- 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.
Earlier this month, we brought you the news that Somalia’s al-Shabab had joined Twitter and begun tweet-taunting the Kenyan military, which has launched an offensive against the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic militant group. The account’s administrator claimed the organization wasn’t engaged in a larger rebranding effort, as we and other Western news outlets had suggested.
In fact, it’s recruitment — not rebranding — that has the Obama administration worried about al-Shabab’s new Twitter presence. When the group first launched the account, Wired noted that "journalists, terrorism researchers, and aid workers make up the lion’s share of its early followers, not eager Muslim youth." But the New York Times reports today that officials across the U.S. government are concerned that al-Shabab’s account, which now boasts over 5,000 followers, could reach potential recruits in the West with its scathing and sophisticated English-language tweeting. "American officials say they may have the legal authority to demand that Twitter close the Shabab’s account," the paper explains (Twitter declined to comment).
If the government does indeed pursue legal action, the Times notes, it could open up a "debate about over the line between free speech and support for terrorism." And, indeed, the debate is already underway. In what appears to be a response to the Times piece today, al-Shabab tweeted, "With millions of websites & newspapers disseminating their propaganda, the #US couldn’t endure to hear the real truth. What a travesty!" (The group also called an earlier Times article on its Twitter account an "elaborate, sentimental piece of writing accentuating the oft-repeated canard that passes for #Journalism these days.")
Over at Salon, meanwhile, Glenn Greenwald argues that the Obama administration’s concern about al-Shabab’s Twitter account highlights the "simultaneous absurdity and perniciousness of the War on Terror." He continues:
So the U.S. Government believes it may have "legal authority" to compel Twitter to close accounts. From where does that authority derive? Presumably, the Obama administration could consider Twitter’s providing of a forum to a designated Terrorist organization to constitute the crime of "material support of Terrorism." That raises a variety of questions: is the NYT guilty of that crime by quoting some of those tweets and promoting the account (since the first NYT article was published, the number of people following @HSMPress has significantly increased and is almost certain to increase more as a result of today’s article). Can one be guilty of that crime if one re-tweets any of their messages? How about if one defends their right to have a Twitter account?
What is more likely than compulsory action is thuggish extra-legal intimidation aimed at Twitter to "voluntarily" close the account. That path is less overt but just as insidious, if not more so. That is how government officials such as Joe Lieberman succeeded in cutting off all of WikiLeaks’ funding sources and web hosting options without the bother of charging that group with a crime: by demanding that Amazon, Master Card, Visa, Paypal and others "on their own accord" terminate WikiLeaks’ accounts and refuse to provide the group with any services.
The Guardian‘s Jason Burke thinks worries about al-Shabab’s account are overblown. "Al-Shabab’s tweeter is witty, sharp and articulate, and undoubtedly attractive to the odd aspirant jihadi," he writes. But "militancy involves a complex web of personal associations and the strongest influences are brothers, fathers and friends, not virtual web-based communities."