02:02 am - Wednesday 03 September 2014
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Somalia’s Insurgents Embrace Twitter as a Weapon

By staff - Fri Dec 16, 6:38 am

NAIROBI, Kenya — Think of it as the Battle of the Tweets. Somalia’s powerful Islamist insurgents, the Shabab, best known for chopping off hands and starving their own people, just opened a Twitter account, and in the past week they have been writing up a storm, bragging about recent attacks and taunting their enemies.

“Your inexperienced boys flee from confrontation & flinch in the face of death,” the Shabab wrote in a post to the Kenyan Army.

It is an odd, almost downright hypocritical move from brutal militants in one of world’s most broken-down countries, where millions of people do not have enough food to eat, let alone a laptop. The Shabab have vehemently rejected Western practices — banning Western music, movies, haircuts and bras, and even blocking Western aid for famine victims, all in the name of their brand of puritanical Islam — only to embrace Twitter, one of the icons of a modern, networked society.

On top of that, the Shabab clearly have their hands full right now, facing thousands of African Union peacekeepers, the Kenyan military, the Ethiopian military and the occasional American drone strike all at the same time.

But terrorism experts say that Twitter terrorism is part of an emerging trend and that several other Qaeda franchises — a few years ago the Shabab pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda — are increasingly using social media like Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Twitter. The Qaeda branch in Yemen has proved especially adept at disseminating teachings and commentary through several different social media networks.

“Social media has helped terrorist groups recruit individuals, fund-raise and distribute propaganda more efficiently than they have in the past,” said Seth G. Jones, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation.

For the Shabab, this often translates into pithy postings, like “Europe was in darkness when Islam made advances in physics, Maths, astronomy, architecture, etc. before passing on the torch,” and sarcastic jabs at the Kenyan Army. Kenya’s military spokesman, Maj. Emmanuel Chirchir, is also a loquacious writer of posts, and the result is nothing short of a full-on Twitter war.

After Major Chirchir wrote that the Shabab might be transporting weapons on donkeys and that “any large concentration and movement of loaded donkeys will be considered as Al Shabaab activity,” the Shabab responded: “Like bombing donkeys, you mean! Your eccentric battle strategy has got animal rights groups quite concerned, Major.”

Major Chirchir fired back, “Life has better to offer than stonning innocent girl,” a reference to the Shabab’s penchant for harsh Islamic punishments like stoning.

The Shabab have teased Major Chirchir for his spelling mistakes and have tossed around some SAT-quality words.

“Stop prevaricating & say what you really think, Major!” the Shabab wrote. “Sure your comments will invite derision but try to muster (or feign) courage at least.”

Few Somalia hands are surprised by all this. The Shabab may be bloodthirsty, and in the areas they control — and they still control many — they have yanked out gold teeth, beheaded shopkeepers, sawed off arms and stoned adulterers. Yet, at the same time, they have shown their technical skills, making powerful suicide bombs and roadside explosives. They also have a geeky side, showcasing their work through slick propaganda videos, Web sites and digital chat rooms.

Beyond that — and quite frightening to many American officials — is the fact that educated Westerners are clearly working for the Shabab. Several Somali-Americans have killed themselves as suicide bombers, and even non-Somali Westerners, including one man from Alabama, are serving as battlefield commanders.

Of course, it is impossible to know who exactly is operating the Twitter account, HSMPress, which refers to the Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahedeen, or Movement of Holy Warrior Youth, the Shabab’s full name. But African Union and Western officials have said the account is legitimate, and HSMPress recently used Twitter to publish the identification cards of several missing African Union peacekeepers, presumably killed in battle. On Wednesday, the African Union confirmed that the cards were authentic.

The Twitter account is linked to an e-mail account operated by the Shabab “Press Office” that routinely provides detailed — though slanted — information about the continuing combat between the Shabab and the African Union peacekeepers. Sometimes, the Shabab’s information is more truthful than the African Union’s, as was the case during an intense recent battle in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, in which the Shabab claimed to have killed scores of peacekeepers, while the African Union initially said it had lost only 10. African Union officials later conceded that the Shabab had been correct.

The man behind the e-mails and possibly the Twitter posts calls himself Sheik Yoonis, which is probably a nom de guerre. He has responded to written questions from The New York Times and during a few rare telephone interviews spoke with a clipped British accent.

The Shabab news releases are written in colloquial, often clever, English, like this warning to peacekeepers from Burundi: “You now have a choice to make. Either you call for the immediate withdrawal of your troops from our country or you shall receive the bodies of your remaining sons delivered to you in bags. Think long. Think hard.”

Afyare Elmi, a Somali political scientist teaching at Qatar University, said the Shabab had a more coherent communication strategy than the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia, a weak and fractured entity that controls very little territory and often contradicts itself in public statements. He added that the carefully composed e-mails and the Twitter account, which began Dec. 7, were part of a reinvigorated Shabab effort to burnish their public image.

Shabab fighters recently held a quiz show for children. (The prizes were grenades and an AK-47.) In October, Shabab leaders invited a masked Qaeda emissary to hand out dates and sacks of rice to famine victims. And just this week the Shabab announced the opening of a new “War Statistics Office,” clearly an attempt to convey a modicum of professionalism.

But few Somalis are fooled. The Shabab’s policies are imperiling what matters most — survival. Last month, with a famine still stalking parts of southern Somalia, the Shabab shut down 16 more aid groups, which many aid officials said was a surefire way to slowly kill thousands. Ever since the famine swept across southern Somalia this summer, the Shabab have been blocking food deliveries, diverting river water from starving farmers to their friends and even forcibly warehousing sick people in their own displaced persons camps.

Tens of thousands have already starved, and many Somalis are now cheering on the Kenyan and Ethiopian troops, traditionally mistrusted as meddling outsiders, who recently invaded Somalia to push the Shabab out of border areas.

On the streets of Mogadishu, a shot-up city that has been suspended in 20 years of civil war and anarchy, few people have ever heard of Twitter.

“Is Twitter some sort of artillery that the Shabab is going to fire?” asked Muktar Abdi, a taxi driver. He said he had heard something like that on the radio.

It is clear that the Shabab, by posting comments in English, are trying to appeal to people outside Somalia. And it may be working.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the Shabab Twitter account had 3,186 followers. And true to their guerrilla spirit, the Shabab follow no one.

Mohammed Ibrahim contributed reporting from Mogadishu, Somalia.

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