MOGADISHU The messages were mostly texted, in broken English: "welcome to islam o unbeliever. i am abu mansur al'amrica from america. I am a member of al shabaab in somalia..."
Barigye Ba-Hoku has received hundreds of text messages like this. Until April, the Ugandan soldier was the spokesperson for the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom). His contact details were widely available so daily, he got dozens of threatening messages from the al-Shabaab Islamist terror network against which Amisom is fighting.
Al-Shabaab propagandists have become fairly well-known since the beginning of the famine catastrophe in Somalia, in large part because the organization which controls large parts of central and southern Somalia is refusing to let United Nation aid groups into the country.
Those shut out include the UN World Food Program, the largest distributor of food aid in the world. While some organizations like Doctors Without Borders are tolerated in certain areas, and others go about their work despite the danger to their lives, al-Shabaab is denying the patently evident: that about half of Somalia's population 3.2 million people, according to the UN need life-saving emergency aid.
In the last few weeks alone, 29,000 children under the age of five have died. Last week, the UN officially declared famine in three further regions. Unimpressed, al-Shabaab (shabaab means "youth" in Arabic) continued its propaganda that UN aid organizations have to be kept out so as to prevent them from pursuing their "political agenda."
Several of the group's spokesmen have, since the start of the famine, given interviews to American TV channels. "There's a drought, but no famine," Sheikh Ali Dhere told PBS, adding that a famine could be dealt with by Somali companies and communities.
At around the same time, another spokesman, Ali Mohamoud Rageh, was telling journalists at a press conference in Mogadishu that the latest reports from the "so-called United Nations" were "100% a lie."
Cooperation with al-Qaeda since 2008
As more and more Somalis reach the conclusion that al-Shabaab is responsible for mass deaths from famine, the terrorists are cranking up their propaganda machine. Since 2008, the group has been cooperating with al-Qaeda and taking pointers from the latter's propaganda arm, the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF).
Al-Shabaab's war tactics have not only become more "professional" as a result, so has their ability to manipulate the masses. Foreign extremists have brought them valuable equipment that their "al-Kataib" propaganda arm uses to produce videos and audio clips that they force Somali radio stations to broadcast.
On the ground in Mogadishu, Die Welt was shown burned car tires on a street near the front by Amisom soldiers. "Al-Shabaab burned them and then claimed that the smoke came from Amisom rocket attacks against civilians," Amisom spokesman Ba-Hoku said.
"They also dressed some of their dead fighters in civilian clothes and exhibited them to the press, saying they were civilian casualties." However, one genuine Amisom offensive in 2008 did draw criticism, also from Amnesty International, for the alleged death of 21 civilians. Among the casualties were some religious figures.
Ethiopia's Foreign Ministry, which was responsible for Amisom soldiers at the time, claimed that Amnesty International had been "misled by al-Shabaab and its supporters": saying only one Muslim cleric had been killed, and only because he was resisting.
In such cases, the truth is very difficult to determine. The press is not free in Somalia any more. Even the UN-supported transitional government, which controls about half of Mogadishu, arrests journalists for allegations of spreading false information.
Al-Shabaab takes more drastic measures against journalists reporting news it disagrees with: according to the human rights organization Reporters without Borders, more journalists are killed in Somalia than in any other country on the planet.
Particular pressure is applied to radio stations the major medium in structure-poor countries like Somalia. The biggest station in the center of the country, Radio Jowhar, got paid a visit in late June by three al-Shabaab officials.
The terrorists threatened to take over the station unless it broadcast only information that was favorable to al-Shabaab. Radio Jowhar ended up capitulating, and now also broadcasts a daily hour-long program produced by al-Shabaab.
Systematically, al-Shabaab leaders use other channels to recruit new members, such as emotional speeches or DVD presentations at religious assemblies. The propaganda is mostly produced in English so as to reach as wide an audience as possible.
The organization is even active on Facebook. Although the social network platform forbids content that incites violence, Islamic groups get around that. Al-Shabaab, for example, set its page up as the "Al-Kataib Media Foundation" and uploaded its videos there.
The page has been taken down, but that won't stop them: the content will be copied onto a new page and become available online again.
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