- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
Want a play-by-play of the battles al-Shabab militants are waging today with Kenyan forces in southern Somalia and Somali troops in Mogadishu? Look no further than al-Shabab’s Twitter feed, which launched yesterday with a quote from the Koran ("in the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful") and has since tweeted in vivid and impassioned English. The Kenya Defense Forces "envisaged a lightening invasion of
#Somalia but the Blitzkrieg they’d hope for became a thorny quagmire for the inexperienced soldiers," @HSMPress (short for
Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen) declared this morning, adding, "Military ineptitude, deteriorating economy, social imbalance, & public ambivalence trigger a desultory face-saving attempt by the
#KDF: FLEE!" A battle cry followed minutes later: "Despite the tragedy and loss of life & wealth, a Mujahid does not desert the dignity to defend what he holds dearest: His Faith!"
The new presence on Twitter, as Wired notes, may be part of a larger rebranding effort for the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic militant group. Earlier this week, Somalia Report noted that al-Shabab had decided to change its name to Imaarah Islamiyah ("Islamic Authority"). "Al-Shabab means ‘youth’ but many of us, including the leaders, are very old," a spokesman for the militant group explained. Wizened but still very much with it, mind you. After all, they’re on Twitter.
In truth, though, al-Shabab’s Twitter account represents more of a propaganda campaign than a branding campaign. On Wednesday, Wired pointed out that
"journalists, terrorism researchers and aid workers make up the lion’s share of its early followers, not eager Muslim youth" (hence the value of English-language tweeting). @HSMPress serves as a counterweight to the much–publicized Twitter feed maintained by Kenyan military spokesman Maj. Emmanuel Chirchir, who has used the microblogging service to warn Somali civilians about air raids and get in the occasional jab.
"Even with Al Shabaab change of name, KDF/TFG is committed in delivering the promise," Chirchir tweeted this week, in reference to the Kenyan and Somali militaries. "Reduce Al Shabaab effectiveness."
The proxy microblog battle speaks to a larger trend: Twitter, for all its pluses, is becoming a bit of a propaganda cesspool as the power of new media becomes more difficult to ignore. NATO has been tweet-sparring with two Taliban feeds for months now (a sample salvo from NATO today:
"Scores of coalition killed in Kunar mortar attacks, huh? @Alemarahweb How about none killed"). The North Korean government launched a Twitter feed — @uriminzok ("our nation") — last year, prompting the South Korean government to threaten any of its citizens who reply or retweet @uriminzok’s messages with legal action. This week,
the House Homeland Security subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence held a hearing on the threat posed by terrorists using social media tools such as Twitter to attract followers.
Propaganda, as the popular feeds mentioned above attest, does indeed attract followers, though one imagines not all of them are ideological sympathizers. After two days and 21 tweets, @HSMPress already has 759 followers and counting.