Twitter of Terror
Somalia’s al-Shabaab unveils a new social media strategy for militants.
Photograph by Abdurashid Abikar/AFP/Getty Images.
Al-Shabaab, the Somali militant group heretofore best known for stoning teenage girls, blowing up soccer fans, and blocking food aid to their starving countrymen, is now on Twitter. You can talk to them if you like.
Al-Shabaab’s handle is HSMPress, HSM being the initials of al-Shabaab’s formal moniker. No one knows for certain that HSMPress—which has about 6,000 followers—speaks for al-Shabaab; the account holder’s identity is a mystery. I tweeted at HSMPress and emailed email@example.com asking if the feed was genuine, and I got a polite reply affirming that it was. HSMPress has on several occasions tweeted what seems to be evidence of its authenticity, such as the identification cards of enemies killed in action and an audio clip of a captured Burundian soldier. If it’s not al-Shabaab, it does a very good al-Shabaab impression.
The U.S government seems to be taking the terrorist Twitter account seriously. The New York Times, citing anonymous American officials, reported this week that the U.S government was looking into shutting it down. I talked with a State Department spokeswoman who wouldn’t confirm that outright, but told me, “We are looking closely at the facts of this situation to determine what the appropriate next steps might be.”
The Somalis, whether they’re al-Shabaab leaders or imitators, aren’t the first militants on Twitter. The Taliban’s official feed, active since March, has been delivering a steady stream of pure, robotic-sounding propaganda (“4 killed as puppet’s vehicle blown apart in bombing”). HSMPress, by contrast, is either an amateurish aberration in the world of militant microblogging or an ingenious new model for rebel groups on social media.
Since its inaugural tweet in Arabic on Dec. 7—which read, simply and piously, “In the name of Allah”—HSMPress has tweeted almost exclusively in English. (It does have an Arabic counterpart, HSMPress_arabic.) The first few tweets were updates about successful suicide bombings, with dates and casualty counts, plus a generic call to jihad from the group’s military spokesman. But then things started to get interesting.
On the evening of Dec. 7, HSMPress tweeted a link to a BBC article about Kenya sending troops to join the African Union forces battling al-Shabaab for control of Somalia’s lawless capital, Mogadishu. HSMPress also appended a bit of boastful commentary, tweeting that the “much-hyped #Kenyan invasion” had “faltered quite prematurely.”
It kept up the taunts in successive tweets, each one more gleeful and grandiloquent than the last. Kenya’s military operation in Somalia—launched in response to a spate of attacks by Somali bandits on Kenyan soil this fall—was “extravagant but wretched,” devolving into a “thorny quagmire.” The Somali government militia was “feeble,” perhaps because its members were “intoxicated” from their “excessive Qaat sessions”—a reference to a leaf chewed as a stimulant by many in Somalia. By the end of its second day, al-Shabaab’s social media guru had mastered the art of the 140-character takedown: “Military ineptitude, deteriorating economy, social imbalance, & public ambivalence trigger a desultory face-saving attempt by the #KDF: FLEE!”
Somalia has been without a true government for 20 years, prompting The New Yorker and Foreign Policy to deem it the world’s “most failed state.” Thanks to an interminable civil war, little remains of the public education system in the country’s south, and many people are too poor and harried to eat, let alone buy a laptop. So for a Somali insurgent to start an English-language Twitter feed peppered with words like desultory raises some questions. But if the diction was jarring, the arrogant tone was just what you’d anticipate from a delusional jihadist leader. HSMPress, it seems, quickly realized that—and adjusted.
Soon it was tweeting news bites aimed at the heartstrings: “Bombs dropped from #Kenyan aircraft pulverized the home of poor 67-year old man &his family. He died &his only daughter is severely injured.” Then it joined in on trending Twitter topics: “Lunar eclipse visible here in #Somalia too. According to Sunnah of Prophet (PBUH) Muslims offer congregational prayers until eclipse lasts.” Perhaps most surprisingly, it began selectively replying to tweets. A user named @DianaNTaylor from London tweeted: “@HSMPress the prophet must be turning over in his grave! your use of religion as a weapon is truly abhorrent.” The terrorists’ response: “what's beyond abhorrence is the collective Western Crusade against Islam of which you seem quite blasé about if not supportive.” (Taylor did not reply.)