Shabaab’s jihad against the ‘leaders of disbelief’

Shabaab’s latest video features a clip of Ayman al-Zawahiri criticizing “corrupt regimes” that are allied with America.

Shabaab, al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa, has released a lengthy video that is intended to justify its jihad against the Somali government and opposition to allegedly illegitimate rulers elsewhere. The production is the third installment in Shabaab’s “Then Fight the Leaders of Disbelief” series. It was produced by Al-Kataib Media, a propaganda shop that is part of al Qaeda’s international media network.

Al-Kataib’s video editors want their audience to view Shabaab’s war through the lens of al Qaeda’s global jihadist ideology. Comments from Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden are included in “Then Fight the Leaders of Disbelief,” as are clips of various other al Qaeda and associated jihadis. For instance, snippets of lectures from deceased figures such as Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (an influential cleric who died in an American prison in 2017), Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (the founder of al Qaeda in Iraq), Sheikh Abu Zubeir ‘Adil al’Abab (a senior Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula sharia official who was killed in 2012) and Abu Yahya al-Libi (an ideologue killed in 2012) are all spliced together with other footage to explain Shabaab’s ideology and strategy.

A clip of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman is played alongside images of Somalis.

The production opens with a clip of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi explaining his approach to religious tolerance. “We in Egypt do not intervene in religious affairs,” Sisi says. “We do not distinguish between a Muslim and a Christian. There is no difference between a man and a woman, or between religion and another religion. Everyone is equal!”

Sisi adds that the Egyptian state, which has cracked down on its political opposition, will build churches for Christians and synagogues for Jews, if that is what the populace demands, because “this is the right of the citizen.” The “citizen has the right to worship as he pleases, in the same way he has a right not to worship at all,” Sisi says.

In a separate clip, Beji Caid Essebsi, the deceased Tunisian president, explains that his country is a “secular state” and the government does “not have any affiliation with religious laws, or the Qur’an and its verses.”

Sisi and Essebsi are the prototypical rulers that Shabaab finds objectionable, as they stand in the way of the jihadists’ dream of imposing sharia (Islamic law) in Muslim-majority countries. But they are hardly the only two leaders Shabaab criticizes. The video includes footage of Pakistan’s Imran Khan, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Jordan’s King Abdullah, among others. All of them are the “leaders of disbelief,” according to Shabaab. These same leaders are pictured alongside Americans such as President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

All of these men and their nations are part of an enemy alliance, according to Shabaab.

“The Muslim Ummah (worldwide community) has never had an enemy more dangerous and more damaging to its religious and worldly affairs than the arrogant tyrants of our era who have forcefully suppressed the Muslims, supported the enemies of Allah, fought against the believers and allied themselves with Satan and his offspring,” a Shabaab narrator says.  

A common misconception about al Qaeda is that the group is myopically focused on attacking the West and is less concerned with fighting the so-called near enemy. But this isn’t the case. Although, at times, al Qaeda has given much weight to terrorist attacks in the West, much of the group’s activities are focused on deposing regimes throughout the Muslim-majority world. And Ayman al-Zawahiri has emphasized that al Qaeda and its branches see all of their enemies as part of a united front.

Ayman al-Zawahiri claims that various rulers serve America’s interests.

Shabaab includes a clip of Zawahiri to stress this broad jihad. “It is apparent to every noble freeman who has insight that the crimes of these corrupt regimes, who subjugate our Ummah, wage war against their religious beliefs and the hijab of their daughters, squander their resources and encourage hedonism, immorality and social decadence, are part and parcel of the global war against Islam and the Muslims that is spearheaded by America,” Zawahiri says, as footage of Secretary Pompeo with various Muslim rulers plays on screen.

“As such,” Zawahiri continues, “these regimes are proxies and allies of the global powers and they are the ones who are responsible for implementing their policies of waging war against Islam and the Hijab, changing the educational curriculum, normalizing ties with Israel, preventing the rule of Islamic Shari’ah and the plunder of Muslim resources.”

Zawahiri concludes: “It is for this reason that the global powers support these local regimes and stand by them, whilst turning blind eye to their crimes, oppression, subjugation, lies and theft, and substitute them with another if they are unable to fulfill their interests.”

Abu Yahya al-Libi was an influential al Qaeda ideologue.

In a separate segment, deceased al Qaeda ideologue Abu Yahya al-Libi explores the same theme. “We have come to know that these authoritarian regimes which are controlling the masses with the power of fire and iron and who are dependent on their armies in order to fulfill their whims and implement their policies, that it is impossible to oust them from power and depose them except through force which deters them and sacrifices that know no clemency and humiliation,” al-Libi says. “If not, however, then the price of remaining under such regimes is many folds more than attempting to over throw and change them.”

In other words, according to Zawahiri and al-Libi, the jihadists are obligated to use force to depose various rulers.

A Shabaab speaker echoes these arguments, saying that the “tyrannial regimes in the Muslim world” have “invalidated their claim to Islam” by governing according to laws other than the “Law of Allah” and by “allying themselves with the crusaders.” Thus, Shabaab’s man says, these same rulers have “justified” their own “deposal,” because “the kafir [infidel] has no authority over a Muslim.”

Osama bin Laden drew from the work of others to argue that Muslim rulers should be overthrown if they didn’t govern according to sharia.

Al-Kataib Media reminds viewers that Osama bin Laden made the same argument by drawing on the teachings of other Islamic thinkers. “The Scholars are in unanimous agreement that leadership cannot be assigned to a disbeliever and in case that he becomes a disbeliever, he is to be removed from post,” bin Laden says.

