Thursday, 8 December 2011

Al Shabaab's Twitter Account

Here is my report for the BBC on Al Shabaab's latest experiment with the power of the internet:

(With the fiercest fighting for months in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, and Kenyan troops deployed deep into southern Somali territory, the country is experiencing a particularly heavy period of violence. On one side is the Islamist group Al Shabaab, which controls much of southern and central Somalia. On the other, transitional government troops, African Union peacekeepers, and Kenyan and Ethiopian soldiers. Fighting is not only taking place on the ground. As Mary Harper reports, it’s also going on in cyberspace:)

At exactly five thirty-five on Wednesday evening, an email dropped into my inbox. It was from the Al Shabaab press office and it invited me to follow Al Shabaab on Twitter. I did so instantly, and there, with its distinctive white logo on a black background, was an image of the Al Shabaab flag.

The first tweet was in Arabic, b-ismi-llāhi r-ramāni r-raīmi, which translates as ‘In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful’. After that, Al Shabaab switched to English and got down to the serious business of military propaganda.

The first tweets gave a hint of what was, within a few hours, to become the most intense fighting for several months between the Islamists and government troops backed by African Union or AMISOM peacekeepers in Mogadishu.

The tweets spoke of an attack by Al Shabaab on an AMISOM base in the north of the city. This was despite the fact that Al Shabaab in August announced that it had withdrawn from Mogadishu, something the transitional government described as a massive victory.

The tweets then launched into what Al Shabaab described as the utter failure of Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia. One quoted a BBC story about the plan for Kenyan troops to join AMISOM. It said this was proof that Kenya had run out of money to pay for the military operation, so need the African Union to pay for it instead. The advice to the Kenyan soldiers was put into one word, in capital letters. It said simply ‘FLEE’.

There was also a tweet referring to the need for Somali government soldiers to sober up, accusing them of being intoxicated by the narcotic leaf, qat, which has been banned by Al Shabaab.

The Al Shabaab Twitter site has attracted dozens of followers since it was launched a few hours ago. So far, Al Shabaab is following nobody.

The Islamist movement has in recent months become increasingly adept at communicating its activities and messages to a non-Somali audience. It writes sophisticated press releases in excellent English, complete with photographs.

And now it has a Twitter account. Perhaps this is in response to the highly active Twitter account of Kenya’s military spokesman, Major Emmanuel Chirchir. He issues a steady stream of information about what he says are Kenya’s military successes in Somalia.

So far, he appears to be winning the Twitter war. He has nearly ten thousand followers. Al Shabaab has four hundred, but its site has only been active for a few hours, and that number increases every time I look at it.