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Studying The Art Of War In Al Shabaab

Studying the Art of War in al Shabaab

by Anne Speckhard & Ardian Shajkovci

Studying the Art of War in al Shabaab is the 115th counter narrative video in the ICSVE Breaking the ISIS Brand and the ninth featuring al Shabaab members. This video features 37-year-old Kenyan, Abu Layth, who was interviewed by Anne Speckhard and Ardian Shajkovci in October 2018 in a prison in Kenya. The video clip was video edited and produced by Zack Baddorf and our ICSVE team.

“Those youth [in Kenya], they have a lot of energy. They are restless. They want something to do. And most of them, they want to be stars. They want to be like footballers. They want to shine, so they want an arena to be artists,” Abu Layth begins telling viewers. Having lived in a slum in Nairobi, Kenya, himself, Abu Layth understands their frustrations. “If they don’t find that arena to be good artists, they go to art of war and stuff like that. They will be given an arena by those guys. Appearing in those videos and stuff like that—some people see [joining al Shabaab] as cool, but it’s not,” he warns, speaking of the terrorist group he joined at age 25.

“[The training] was just hardening,” Abu Layth recalls of the al Shabaab basic and supplemental training he took to enter their emni, or intelligence arm. “Sometimes, they let you eat. Sometimes, they used to give you three cups of water. Now, you would decide that if you’re going to take a shower with the cup or you’re going to drink or you’re going to wash your face. It was up to you.”

“We wanted to run away,” Abu Layth claims, although he stayed with the group over three years. He adds, “But now we were in the jungle. We drove there for three weeks, just driving into the jungle. You cannot run away because it’s a forest. It’s a jungle and there are lions and stuff like that.”

“The training was hard,” Abu Layth says, speaking of the emni training. “There were three teachers and four students. We were staying in a house [in Mogadishu]. There was no furniture. Nothing. They used to pour water on the floor. We used to sleep on water and they would beat you. They would torture you.”

Abu Layth made the cut.  He was then sent into Kenya as an operative. Recalling his preparation to enter Kenya in pursuit of his mission,  he explains, “I asked them one time, when they told us you are coming to Kenya. ‘If we go to Kenya, what if you are arrested, or something like that?’ They told me, ‘Don’t get arrested.’  Instead, he was to fight to the death, avoiding capture at all costs.

“I thought, maybe I was going for revolution,” Abu Layth explains about his youthful naiveté in serving al Shabaab—imagining himself as a hero and hoping he could bring wished for changes into society. “But, I think a lot of those stuff belongs in the movies and the books.” Now, with age, and being convicted on terrorism charges and serving the last seven years in prison, he knows better. “Life is completely different, because everything that I thought I’m going to accomplish, I accomplished none of them,” Abu Layth states. Abu Layth took part in many battles and then returned to Kenya where he attacked a tourist club.

“These guys, they died, all of them,”  he says, referring to the friends with whom he had joined. “It’s not a movie. I told you,” he warns. “It’s not a movie. If maybe I appeared in one propaganda video, you’d just see the combat. You know young men love that very much — the guns,” Abu Layth explains. “When you look at me in the videos, you’ll think that this guy has everything,” he continues, and then opens up about his own experiences. “But that guy, if you could open his heart, you’ll be surprised. Basically, life is not what appears. Not everything that glitters is gold.”

“I tell young men to cool down,” Abu Layth advises. “They act mad with the guns and all that, being gangster and stuff like that. They need to be cool.” Yet, he reflects, “It’s a stage in life that will pass. They will mature and they will settle down.”

When asked about women who join al Shabaab, Abu Layth answers, “You see most of the girls that go there, maybe 99 percent, they have contacts there. Maybe former boyfriends or brothers. Like, maybe me and this guy we are friends, and I ask him, ‘Do you have a sister?’ He says, ‘Yes.’ I tell him, like, ‘Is she into this ideology?’ Maybe he’ll say, ‘Yes.’ We can arrange how that girl can come,” he explains.  However, Abu Layth warns, “That is not a journey for women because you could fall into any hands. There are tribal warlords. There are highway robbers. There are AMISOM. There’s the Somalia army. That stuff is not for women. It’s not for sisters.”

