Specifics of the Propaganda Activities of Terrorist Groups in African Countries in 2021-2022
In the 21st century, the threat of international terrorism has entered a new stage: now communication capabilities of Al-Qaeda (banned in Russia) and Islamic State (banned in Russia) terrorist organizations have aggravated the threat to public safety. Weak combat capabilities of the groups are compensated by recruiting new members, obtaining financial support, shaping the agenda of the media, government authorities and international organizations. Experts that study of terrorism note the trend of moving the confrontation between “global evil” and anti-terrorist structures into the virtual space, which is especially obvious in the countries of the African continent.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb
As the third anniversary of the creation of the Hirak movement in Algeria approaches, the terrorist organization al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM, banned in Russia) released a new video message after a long break. In 2022, an AQIM media outlet called al-Andalus published a video titled “Call for Mobilization” where a young militant, allegedly named Abd al-Muhsin Abu Julaibib, criticized protesting Algerians, arguing that real change could only be to be achieved by force, rather than by peaceful means. This is an interesting judgment, given the previous positions of AQIM regarding the Hirak movement.
In 2019, Abu Ubaidah Youssef al-Annab, subsequently appointed Emir of AQIM in November 2020, became the head of the Shura Council and the organization's ideological leader. At that time, he approved of the pacifist actions of the demonstrators, arguing that jihad was not limited just armed struggle. With such rhetoric, al-Annabi tried to capitalize on the growing protest in Algeria and use its participants as a recruiting reserve. However, this attempt failed.
AQIM's failure to serve as a pole of gravity and, as a result, to recruit protesters is probably the reason why Julaibib also reminded about the old divisions within Algerian jihadist circles regarding the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) strategy of the 1990s, which included attacks on civilians. He characterized the GIA as Kharijites (schismatics) and emphasized that A!IM jihadists are very different fr om the GIA. Change in the mid-1990s GIA strategies and their violence not just against the police and security forces, but also against civilians who were considered “apostates,” pushed a number of members to leave the group. Then, the splintered cell served as a basis for creation of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Jihad (Le Groupe salafiste pour la prédication et le combat, GSPC), which later became known as AQIM.
Julaibib's video is interesting for several reasons. As already mentioned, his address demonstrated a shift in the ideology of AQIM from peaceful protests in Algeria to violence and the loss of eagerness to win the sympathy of those who protested under the banner of the Hirak movement. However, this shift is likely due to the organization's failure to win the attention of the protesters and is more of a reaction to the lack of attractiveness of AQIM for the Algerian population. In addition, the low quality of the video material featuring Julaibib also suggests that logistical and organizational problems hinder the AQIM militants’ operations in the country. From this point of view, the video was a kind of recognition of the group's weak position in Algeria and proves once again that although AQIM is still present in the country, its main strategic focus and success are consistently concentrated elsewhere, for example, in Mali and other countries of the Sahel.
Nigerian Branch of al-Qaeda
Jamaat al-Ansar al-Muslimin fi Bilad al-Sudan (Ansaru) is an al-Qaeda-linked (banned in Russia) jihadist group operating in northwestern Nigeria. Ansaru was formed between November 2011 and January 2012 by defectors from Boko Haram (banned in Russia) with the approval of AQIM. However, after about a year, Ansaru ceased its activities and went underground. In January 2020, the group resumed armed attacks and then intensified hostilities. The most high profile attacks were carried out in the states of Kaduna and Yobe in February and August 2020. In terms of outreach activities, between May 2019 and August 2020, Ansaru established an official media wing, al-Yaqout Media, as well as channels on Telegram and Rocket Chat, claiming to have carried out several successful campaigns through pro-al-Qaeda media. Since then, however, the group’s media channels have become inactive until the end of 2021.
After a break of more than a year, a 22-minute video by al-Yaqout Media appeared on Nigerian media channels on November 29, 2021. The presenter mentioned several prominent al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Yahyu al-Libi, Ibrahim al-Kosi, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and displayed images of Islamist ideologues such as Anwar al-Awlaki, Abdullah al-Azzam and Mohammad al-Maqdisi. The quotes in the video indicated that Ansaru is closely associated with al-Qaeda and seeks to distance itself from Boko Haram as much as possible, condemning its actions in every possible way.
