Separating Myth from Reality: Can We Learn Anything from Terrorist Propaganda Videos?

Recent video messages released by the African terrorist groups Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram offer new insights into their strategic use of communications technology to appeal for new recruits and frighten the general public.

On February 17, Boko Haram released a video in which its nominal leader, Abubakar Shekau, threatened to disrupt Nigeria’s forthcoming national elections and forecast that efforts by an international force of African troops to defeat his group would fail. Analysts noted that the video was more professionally produced than earlier efforts, with snappy graphics and better quality camerawork. It was released through its own media outlet and advertised on a new twitter account.

These innovations prompted speculation that the group is increasingly influenced by—and may be trying to reach out to—ISIS, whose videos set a benchmark for jihadists, not only for the barbaric images they portray but for their slick production values.

Meanwhile, on February 21 the Somali terrorist group Al-Shabaab released a video in which a masked man called on followers to attack several shopping malls, including the Mall of America in Minneapolis, home to the largest Somali diaspora in the United States.  The video included photographs and—in a further presentational flourish—GPS coordinates of the targets. 

Q1:  How do these groups use new media and what are they trying to achieve with it?

A1: These groups appreciate that communications technology is an important tool in the terrorist armory. They use it to reach out to three distinct audiences. The first is fellow jihadists, whom they seek to galvanize with their reports of ‘martyrdom’ operations and other feats of homicidal derring-do.  Second, these broadcasts are seen as important outreach to would-be acolytes, seeking to inspire and incite ‘lone wolf’ operations and raise funds. The call by Al-Shabaab to attack shopping malls in North America and London was an appeal to this constituency, issued in the hope, rather than the expectation, that someone would take up the challenge. Third, these communications are aimed at society more broadly; their intent is to shock the general public, garner publicity, spread fear and make big—and sometimes empty—threats. 

Q2: These groups appear to be smart operators when it comes to using new media.  Have they used these tools to their advantage?

A2: Al-Shabaab has long used video and social media to deliver its messages. Its Twitter feed in particular became a notorious means of communicating with the outside world. It was used to goad the Kenyan military and contradict its accounts of progress following its invasion of southern Somalia in 2011. In 2013, it was used to report live updates of an ongoing terrorist attack by associates of the gunmen who laid siege to the Westgate Mall in Nairobi. But as Somalia expert Ken Menkhaus notes, Al-Shabaab’s supposedly skillful use of social media has been a liability as well as an asset. While it has helped reach a broad audience and raise funds, the unregulated nature of the medium has also exposed internal divisions within the group and some of its outreach efforts—such as the toe-curlingly bad jihadi rap performed by the U.S.-born Al Shabaab member Omar Hammami—attracted more derision than admiration. 

Q3: By broadcasting their videos, is the media playing into their hands?

A3: In their efforts to terrify the public, the unwitting agents of these terrorist groups are the members of the broadcast news media, who eagerly devour the video footage and devote endless hours of studio time to dissecting it with the help of an army of stand-by analysts. By doing so, they deliver a propaganda coup to the people who produce these videos and inadvertently exaggerate the threat these groups possess. Social media outlets such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook have yet to find a satisfactory way of regulating their content to prevent it from being exploited by extremists. 

Q4: So are these videos purely bravado?  Should they be dismissed out of hand?

A4: No, but we should remember that these groups use them to project a self-image that may be at odds with reality.  Al-Shabaab’s latest video is a case in point. The real narrative of the past six months is of a movement that has been seriously degraded. Its leader Ahmed Abdi Godane was killed in a U.S. airstrike last September, other senior members have met the same fate and some have defected, and troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) have done an effective job of squeezing the territory they control inside Somalia. By wasting hours of airtime on its latest video, however, parts of the cable news media have ignored that reality, portraying it as the latest confident expression of a group that possesses the capability of striking outside East Africa, something it has never managed to do. 

The latest Boko Haram video could be viewed in a similar light. While the group continues to pose a grave threat to the people of northeastern Nigeria, it has been placed on the back foot in recent weeks thanks to the determined efforts of the Nigerian military, with support from neighboring Chad, Cameroon, and Niger. Furthermore, recent analysis by Davin O’Regan for the International Relations and Security Network in Zurich suggests that while the group’s lethality has increased in the past year, its operational reach may be contracting to a remote rural stretch of northeastern Nigeria, close to the border with Cameroon.

Paying too much attention to propaganda videos can lead to other faulty assumptions. Too much of the discussion about Boko Haram has centered on Abubakar Shekau, whose grotesque performances are a trademark of its videos. They tend to elevate the importance of an individual and detract attention from the reality that Boko Haram is a fragmented, dispersed group with no clear leadership and an agenda that is increasingly difficult to understand. Indeed, there has been plenty of speculation that the man in the videos is an actor.    

Richard Downie is a fellow and deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2015 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


Richard Downie