“They should just stay [at home] away from those stuff,” Abu Layth advises women. “If you go there, you can be raped. You can … .You can face hell, in short.”  To all youth, he advises, “to try and go back to the Quran. Try and go back in history and see how God instructs him to deal with stuff like this.” He further states, “You have to deal first with yourself. Someone cannot even make ablution with fighting for shariah. It doesn’t make sense. If you want to gain closeness to your creator, I think first you should start from manners, love, stuff like that. Other than falling to that trap [al Shabaab].”

Abu Layth also counsels, “The youth maybe they are angry. They find like no one is listening to them. They are not wanted. Maybe they should go to the mosque and find someone, a preacher who is not an extremist. They should find someone to talk to. They should be willing to open up and be heard. You know how the youth are. ‘These people, they don’t listen to us.’ There are always solutions to their problems and there’s always someone who is ready to listen.”

Reflecting on his own surprise about how much his parents worried and cared about him, he adds, “They should know that they are loved. They should know that their parents love them and they should know that their siblings love them. Because, actually, I didn’t know if my parents loved me. I didn’t know that until I got into trouble. I saw my mother crying and I was like, ‘She’s crying.’ I didn’t expect her to cry.”

“They should be careful what they do. Because, sometimes, when you do something, you end up hurting a lot of people around you. Like in my case, I’ve hurt my parents. I’ve hurt my sisters and my brothers. I didn’t think about that angle. If only I thought about how my parents are going to feel, how my sisters are going to feel, maybe I would have made a different [choice], ” he further adds.

Returning to his concern about how terrorist groups glamourize life inside the group, he again warns, “You only have one life. I think you should not gamble with your life, because you will not have a second chance in life. It’s not like in the movies: the star never dies in the movies and there’s always a happy ending. But, in life, … . Don’t go [to join al Shabaab].”

Discussion Questions:

What do you feel watching this video?

Do you believe Abu Layth is who he says he is and is telling the truth of his experiences in al Shabaab?

Al Shabaab, literally means the “youth,” and youth are this group’s primary recruitment targets. In other words, they have a vested interested in especially attracting youth and limiting other opportunities for them. What are some possible ways to counter the appeal of al Shabaab?

Abu Layth was subject to the influence of friends who were already part of the group as early as 2008 (often referred to as third-party recruitment, using friends, family members and peer-pressure). The coercive tactic of applying peer-pressure on family members and friends to join ensures rapid growth of the terrorist organization. How can one counter such a recruitment tactic?

What do you think of Abu Layth’s views on youth wanting to be significant?

How can youth find others to listen to their concerns?

How can youth know they are loved by someone?

Do you believe that al Shabaab videos show real life inside the group or is it more like Abu Layth is telling us?

Do you believe that women are mistreated in the group if they come without a family member being involved?

Do you believe al Shabaab can function well as an Islamic State?  Why or why not?

Islamic Scriptures Related to this Video

Propaganda is different from reality. The videos ISIS, and the groups like them, produce are aiming at altering reality to deceive young men and women to join them so as to be extra fuel for their fire. Islam, on the other hand, aims at dealing with realities. Even in times of what would be considered legitimate jihad by most Islamic scholars, there are clear regulations to follow as Allah is quoted in the Quran: “The believers should not go to fight altogether, rather, a party from each section should go forth to become well versed in the religion, and when they return to their people warn them in order that they may beware.” Surah al-Tawba (Repentance), Ayah No. 122. The reason being that if all Muslims all go to fight jihad there will be no one left to protect and take care of the families, build the society, etc.  A companion of the Prophet named Abdullah ibn ‘Amr also said, “A man came to the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, wanting to do jihad. The Prophet asked, ‘Are your parents alive?’ ‘Yes,’ he replied. The Prophet answered him, ‘Then exert yourself on their behalf.'” Bukhari, al-Adab al-Mufrad, book No.1 hadith No.20.

