Al-Shabaab’s Use of Social Media

I just published an article in the Brown Journal of World Affairs which explores Al-Shabaab’s use of social media from 2007 to 2013. Access to the full article is only available to subscribers, but most university libraries have a subscription so students and faculty can access the article that way. For copyright reasons, I cannot reprint the full article on this blog, but I paste the conclusion below along with the full citation and link:

Ken Menkhaus, “Al-Shabaab and Social Media: A Double-Edged Sword,” Brown Journal of World Affairs 20, 2 (Spring/Summer 2014). 


 New communication technologies have hurt Al-Shabaab as much as they have helped it. The organization has exploited the internet and social media to recruit, fund-raise, issue threats, monitor enemies, amplify its messaging, and reinforce its narrative, and it has used remittance and telecommunications sectors to move money and raise revenues. But that same technology has exposed the militant group to lethal armed counter-insurgency strikes, broadcast its internal feuds, and made it impossible for Al-Shabaab’s leadership to control its image and message. In consequence, the group has a schizophrenic relationship with new communication technologies, simultaneously using them to communicate globally while and seeking to ban or tightly restrict them domestically. Over time, these new technologies have become more of an Achilles heel and less of an asset to Al-Shabaab.  The unregulated and hyper-democratic nature of the new social media has collided with the leadership’s obsession with tight control.

 The evidence reviewed here suggests that claims of Al-Shabaab’s “savvy” in use of social media and the internet are generally but not entirely true.  Some of its videos have been powerful and helped it build a brand that for a time was very popular; its employment of Twitter to instantly send photos or sound-bytes have helped it shape media coverage; and its use of chatrooms and Facebook gave it a very strong recruitment tool. But the group has also been amateurish at times in use of these tools, from the pompous tone of its tweets to the jihadi rap that was more a source of derision than inspiration.

 Al-Shabaab’s success in harnessing social media to advance a radical narrative was not an act of creation, but of appropriation.  Al-Shabaab inherited an existing Somali grievance narrative, which it adapted, repackaged in more radical Islamist garb, and transmitted with social media back to an audience which had already internalized the basic story line. Al-Shabaab used Twitter to reinforce, not build, that narrative with shards of evidence and images that conformed to the belief system of its target audience. Twitter can be a more effective tool for narrative wars than meets the eye, but only if the audience has already accepted the broad contours of a grievance narrative.    

 Finally, the Al-Shabaab case suggests that both realist and constructivist theories are useful lenses through which to view jihadi use of social media. The explanatory value of the two theories depends in part on the state of play of the jihadi movement itself.  Al-Shabaab has always been in the business of projecting a narrative, but in its early years – when it was advancing on the battlefield and holding territory – its main goal in using social media was for tangible assets – funds and recruits, as a realist would anticipate. Al-Shabaab’s shift toward a greater focus on advancing a global jihadi narrative occurred at a time when its ability to hold territory, win battles, and maintain organizational coherence was waning. This points to the possibility – and one that requires more investigation — that jihadi groups like Al-Shabaab tend to embrace the “constructivist” war of ideas via new social media not so much as an expansion of their activities but as a form of strategic retreat. In this sense, they replicate the behavior of leaders of failed states, by devoting more energy to projecting a narrative to win recognition and support from an external audience than earning legitimacy at home. Failing states and failing jihadi movements, it turns out, have more in common than either would care to admit.



Somali solutions for Somali problems: Can Somalis handle Al-Shabaab themselves?

In the Somali media and blogosphere, it is hard to come by anything approaching a consensus. But on two current issues – the Kenyan government’s crackdown on Somalis in Nairobi, and the desirability of AMISOM peacekeeping troops in Somalia – there seems to be a coalescing of views.

On the Kenyan security crackdown, Somalis have been virtually unanimous in their criticism and outrage, and justifiably so.

On AMISOM and the role of armed interventions of neighboring states in Somalia, views are still somewhat divided, but if I am reading Somali opinions on the web correctly, I sense that more and more Somali opinion-shapers openly agree that the presence of troops from regional neighbors is unwanted and counter-productive. This latter position was most recently articulated in a widely circulated Al-Jazeera op-ed by Ambassador Abukar Armen entitled “Somalia: African Solutions for African Problems?” At the end of the piece, he argues that Ethiopian and Kenyan policies are more to blame for “setting the Horn on fire” than is Al-Shabaab.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Ambassador Armen’s sentiments reflect the views of a sizable majority of Somalis (I haven’t seen many dissenting views on the web, so I think this is a reasonable assumption). If AMISOM is unwelcome, and is viewed by Somalis as part of the problem rather than part of the solution, then perhaps we need to consider alternatives.

