Somalia’s al Shabab has embarked on a new publicity campaign in its latest move to rebrand and build its tarnished public image.
The group, known for its brutal attacks on civilian as well as government targets, killing thousands of people since it was formed in 2006, is trying to earn public trust and build its credibility and change people’s perception about it.
In October 2017, it carried out the deadliest suicide attack in the history of Somalia, and the deadliest in Africa, killing more than 500 people.
After ignoring the danger posed by the new coronavirus for months, al Shabab, in a bid to rebuild its image, and show it cares for people under its control, held an extraordinary summit in May to discuss Covid-19 and the impact it has on the community, and established a seven-member task force to deal with a possible outbreak of the virus in towns and villages under its control.
The task force, comprising of doctors, religious leaders and intellectuals, coordinate the group’s preparedness, prevention and response to the threat of the disease and advise the al Shabab leadership.
“Considering the fact that Somalis are communal society, frequently visiting one another, and are connected, there is possibility that Covid-19 may reach areas that have not been affected,” read part of a press release from al Shabab political office.
In June, the al Qaeda-linked group set up a coronavirus treatment centre in Jilib, 236 miles south of Mogadishu, and urged people with Covid-19 symptoms to visit the centre.
In 2018, al Shabab announced it is banning single-use bags in areas under its control in central and southern Somalia to show it cares for the environment and that it can govern.
Somali Memo, an al-Shabab mouth-piece news site, quoted Mohamed Abu Abdalla, al-Shabab’s governor for Shabelle proince, saying plastic “poses a serious threat to the well-being of both humans and animals”. The group also banned logging with immediate effect. People living in al-Shabab-held territories are known to adhere to regulations imposed by the group, unlike the central government based in Mogadishu which struggles to have its orders implemented.
In the past, Al-Shabab banned the use of smartphones and restricted use of the internet and it was successfully implemented.
Plenty of people dismiss groups like al-Shabab as completely irrational; they are rational in certain cases. Yes, they kill and maim, but this latest incarnation of the group as an echo-jihadi makes sense; plastic is a huge problem in Somalia and the region.
But there is an irony in al Shabab’s latest move to build its image in the Somali public domain. The group wants to show its care for both the environment and the people but the United Nations has accused it of carrying out massive deforestation through charcoal burning which the group exports to the Gulf countries, generating millions of dollars to fund its activities. According to the UN, al Shabab earns at least $10m a year from charcoal export. The group also taxes others exporting the commodity, earning them extra income.
“The illegal charcoal trade continues to fund insecurity and conflict. It exacerbates inter-clan tensions over control of land and trade and acts as a major source of funding for militias and terrorist groups such as al Shabab, who illegally tax exports of charcoal.
Between 2011 and 2017, 8.2 million trees were cut down to make charcoal.
In 2017, during the height of famine that displaced thousands of Somalis, al Shabab embarked on similar public relations tactics. The group appeared to show its participation in the humanitarian relief efforts. It restricted international aid agencies from accessing areas under its control, most of them in rural areas, but its media, both online and on radio, told stories and showed pictures and videos of al Shabab members distributing relief food and other non-food items to drought-hit Somalis. The group said, at the time, it created a ‘national drought committee’ to coordinate relief efforts.
Al Shabab runs a web of media outlets that spreads its messages throughout Somalia and around the world targeting the Somalia diaspora through the use of the internet. It also runs a video production company Al-Kataib Foundation to distribute its video propaganda.
The group’s media is more organised media compared to other armed groups in Africa and even some Somali media organisations.
Al Shabab is one of the deadliest armed groups in the world and is fighting to overthrow the Somali government and implement its own version of a strict Islamic sharia.
In 2011, it was driven out of the capital by Somali forces backed by African Union troops, but al Shabab said it withdrew for “tactical reasons.” Since then it lost many urban areas including the southern coastal city of Kismayo, thus losing massive revenue.
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