Youth also have to learn how to be beloved to Allah, his Prophet and his society, as the Prophet said: “The believer who mixes with people and endures their injury is better than the person who does not mix with people nor endure their injury,” meaning carrying the suffering of society, caring for each other etc. makes one an integral part of that society and beloved by it. Bukhari, al-Adab al-Mufrad, book No.21 hadith No.4. The Prophet also said: “The believer is likable, easily approachable, and pleasant when approaching others. And there is no good in one who is difficult to approach and harsh with others. And the best of people are those who are most beneficial to people.” Al-Albani/al-Silsila al-Sahiha, hadith No. 425. Thus while, it’s important as Abu Layth says to know you are loved, it is also important to comport yourself in a way that makes you lovable to those living around you.

It is also considered obligatory in Islam to leave things which provoke suspicions and uncertainty, as the Prophet (PBUH) said: “Leave what causes you doubt and turn to what does not cause you doubt.” Al-Tirmithi, Book No. 1, hadith No. 593. Of course extremists groups exploit this idea by presenting very black and white thinking, as Abu Layth explained and one must be wise enough not to be fooled by going into something extremist that presents violence and brutality as the thing about which one should have no doubts.  Violence is regulated in Islam, as in all religions, and generally prohibited in most situations—unlike terrorist groups which use brutality in nearly all situations.

A person only has one life, so for the believer the important question is what would he feel when he finds out that what he was doing in this life was against Allah? Allah is quoted in the Quran: “Say (oh Muhammed): ‘Shall we tell you of those who are the greatest losers in deeds? (They are) those whose striving in this world go astray, while they think that what they are doing are good deeds.” Surah al-Kahaf (the cave), Ayah No. 103-104. You should try harder so as not to be one of those.  In this regard, we must all take care with youth and guide them correctly to be gentle, polite, and to know what their religions actually teach and that extreme violence is rarely, if ever, a solution to societal or personal problems.

Transcript of Studying the Art of War in al Shabaab

Those youth [in Kenya],

they have a lot of energy.

They are restless.

They want something to do.

And most of them, they want to be stars.

They want to be like footballers.

They want to shine,

 so they want an arena to be artists.

If they don’t find that arena

to be good artists, 

they go to art of war

and stuff like that.

They will be given an arena

by those guys.

ABU LAYTH 37-year-old Kenyan

Former al Shabaab Member

Appearing in those videos and stuff like that—

some people see [joining al Shabaab] as cool,

but it’s not.

TEXT: Abu Layth joined

al Shabaab at age 25.

[The training] was just hardening.

Sometimes they let you eat.

Sometimes they used to give you

 three cups of water.

Now you would decide that if you’re going

to take a shower with the cup or you’re going to drink

or you’re going to wash your face.

It was up to you. 

We wanted to run away,

 but now we were in the jungle.

We drove there for three weeks,

 just driving into the jungle.

You cannot run away because it’s a forest.

It’s a jungle and there are lions and stuff like that.

TEXT: Abu Layth went through additional training

in Mogadishu.

The training was hard.

There were three teachers

and four students.

We were staying in a house.

There was no furniture. Nothing.

They used to pour water on the floor.

We used to sleep on water

and they would beat you.

They would torture you.

I asked them one time,

when they told us you are coming to Kenya,

‘If we go to Kenya, what if you are arrested

or something like that?’

They told me,

‘Don’t get arrested.’

TEXT: Al Shabaab militants said

he should be willing to fight

to the death to avoid capture.

I though maybe I was going for revolution.

But, I think a lot of those stuff belongs

in the movies and the books.

Life is completely different, because

everything that I thought I’m going to accomplish,

I accomplished none of them.

These guys,

they died all of them.

