Al-Shabaab’s recruitment video “The Westgate Siege – Retributive Justice” : some observations

Conflict In Context - Field Notes


The Kenya Siege

Since late last year, Western forces have dealt the Somali militant group Al-Shabaab some high-impact blows. A drone strike in September killed one of its most ruthless jihadists, Ahmed Abdi Godane. Earlier this month, a second drone strike killed Yusef Dheeq, the group’s commander of external operations. Meanwhile, according to human rights groups, AMISOM forces and Kenya Defence Forces have killed not just significant numbers of fighters, but, untold numbers of unarmed civilians as well.

Al-Shabaab released a propaganda/recruitment video last weekend that had a shelf life of two days until Monday, when it was pulled off Youtube.

The apparent intent of the video is to remind perceived oppressors that it knows how to strike back, and suggests that the insurgent faction is willing to venture outside Africa to spill new blood.

The Westgate Siege – Retributive Justice chronicles abuses committed by Western forces against East Africa’s Muslim population. Released last Friday on February 20th by the Al-Kataib Foundation for Media Productions—Shabaab’s PR and propaganda wing—the hour-long video culminates in the 2013 attack on the Nairobi shopping mall, which left at least 67 dead, scores injured, and many questions still unanswered.

Al Kaitib has lately adopted the strategy of producing high-quality propaganda in the form of the slick action films replete with sickening sound effects and aping those at the commercial box-office in an effort to win the hearts and minds of youth in Somalia’s diaspora communities.

The Westgate Siege – Retributive Justice not only has a title like an online game, it strives to be the mother of all Al Jazeera documentaries, splicing clips from the network’s many high-brow and in-depth documentaries on the grievances of East Africa’s Muslim communities—marginalisation, torture and extrajudicial killings by current “colonisers.”

The filmmakers make repeated use of Professor David Anderson, a British historian well known for unearthing thousands of files that document Mau-Mau-era torture under Kenya’s British administration, published in his Histories of the Hanged.

Al-Shabaab’s compilation underscores how, in its waning days, the British Empire gave the predominantly Muslim Northern Frontier District to the Kikuyu-dominated government formed by Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta. Under the current holder of that office, Uhuru Kenyatta, Muslim communities remain oppressed, even outside Kenya–which Kenya invaded Somalia in 2011. In the victim-turned-perpetrator cycle of violence, the video proposes, Kenya is a classic case.

Split-screen montage displays Islamist leaders like Osama bin Laden and Sheikh Anwar Al-Awlaki commenting on recent Mombasa mosque attacks—though those attacks occurred long after the 2011 deaths of both men.

President Kenyatta and various political wazito (Swahili slang for ‘heavies’) appear lauding the professionalism of Kenya Defense Forces during the Westgate Siege and wryly juxtaposed with closed-circuit footage of KDF troops looting Nakaumatt, the mall’s supermarket.

The narrator (who sounds an awful like ISIS’s “Jihadi John” with a hint of Garissa county) claims that Al-Shabaab’s policy is to take the “moral high ground” and not to kill women. Anyone who watched the Westgate Siege unfold on television or print knows that’s untrue. Blatant lie or egregious inaccuracy the film gives itself away as a self-serving propaganda tool, nothing like journalism, which, at best tries to get the facts straight.

In the end The Westgate Siege – Retributive Justice serves as a reminder that it is propaganda film intended to inflame, recruit, indeed, to radicalize.

The narrator closes the film by asking what might happen if Muslims were to carry out attacks against mega-malls in the US and Canada? Whether this question is rhetorical, simply food for thought, or a direct threat, US Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson is taking it seriously.


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