On December 18, 2021, Ansaru published a four-minute video through al-Yaqout Media congratulating the Taliban (banned in Russia) on their victory in Afghanistan. The video also showed footage of training and fighting. Subsequently, on December 31, 2021, al-Yaqout Media released an official statement revealing its origins, announcing that it had sworn allegiance to AQIM in 2020. The statement noted that Ansaru militants were previously part of Boko Haram but left the group due to the deviance of its leader Abubakar Shekau. Finally, Ansaru stated that the group is committed to “defense and jihad by fighting against hated disbelievers and renegade apostates.”
On 14 January 2022, Ansaru announced to the media that al-Yaqout Media would become part of al-Qaeda's global media network, to be managed by the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF). This announcement helped improve the quality of Ansaru's propaganda and enhance its circulation, as it was planned to subsequently publish materials in Arabic and English, and later to have them translated into French as well. Two days later, on January 16, al-Yaqout Media, through GIMF for the first time released a statement and a series of photographs showing Ansaru announcing a military operation in Kaduna State against local bandits. Then on January 21, Ansaru, again through GIMF, released a new statement with photos of the military operation carried out a few days earlier, once again in Kaduna State. The group announced that its militants had eliminated 15 robbers belonging to a local organized crime group and confiscated their motorcycles and weapons.
On March 30, 2022, another statement was released wh ere al-Yaqout Media, through GIMF, announced the launch of a periodical newsletter. The first issue in Arabic was released under the title “Why join Jamaat Ansar al-Muslimin fi Bilad al-Sudan.” Ansaru stated that people should join the organization because the group learned fr om the mistakes of the GIA in the 1990s in Algeria and Shekau in Nigeria and is now on the right track. The article mentions the importance of the decentralization of al-Qaeda, with common goals set for its units. Thus, Ansaru proudly declared itself as an organization representing the interests of al-Qaeda in Nigeria, thereby trying to recruit new supporters.
On April 9, Ansaru returned to publishing claims in Arabic and English and disseminating photo sets. On April 7, two large operations against bandits in the Birnin Gwari and Tun Sado areas of Kaduna and Zamfara states, northern Nigeria, were respectively published. It then showed photos of several bandits the group killed and announced that it had also killed the bandits’ leader and seized the bandits’ weapons, ammunition, and motorbikes.
In 2022, Ansaru published the first issue of its periodic bulletin “Sawt al-Qara’a al-Samra’a” which was translated into English and consisted of 10 pages, including two editorials. The first was titled “Why join Ansaru?” and the second was about the importance and advantages of decentralizing al-Qaeda. The first editorial critiqued Shekau’s theology and Boko Haram, which was useful for recruiting that group’s defectors who do not want to join Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP). The second editorial on “The Decentralization of al-Qaeda” underscored that affiliates follow the line dictated by al-Qaeda Central, but have operational autonomy. In this way, any errors committed by affiliates are not attributable to the mother organization or the responsibility of the al-Qaeda’s own leaders.
Ansaru claims to be “the vanguard for the protection of Muslims in Africa” and promises to restore the “dignity of Muslims” in that area, which broadly refers to the pre-colonial Sokoto Caliphate in present-day Nigeria. The group also criticizes the indiscriminate killing of civilians committed by Boko Haram and maintains a very strong link with al-Qaeda. Although in the past Ansaru has been described as possibly coexisting with militants in northern Nigeria, Ansaru’s operations have proved otherwise. Moreover, although Ansaru has actually been accused of conducting attacks, robberies, and kidnappings for extortion, it is possible these operations were committed by the various militant groups present in northwestern Nigeria and wrongly attributed to Ansaru.
Ansaru’s connection to al-Qaeda Central and the entry of Ansaru’s media into the global al-Qaeda publication ecosystem to large extent will shape Ansaru’s future operations. A continued increase in publications and claims, with photos of the group’s operations in states wh ere it is active against bandits and criminal groups is likely in the coming months. It is also probable that in the medium term, should Ansaru succeed in recruiting new members and finding local support, Ansaru itself will expand its operations and follow the guidelines provided by al-Qaeda Central and AQIM.
In conclusion, it must be noted that the look into how the African terrorists use media in their interests shows that at this stage the communicative aspect is increasingly prevalent. Its purpose is to ensure the negative consequences of terrorist propaganda, disinformation and manipulation used by terrorists in the information confrontation with state structures. Therefore, it seems necessary to further study the rhetoric of terrorists and their channels of communication with the public.