Shabaab advertises creation of “special forces” unit

Shabaab has named its new training center for its ‘special forces’ after the slain al-Qaeda founder

In a newly released video, Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s branch for East Africa, announced and advertised the creation of its new so-called ‘special forces’ unit. The new unit also has its own specific training center, the Usama Bin Laden Military Academy. 

The production marks the first time that Shabaab has documented a dedicated ‘special forces’ unit within its ranks. It has previously touted its assassination squads, all within the so-called Muhammad bin Maslamah Battalion, and its external operations unit, the Saleh al-Nabhan Battalion

The new hour-long video, released as Shabaab’s annual “Eid gift,” features dozens of militants being trained in more advanced small-arms tactics, driving skills, boat and swimming training, zip-lining, rock climbing and scaling, map and topography knowledge, and other military drills. 

One segment also features militants training in hit-and-run tactics to assassinate or abduct individuals before driving away. Other training segments showcasing the militants undergoing combined-arms training, using technicals in lieu of traditional heavy or armored vehicles. Militants on motorcycles and horseback are also shown. 

Throughout the film, Shabaab also demonstrates its continued loyalty to al-Qaeda. Apart from naming the training center after Bin Laden, speeches from various historical al-Qaeda leaders, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Ibrahim al-Rubaysh, al-Qaeda in Iraq’s Musab al-Zarqawi, senior al-Qaeda leader Abu Yahya al-Libi, and former al-Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri, can also be seen and heard. 

In justifying the need for armed jihad – and thus the creation of such a new military unit – Shabaab places its fight in the same context as other al-Qaeda branches in defending and avenging the Ummah (worldwide Islamic community). Particular focus is paid to Palestine and specifically Gaza, as Shabaab, and indeed al-Qaeda writ large, seeks to capitalize on collective anger over the current war and killings of civilians to galvanize supporters. 

Railing against crimes against Muslims from Spain to East Turkestan in China, clips from other al-Qaeda branches, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims in North Africa and Sahel, Hurras al-Din in Syria, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, and al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, are played for the viewer to demonstrate Shabaab is one with these other al-Qaeda organizations. 

At one point in the film, a Pashto-language nasheed, or Islamic a cappella chant, originally produced by the Afghan Taliban, is also played. In addition to viewing the Taliban as a model for what Shabaab hopes to achieve in Somalia, Shabaab also owes loyalty to the Taliban’s leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, through al-Qaeda’s own pledge of bay’ah (allegiance) to him. 

Additionally, the imagery shown in the film is eerily similar to that of the Afghan Taliban’s special forces training camps that it documented in early 2021, just weeks before starting its blitz to conquer Afghanistan. 

Much like the Afghan Taliban then, Shabaab is attempting to portray the image that its men are being trained and readied for its own blitz as international troops prepare to leave Somalia. 

Select screenshots from Shabaab’s new ‘special forces’ video:

Caleb Weiss is an editor of FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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