Faced with growing opposition at home and increasing chances of defeat at the hands of the forces raging against it, Somali insurgent group al Shabaab has stepped up its propaganda campaign as Kenyan soldiers push closer to the group’s stronghold in the port town of Kismayu.
At the close of the first week of Kenya’s military campaign against the group, al Shabaab ratcheted up its war rhetoric, warning that Kenya will pay dearly for its campaign.
On Thursday, al Shabaab spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage displayed more than 70 bodies of alleged African Union peacekeepers claimed to have been killed in a showdown in Mogadishu, saying “this is a message to Kenya that has invaded our country”.
The group claimed that it killed the peace-keeping soldiers from the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) following a fierce firefight.
However, AU has dismissed the al Shabaab figures, insisting only 16 of its soldiers were killed. (READ: 16 soldiers killed in Mogadishu)
Security analysts say that both sides are probably cooking up the numbers of casualties, but they nonetheless agree that the incident illustrates how adept al Shabaab is at peddling propaganda at a time of dwindling support for their cause.
In order to receive support and gain a sense of legitimacy, every conflict is fought on at least two fronts: the battlefield, and in the minds of the people via propaganda, an inevitable element of every conflict.
In this regard, military analysts have been less than impressed by the manner in which the Army and government have handled communication about the Somalia offensive. “Kenyans have little information about the progress,” said security analyst, Capt (Rtd) Simiyu Werunga.
Elsewhere, especially in the West, declarations of war are characterised by lofty speeches of triumphalism by political leaders.
In contrast, the announcement by Internal Security minister George Saitoti and Defence minister Yusuf Haji resembled a security briefing.
But it seems a deliberate tactic by the State, says Capt Werunga. The government has stated that it is not at war with Somalia or its people but with elements bent on disrupting Kenya’s way of life.
“A grand statement by the President would probably have given it such a shade and given more arsenal to al Shabaab,” he said.
The President has stressed the need for the operation and has received overwhelming backing from Cabinet, Parliament and the general public.
Assailed at home by counter-insurgency groups and now facing military action from regional countries, al Shabaab is fast losing support.
When the insurgency began in 2007 after the ouster of Islamic Courts Union by Ethiopian forces, the war-weary population welcomed them.
However, the group’s hard-line interpretation of the Koran irritated many Somalis who practice a moderate version of Sufi Islam.
Al Shabaab militants began to terrorise the Somali public, chopping off hands, stoning people, and banning TV, music and even bras in their quest to turn Somalia into a 10th-century-style Islamic state. The public rose up against them.
But the group seems to be changing tack. It would appear from the alleged Amisom killings that it is determined to portray the war as an affair between Christians and Muslims to shore up support for its fledgling cause.
The bodies, some beheaded, were displayed alongside Bibles and crucifixes. The group usually beheads those who have embraced Christianity or Western ideals.
And as Kenyan troops crossed into Somalia last week, Rage warned Kenya that “your skyscrapers will be destroyed, your tourism will disappear. We will inflict on you the same damage you inflict on us”.
“It is trying to highlight its relevance and capacity to evoke fear within and beyond Somalia’s borders. I think it is also meant to keep their movement in international news,” said Capt Werunga.