Twitter of Terror
Somalia’s al-Shabaab unveils a new social media strategy for militants.
HSMPress is using Twitter the way social media experts have always advised—not just broadcasting, but engaging in conversation. Spend some time following the account, and you realize that you’re dealing with a real human being with real ideas—albeit boastful, hypocritical, violent ideas.
J.M. Berger, author of Jihad Joe, a book about U.S.-born jihadists, says HSMPress’ tone is consistent with his experiences interviewing terrorists. Their public statements may be venomous and grandiose, but they tend to subscribe to the normal rules of polite human interaction. “You can have a very civil conversation with someone whose stated goal is to see you dead,” he says.
Social media makes it possible for the general public to experience that type of interaction firsthand. One major reason for Twitter’s popularity is that the service is an equalizer, giving random fans a sense of personal connection with celebrities whose lives are otherwise remote. Could it work the same way for terrorists?
Governments have long sought to deny terrorists a public platform. When Osama bin Laden produced videotaped rants against the United States, American news stations decline to air them. And digital networking guru Clay Shirky reminded me that in the 1980s, the British government banned the media from broadcasting Irish republican leaders’ real voices, forcing them to hire voice actors instead. “If there is this sense that you’re dealing with a real person, it does have a humanizing effect,” Shirky says.
The U.S. government’s worry, no doubt, is that the HSMPress feed will prove enticing to Somalis in the United States. The possibility isn’t far-fetched: In recent years, a number of young Somali-Americans have left home to join al-Shabaab. In fact, Berger suspects that one or more American citizens may be running HSMPress. One obvious candidate is Omar Hammami, the Alabama nativewho has become a leading figure in al-Shabaab. It would be unusual for such a high-profile figure to risk detection by tweeting publicly. Then again, Hammami did recently produce a rap song called “Send Me a Cruise” (i.e., a Cruise missile), a paean to jihadist martyrdom.
In an email to HSM Press, I asked whether recruitment of English-speaking Muslims was one of its goals. The reply:
HSMPress is genuine and it is not a recruiting tool but rather a method of revealing the reality of the current warfare in Somalia to the world and, in particular, to the Muslims living in the Western world.
Muslims in the West have been inundated with a barrage of derogatory material—often by journalists with a blinkered perspective of Islam—and Islamic Shari’ah law is often portrayed as anachronistic and needing reform—so much so that this derogatory view of Islam has become deeply entrenched in their minds.
By publishing material, such as documentaries and press releases, in English, we hope to enlighten the Muslims in the West by illuminating the reality of the so-called war on terror and thus help further elucidate the events as they really are on the ground—not as they are erroneously portrayed in the western media.
Countering mainstream media reports that offer a blinkered view of Islam? Elucidating events as they are on the ground? Those sound like the goals of the BBC World Service, not a murderous band of jihadists.
No matter what the feed sounds like, though, al-Shabaab is indeed a murderous band of jihadists. In dealing with the Twitter account, the U.S. government is facing a dilemma: Should it try to shut down the feed, or should it sit back and hope to glean some intelligence? If the former route proves preferable, the government could try to impose on San Francisco-based Twitter to delete the account on the grounds that it constitutes material assistance to terrorists. (Twitter has declined to comment.)
Earlier this year, Sen. Joe Lieberman called for Twitter to shut down the Taliban’s feed, but the social media company hasn’t complied. Lieberman lacked leverage, because unlike al-Shabaab, the government has not designated the Taliban as a terrorist organization. HSMPress, for its part, has scoffed at the idea of a shutdown, tweeting: “How many accounts would #US government be able to close before realizing the futility of their attempt? They need a team to monitor HSM!”
For all of al-Shabaab’s online bluster, it’s possible that this foray into social media will prove to be a moderating influence on the group. In an October press release, HSMPress denied that al-Shabaab was responsible for attacks on aid workers inside Kenya—the acts Kenya used to justify its recent invasion. And the Twitter feed has not once mentioned al-Qaida or urged violence against civilians.
It seems clear that HSMPress is downplaying or even disclaiming some of the group’s most repulsive policies in order to win more converts. If it succeeds in turning some of its virtual followers into actual followers, then other terrorist groups will doubtless follow its example.