TEXT: Abu Layth took part in many battles and then returned back to Kenya where he attacked a tourist club.

TEXT: Abu Layth was prosecuted on terrorism charges and has been imprisoned for the past seven years.

It’s not a movie. I told you.

It’s not a movie.

If maybe I appeared in one propaganda video,

you’d just see the combat. 

You know young men love that very much —

the guns. 

When you look at me in the videos,

you’ll think that this guy has everything.

But that guy, if you could open his heart,

 you’ll be surprised.

Basically, life is not what appears.

Not everything that glitters is gold.

I tell young men to cool down.

They act mad with the guns and all that,

being gangster and stuff like that.

They need to be cool.

It’s a stage in life that will pass.

They will mature

 and they will settle down.

You see most of the girls that go there, 

maybe 99 percent, they have contacts there.

Maybe former boyfriends or brothers.

Like, maybe me and this guy we are friends,

 and I ask him, ‘Do you have a sister?’

He says, ‘Yes.’ I tell him, like,

‘Is she into this ideology?’ Maybe he’ll say, ‘Yes.’

We can arrange how that girl can come, but that is not a journey for women because you could fall into any hands.

There are tribal warlords.

There are highway robbers.

There are AMISOM.

There’s the Somalia army.

That stuff is not for women.

It’s not for sisters.

They should just stay [at home]

away from those stuff.

If you go there, you can be raped. You can … .

You can face hell, in short.

I’ll say to that young man or that young woman

to try and go back to the Quran.

Try and go back in history and see how God

instructs him to deal with stuff like this.

You have to deal first with yourself.

Someone cannot even make ablution

with fighting for shariah.

It doesn’t make sense.

If you want to gain closeness to your creator, I think

first you should start from manners, love, stuff like that.

Other than falling to that trap [al Shabaab].

The youth maybe they are angry. They find like

no one is listening to them. They are not wanted.

Maybe they should go to the mosque and find someone,

 a preacher who is not an extremist.

They should find someone to talk to.

They should be willing to open up and be heard.

You know how the youth are.

‘These people, they don’t listen to us.’

There are always solutions to their problems

 and there’s always someone who is ready to listen.

They should know that they are loved.

They should know that their parents love them

 and they should know that their siblings love them.

Because actually, I didn’t know if my parents loved me.

I didn’t know that until I got into trouble.

I saw my mother crying and I was like, ‘She’s crying.’

 I didn’t expect her to cry.

They should be careful what they do,

 because sometimes when you do something,

you end up hurting

a lot of people around you.

Like in my case, I’ve hurt my parents. I’ve hurt

my sisters and my brothers. I didn’t think about that angle.

If only I thought about how my parents are going to feel,

how my sisters are going to feel,

maybe I would have

 made a different [choice].

You only have one life.

I think you should not gamble with your life,

 because you will not have a second chance in life.

It’s not like in the movies: the star never dies in the movies

and there’s always a happy ending. But, in life, … .

Don’t [join Al Shabaab].

The Truth Behind al Shabaab

Sponsored by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism

            www.ICSVE.org

See more at www.TheRealJihad.org

About the authors:

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 600 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past two years, she and ICSVE staff have been collecting interviews (n=169) with ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners, studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS, as well as developing the materials from these interviews. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting on how to rehabilitate them. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhard and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org Follow @AnneSpeckhard

Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D., is the Director of Research and a Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). He has been collecting interviews with ISIS defectors and studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism as well as training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally. He has also been studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and how to rehabilitate them. He has conducted fieldwork in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, mostly recently in Jordan and Iraq. He has presented at professional conferences and published on the topic of radicalization and terrorism. He holds a doctorate in Public Policy and Administration, with a focus on Homeland Security Policy, from Walden University. He obtained his M.A. degree in Public Policy and Administration from Northwestern University and a B.A. degree in International Relations and Diplomacy from Dominican University. He is also an adjunct professor teaching counterterrorism and CVE courses at Nichols College. 

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