A militant Islamist group in Somalia that has declared its allegiance to al-Qa'ida is using a young British man to file video propaganda from the front lines of the country's civil war to try to draw English-speaking Muslims to the Horn of Africa for jihad, The Independent can reveal.
The man, who remains masked throughout his videos, speaks in fluent English with a clear London accent and presents breathless reports of battles that the militant groups have fought against Somali government and foreign forces.
Intelligence sources and terrorism experts believe the man was either born in Britain or spent considerable time here and that he may have even had some media training before heading abroad to join the militant network.
The Independent has collected at least three videos in which the man features. The first – which runs for 11 minutes and is titled "African Crusaders" – was released in June 2010 and only contains the man's voice. A second 21 minute long video – "Mogadishu – the Crusader's Graveyard" – was released a month later and shows the young reporter appearing with his face covered in front of burning tank that he claims was destroyed by Islamist fighters.
He disappeared from Al Shabaab propaganda videos until October this year when he returned with a new documentary called "Battle for Deyniile – the Burundian Bloodbath". The 33-minute report features footage from the front lines of a recent battle between militants and African Union peacekeepers on the outskirts of Mogadishu in which a number of AU troops were known to have perished. Shabaab fighters display the uniformed corpses of at least twenty fighters that they claimed belonged to the Ugandan and Burundian peacekeeping forces currently in control of central Mogadishu.
The documentaries – which were all released through Shabaab's media wing the al-Kataib Foundation – are a vivid example of the slick propaganda now being produced by violent Islamists in the Horn of Africa and their determination to turn the area into a new base for international jihadists.
Britain has become so concerned about the deteriorating security situation inside Somalia that it has convened a summit for February to discuss what to do about the failed state. MI5 head Jonathan Evans has repeatedly warned that the Horn of Africa has become the second most popular terrorist training ground after Pakistan with Brits of Somali, Pakistani, Yemeni, Bangladeshi and North African heritage flocking there.
Whitehall sources believe that there are between three to four people working full time on Shabaab's media wing, one of whom is a Yemeni who previously worked with al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula. A second individual is a British Pakistani – thought to be the reporter who appears in the videos.
The group's latest output represents a tactical shift in the way militant networks are producing their propaganda in that the more recent productions are presented as objective news reports, mimicking the way mainstream news organisations present information.
"Instead of featuring a field commander what we're seeing is supposedly a journalist reporting the facts on the ground in a dispassionate way whilst manipulating the narrative to his group's advantage," said Bruce Hoffman, a leading expert on Islamist terrorism at the University of Georgetown. "You wouldn't put Shabaab in the top bracket within the pantheon of terror groups when it comes to strategies or tactics. But their communication techniques are highly sophisticated."
The Independent sought comment from al-Shabaab through an email account known to be used by the militants for international enquiries. In a statement the group said their aim was to inspire Muslims in the West: "We are not able to reveal the identity or nom de guerre of the person in question but the aim of our English documentaries is quite simple. With most journalists serving merely as subservient vessels at the hands of warmongers and politicians, the purpose of the Harakat Al-Shabaab Al Mujahideen's documentary films is to reveal the reality of the current warfare in Somalia to the world and, in particular, to the Muslims living in the Western world."
The statement added: "It is our hope that these English documentaries will enlighten the Muslims by illuminating the reality of the so-called war on terror and help further elucidate the events as they really are on the ground –not as they are erroneously portrayed in the western media."
Shabaab are a brutal off-shoot of the comparatively moderate Islamic Courts Union which brought a semblance of calm to Somalia after 20 years of fighting but was thrown out of in 2006 following a US-backed invasion by Ethiopian troops.
The militant group controls large tracts of southern Somalia and has fought a vicious insurgency against the country's beleaguered and highly unpopular transitional government whose writ extends little further than the capital Mogadishu. They promote a draconian interpretation of Sharia law and have pledged allegiance to al-Qa'ida and its philosophy of waging violent jihad to establish a global Islamic caliphate.
After withdrawing their fighters from the capital in August, they have shifted to more asymmetric tactics such as suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices. A spate of kidnappings hit northern Kenya prompting Nairobi to invade from the south claiming that they would eradicate Shabaab. Ethiopia's military has invaded once more from the north but there has been little sign so far of any palpable military successes against the militants who have called on help in repelling "infidel crusaders".
Fearing Somalia is becoming a new gathering point for international jihadists, the United States has increased drone strikes within the Horn of Africa operating out of bases in Djibouti, southern Ethiopia and the Seychelles.
The exact number of foreign fighters within Shabaab's ranks is currently unknown but western intelligence agencies have watched with alarm as both hardened veterans and new foreign recruits have flocked to the area.
In early October two 18-year-old Brits from Cardiff were arrested on the Kenya-Somalia border in what the Kenyan police claimed was an attempt to join up with Shabaab militants. One of the teens was of Somali extraction, whilst his friend was believed to be British-Pakistani.
Abdirhman Haji Abdullah, the father of the Somali-British man, gave an interview to BBC Somali in which he claimed his son had been "brainwashed".
"My son was misled into believing that he was fighting in a holy war," he said. "He was brainwashed and taken away from us and he was told that he was going to fight a holy war in Somalia."
The pair were arrested and returned to Britain only because Mr Abdullah went after his son and alerted the authorities.
Intelligence analysts have commented that Somalia has become an attractive destination for international militants because it is much easier to infiltrate than other militant strongholds such as Iraq, the Afghan-Pakistan border and Yemen.
Shabaab's increasingly sophisticated propaganda releases, meanwhile, have coincided with the arrival of international jihadists and much of the output from al-Kataib is now squarely aimed at recruiting fighters from overseas. Earlier this month the group even appeared on Twitter with an account that has been used to release passport photos of slain African Union troops and taunt the Kenyan military with jibes.
Shabaab has made no secret of its desire to welcome foreign fighters. One recent video features masked militants speaking in an array of languages including English, Swahili, Swedish and Urdu. One fighter, who uses the nom de guerre Abu Dujana, claims he is British and speaks with a heavy London accent. Sitting on a white beach, he calls on Muslims "that are living in the lands of disbelief, the lands of oppression, to (migrate) to the land of glory, to the land of (power) to the land of jihad."
The militant group has also released a number of rap-songs by Omar Hammami, a middle class American with Syrian parentage from Alabama who became increasingly devout and travelled to Somalia for jihad. Within jihadi circles he is known as Abu Mansour al-Amriki and is frequently lauded by militants as an example that western Muslims should follow.
Following the death of Osama bin Laden, Hammami appeared in a video alongside senior Shabaab leaders and read a speech to honour the slain al-Qa'ida founder.
Roger Middleton, an expert on Somalia at Chatham House, said he believed Shabaab's use of a British journalist to present their side of the conflict is part of a wider strategy to encourage recruits from the West.
"This guy is turning up more and more often in Shabaab releases," he said. "It's difficult to gauge what kind of effect he has had. The general consensus is that the number of British Somalis heading to join Shabaab are in their tens rather than their hundreds. But you do hear stories within the Somali community of young men just disappearing and the family later finding out that they have been killed fighting for Shabaab."Reuse content