Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Welcoming (?) Al-Shabaab to Twitter

Somedays it seems that everyone has joined Twitter. And then a new account comes along and raises interesting questions about what the service is for and how it should be used.

Welcome to Twitter, Harakat Al-Shabaab Al Mujahideen Press Office, now tweeting at @HSMPress.

Al-Shabaab is the militant organization waging war against the Transitional Federal Government (TFG, for short) of Somalia. They’re an offshoot of a more moderate Islamist organization, the Union of Islamic Courts, which was ousted by the Ethiopian military, backed by US support and intelligence. In the wake of their ouster, extremists associated with the movement reformed as Al-Shabaab (“the youth”) and have been fighting over control of Mogadishu and southern Somalia. In designating Al-Shabaab a terrorist organization in 2008, the US state department asserted ties between Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda – a backgrounder from the Council on Foreign Relations questions the strength of those ties, but points out ideological similarities between the organizations.

Recently, Operation Linda Nchi (Swahili for “Protect the country”), which involves the cooperation of TFG, Kenyan, Ethiopian and French troops, has been attacking Al-Shabaab positions within southern Somalia. The mission is a response to the kidnapping of Kenyan civilians and aid workers from the Dabaab refugee camp in Kenya, allegedly by Al-Shabaab. The mission has raised concerns about possible human rights violations, and some Kenyans have raised questions about whether their country should be engaged in a possibly lengthy war with their neighbor. Others have pointed out that attacks against civilians in Nairobi are likely to be linked to Al-Shabaab, pointing to the importance of ousting the militants.

Operation Linda Nchi has had a presence on Twitter since October 27th, when Kenyan military spokesman Major Emmanuel Chirchir began his Twitter feed.


Good to be here to give you the right and official information
@MajorEChirchir
Major E. Chirchir

The major has been an avid correspondent, answering questions and inquiries. He’s also used Twitter in some very unusual ways, attempting to alert civilians in Somalia that their towns will be under attack:


#OperationLindaNchi BAIDOA, BAADHEERE,BAYDHABO,DINSUR, AFGOOYE,BWALE, BARAWE,JILIB,KISMAYO and AFMADHOW will be under attack continously
@MajorEChirchir
Major E. Chirchir


#OperationLindaNchi The Kenya Defence Forces urges anyone with relatives and friends in the 10 towns to advise them accordingly.
@MajorEChirchir
Major E. Chirchir

Whether this “please tell a friend” strategy will actually save lives is unclear. It’s fascinating (to me, at least) to see the electronic version of leaflets warning of incoming bombs

So perhaps it’s not surprising to see Al Shabaab responding with a Twitter presence of their own. Major Chirchir’s feed features regular updates on military actions:


#OperationLindaNchi 3rd Dec; Attack at Hayo, 11 TFG soldiers died, 54 injured 25 flown to Garissa and Nairobi, 40 Al Shabaab’s killed
@MajorEChirchir
Major E. Chirchir

And so does Al Shabaab’s:


6-DEC: Mujahidin forces attack #Amisom base in Dharkenley District, #Mogadishu. 3-hour battle resulted in some #Amisom casualties+base burnt
@HSMPress
HSM Press

But it’s hard to imagine seeing some of Al Shabaab’s tweets on an official military feed:


7 Uganda-trained TFG soldiers surrender themselves to Mujahidin in #Mogadishu. They are welcomed after proclaiming repentance from apostasy
@HSMPress
HSM Press

That Al-Shabaab is using social media isn’t entirely surprising. They’ve developed a reputation for issuing well-written English language press releases, and had maintained a website, chat rooms and other web presences. (Many have been removed – it’s not clear to me whether they were removed by the decision of ISPs hosting them, or whether those companies came under government pressure.)

And Al-Shabaab has shown a willingness to use multiple media platforms to spread their message. Omar Hammammi, aka Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki, an American muslim who joined Al Shabaab in 2006, has an extensive collection of videos on YouTube, and has recently been releasing rap recordings, including “Send Me A Cruise“, a plea for martyrdom by cruise missile.

Needless to say, not everyone is thrilled that an extremist organization is using Twitter to disseminate its news:


Will al-Qaeda be allowed to use #Twitter? No. Then why is @ – Somali terrorists – going unchecked? Freedom stops with violence.
@Ed_Husain
Ed Husain

And it’s not hard to imagine that Twitter may end up fielding some questions from the US government, which has declared Al-Shabaab a terrorist organization, and might conceivably argue that providing Al Shabaab with a platform to express themselves could constitute “material support” to a terror organization. (It helps that Twitter is free for Al Shabaab to use, and that Twitter doesn’t review new users of the service.) There’s always an argument to be made that the account in question is not, in fact, Al Shabaab… there are several Al Qaeda accounts that appear to be fakes (including a very funny one retired on 9/11/11). Heck, there’s even a parody Major Chirchir account.

I’ve made the argument that corporations who make possible the digital public sphere need to support people’s right to speak freely, even when that speech is unpopular. (That’s the subject of the talk I gave at the Chicago Humanities Festival a few weeks ago.) That means ensuring that Wael Abbas can post about Egyptian police brutality on YouTube… and I believe it means making it possible for Al-Shabaab to share their views via Twitter, even while I condemn those views.

Anyone know whether there are other extremist, terrorist or militant organizations using Twitter in this way? How has Twitter reacted thus far? And if – as I suspect – Twitter is making their platform open to all types of speech, including inflamatory speech, do you agree with my argument that this is ultimately a good thing?

4 Responses to “Welcoming (?) Al-Shabaab to Twitter”

  1. Sarah says:

    As you probably already know, a Taliban rep uses it @alemarahweb. Just announcing casualties and attacks – but using particular language eg invaders, puppets, cowards. Interesting to discuss verification issues re actual ownership of the account, and the information contained therein – esp. if it functions just as a tally score card in an environment where there are few competing news sources not aligned with either side of the conflict. I agree with you re support for free, even inflammatory speech. Interesting questions there re online counterradicalisation too – ie should it be pursued re production of competing narratives, or via closing down sites/hosts – eg http://www.un.org/en/terrorism/ctitf/wg_counteringinternet.shtml

  2. Ethan says:

    Sarah, I’d not known about that account – thank you. And thanks also for the UN link – very interesting.

  3. ENbrian says:

    Check out @will_mccants and @intelwire They are academics/professionals who monitor jihadist goings on in the world and on the web.

  4. I missed this post when it was new, but as I’ve been writing about this lately as well (two pieces forthcoming!), I stumbled upon yours. It will come as no surprise that I agree with your conclusions.

    Anyone know whether there are other extremist, terrorist or militant organizations using Twitter in this way?

    Just in case you didn’t see this, the Atlantic covered a few: http://www.theatlanticwire.com/global/2012/01/most-infamous-terrorists-twitter/46852/. I suspect that out of the entire list of FTOs (http://www.state.gov/g/ct/rls/other/des/123085.htm), there are others.

    How has Twitter reacted thus far?

    As they should – with “no comment.”

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