More than two months after their last account on Twitter was suspended, al-Shabab – the Somali rebel group fighting the UN-backed government in Mogadishu – opened a new account on Monday, their seventh since September. But their latest handle was shut down just six hours later.
It appears Twitter and al-Shabab have resumed their virtual fight. The group’s last account was suspended after it claimed responsibility for the Nairobi Westgate mall attack that left more than 60 people dead.
As people across the world were glued to their TV screens in search of updates about Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, which was under siege by gunmen from al-Shabab in September, another intense battle was taking place away from their silver screens.
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This was a battle of a different kind, involving not bullets but keyboards. Slowly and away from the public gaze, the battle between the al-Qaeda-linked group and the American social media company had been brewing for more than a year. In early September it reached fever pitch.
Just hours after the group took responsibility for the four-day siege, the group’s account was frozen without notice. Anyone who attempted to access the group’s Twitter account was met with this message: “The profile you are trying to view has been suspended.”
Twitter suspended al-Shabab’s account, and in the next three days six other accounts run by the group were suspended.
“As of today, our @HSMPRESS1 account has been closed in another futile attempt to silence the truth and the factual coverage of events in Somalia,” said al-Shabab in a statement released shortly after the suspension.
First digital entrance
The group first joined Twitter on December 7, 2011 following Kenya’s invasion into southern Somalia. Kenya sent its troops into Somalia after several high-profile kidnappings in Kenya that it blamed on al-Shabab. Tech-savvy Kenyan government officials used Twitter to give their version of the military operation they dubbed “Operation Linda Nchi” – “Operation Protect the Nation”.
In response, al-Shabab embraced the social media network and opened their first official account, @HSMPress. “They were telling the world lies, absolute lies about the situation on the ground. So we joined to tell the real situation on the ground,” an al-Shabab commander told Al Jazeera.
During its early days on the social network, the group called the Somali government “apostates” and referred to AMISOM – the African Union peacekeeping mission – as “crusaders”.
Kenyan military spokesman Emmanuel Chirchir received special attention from al-Shabab, especially after he warned that airplanes might bomb groups of donkeys that he alleged were carrying weapons for the group.
Al-Shabab also began posting well-choreographed photos of its commanders giving food to the poor under areas they controlled. Photos of al-Shabab military parades were also common. Every now and again it also shared slickly produced videos made by their media branch, al-Kataib. At times it even had virtual spats with far-right groups like the UK’s English Defence League.
Eventually, al-Shabab began providing “live commentary” on attacks it was carrying out, threatening government officials and western targets. When al-Shabab fighters stormed a Mogadishu courtroom, they gave a rundown of the events and even quoted fighters who were about to blow themselves up. They also did the same during an attack on the UN compound in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.
These attacks were similar to the Westgate mall attack but the group’s Twitter account was not suspended. This hasn’t escaped the attention of those who follow events in East Africa closely.
“Attacks involving foreigners lead to faster reactions – unfortunately the world takes violence for granted inside Somalia,” said Stig Jarle Hansen, an associate professor at Noragric University in Norway, and who has written a book about al-Shabab. “This is sad because the modus operandi of the court attack was very similar to Westgate. In one sense it was a warning.”
Observers have noted that Twitter suspends al-Shabab’s account when its threats are directed at non-Somali targets. “I think that is the standard bias inherent in the global power dynamics,” Abdullahi Boru, a Nairobi-based analyst, told Al Jazeera.
Twitter, just like any other global institution that is based in the West is ready to 'flex its muscle' when Western targets, interests are involved, as opposed to for instance, if it is the Somalis.
“Twitter, just like any other global institution that is based in the West, is ready to ‘flex its muscle’ when Western targets [and] interests are involved – as opposed to, for instance, if it is the Somalis or any other groups are involved. If they can kill each other, as long as it doesn’t involve us, let it be.”
According to Twitter’s policy on abusive behavior, “Users may not make direct, specific threats of violence against others.”
Soon after the suspension of al-Shabab’s account, a Twitter spokesperson told Al Jazeera, “We do not comment on individual accounts, for security and privacy reasons.”
Somalia’s government, which has borne the brunt of al-Shabab’s attacks, has been vocal in its opposition to allowing the group such a platform.
“Terrorists should not be allowed to have a platform to spread their propaganda,” said Ridwaan Haaji, Somalia’s government spokesman. “We welcome Twitter for suspending their accounts and they shouldn’t allow terrorists to threatened people using Twitter.”
But with nothing stopping them from opening new accounts whenever their other accounts are suspended, al-Shabab says the world hasn’t seen the end of them on the social media site. “There is no doubt we will return. There is no doubt. Anytime we feel it is necessary for us we will come back. We can come back any time, any minute.”
Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa