I'm Top of Al Shabaab's Kill List, Mate - Who Are You?
This page is an offshoot from my article about the former political and social commentator, communications specialist, civil rights activist,banker, lawyer, theologian, imam, school governor, sex education guide author, lecturer, marriage counsellor, prison chaplain and sheik Mohammed ‘Mo’ Ansar. Click here to return to the main article. [Update: If you’ve received an email purporting to be from me saying I believe elements of this article are incorrect or unwise to disseminate further, it’s fake. I stand by everything I’ve written in this article, and encourage you to share it widely.]
From around midnight on October 16 2013, Mo Ansar and a few other British Muslims were given both advice and protection by the police, after terror group Al Shabaab featured them in a video. In the film, An Eye For An Eye, Al Shabaab called Ansar and others ‘deluded Muslims’ for their condemnations of the Woolwich attack, but they didn’t threaten them at any point. Of those mentioned in the film, most did not react publicly, but Ansar in particular was all over the media and Twitter discussing it. The following day, Al Shabaab took the highly unusual step of clarifying in a statement to Channel 4 that they had not threatened any of these people, as correspondent Jamal Osman reported:
There must have been something frightening about the call from the police offering protection, and obviously nobody wants to be featured in a terror video, threatened or not. But from the start and since, Ansar seemed almost to revel in the apparent threat to his life, and to exploit it. He appeared on the BBC and other media to discuss it, as well as repeatedly tweeting about it. On the evening of October 18, he tweeted that he was at Sky News to discuss it – advertising his current location to all the world in the process. That seems an extremely unlikely (and foolish) thing to do if he genuinely believed his life was in danger. At some point he must also have seen the Channel 4 report in which Al Shabaab themselves had made it clear that they were not threatening him – yet even in March 2014 he was claiming on Twitter: ‘I live at the top of the Al Shabab kill list’.
The ‘kill list’ is frequently invoked by Ansar, but it is fake and he knows it. On the evening of October 19 2013 British time, a new Twitter user claiming to be Al Shabaab’s official account, @HSMPress11, tweeted a list of six people it said it wanted killed as apostates. On the surface that is very troubling, but the account had already been debunked as fake (one of many, as explained here and here) by several credible sources, and was almost certainly trying to latch onto the publicity generated by the Woolwich video in an attempt to make itself seem real and garner more attention. It received it from nobody except Mo Ansar.
It did so, I think, because Ansar quickly figured out it was fake. He was informed of the tweet by a now-inactive Twitter user at around twenty past 8, and after he asked for a direct link received it about half an hour later.
Ansar is a very prolific and proficient user of Twitter, and his natural first reaction would have been to check the @HSMPress11 account and try to figure out if it really was Al Shabaab. A glance and the tweets immediately look fishy – for a start, one of the supposed apostates is the former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson, who isn’t even Muslim. It hardly seems plausible. A simple search of Twitter would also have shown him that several journalists with knowledge of the group and the region had already stated categorically in the previous few days that the account was fake, for instance Newsweek’s Margot Kiser, this claim that the Associated Press had established it with terrorism experts, this Mogadishu-based freelancer and this journalist, who had also tweeted on September 23 a statement Al Shabaab had sent out about the proliferation of fake accounts:
My guess is Ansar would have determined the account was fake within minutes: even if he hadn’t found tweets from credible sources saying this, he would have been monitoring the media reaction to the Woolwich video very closely indeed, and although he had never mentioned it on Twitter would therefore have been well aware that a couple of days earlier Al Shabaab had gone to the trouble of telling Channel 4 that they were not in the least interested in killing him. That alone meant @HSMPress11 had to be fake. Once he had realised this, it seems he had a quick think and decided it nevertheless presented an opportunity for more publicity and self-aggrandisement, with no risk to himself in doing so. If he had felt it was real, he would surely have got the hell off Twitter. Instead, barely twenty minutes after being linked to the tweet, he decided it would be a good idea to hint darkly at grand events, tweeting:
Stoic, noble, calm-under-pressure Mo Ansar! But people who have just received death threats simply don’t behave like this. They urgently try to find more information about who has sent the threat and if it is credible rather than drawing attention to themselves. They spend more than twenty minutes doing so. And ‘very serious and very real’ is over-egging the pudding. Even if Ansar had managed to consult the security services in that time, which seems very unlikely, their advice to him if they had thought it real would have been to shut off his computer at once instead of piquing curiosity by discussing it further on social media. And who would want to? Most people would be depressed and frightened and want to go and hide under a blanket.
