As the propaganda war intensifies in the battered Horn of Africa nation, the government is using a newly modernized radio station to get its own message across to more Somalis, and the U.N. is financing a new radio station. When Somalis tune in to the government station in insurgent-controlled territory, they tend to do so in secret to avoid being punished by the al-Shabab rebels, who routinely execute suspected government collaborators.
Both the government and al-Shabab are tapping into a culture in which entire families across the sprawling, arid country huddle around radios for news and entertainment.
Al-Shabab has taken most of southern Somalia and most of the capital. In the southern coastal town of Kismayo, al-Shabab runs a radio station called al-Andalus, the Arabic name given to lands that the Moors occupied in much of Spain for 700 years until the last of them were expelled in 1492. Mohamud Mohamed Qasim, an unemployed resident of Kismayo, is a fan.
"It teaches us our religion. Nothing is bigger than religion. I don't give a hoot about anything else," said Qasim. He added that he gets so stirred up by the station's statements against neighboring Ethiopia, whose troops have fought al-Shabab, that he wants to fight Ethiopians.
Jennifer Cooke, Director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the propaganda tactics used by al-Shabab looks similar to those employed by al-Qaida and the Taliban.
"They are using the same mix of money, fear and protection blended with moral cause, which combined can be very powerful," said Cooke. Money buys loyalty and helps the militants recruit young men, she said.
Al-Shabab does not rely on radio alone. The Internet, a network of recruiters, and the promise of a regular income are part of its recruitment strategy, reaching out even to Somali communities in Minnesota and Sweden that have seen young men head to al-Shabab camps in Somalia.
Al-Shabab has shut down rival stations or banned people from listening to stations that depict them negatively or are deemed to be anti-Islamic. Last month, journalist Ali Yusuf Adan of Radio Somaliweyn was abducted by al-Shabab gunmen after he reported that militants had killed a man for being late to a prayer session.
In the city of Baidoa, al-Shabab recently closed the independent Juba Radio which had carried programming from the U.S. government's Voice of America and the U.N.
For its part, the Somali government in October upgraded its Radio Mogadishu in the capital, changing antiquated equipment that had limited broadcast range. The station is now accessible worldwide via satellite or the Web.
Mohamed Guled Sheik, who lives in an area of the capital that's controlled by al-Shabab, listens to Radio Mogadishu on headphones for safety reasons. He said he especially likes the news and a daily show that pokes fun at al-Shabab's actions. Radio Mogadishu also broadcasts lectures by prominent Islamic scholars who praise modernism and dramas depicting radical Islamists as villains.
"I know I'm risking my life. But I need a different point of view," said Sheik, a father of nine who runs an electronics shop at the city's main Bakara Market. "Radio Mogadishu is not afraid of angering Islamists and exposing their mistakes. But all the other stations are."
Joining the fray, the U.N. is providing $1.7 million for a new radio station — called Bar-kulan, which means "the meeting place" in Somali — which ran a test transmission on Monday, said David Smith, its director. Programs will include debates on Somali affairs, call-in shows hosted by an Islamic scholar, news, sports and music.
"It is an independent station. If there is a good news to report we will report it and if there is a bad news to report we will report it. Even if it is about al-Shabab or the government," said Smith.
Information Minister Dahir Mohamud Gelle told AP he is confident the government can counter al-Shabab's efforts.
"I have high hopes that eventually we will defeat the anti-government propaganda," said Gelle. He said the government media strategy is based on "disseminating the truth and speaking to the conscience of those with twisted ideologies."