What would “Somali solutions for Somali problems” look like?

This begs a critical question: can Somalis handle Al-Shabaab themselves? If the answer is yes, we have options. If the answer is no, or if Somalis simply deny that Al-Shabaab is a problem (this is a favorite diversionary tactic for some, but dodging the question clearly won’t work anymore), then I suspect Somalis will be living with AMISOM for years to come.  So for Somalis who are fed up with years and years of foreign military forces in their country, the answer really needs to be “yes, we can handle Al-Shabaab ourselves, and here is how.”

This essay considers the possibilities if Somalis were left to address Al-Shabaab themselves in Somalia (the Al-Shabaab problem in Kenya is another matter, perhaps for another blog entry). It assumes the Somali government would continue to receive external military and other foreign aid, but that no foreign forces would be directly involved in fighting Al-Shabaab inside Somali territory.

It is meant to start a much-needed conversation, not to provide all the answers. I look forward to reactions and feedback.

Four Options

As best I can tell, if Somalis were left to handle Al-Shabaab themselves, they would have four options, some of which could be sequential: (1) attempt to defeat Al-Shabaab; (2) work to achieve a prolonged stalemate with Al-Shabaab; (3) negotiate power-sharing of some sort with Al-Shabaab; or (4) capitulate to Al-Shabaab.  How likely is each, and what would these scenarios look like?

Defeat Al-Shabaab

If AMISOM were to pack up and leave Somalia, would the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) even survive, or would it be driven out of Mogadishu?

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the government would not collapse and flee within days, as some fear. Al-Shabaab would no doubt take advantage of the vacuum left by AMISOM forces and recapture much of the territory it lost since 2012, and begin the bloody work of retaliating against local authorities who cooperated with AMISOM and the SFG.

Would the government be able to regroup and defeat Al-Shabaab? Nothing we have seen from the poorly-disciplined Somali National Armed Forces to date suggests it could, and it is not clear that a significant increase in external military assistance would make a real difference.  The problem has been one of commitment, discipline, and command and control, not resources.  Al-Shabaab has fought with much greater effectiveness with fewer resources and fewer fighters.

If the government failed to defeat Al-Shabaab, would Somali communities, fed up with the horrific violence and pointless extremism,  turn against Al-Shabaab and either identify Amniyat (Al Shabaab’s underground network) members to the police, or take vigilante action against them? This “Sunni uprising” scenario also seems unlikely at present – the risks would be high, and such a civic uprising would be difficult to organize. But it’s an intriguing possibility worth discussing, and upon reflection may be the only way Somalia moves beyond the current violent impasse.

For this scenario to unfold, it would require a level of commitment we have not yet seen from both the Somali the government and civil society.  If Somalis mobilized in common cause and in full force, they might be able to neutralize Al-Shabaab, in part by encouraging large-scale defections, leaving its leadership exposed. Al-Shabaab is a dangerous network, but it is relatively small in number, and  depends on Somali public acquiescence to its presence. It would struggle to survive in a “non-permissive environment” that only the Somali public could produce.  It could conceivably be outmatched by a unified, mass mobilization, involving clan leaders, clerics, the business community, and others. Once the group began to look vulnerable, it would lose its ability to instill fear in local populations, which at present is its chief form of defense. The formula would be straightforward – Amniyat would need to start fearing the Somali people more than the people currently fear Amniyat. A Somali version of the “Sunni uprising” would likely be bloody and messy, and it would take a very dedicated effort to pull it off. But social rebellions against insurgents have occurred elsewhere, and can be the fate of violent extremist and criminal groups who push their own societies too far.

Stalemate with Al-Shabaab

Alternatively, the government could work to hold ground against Al-Shabaab and stop at that.  The stalemate scenario would represent a variation on the status quo that prevailed in Somalia from 2008 to 2012. This outcome would consign Somalia to perpetual instability and division, and is deeply undesirable for most Somalis and the international community. Yet it is entirely possible, and might even be a preferred outcome for leaders in both the government and Al-Shabaab; each would get to enjoy a profitable fiefdom again without having to trouble themselves either with governing or winning a war.  They could not only co-exist but could work out a symbiotic relationship with one another, one as a dysfunctional state, the other as a hidden criminal syndicate.