Shabaab justifies attacks on Somalia’s hotels

Shabaab has carried out a series of high-profile attacks on hotels in Mogadishu and civilian-filled sites elsewhere. The group knows that this can be controversial, as these operations lead to the spilling of Muslim blood. Indeed, Ayman al-Zawahiri has issued guidelines prohibiting or limiting attacks in areas frequented by Muslim civilians.

But Shabaab lays out its rationale for targeting locales such as Sahafi Hotel, Hotel Jazeera, Syl Hotel and the Ambassador Hotel.

The jihadists argue that these hotels are really “heavily fortified buildings” for the Somali government’s politicians, as well as military and intelligence officials. Moreover, foreign operatives are stationed in these hotels as well. Al-Kataib Media includes footage of Somali officials and journalists identifying the figures inside the hotels during attacks to illustrate this point. The victims of Shabaab’s attacks include generals, intelligence officials and politicians. The jihadists also show how the hotels are protected by high walls and barriers inconsistent with purely civilian uses.

All of this takes place within the context of Shabaab’s critique of the Somali government, which the jihadists say is illegitimate, just like regimes elsewhere.

“As for the apostate Somali tyrants, their condition is similar to that of the other treacherous rulers,” Shabaab says. “Clear disbelief and apostasy has become manifest in their speeches, actions and policies, taking them out of the fold of Islam and into disbelief, and thereby warranting the ruling of apostasy to be applied to them.” 

“In accordance with this religious obligation,” Al-Kataib Media’s team explains, “one of Harakat Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen’s main objectives is to topple the apostate Somali regime and destroy its foundations in order to liberate the country and its people and cleanse the land from the filth of crusaders and apostates so that the Muslims of East Africa can once again regain their freedom and dignity under the shade of Islamic Shari’ah. ” The video’s editor’s emphasize: “And in that regard it has made great strides and all thanks is due to Allah.”

Abu ‘Abdurahman Mahad Warsame claims that Somali hotels are valid targets.

Shabaab’s Abu ‘Abdurahman Mahad Warsame makes the case that hotels used by the Somali government and its foreign allies are legitimate targets. Warsame has been one of the principal defenders of Shabaab’s terrorist tactics, including those leading to civilian casualties, so it is unsurprising that he speaks at length in the new video. Some of the excerpts are taken from his previous audio lecture titled, “The Ruling of Targeting Combatant Disbelievers Even If There Are Muslims Among Them.” 

Warsame argues that the government of Somalia should be deposed, just like the allegedly infidel regimes found elsewhere. Al-Kataib includes footage of various Somali political figures rejecting the implementation of sharia, thereby portraying the government as religiously illegitimate.

“They named their military bases [as] hotels and fortified them with barriers,” Warsame claims. “They blocked the vital roads and restricted access to the people. However, this has not prevented any attacks.”

Warsame warns Somalis should stay away from these “so-called hotels”

“Such hotels are legitimate targets for the Mujahideen’s military operations at all times and since you are our people, we do not wish any harm to befall you,” Warsame says. But he justifies operations that kill Muslims, repeating an old argument that disbelievers could stymie jihad by imprisoning Muslims in vital locations.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was less concerned with civilian casualties.

A clip of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi defending operations that cause Muslim casualties, as long as the focus is on killing disbelievers, is included to buttress Warsame’s arguments.

Shabaab’s operations will increase “until Mogadishu and the rest of the occupied cities are once again brought under the rule of Islamic Shari’ah and are liberated from the fifth of the crusaders and their apostate allies,” according to Warsame.

Even so, Shabaab is clearly sensitive to the charge that its bombings and complex assaults result in Muslim deaths. After glorifying a series of previous attacks, Al-Kataib’s Media team includes language that is meant to be exculpatory.

“In addition to the aforementioned operations, there were also many other operations on the verge of execution but were cancelled after it became apparent to the Mujahideen that there was a greater risk of harm to the Muslims in the vicinity, and in order to safeguard the lives of Muslims and their property as much as possible,” Shabaab’s propagandists claim.

Sultan bin Muhammad Aal-Muhammad claims Shabaab doesn’t deliberately target civilians.

Another Shabaab official, Sultan bin Muhammad Aal-Muhammad, swears that great caution is taken to avoid civilian deaths and injuries. “All praise is due to Allah that it has become a common fact among Muslims and even the enemies of Allah, that the Mujahideen do not intentionally target innocent Muslims in their military operations, nor do they transgress against their wealth and property,” Aal-Muhammad says. “Both Muslims and the disbelievers attest to this fact and everyone is now aware of this reality.”

Al-Kataib Media playing a leading role in al Qaeda’s propaganda

There are other noteworthy aspects of “Then Fight the Leaders of Disbelief.” Shabaab explains that some of the operations targeting hotels were inghimasi attacks, which involve well-trained jihadists immersing themselves in battle at a location before possibly blowing themselves up. Inghimasi operations have become a key part of jihadi operations around the globe. And Shabaab says that these plots, as well as others, are planned by its “Martyrdom Brigade and intelligence teams who are working behind enemy lines.”

Shabaab emphasizes that the terrorists recruited for such attacks come from tribes throughout Somalia. This is an attempt to illustrate Shabaab’s appeal throughout Somali society.

Shabaab’s Abu Dujanah al-Khurasani training camp.

But this localized theme is seamlessly integrated with al Qaeda’s program. For example, Shabaab shows footage from a training camp it has named after Abu Dujanah al-Khurasani, an infamous al Qaeda triple agent who blew himself up at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Afghanistan in late 2009. Al-Khurasani (a Jordanian doctor whose real name was Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi) killed seven CIA officers and a member of Jordanian intelligence in the blast. It is telling that Shabaab would name one of its training facilities after al-Khurasani, a jihadi who is considered a hero by al Qaeda.

Shabaab’s video also ends with a clip of al-Khurasani praising martyrdom seekers.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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