Ansar knew his Secret Squirrel #keepcalmandcarryon tweet would cause people to ask him what was up. The Times journalist Caitlin Moran, who he had buddied up to on Twitter assiduously, was quickly out of the gate. ‘You ok?’ she tweeted him. ‘Can’t say here,’ he replied solemnly. ‘DM.’ So he could now send a private direct message to Moran about the situation and gain some sympathy.
Who on earth would behave like this immediately after receiving a death threat? Only someone who had already figured out that the threat wasn’t real, I think.
By the 22nd, Ansar had abandoned his shyness and inability to reveal what was so serious and so very real on Twitter unless by direct message, and was humble-bragging about the threat repeatedly. The fake Al Shabaab account that had issued it had been suspended from Twitter by then, meaning that nobody could see the threat, which he never mentioned had been made via a tweet: as very few knew it had been, he knew it was unlikely anyone would check to see if it were credible. For Ansar, the crucial detail was that he had been the first named in the list of six, as if it were a game of Top Trumps and he were now the terrorists’ most wanted man, sought in every city, the free world’s equivalent of Osama Bin Laden, only with a spine of steel and a stiff upper lip:
To this day, Ansar still brandishes the supposed threats to him from Al Shabaab, usually to try to silence criticism on Twitter, often with a link to The Guardian article on the incident and a Sky News report, but never the Channel 4 report in which Al Shabaab made their statement. His tone is often, in effect, ‘I’m top of Al Shabaab’s kill list, mate, who are you?’ To take just one of dozens of examples, in March 2014 he tweeted a link to The Guardian piece to a user who accused him of spreading hate, and said:
People who have received credible death threats rarely bring them up, let alone repeatedly boast about them in public or using them as a stick to win arguments, all the while merrily using Twitter and Facebook and advertising their location. Ansar shouted about it from the rooftops at the time and continues to do so today because he knows very well he isn’t under any threat and never was. In February 2015, he tried to drum up yet more attention from this with a series of tweets and a Facebook post in which he suggested that Mohammed Emwazi, who had been revealed as the ISIS murderer dubbed ‘Jihadi John’ by the media, might have been the masked man in the Al Shabaab video who had supposedly threatened him. At the same time, he insinuated that Emwazi might have been an asset of the security services and claimed that the counter-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation were directly responsible for Emwazi’s radicalisation and had therefore put his life and that of others at risk.
This is breathtaking in its duplicity and malevolence. Duplicity because Ansar knows full well that not only was he not threatened in the video, but that there is no chance the man in question was Emwazi anyway. They have different voices and the man in the Al Shabaab film was clearly black, as his hands were visible in several frames.
But the Facebook post is also deeply, deeply malevolent. In early 2014, Ansar helped stir a campaign against Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation because he had tweeted that he wasn’t offended by an innocuous cartoon of the prophet Mohammed – Ansar’s motive for this was undoubtedly revenge, because Nawaz had exposed his inability to condemn chopping off hands for theft on the BBC programme When Tommy Met Mo. The campaign against Nawaz was a very dangerous bandwagon to jump on, and Ansar was relentless in giving it momentum, tweeting the link to a petition to have Nawaz removed as a Liberal Democrat candidate for parliament to his followers repeatedly:
As we recently saw in Paris and Copenhagen, stirring such views over cartoons of Mohammed is no small matter: people have in fact been murdered over it. Nothing happened to Mr Nawaz, thankfully, but he and his family still can’t return to Pakistan because of the credible death threats made against them as a result of Ansar stirring up the issue along with a Liberal Democrat named Mohammed Shafiq. I’ve seen the death threats in question: they’re real and frightening. The full story of how Ansar and Shafiq did this is told by Nick Cohen in this Spectator article.
In other circumstances, then, Mo Ansar’s repeated boasts about receiving death threats might be comic – a buffoon seeking publicity over what he knows to be fake. But when one considers his own actions regarding Maajid Nawaz, his absurd claims, including that the Quilliam Foundation’s work led to Emwazi threatening his life and the lives of his family, take on a grotesque and despicable tone.