Al-Shabaab sells terror in safari propaganda video

The threat of Al-Shabaab
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Story highlights

  • Al-Shabaab propaganda video tries to lure fighters with scenes of African hunting safari
  • Driven from Somalia's urban areas, terror group still manages to strike civilian, military targets
  • Expert: Militants need "better propaganda outreach precisely when they're suffering from manpower problems"

(CNN)The hunter slips through tall grass in a green forest, closing in on a herd of giraffes. Shots ring out, and he machine-guns down one of the majestic animals.

But he's no regular big game hunter in Africa.
    He's a jihadi militant -- on safari.
    The shooting is just one of the surreal scenes in the latest of a series of high-definition videos called "Front Lines" that al Qaeda-linked Somali insurgent group Al-Shabaab uses to recruit members. The U.S. government designated the militant group a terrorist organization in 2008.
    But this video is different from earlier ones. It features young men -- with their faces blurred -- diving off fallen trees into rivers and laughing and joking in Arabic and Somali. Several clips show the richness and beauty from the location where they say they are operating. The narration says it is inside Kenya, Somalia's neighbor.
    Wild buffaloes and giraffes watch inquisitively as the extremists march past them. The men stalk the wild animals with their weapons. Once the giraffe is gunned down, it is skinned, cut up and eaten. Later a buffalo is shot and eaten and finally a Kenyan antelope called a Topi.
    "Don't be deceived into believing that when people fight jihad they are accompanied by hunger," one man says in Swahili. He wears a camouflaged balaclava, with ammunition wrapped around his waist like a belt. He gestures at the bloodied buffalo at his feet. "Just look at the meat here," he bellows. "What are you waiting for?"
    The video also quotes Osama Bin Laden's supposed mentor, Abdullah Azzam, with a slick graphic: "You eat, drink and hunt for free. Not in Bangkok or Los Angeles, or paying $500 a night at a London hotel. It is an entertaining journey of tourism and hunting. Indeed, the tourism of my nation is jihad."
    Terror expert Matt Bryden told CNN that the video was "one of their less sophisticated pieces of propaganda."
    "Every scripted speech by a fighter on screen seems to be shot next to the carcass of a game animal that they are about to eat. It would surprise me if this 'come and eat all this meat' sort of the 'paradise of nyama choma' (Swahili for "roasted meat") pitch will actually appeal to an East African audience," Bryden said from Kenya's capital, Nairobi
    He said the nearly 17-minute video is targeting two population groups because some shots focus on two light-skinned fighters and many of the Al-Shabaab members speak on camera in Swahili, a national language in both Kenya and Tanzania.
    "It seems there are two audiences: There's the game-meat eating audience, possibly aiming for here in East Africa, and then there's the adventure tourism audience of elsewhere, likely the West," Bryden said. "I would be surprised if this was successful. I don't think this footage is any more compelling than those images of combat, of scarf-wearing fighters in Somalia or Syria. By linking fighting the jihad with dark safari imagery -- I think there is probably only a very small audience for that."

    Fighting for Al-Shabaab may have lost some appeal

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    Al-Shabaab has been battling the Somali government and African Union forces since 2007. U.S. drone strikes have targeted some of its hierarchy, including the group's late leader -- Ahmed Godane.
    The group has been driven from most of the Somalia's major cities and rendered leaderless repeatedly, but it still manages attacks on military and civilian targets on almost a monthly basis.
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    This week it struck a hotel in the capital, Mogadishu, killing 15 people. Al-Shabaab has also taken its fight to Somalia's neighbors that are part of the African Union force, or AMISOM.
    Al-Shabaab militants attacked an upscale mall in Nairobi in 2013, killing 67 people, and a university in Kenya's northeast, killing 147 people, mostly students, in April. In 2010, Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for bombing bars in Kampala, Uganda, killing around 70 people.
    But recruitment numbers have dwindled since Al-Shabaab was driven from Mogadishu in 2011 -- hence the need for slick recruitment videos.
    Fighting for Al-Shabaab has lost some of its appeal, especially for foreigners, a source with knowledge of the Somali militants told CNN. "Urban warfare is easier to cope with," the source said.
    A Western diplomat based in Mogadishu told CNN that the number of foreign fighters in Al-Shabaab is between 30 to 40 from Europe, the United States and Middle East, and around 500 to 800 militants from Somali neighbors Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
    Al-Shabaab disputes those figures, saying it has around 3,000 foreign fighters. However, militants were also reportedly leaving to fight in Syria, and a small faction of Al-Shabaab declared allegiance to ISIS in October.