Leaders in successive Somali governments have already demonstrated that presiding over a failed state  is a condition they not only can live with but can profiteer from; cutting a deal with Al-Shabaab to maintain the status quo would be a small price to pay. As for Al-Shabaab, recent evidence suggests that its growing practice of extortion is already starting to move it in the direction of a violent criminal enterprise with increasingly dubious Islamist credentials. In that case,  Al-Shabaab could maintain a presence as a mafioso protection racket shaking down the government, private sector, and NGOs for cash with threats of violence.  This is a business model that could work well for colluding elites on both sides, but would be a disaster for the Somali people and for efforts to revive a functional government.

Negotiate power-sharing with Al-Shabaab

Would the Somali government instead seek a negotiated settlement with Al-Shabaab toward a cease-fire and some form of power-sharing?  Over the years, many Somalis have gravitated toward this position, reflecting perhaps a cultural preference for negotiated settlements, and/or a lingering belief among some that Al-Shabaab is a legitimate political actor that merits a place at the table. Setting aside the obvious problem here – that many powerful foreign governments would not accept any outcome in which Al-Shabaab leaders are given government positions — would Al-Shabaab want to negotiate anyway? And if it did, would anyone want to be in that coalition government? SFG officials are surely aware of how Ahmed Godane handled the last set of disagreements he had with erstwhile allies – he launched a bloody purge within Al-Shabaab that killed off most of his internal rivals. This does not look like a group with which to negotiate a power-sharing deal if you want to live long.

This option appears to be little more than a stepping stone to an Al-Shabaab takeover, which is the final scenario to consider.

Capitulate to Al-Shabaab

The final post-AMISOM option would be Somali government capitulation to Al-Shabaab.  Much or most of south-central Somalia would then be controlled by a well-organized, ultra-violent jihadi group which has declared war on neighboring states and the West, and which treats any Somali who disagrees with it as a spy or apostate.

It is worth pondering the scene that would follow. Hundreds of thousands of Somalis would flee as refugees, only to find doors to asylum largely slammed shut, and neighboring states intensely hostile to hosting yet another wave of Somali refugees. Somalia would face complete international isolation and sanctions. Remittances would be choked off by new counter-terrorism measures, leading to a collapse of the already fragile local economy.  Businesses would fail, real estate investments would plummet in value. The diaspora would be put under intense police scrutiny not just in Kenya  but world-wide. And war would ensue, involving neighboring Ethiopia, many other external players, and local proxies. It would be a catastrophe. Somalia cannot afford any more catastrophes.

This is not a scenario to flirt with. And that brings us back to the question of whether AMISOM should stay or go, and whether Somalis can solve Al-Shabaab themselves. The stakes are way too high for the Somali people to sidestep this question. 

Conclusion: Somali solutions for Somali problems, with backstopping

A push for Somali solutions for Somali problems is long overdue.  Foreign security forces, whether in the form of AMISOM forces or Western covert operations, can push Al-Shabaab out of cities and towns and harass its leadership, but they cannot completely defeat the group, especially now that it has morphed into a terrorist network. Only Somalis can do that.  And we’ve always known that.

Whether Somalis are ready to take that step is unclear.  But if Somalis want AMISOM to leave sooner rather than later, then the government and the Somali people are both going to have to take much more ownership of the Al-Shabaab problem. No more free-riding by leaving most of the fight to African peacekeepers and American drones; no more denying the scale of the problem or wishing it away; no more colluding; no more delaying the inevitable. Not to choose is to choose.

A robust Somali mobilization against Al-Shabaab can be launched while AMISOM is still in place. Realistically, AMISOM forces are not going to be redeployed while Al-Shabaab remains a threat, so any Somali solution to the Al-Shabaab problem is going to have to happen while AMISOM is still on watch. AMISOM would be able to play an essential back-stopping role, and the security it provides to key government facilities would be critical.   But once Al-Shabaab is no longer a serious threat to the Somali government, the Somali people, and the wider region, AMISOM will no longer be needed. No Al-Shabaab, no AMISOM.

This is not a happy analysis for the Somali people. If correct, it means there is no pain-free solution to Al-Shabaab, no way to push the costs onto someone else. Somalis may not want to shoulder the burden of dealing with Al-Shabaab, and they may feel that it is unfair that they have to bear that load when they were not entirely responsible for Al-Shabaab’s ascent.  That may be. But I cannot see any other way this will end unless the solution comes from the Somali people themselves. Somalis are already bearing heavy and rapidly mounting costs thanks to Al-Shabaab, a group which seems remarkably indifferent to that fact.  For Somalis, the costs of inaction are rising faster than the expected costs of addressing the Al-Shabaab problem.