the recruitment drive succeeds, al Shabaab will have at their disposal a network of western passport-holding men, all of whom are at home in our hyperlinked society and know how to use technology to aid terrorism.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR)

Something for a new outlet, Prospect magazine, the British equivalent of the Atlantic or the New Yorker. It shrunk a bit to appear on their blog, and an addition I tried to get in late didn’t make it. I should have also mentioned the case of Arid Uka, the young Kosovar who shot a couple of US servicemen in Frankfurt last week. I am planning a longer piece on him, and I have a feeling this might prove to a significant event. It looks like there might be similarities with Roshonara Choudhry, and that the notion of individual jihad is catching on.

Oh What a Western Jihad!

RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI —  4TH MARCH 2011
As al-Qaida’s lure seems to be diminishing in the middle east, why does the group’s ideology still resonate with disaffected young men in the west?

As change sweeps across North Africa and the Middle East, al-Qaida is nowhere to be seen. Aside from a few comments from the sidelines, the group has not been able to play a role in the recent revolutions. Instead, the group’s influence has recently been most visible in the west, where a series of stories have shown the ongoing appeal of “global jihad” to a diverse collection of young aspirants.

In London, a court convicted Mohammed Gul, a young British student at Queen Mary University, of producing radical material promoting al-Qaida’s ideology online. The judge characterised Gul as “thoroughly radicalised.” A week later over at Woolwich Crown Court, a jury found Rajib Karim, an IT worker for British Airways, guilty of plotting with Yemeni-American preacher Anwar al-Awlak to blow up a plane.

While Gul was being sent down, federal agents in Texas moved in to arrest Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari, a 20-year old Saudi student who had allegedly been accumulating materials to build a bomb. As he put it on his blog, “after mastering the English language, learning how to build explosives and continuous planning to target the infidel Americans, it is time for Jihad.” Elsewhere in the States, Zachary Adam Chesser, a 20-year-old convert, famous for encouraging attacks on the creators of South Park for having mocked the Prophet, was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Last week in Germany, authorities moved in to arrest two Turkish-Germans who were sending money to an al-Qaida affiliate in Waziristan, having previously trained with the group. Another four individuals on police radars also had properties searched. Connected with the Islamist Movement of Uzbekistan, an al-Qaida affiliate that fights alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, the men were part of a community of young Germans who have been drawn to Waziristan by the mystique of jihad.

Although al-Qaida does not seem to be directly linked to any of these cases, their message clearly is. All of the young men in these stories bought into the group’s violent ideology, each attempting in their separate ways to advance its aims. Yet while this message continues to find support among certain disaffected young men in the west, the al-Qaida narrative has not found much support amongst the rebellious youth taking to the streets in North Africa and the Middle East.

Interpreting this is tricky. After all, it is early days for the waves of revolution sweeping the Arab world. But in many ways it is not that surprising. Al-Qaidaism was always a movement predicated on global anti-establishmentarianism. For it to find a natural home amongst young men in the west seeking direction in life is a logical conclusion. For these western wannabe terrorists, the issues at home lack the immediacy that domestic issues have for young people in North Africa and the Middle East, and so they have more time for dreamlike notions of global jihad. For their counterparts, on the other hand, it is the near enemy in the shape of a local tyrant that remains the focal point of attention.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR)