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.)
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.