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The Western Voices of al-Shabaab's Twitter Account

BY Rebecca Chao | Tuesday, September 24 2013

Screenshot of al-Shabaab's latest Twitter account

On Saturday, after the al-Shabaab showered an upscale mall in Nairobi, Kenya with grenades and bullets from automatic weapons, killing at least 68 people, a chilling note appeared on their Twitter account: “What Kenyans are witnessing at #Westgate is retributive justice for crimes committed by their military, albeit largely minuscule in nature.” Both their English language and Arabic accounts were subsequently shut down the next day but is back again today under the new handle @HSM_PR, tweeting again in disturbingly cool tones, "Here are 2 of the Mujahideen inside #Westgate mall, unruffled and strolling around the mall in such sangfroid manner."

The al-Shabaab, known for their pernicious recruitment of child soldiers, hand chopping and stoning of girls, opened their first Twitter account two years ago and has been shut down a number of times since. What is striking about their tweets is their native and even high-brow use of the English-language. Words and phrases like "minuscule in nature" and "sangfroid" do not seem to belong to the language of violent jihadists.

While the jihadi group is considered a foreign terrorist organization in the U.S., the group contains American members. The English Twitter account is speculated as being run by either a British or American citizen. Al-Shabaab also claims that three of the ten gunmen at Westgate were Americans, two recruited from Minneapolis–St. Paul, Minn., which holds one of the world's largest Somali diaspora communities.

The National Counterterrorism Center explains that al-Shabaab, formally Harakat Shabaab al-Mujahidin or 'HSM,' is "a clan-based insurgent and terrorist group [that] has continued its violent insurgency in southern and central Somalia" and that fighters include "Americans and other Westerners." Their attacks were usually centered on the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and most members remain interested in this nationalistic agenda, rather than a global jihad. However, Al-Shabaab merged in February 2012 with al-Qa‘ida, which has a global agenda.

On their Twitter account, through which they have been attempting to provide a live-feed of the Westgate attack, the group seems keen on publicizing their actions. They write to journalists:

They have also made repeated claims that they are responsible for the attack, have corroborated photos of their fighters and also indicated their motivations for the attack:

The "forces" they refer to in one of their tweets is the African Union-led, UN-backed peacekeeping mission in Somalia. The 18,000-strong operation also includes 4,000 Kenyan troops. They blame their presence as the reason for their attack.

Some experts argue, however, that this latest act of violence is also a demonstration of the in-fighting that has plagued al-Shabaab of late. Ahmed Abdi Godane, who now leads the group, obtained power in June after executing a number of top leaders. The Westgate attack may be a way for Godane to show his force and consolidate his power.

Ken Menkhaus, a professor at Davidson college, however believes that al-Shabaab is weakening. He wrote in Think Progress that the attack by al-Shabaab was “the latest sign of the group’s weakness. It was a desperate, high-risk gamble by Shabaab to reverse its prospects.”

He argues that the group's latest attack will damage its position among Somalis. The terrorist group has weakened over the past decades and in the last few years, it has lost its grip on most urban areas and is plagued with internal divisions. Menkhaus writes, “Most foreign mujahedeen have become disillusioned and left Somalia. And, most importantly, far fewer Somalis, both in country and in the large Somali diaspora, actively support the group.”

J.M. Bergen, who studies social media use by extremist groups, explained in Foreign Policy how the al-Shabaab infighting broke out on Twitter. He had been in conversation with Alabama-native turned jihadi Omar Hammami about his fallout with al-Shabaab. Bergen wrote:

Al-Shabab's Twitter account, the now-defunct @HSMPress, finally responded to Hammami's claims, calling him a narcissist. They were laying the groundwork for their move against him [...]

[...]

Meanwhile, the host of al-Shabab-friendly tweeters who had come online to hurl abuse at Hammami stepped up their attacks. He fired back at a manic pace and in a manic tone for some days.

"[Al-Shabab leader Ahmed Godane's] takfiiri tendencies are coming out thru the words of his crownies on twitter. Arrest my case," he punned, sounding punch-drunk. He posted a picture of himself on the run from al-Shabab, on a donkey cart, with the caption, "A pic of the lavish benefits of narcissism." He picked fights with terrorism expert Clint Watts, who had written extensively about Hammami in a long series of blog posts.

Hammami was later shot dead by al-Shabaab.

Other groups, known for their terrorist-affiliations, also have Twitter accounts. In the fall of last year, the group Tehkreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) posted on their Facebook page, “Dear brothers and sisters, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. Now you have a chance to use this mighty weapon.”

Other groups, claiming their social media presence is used to counter Western media bias, include Sipah-e-Sahaba, a prominent and active jihadi group in Pakistan. It formed in the 1980s and carried out numerous attacks. While it was finally banned in 2002, it re-emerged with a a new name: Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat (ASWJ). It also began delving into the political sphere, pushing forward political candidates.

A spokesman for the group told the New Statesman, “We use Facebook, Twitter and our own website for sharing daily news [...]Many people make propaganda against us and say we are a terrorist party. But when people see our comments on the internet, they say that our agenda is right.”

A report by the Washington Institute explained that English-language jihadi forums arose after American-born jihadist Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki gained prominence. The study concluded that English-language online forums are still “far less active” than their Arab counterparts, which means that ideologically, these jihadi groups have a much weaker hold in the West. The study argues, “This suggests that the global jihad movement is still very much attached to the Arab heartland in terms of the majority of individuals active online.”

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