‘Enter Jihadnalism!’: Al-Shabaab returns from social media exile

Al Qaeda-affiliated al Shabaab rebels have waged a campaign to drive Somalia's weak government from power. (Photo: REUTERS/Feisal Omar)

Good news for all you folk who like your social networks a little less vanilla: after an enforced absence, Al-Shabaab has returned to Twitter, and is already back to its usual, combative form. It may be losing the war on the ground, but the propaganda battle is far from over. By SIMON ALLISON.

It was only a matter of time, really, before Al-Shabaab took its Twitter vitriol a few steps too far, and that time was last month. France had just botched an attempt to rescue French national Dennis Allex, a security consultant (some say spy) who had been an Al-Shabaab hostage for three years. Two commandos were killed during the raid, and Al-Shabaab took great joy in publicising their deaths in 140 characters or less – Twitpic attached, of course.

“Francois Hollande… was it worth it?” asked @HSMpress, with a photo of one of the dead commandos, wounds visible, surrounded by weapons and ammunition. The handle comes from the group’s formal name – Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (HSM), or Movement of the Holy Warrior Youth – and had attracted over 21,000 followers, many of whom were journalists and researchers eager for any clue about the inner working of the impenetrable organisation.

Shortly after this, @HSMpress threatened to kill Kenyan hostages unless Kenya and Uganda released all Muslim prisoners held on terrorism charges. “Kenyan government has 3 weeks, starting midnight 24/01/2013 to respond to the demands of HSM if the prisoners are to remain alive.”

This was all too much for Twitter, which wasted no time in suspending the account, saying it violated the Twitter usage policy. It did: the Twitter Rules state quite clearly that “You may not publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others.” Not that you can blame Al-Shabaab for violating these – they claim the only rules they follow come from Islamic Sharia law, which covers many things but unfortunately not Twitter guidelines.

But Al-Shabaab’s social media exile came to an end this week with the group taking the expedient route of setting up a different account, under a not so different name. @HSMpress1 began life with an Arabic blessing, just like its predecessor, before embarking on a spirited attack against the “propaganda” and “throttling of the truth” that precipitated the closure of the previous account.

“Propaganda is antithetical to the true aim of journalism & thus the need for journalistic guerrilla warfare to counter it; enter Jihadnalism,” the account exclaimed, coining a new word we hope doesn’t have too much staying power. And then: “For what it’s worth, shooting the messenger & suppressing the truth by silencing your opponents isn’t quite the way to win the war of ideas!”

Speaking of ideas, whoever is responsible for Al-Shabaab’s Twitter feed seems have run out of new ones (except for a dramatic new slogan: “The truth. The contextual truth”). It’s a predictable mix of threats, bombast, and distorted reality. Apparently, Al-Shabaab is not on the back foot in Somalia; instead, it’s taking the fight to the “inebriated apostates” and slaughtering them in their dozens. Meanwhile, the clueless opposition is targeting innocents and bombing phantom targets, leaving Al- Shabaab to rebuild property and care for stranded orphans. And there are also thoughts on Mali, where “The Kuffar [infidels] are plundering the resources of the Muslims and securing the large Uranium deposits in Mali all in the name of ‘War on Terror’.” Sophisticated journalistic guerilla warfare this is not.

Except, maybe, if we consider that non-Muslim, non-Somali onlookers are not the target of Al-Shabaab’s propaganda efforts, even if much of it superficially appears to be aimed in our direction. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence released an intriguing study late last year in which it examined the impact of Al-Shabaab’s communications strategy on its recruitment of foreign fighters. What it concluded was startling: “At its core, Al-Shabaab has a sophisticated and diverse communications strategy aimed at influencing Muslims living in the West. This strategy is infused with culturally relevant material that resonates with members of the Somali diaspora, while also positioning Somalia as a key battleground in the struggle between Islam and the West… this is a strategy that has enticed many to embrace Al-Shabaab’s cause over the years.”

The role of Twitter in all this is one for which the micro-blogging network is perfectly equipped: to offer supporters “instant interpretation of events and rebuttals of critiques”. This, as the timelines of both Al-Shabaab accounts will confirm, is exactly how the group uses social media. And the recruitment technique appears to have worked: over the last six years, about 1,000 ethnic Somalis have been recruited to Al-Shabaab from outside Somalia and, remarkably, 200-300 non-Somalis.

All this raises uncomfortable questions for Twitter: it’s hardly good PR to be used as a recruiting tool for one of prime targets in the Global War on Terror. Unfortunately, Twitter was unavailable for comment prior to publication of this story, so we don’t know whether if it has any intentions to shut down the new account.

For the moment, then, @HSMpress1 is free to continue waging Jihadnalism against the Twittersphere. And now, at least, they know some of the rules: no death threats, no dead bodies. It’s only fitting to give them the last word: “So long @HSMpress. You might be gone, but your legacy lives on!” DM

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Photo: Then Mogadishu Mayor of al Shabaab Sheikh Mohamed Abu Abdurrahman addresses a news conference along the streets of Dayniile district in Southern Mogadishu, March 5, 2012. REUTERS/Feisal Omar