    Video likely shot in Kenya's Boni Forest

    The above-mentioned video is likely to have been shot in Kenya's Boni Forest near Somalia's coastal border. Al-Shabaab militants operated there for several months, killing 48 civilians in Mpeketoni near Kenya's north coast in June 2014. The video likely would have been shot between then and June 2015. At the time, the group took part in a botched ambush on a Kenya Defence Forces, and several militants, including British-born fighter Thomas Evans, were killed. Afterward, the Kenyan security services conducted a massive operation to clear the Boni Forest of any remaining Al-Shabaab fighters in hiding.
    Terror analyst and scholar Max Abrahms told CNN that jihadi propaganda or recruitment videos are intended to reach the widest audience and appeal to all sorts of sensibilities. In this video, Al-Shabaab is seeking to attract members using "the adventure, the ideology, the camaraderie among members, the excitement, the sense of travel and even the appeal of nature," said Abrahms, speaking form Boston.
    "Political science scholars are often excessively reductive in trying to explain the motives of terrorists," he said. "There's often the assumption that perpetrators are motivated by politics, but in reality people are very often motivated for personal goals, and these propaganda videos try to appeal to that."
    Noting the alluring language fighters use in the video, Abrahms said he believes it could signal that Al-Shabaab is in trouble. "A lot of the things they say in this video are things like 'despite the strength of the enemy' or 'despite the long odds of success' or 'keep fighting, know you are doing the right thing.' I think that there is a realization that the terrorist group is up against a very determined foe."
    Regarding the success and notoriety that terror groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab gain after releasing propaganda videos, Abrahms notes he has a somewhat contrarian view compared with other academics or analysts.
    "I think that it should be pointed out more often that Islamic State was more successful when its propaganda wing was less developed," he said. "Remember it took all that territory in Syria and Iraq largely under the noses of the international community; it was only once they started chopping off our (American) citizens' heads and bragging about it over social media that the world really united against the group. And similarly Boko Haram was much more successful before it joined up with Islamic State and before it developed its savvy media outreach."
    Abrahms also said he believes observers often overstate the value of these propaganda videos.
    "The common implication is that they develop these sophisticated videos, that it will lead to an unfettered flow of jihadi recruits," he said. "But actually I think the causal error was often in the opposite direction. That these groups need to develop better propaganda outreach precisely when they're suffering from manpower problems, and in that sense the quality of these videos is inversely related to the battlefield success of the group."
    In other words, improvement in the quality of propaganda might not mean a terror or militant group is reaching all its goals or swelling in numbers.

    Chilling message for innocent civilians

    The source close to the militant group told CNN, however, that "this video is supposed to show recruits that fighting for a cause gives your life meaning -- it gives you morals. Joining the militants in the first place is appealing, so now when you add the fact that there is fun and excitement on the front lines, that you travel to new places, swim, hunt, have a barbecue, meet new people fight and survive, the appeal only increases."
    However, attractive the video may make life on the militant front lines seem, there is a deadly, chilling message for innocent civilians.
    "This is our picnic before we come to you," the man with the ammunition belt standing over the lifeless buffalo warns, his voice distorted by the video editors. "When we reach your cities, you will face the consequences of your actions."
    But the video is both dated and misleading. Several extremists who appear in the footage, including one of the lighter-skinned foreigners, Thomas Evans, have since been killed by Kenya Defence Forces.
    "This video makes it seem like they (Al-Shabaab militants) have a lot of spare file footage," said Bryden, the terror expert in Nairobi.
    The militant group no longer enjoys the luxury of the lush greenery of Kenya shown in the video, nor the wild animals or the cool rivers. The Kenya Defence Forces cleared that area of insurgents in a recent, massive operation.
    But the power of propaganda in warfare is not to be taken lightly. Famous British army commander T. E. Lawrence acknowledged that "the printing press is the greatest weapon in the armory of the modern commander." In today's world, a printing press could perhaps equate to a small flip video camera, a laptop with basic editing software and a WiFi connection.
    One Western intelligence source told CNN from Mogadishu that the worry would be someone in the West who seeks adventure and travel and lacks knowledge of the reality on the ground in Somalia but who might want to join the group based on the perceived life of the extremists in that video.
    "They have no idea how (Al-Shabaab) fighters really live. They don't live in the thick, green jungle with beautiful rivers and animals and great barbecues every day. They live in the dirt, in the sand, in fear, hiding under whatever cover they can. Their leadership is draconian and fractured, and many fighters are disenchanted and leaving, or trying to leave, to fight in Syria or elsewhere. The front lines are not at all what they look like on the Internet."
    The video has since been removed from most of the obvious places it could be watched by potential recruits. It appears Al-Shabaab's dark safari is now only accessible on the deep Web, by those who care enough to risk seeking it out.