Last month, ICSR released the report ‘Lights, Camera, Jihad: Al-Shabaab’s Western Media Strategy’ part of which outlined the ideological development and perspective of Shabaab’s most well known English language spokesperson, Omar Hammami AKA Abu Mansur Al-Amriki. On Monday a press release was distributed through the al-Shabaab Twitter account which said:
Harakat Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen hereby declares that Abu Mansur Al-Amriki does not, in any way, shape or form, represent the views of the Muhajireen in Somalia.
and additionally that Hammami’s statements and actions stem from a
…narcissistic pursuit of fame and are far removed from the reality on the ground.
This release has garnered significant attention within the online Islamist community, particularly on the popular Islamist forum “Islamic Awakening’ (IA). Below we will outline some of the responses to this announcement from supporters and discuss why this development is significant for researchers and practitioners seeking to understand the influence of both Hammami and al-Shabaab in the West(1).
Islamic Awakening Forums
Islamic Awakening is a popular English-language forum for Muslims, with certain sections holding jihadist sympathies. IA has over 3000 registered users, and an unknown number of unregistered viewers who can access threads. On Monday, shortly after al-Shabaab tweeted, a thread was opened to discuss the issue. As of Thursday afternoon the thread contained more than 125 posts, as well as over 6,500 views. The response from users on the IA forum can be broken down into three positions.
One position taken was that al-Shabaab’s statement highlights their uncertainty in the future of the movement. To them, the statement was nothing more than the politicization of internal events, which they find unnecessary, polarizing, and harmful to the group’s long-term success:
“One day I’m reading he is one of the leaders of HSM. A great leader, fighter and role model. Next day I’m hearing he is hungry for fame, power and has no authority with HSM….Politics. ”
This user’s frustration is mirrored by a peer:
“This issue is not as big as it is made out to be. If it was a Somali commader of HSM, I doubt we would even be discussing it right now. I think the western obsession with celebrity status has affected us too…personally, I don’t see any reason for me to even hold an opinion on this event. It is an internal issue”
There appears to be mistrust and discontent amongst certain users, who see the statement as an attempt to find a scapegoat for recent internal issues within the organization, or as an attempt to remain in headlines.
A minority of users have come to the defense of Hammami, citing that Al Shabaab led Hammami to speak out against them by isolating him from the Somalians he was fighting amongst:
“I feel sorry for the brother. Once upon a time, he was just one of the members of the online Muslim community…later he found the Jihadis appealing…actually made Hijra for the sake of Allah to a strange place to live amongst strange people, leaving behind his wife and kids, knowing there is no coming back for him for a very long time. His trip to Somalia was a one way trip – a very big sacrifice to make.He gives his heart and soul to the cause, to the Muslims in Somalia, and takes an active role not only in promoting their cause online, but also becoming their Sharia guide.”
He is obviously highly respected for his efforts and service to the cause:
“Abou Mansoor is newsworthy. Documentaries have been aired about him. The internet is replete with videos and articles about him.Then there is the small problem of him being wanted by the FBI. He is most definitely on Obama’s kill list. And you call him a laughing stock. How utterly absurd. What a foolish statement! My heart bleeds for him. I may disagree with his behavior and with some of his beliefs but he is my brother in Islam and I pray to Allah to protect Abou Mansour and to remove the thorns that lie in his path.”
To some, Omar Hammami was seen as the poster boy the capabilities that the broader movement has to recruit talented leaders from the West. They find it disrespectful and against their religion to speak out against a brother in Islam.
The final position from IA users is in support of al-Shabaab’s announcement, stating that the organization’s decision-making process should be trusted by all, especially individuals who have yet to commit themselves to the cause:
“Carry on behind your keyboard enjoying such issues. The caravan of Allah does not wait for anyone, nor is it disturbed by your creepy happiness at disagreements amongst the mujahideen. We will see who has the last laugh.”
“I’m not saying HSM were wrong in releasing this, I’m saying we are wrong in continuing to question something that we have no real clue about. Read what you will into the statement, but please don’t jump to assumptions, or conclusions based on YOUR interpretation of the statement. Basically, stop the apostate talk, when its not even in the statement, nor is anything related to it.”
It should be noted that the announcement has also been posted on the al-Shabaab supporter forum al-Qimmah.net. However there has been no discussion that has taken place on the open section of the forum. This is important to mention because it is common for messages in jihadist circles to be posted on a variety of mediums to reach a maximum audience. It is highly probable that discussions are occurring on al-Qimmah along with other popular English language Islamist forums such as 7Cgen and Ummah.com, however they may be taking place on closed sections of the forum inaccessible to users who are not registered and have been given the proper permissions. Admittedly this is a limitation of this piece. However the authors feel that the analysis of IA postings provides an account through which one can understand the immediate reactions from supporters to organizational announcements.
