July 30, 2010 -- Somalia's Al Qaeda-backed militant group Al-Shabab has launched an on-line "news" channel called Al Kataib, and its first propaganda newscast, in English, uses graphic footage to warn African countries to stop sending troops to Somalia. The launch comes as U.S. and Somali officials warn of Al Shabab's increased sophistication, and strengthening ties to Al Qaeda.
The 21-minute videotape, called "Mogadishu: The Crusaders Graveyard" shows Al Shabab fighters taking on Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers. It is narrated in English and formatted like a Western news program, complete with sophisticated graphics, an on-screen Al Kataib logo, and even a traditional stand-up with a jihadist fighter standing in front of a destroyed tank. Face covered, the jihadi signs off "Al Kataib News Channel, live from the frontlines of Mogadishu."
While most of the ire in the Al Shabab broadcast is reserved for Uganda and the African Union Mission in Somalia, also known as AMISOM, there are several references directly to the United States and its support of African Union troops. The video specifically references 1993's Black Hawk Down incident where Somali warlords killed 18 U.S. soldiers and dragged their dead bodies through the streets of Mogadishu. In this video a burnt AMISOM soldier is shown and the mission is given a warning.
"Just like Americans and Ethiopians, who's bodies have been dragged in the streets of Mogadishu, the charred bodies of your soldiers have now received the well-deserved treatment," the narrator says.
Al Shabab's message is that AU troops are Christian crusaders backed by the US and other Western powers that want to occupy Muslim Somalia, and given the format of the newscast, the target audience clearly extends beyond the Somali population.
The growing sophistication of Al Shabab, and the growing presence of foreign fighters within the group's ranks, are a concern for the United States, Somalia and Africa Union officials. They warn that the recent suicide bomb attacks in Uganda are a sign that Al Shabab is growing closer with Al Qaeda and becoming a global terrorism threat.
"The bombings in Kampala on July 11th were a wake-up call for the region and also for much of the international community," Johnnie Carson, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs told reporters from Uganda, where he attended the African Union Summit that ended earlier this week. "The threat emanating from Somalia is not only a concern about refugees and illegal arms, but now one of terrorism."
Al Shabab claimed responsibility for the blasts, which killed 76 people in a crowd gathered to watch the World Cup final, saying they were retaliation for Uganda contributing peacekeepers to the African Union's Mission in Somalia, also known as AMISOM. The attacks were the first known suicide bombing s by the terror group outside of Somalia, a fact that has troubled Western and regional officials.
"We all have to take this threat seriously, knowing full well there are also, in the Mogadishu area and in Southern Somalia, individuals who have been associated and affiliated with Al Qaeda and who have also demonstrated both the will and the capacity to strike" said Carson.
According to AU and Somali sources foreign-born Al Qaeda fighters are now filling the ranks of Al Shabab. Intelligence reports obtained by ABC News show the leadership of the organization filled with established Al Qaeda figures from outside of Somalia, even the United States. Abu Mansur Al-Amiriki, a U.S. citizen from Alabama with a Syrian father and white, Baptist mother, is in charge of financing Al Shabab according to the reports.
They also state that Fazul Abdullah Mohammed is considered a key figure in Al Shabab. Mohammed, who was born in the Comoros and raised in Kenya, is on the FBI's most-wanted list for his role in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which killed more than 200 people.
Along with a Saudi, a Pakistani, a Yemeni and few other foreigners, Mohammed and Amriki make up what is called the "Shura Council," a consultative body to the Somali Shabab leadership, according to African Union and Somali government officials. And their tactics of suicide bombings and remote-controlled ieds, are distinctively Al Qaeda - not Somali.
"This is not a war among Somalis. This is not something that is happening within Somali clans, maybe it started that way 10 or 20 years ago but the reality now is people are coming to create destruction in a country that's already destroyed," said Ahmed Abdisalam Xaji Adan, the Minister of National Security for Somalia's Transitional Federal Government. "The tactics that are employed by the insurgents… are to send a message to say 'this is our war and we'll do everything possible.'"
The government is calling for more help from the international community and wants an increase of the 6,000 AMISOM troops already operating in Mogadishu, and fighting alongside government troops. At the AU summit held in Kampala, the body agreed to increase the mission by 2,000 troops. It also is considering strengthening AMISOM's mandate, allowing troops to fire first if they are facing imminent attack.
But the additional responsibilities and expansion of the mission come at a time when AMISOM is being criticized for indiscriminate shelling in highly-populated civilian areas. Human rights groups and the United Nations have repeatedly called on the mission to better protect the Somali population. The Associated Press recently published a report highlighting an internal African Union memo about concerns over civilian casualties, and said that the mission "continues to underestimate the importance of being seen to address this critical issue."
AMISOM and Somali government officials deny the troops are careless about civilians and say the real issue is Al-Shabab attacking them from populated areas and using civilians as shields. Carson said the United States has had discussions with AMISOM and that it recognizes the need to improve the accuracy of their counter-batteries and intelligence.
Carson said that firing indiscriminately into civilian areas "not only creates casualties but turns the population against them."
That's what many Somalia experts say happened in 2007, when Ethiopia invaded the country to topple its last Islamist government. Thousands of civilians were killed, and Ethiopia was accused of committing human rights abuses against the population including torture, rape and murder.
Now, Al Shabab is trying to cast the current conflict in the same light with its news channel.
"The trigger-happy African crusaders are quite content on killing innocent Muslims just like their master," the narrator says on the video while showing bombed-out homes.
"One of the things Al- Shabab has been using for propaganda purposes is that AMISOM is a Christian, foreign presence," said Ernst Jan Hogendoorn, director of International Crisis Group Horn of Africa, an NGO. "These are crusading nations trying to occupy Somalia, and they say the TFG is a puppet government of the West."
Al Shabab is deeply unpopular in the areas it rules, using brutal force to apply its version of sharia law. Music banned from radio stations, women beaten for wearing bras, people stoned to death for being accused of adultery are just some of the tactics the group uses to keep the population in line. But, said Hogendoorn, "They are more organized than the government and have a more affective military. They have a coercive advantage."