In the past month, al-Qaida has embarked on a media blitz. It has released three videos supporting militant and terrorist groups in Somalia and the Sudan, and experts say this is part of a growing body of evidence that shows al-Qaida is trying to extend its reach in the Horn of Africa.
The first al-Qaida video was released in mid-March and featured Osama bin Laden. The next one showed his second-in-command. In both messages, the men praised fighters in the Horn of Africa.
While certainly any message from bin Laden is parsed for information and intelligence, it was a third video — that was released from one of al-Qaida's media arms — that made counterterrorism analysts sit up and take notice. The video came out of Somalia last week, and it was a slick recruitment tape complete with its own original rap music score that played under the opening sequence of the half-hour-long film. The production was made by a Somali militia group called al-Shabab, which has ties to al-Qaida.
The video stars a young man. He calls himself Abu Mansour al-Amriki. "Amriki" means American in Arabic. Intelligence officials are divided over who he really is. Some think he's an American from the West Coast. Others say his Arabic is so good that he must be a native speaker. Wherever he came from, he's got intelligence analysts focused on al-Shabab.
In one of the scenes in the video, Abu Mansour appears to be schooling some young recruits. He is sitting cross-legged on the ground outside near a tangle of branches.
"Even though we are not seeing the enemy at this moment, the enemy is very near," he tells them, a Koran open on his lap. "So the only reason we are staying here, away from our families, away from the cities, away from ice, candy bars, these other things, is because we are waiting to meet with the enemy."
Abu Mansour is young, rail thin, and speaks English with an American accent. In one part of the video he appears to be preparing recruits — who also speak English — for battle. Then the video cuts to a firefight with Ethiopian forces. The battle apparently took place last summer. Ethiopian forces have largely withdrawn from Somalia now and a transition government is now in place.
During the battle, Abu Mansour orders the small group of fighters who are with him to retreat. But here's what's important: He says it in English. "Let's go, let's go," he yells as a shaking video camera appears to record their retreat.
It isn't just that the video features what might be an American that has attracted so much attention. It is that it has appeared in the midst of reports that two dozen young Somali-Americans from Minneapolis have disappeared over the past two years. They are believed to be training with this very group.
The question is whether the man in the video is speaking English because that's the language the men with him understand, and, if that is indeed the case, whether the group might include some of the Minneapolis boys.
"It'll be interesting to see the extent to which al-Qaida spins this phenomenon," said Bill Braniff, who works at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center. He says al-Qaida would love people to believe there is a connection between the missing boys and the video.
"What we are seeing is al-Qaida trying to control the propaganda output," he says. "They are not trying to control the activity on the ground to the same extent as they are trying to control the propaganda about the activity on the ground."
In the past month, President Obama's national security team has mentioned its concern about al-Qaida's growing influence in the Horn of Africa numerous times. Intelligence analysts are trying to figure out what al-Qaida's intentions actually are. Some say it's as simple as building an association with a local terror group. Others say al-Qaida may be shopping around for a backup safe haven if things get too hot in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Jonathan Stevenson is a professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island. He says the emergence of al-Shabab bears watching.
"The fact that al-Qaida seems to find al-Shabab an interesting fellow traveler, so to speak, would certainly be a new development that should raise everybody's ears," he said.
The latest videotapes only add to those concerns.