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Al Shabaab tweets photos of slain French soldier
In a propaganda coup for al Shabaab and an embarrassment for France, the Somali militant group released photos Monday of what appeared to be a dead French soldier captured during Saturday’s failed French military raid in Somalia.
Months after al Shabaab was routed from the key Somali port city of Kismayu, the al Qaeda-linked militant group scored a gruesome propaganda coup on Monday with the publication of photos of what appeared to be a dead French soldier captured during Saturday’s failed French raid.
The photos, posted on the group’s Twitter account, showed a white man in a blood-soaked shirt lying on an orange tarp on a bed of dry leaves. A close-up shot revealed a silver cross pendant around the victim’s neck sticking out of his shirt collar in what appeared to be a carefully arranged image.
The accompanying captions were characteristically taunting: “A return of the crusades, but the cross could not save him from the sword,” said the text accompanying the close-up shot. Another photo, which showed the victim with guns, ammunition clips and a helmet placed between his legs, bore the caption: “François Hollande, was it worth it?”
Al Shabaab’s verbal stab at the French president came two days after a military raid to rescue a French intelligence officer held captive since July 2009 ended in disaster.
According to French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, two French commandos were killed in a heavy firefight and the hostage, Denis Allex, is believed to have been killed.
Al Shabaab however maintained the French intelligence agent was alive and that a “verdict” on his fate had been reached. It has not as yet revealed details of the “verdict”.
Responding to the Twitter postings on Monday, France denounced the “odious” display of photographs of the dead soldier.
But since the news of Saturday’s botched raid in the southern Somali village of Bula Mareer broke, there was little doubt the Somalia-based militant group would exploit the incident for its jihadist propaganda purposes.
“This is a propaganda bonanza for al Shabaab. It feeds into the traditional narrative that anyone who comes to Somalia will be defeated,” said Abdullahi Halakhe, Horn of Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group. “There are reports of serious fire between al Shabaab militants and French elite commandos during the raid, which lasted under an hour. So it tells you that al Shabaab are still there, they’re still a presence.”
According to the French daily Le Monde, French military believed the militants were only equipped with light arms such as kalashnikovs, but they were actually equipped with heavy weapons.
Optimism in Mogadishu, Shabaab in the countryside
Barely four months ago, al Shabaab lost their last major stronghold of Kismayu to Kenyan troops under an African Union mission, losing a key source of revenue.
The fall of Kismayu came a year after the group was forced out of the Somali capital of Mogadishu, sparking hopes that Somalia - a long-time topper of the world’s failed states list – was entering a new era.
In September 2012, Somalia elected a new president just a month after a historic parliamentary swearing-in – the first on Somali soil in over two decades.
As members of the far-flung Somali diaspora returned home to invest in their war-shattered homeland, correspondents filed optimistic reports of the Mogadishu property boom in a reinvigorated economy.
But even as Mogadishu bustled with optimism, international analysts and ordinary Somalis were keenly aware that al Shabaab was down, but not out.
“They were never militarily defeated. They just folded and left the cities,” said Halakhe, for the rural areas in the southern Lower Shabelle region, where French commandos encountered the group.
Questions of intelligence and US support
If Saturday’s botched raid was a victory for al Shabaab, on the other side, it’s a defeat not just for the French, but for the African and international community as well.
“It calls to question what kind of human intelligence the French had,” said Halakhe. “Somalia is not an easy place. The French know this. I’m not sure of the level of intelligence shared with the US, which has better intelligence on Somalia.”
US President Barack Obama has acknowledged that US forces provided limited technical support for the operation, but said they had played no role in the fighting.
In a phone interview with FRANCE 24, Vince Canistraro, former head of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, said the intelligence sharing between France and the US over the Saturday raid was “not significant”.
According to Canistraro, the US intelligence community has a low level of involvement in Somalia. “The US has been involved in a few drone attacks against al Shabaab, but it’s not an active area of involvement. If we had prisoners or hostages on the ground, it would be different,” he said.
Canistraro also added that as an ally of France, the US would not criticise the French botched operation.
‘Damned if they know, damned if they don’t know’
If the US has refrained from criticising France over the raid, that has not been the case with the Somali government’s response.
At a press conference in Mogadishu on Sunday, Somali Foreign Minister Fosia Yusuf Haji Aden condemned the military operation. “We regret this military operation and we condemn the unilateral action taken without the [Somali] government 's knowledge,” said Aden. “The Somali Federal Government sends condolences to the dead victims, including Somali victims and French soldiers.”
French officials say 17 militants were killed, while witnesses said eight civilians were killed in the Bula Mareer raid.
Analysts say France’s failure to inform the host government of an upcoming raid for security reasons is perfectly understandable, pointing to Washington’s decision to keep the Pakistani government in the dark about the May 2011 Osama bin Laden raid.
But Halakhe notes that the failed mission to free Allex puts the Somali government in a tough spot.
“If the Somali government says they didn’t know, it makes them appear weak. If they did know, they appear to be Western collaborators. They’re damned if they know and damned if they don’t know,” explained Halakhe.
For the African Union (AU) - which has a peacekeeping alliance of East African militaries in Somalia (AMISOM) – the fallout of the failed raid is especially serious.
“Al Shabaab is very good at media operations to be honest. I’m sure they will milk this in their master narrative,” said Halakhe. “They will say, look we have the upper hand, we’ll do the same with the Kenyans, the Ugandans and the Burundians,” said Halakhe, referring to the East African militaries involved in AMISOM. “In the next few days it will be interesting to hear what AU officials will have to say. It’s not going to look good for AU-France relations.”