"American" calls for Somali action in extremist recruiting videoby Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio
A new video by a group of Islamic extremists in Somalia uses hip-hop music -- and what appears to be a white American fighter -- to urge Muslims around the world to fight in a holy war in the Horn of Africa.
Counterterrorism experts say it shows that extremists may still be trying to lure young Westerners to their cause.
St. Paul, Minn. — The 30-minute clip roughly fits the genre of propaganda videos created by Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. It comes with all the usual trappings, such as opening credits and Arabic chanting.
But counterterrorism experts say the video represents an evolution in the medium. The graphics are more sophisticated. It feels a little bit like a music video, and it's almost entirely in English.
The video's captions and logo give credit to Al-Shabaab, a Somali militia with ties to Al-Qaeda.
The FBI is reviewing the video as it continues to investigate the disappearances of about a dozen Minnesotans of Somali descent. Their relatives believe the young men are fighting with Al-Shabaab.
The video's main character is a boyish, fair-skinned man sporting a scraggly beard and camouflage fatigues. To his recruits, he is known as "Abu Mansoor the American."
He tells his fighters: "The only reason why we're staying here, away from our families, away from our cities, away from ice, candy bars, and all those other things, is because we're waiting to meet our enemy."
In this case, the "enemy" is the Ethiopian troops who invaded Somalia in 2006. While preparing for an ambush on the Ethiopians, Abu Mansoor smiles as he tells the camera that he hopes to blow up as many vehicles and kill as many people as he can.
The video's captions state the the ambush was filmed last July.
One of Abu Mansoor's fighters was purportedly killed in the attack. Abu Mansoor calls the dead man a martyr and makes a plea to his family.
"We need more like him, so if you could encourage more of your children and your neighbors (to) send people like them to this jihad, it would be a great asset for us," he says.
Later in the video, another young militant tells the camera he never imagined he would one day be carrying an AK-47. He encouraged prospective recruits from overseas to take up the life of a holy warrior:
"When people think of the life of a mujahed, they think of living a rough life, being on the hideout, and being hungry all the time. It's not that way," said the militant, wearing a scarf to conceal his face.
The FBI wouldn't comment on the video, other than to say it was taking it seriously. A spokesman for the families of the missing men in Minnesota said he didn't recognize any of the young subjects, most of whom were wearing scarves to mask their faces. The clip was released this week by a U.S. group that monitors terrorism Web sites.
But Todd Stein, a lawyer for the Senate's homeland security committee chaired by Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, says the clip looks like an authentic production by the Islamist militia known as Al-Shabaab. Last month, the committee heard testimony about Al-Shabaab recruitment efforts in the United States.
Stein, one of Lieberman's key staffers studying homegrown radicalization, said the video feels like an action movie -- with a plot along the lines of "Mission Impossible."
"When you watch it, it sort of gives you this feel of, 'Come join this Hollywood-like mission where you can kind of solve the problems of the world,'" Stein said.
"It has that young-man component to it: It's rugged, it's adventurous. It gives you a cause bigger than yourself to fight for. It has some sort of nationalistic implications, in the sense that you're going to fight for your homeland. It has some religious implications in the sense that you're going to fight for your religion against the evil invaders from the West."
He added that it's probably no coincidence that the group chose a white man with an American accent to spread its message.
"I suspect the goal of that is for someone in the Western audience to say, 'I'm like him. I feel the same way he does. If he can do that, I can do that, too,'" Stein said.
But will the video's message resonate with its intended audience? At least one leading scholar on Somalia thinks the answer is no.
"The hip-hop dimension was almost a parody," said Ken Menkhaus, a professor at Davidson College in North Carolina. "I can imagine a lot of people watching it and giggling, but I can't imagine it would succeed in recruiting anyone to that cause."
Menkaus doubts the video will succeed in recruiting new fighters because the timing of its release seems to miss the mark. Al-Shabaab had popular support among Somalis when it was fighting against the Ethiopian invasion. But now that the Ethiopian forces have left Somalia, Al-Shabaab has lost its main rallying point.
Menkhaus also doubts the claims made by Abu Mansoor, the American.
"He came across boasting that he was training or leading attacks on the Ethiopians," Menkaus said. "Anyone who knows anything about Somalia knew that was a fraud. The Somalis are experts at ambushes in their own country. The last thing they need is some American telling them what to do, in English, so it would have to be translated. I mean, what kind of ambush leader is that?"
Menkhaus says Abu Mansoor was a bit of an urban legend -- an American who for some time was rumored to be fighting against the Ethiopians. But the decision for Abu Mansoor to reveal his face on this video was a big mistake, Menkhaus said, "because the myth was a lot larger than the guy."
To view the video in its entirety, click here. Warning: some may find the material in the video offensive, and viewer discretion is advised. (Windows Media Player required.)
- Morning Edition, 04/03/2009, 7:25 a.m.