The Somali Islamist militant group al-Shabaab is matching its guerrilla campaign against the Kenyan army with a peevish war of words on Twitter.
Sifting through a mountain of unwelcome tweets, many Twitter users would sympathise with a lament such as: “Most comments are predictably ludicrous, irrational and uninspiring and, therefore, do not warrant the time for a response.”
This peevish remark, however, came from an unusual source. Al-Shabaab, an Islamist militant group in Somalia, is running a Twitter account. Since launching less than a week ago, it has posted more than 80 times and attracted over 3 000 followers.
The move appears to demonstrate that, in the 21st century, no radical insurgency or martyrdom operation is complete without a social media platform run from California’s Silicon Valley, even if Somalia is one of the world’s poorest and most anarchic countries.
Al-Shabaab, which has links to al-Qaeda, is fighting the weak, UN-backed Somali government and controls much of southern Somalia. It has run an increasingly sophisticated media operation in recent months, sending out press releases in well-written English with photos attached.
Its Twitter feed, @HSMPress, carries the self-description: “Harakat Al-Shabaab Al Mujahideen is an Islamic movement that governs South & Cen. Somalia & part of the global struggle towards the revival of Islamic Khilaafa.”
The first tweet was a Qur’anic phrase in Arabic, meaning: “In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful.” Since then, its unknown author or authors have dispatched messages in fluent English. Several Americans, most of Somali descent, have joined the group in recent years.
On Tuesday, al-Shabaab was retweeting comments such as the “Somali telecom industry is booming with millions of subscribers” and “How can one lay down his arms when his enemies are grinding their swords to terminate him. No to negotiations undr invasion.”
The page also gives al-Shabaab’s point of view on the military conflict. One tweet said: “Update: Last night’s attack on #Taabto lasted an hour & resulted in the deaths of 3 #KDF soldiers. An ammunition store was also set ablaze.” It also linked to pictures of eight Burundian peacekeepers it said were killed in fighting in Mogadishu.
But Al-Shabaab has already allegedly exaggerated the numbers of wounded civilians and its military victories. On Saturday, it tweeted that Kenyan jets had bombed a Red Cross feeding centre in the town of Bardhere, with scores of women and children injured. A day later, the Red Cross confirmed its centre was hit, but said there were no casualties because it was empty at the time.
Most improbably, while their fighters wage war with bombs and bullets, al-Shabaab is locked in an online propaganda war with Kenya, using weapons of 140 characters each. Following Kenya’s invasion of Somalia two months ago, the spokespeople for both sides are trading barbs and insults.
Kenya’s army spokesperson, major Emmanuel Chirchir, posts updates on the military state of play and has more than 10 000 followers. In one post he threatened to bomb concentrations of donkeys that might be moving weapons for the insurgents.
Al-Shabaab responded: “Your eccentric battle strategy has got animal rights groups quite concerned, Major.”
On Monday, the Islamic insurgent group used Twitter to accuse Kenya of having a history of committing “barbarous acts” toward ethnic Somalis. They cited a 1984 massacre where human rights groups say troops killed about 3 000 ethnic Somali men in east Kenya.
Addressing more recent actions, al-Shabaab’s tweets claimed Kenyan soldiers in Somalia “flee from confrontation & flinch in the face of death.” They also suggested that Somali government soldiers need to sober up, claiming they were being intoxicated by the narcotic leaf, khat, which has been banned by al-Shabaab.
Chirchir returned fire with his own barrage of tweets. “With al-Shabaab joining tweeter [sic], lets take fight to their doorstep,” he wrote.
He also accused al-Shabaab of stoning an innocent girl to death and chopping off hands. He noted that many commanders have banned bras in their territory, and urged readers to retweet the message in support of Somali women.
Hassan Omar Hassan, a Kenyan human rights activist, said the flurry of tweets obscures the paucity of information about actual operations by the Kenyan military since it entered Somalia in October. “To make an honest judgment about the war, Kenyans need more accuracy in war reporting,” he told the Associated Press. “We don’t know the full story — the government has been able to circumvent accountability.”—