Al-Shabaab’s first four days on Twitter
This week, Al-Shabaab turned to Twitter to promote its messages. Although not verified by Twitter, the account appears authentic. We saw the news in a recent blog post for SlateAfrique where French journalist Joan Tilouine revealed how the armed Islamist militia began Tweeting on December 7, 2011. His source was WIRED’s Danger Room. A couple of days later, we have a few observations to add to the mix.
One day after its creation, the Harakat Al-Shabaab Al Mujahideen Press Office account had over 400 followers; 3 days later the number stands at nearly 2,000. The organization most likely created the account with goals to re-brand Al-Shabaab’s image, increase transparency, and perhaps provide local content for Somalia. A well-planned Twitter account could very well have the potential to assuage fears of the international community (or attract new followers to the group, but that is for a different platform).
Al-Shabaab may have been active in online communities for years, but Twitter is a far cry from online forums. Accordingly, the past couple of days have visibly been a learning period for the Harakat Al-Shabaab Al Mujahideen Press Office. The account has gone from strictly broadcasting information to interacting with followers to challenging the Kenyan military to denouncing “irrational” comments and pledging to selectively interact with the community. Forty-one Tweets have certainly given unprecedented insight into Al-Shabaab’s ideology. Al-Shabaan would be wise to lose the Twitter aggression if the group is to improve its image.
In its first day or two, @HSMPress strictly relayed news of the Kenyan invasion with a few propaganda-laden comments. At one point, @HSMPress even reminded journalists to verify their sources after the account noticed other Twitter supposedly “re-branding” stories as originating from Al-Shabaab.
However, on December 9th (two days after its creation), the Al-Shabaab account became more defensive as hundreds users began reaching out on Twitter. One discourse centered around the use of religion as a weapon; another boasted to the Kenya Military Spokesman how Somalia would hold of “a few disillusioned & disinclined Kenyan boys.”
Shortly thereafter, @HSMPress seemed to realize that inane debate was detrimental to its mission and would only be used as fodder to the super-vigilant followers (largely international activists and the like).
As of December 10th, @HSMPress has stopped interacting with the onslaught of Tweets from around the globe. Indeed, most inquiries to @HSMPress are accusatory and the ideas contained in them are too complex to be addressed via social media. Perhaps Al-Shabaab sums up their relationship with Twitter the best by saying:
At least Al-Shabaab knows what to expect based on its reputation. This account is surely one to watch in the coming days.