Despite the al-Shabaab press release being initially communicated over Twitter, the conversation has been muted. The phrase ‘Omar Hammami’ saw a stark increase in exposure from before the announcement to afterwards, from roughly 5000 gross impressions to over 500,000 at the time of this article(2). Similar trends are reflected for the terms “al-Amriki” and “Abu Mansour”. While the message has reached a significant audience, the point must be made that the much of this has been the product of Western researchers and journalist ‘retweeting’ the message or simply sharing the link to the initial press release. This illustrates one of the problems with using quantitative methods to assess impact of jihadist messaging over Twitter. There are more people interested in the message from a professional or scientific point of view than those who are supporters or sympathizers of the organization. A quick browse through al-Shabaab’s 17,000+ Twitter followers reveals a broad array of individuals from East African development workers, to Western journalists, to true supporters.
The exposure of the message with a lack of conversation could, however, be indicative of a general acceptance of al-Shabaab’s message among supporters. Twitter is a medium of immediate reactions, not one on which users deliberate for several days before posting. If there was an active base of support for Hammami it seems plausible that it would have made itself known fairly rapidly.
The limited tweets criticizing Hammami or praising al-Shabaab take the following form:
“i ask ALLAH to remove this satan among the mujahideen” Tweet – 6:32 am, 17 Dec 2012
“may Allah protect HSM” Tweet 5:14 am, 18 Dec 2012
There is a Twitter account which some have speculated is at least associated with Hammami, if it is not actually him. The comments since the al-Shabaab announcement have been critical of the decision and of al-Shabaab more broadly:
“Shabab media seeks to discredit amriki – former poster boy – with heavy language. Maybe twitter got to them?” Tweet – 10:59 pm, 17 Dec 2012
“candid? Advice? Ok. Why are muhajirs dying, going to jail, running away, being forced out? Call me a liar and discredit urself” – Tweet- 11:42 pm, 17 Dec 2012
“I guess this means no flashy martyrdom vid after “americans” kill amriki. Somalia used to accom muhajirs b4 shabab intel. Tweet- 11:44 pm, 17 Dec 2012
These tweets showcase the limited conversation, however there is not enough discussion occurring on the medium to make an assessment of where opinions may be. However a conclusion that one can infer from the relative silence is that supporters are not in Hammami’s corner.
Why does this matter?
While splits and rifts in al-Shabaab have been well documented, including Hammami’s video from earlier this year where he said his life was in danger because of differences of opinion with al-Shabaab, this is the first time that the organization has publicly distanced itself from Hammami.
This public announcement signifies that the profile that Hammami gave the conflict in the West was not worth his continued association with the group. It became impossible for al-Shabaab, in their weakened state, to counter the image of a fractured organization . As the report Lights, Camera, Jihad pointed out, maintaing the appearance of organizational cohesion is an important part of al-Shabaab’s influence strategy.
The overwhelming sentiment from supporters and sympathizers on IA seems to suggest that they are comfortable, if not enthusiastic, with the decision to rebuke Hammami. This is a significant development, as Hammami was tailoring his message largely for a Western audience that extended to all Muslims and not just those in the diaspora.Where there is support for Hammami it takes the form of sympathy for his commitment to Muslims and personal sacrifice rather than an endorsement or appreciation of his strategic vision. This is significant as well since the vision articulated by Hammami has been a refocus on the broader goal of reestablishing the caliphate rather than concentrating on the local insurgency. While more and broader research is needed, the conversations on IA seem to suggest that the caliphate-centric strategic vision articulated by Hammami has not manifested into a large base of support. The silence from (or lack of) supporters on Twitter suggests the same, the attraction to his strategic vision is simply not there. While it was probably safe to say before the al-Shabaab announcement, it can be said with certainty now, that Hammami is not the next Anwar al-Awlaki.
It is too early to say what this means, if anything, for the future of the al-Shabaab insurgency in Somalia. The organization has taken a severe, some might say crippling, blow over the past year and the past few months in particular. It would be an understatement to say this is the least of their worries. It will be interesting to see how they articulate their message to a Western audience without their most well known English-language spokesperson. In a way, both al-Shabaab and Hammami lose, they’ve managed to turn their jihad into a soap opera.
This article was co-authored by James Sheehan, an editor for The Risky Shift and a co-author of the recent ICSR report “Lights, Camera, Jihad: Al-Shabaab’s Western Media Strategy”. You can follow him on Twitter here.
(1) All usernames have been removed however the authors can provide the origins of specific quotes upon request.
(2) From Topsy.com, the software used for this analysis: “Gross number of times tweets containing each enabled term appeared in a twitter user s timeline within the result set.”