Tweeting to Win: Al-Shabaab’s Strategic Use of Microblogging

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Today, we live in a world of networked global communities, drawn together by the recent technological boom.  This unprecedented degree of interconnectivity has affected every size and kind of social organization, from the American government to a camera-armed protester on the streets.  Technology has particularly changed the fabric of the Islamic world, a community torn between rejecting innovation and embracing modernity.  The mass social movements that rocked the Middle East during the Arab Spring only highlight how important connective devices have become for the strategic calculi of Islamic social movements.  Islamic groups now use Internet platforms like Facebook and YouTube to reach a greater audience, challenge opponents, and spread their ideologies.

Twitter, the social media platform du jour, offers unique advantages to users.  Its short but sweet sound bite format and easy transmission abilities can captivate an audience accustomed to constant and condensed media bombardment.  It allows movements to easily reach a global audience and challenge opponents.  Twitter also acts as an ideological microphone, facilitating framing and belief dissemination.  Given these benefits, it is unsurprising that many Islamic social movements now consider Twitter to be a valuable asset.  In this essay, I will provide a comprehensive analysis of how Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (HSM or Al-Shabaab for short), a militant al-Qaeda ally operating in Somalia, employs a Twitter account as a framing tool and method of contention.  I examine Al-Shabaab’s tweets, photos and followers from three lenses: intended functions of the Twitter account, target audience, and thematic messages.  Essentially, I analyze why, whom and how: why Al-Shabaab uses Twitter, whom it is trying to reach, and how it is attempting to establish that connection.  By understanding what Al-Shabaab seeks to change and whom it seeks to attract, we can further grasp its inner ideological gears.

The HSM Press Office is the press branch of Al-Shabaab (HSM), which formed six years ago after the Islamic Courts Union splintered into multiple militant groups.  Al-Shabaab aims to establish an independent Muslim state by “waging jihad” against perceived domestic and foreign enemies.  The group uses kidnappings, piracy, and other terrorist activities to intimidate its enemies and control large swathes of Somali territory.  Al-Shabaab launched its Twitter account on December 7, 2011 under the name “HSM Press Office,” sparking a legal and media firestorm as counterterrorism experts in the West battled to eliminate the webpage.  As of October 7, 2012, @HSMPress had 16,630 followers and 917 tweets.

Intended Functions of the HSM Twitter Account

The HSM Press Office employs Twitter as both a method of contention and framing device.  Al-Shabaab has three primary Twitter usage objectives: intramovement coordination, information creation and verification, and ideological engagement.

On the tactical level, Al-Shabaab uses Twitter to coordinate members’ knowledge and maintain movement coherency.  Updates occur almost daily and give detailed descriptions of the nature, size, execution, and result of an engagement.  For example, @HSMPress was incredibly active on April 4th during the bombing of a movie theater in the capital Mogadishu: “Large explosion brings the show to an end at the #Mogadishu Theatre, leaving scores of MP’s, # TFG officials & intelligence personnel dead.”[i]  Earlier, on March 20th, @HSMPress tweeted: “Mujahideen seized 3 AA mounted military vehicles, 2 buses, a cache of weapons and a large amount of ammunitions in a store #JihadDispatches.”[ii]  These instances demonstrate that the “tactical tweets” can range from broad announcements, like the Mogadishu theatre bombing headline, to incredibly detailed reports of assets—such as weapons, combatants, and territory—that have been won or lost.  For Al-Shabaab, Twitter serves as an organizational tool.  When all members operate on the same set of information, mobilization friction is reduced and movement coherency increases.

Al-Shabaab also uses Twitter to employ a larger information creation and verification strategy.  In the networked world, there are information creators, which produce and distribute knowledge, and information processors, which consume that knowledge.  An information creator can shape public opinion by controlling which stories are released and how they are framed; an organization is only an effective information creator, however, if the number of people who consider it a trustworthy source is sufficiently large to shift the ideological climate.  The publicy wing of Al-Shabaab pursues information creator status by imitating a press organization, as evidenced by a March 28th tweet noting that the HSM Press Office is “easily reachable through most journalists.”[iii]

In its quest to become an information creator, the HSM Press Office discounts opposition media sources and frames itself as a legitimate source of knowledge.  The movement frequently attacks journalists that it feels are subjective and manipulative.[iv]  “Most journalists,” asserted @HSMPress, “tend to have a myopic view of the events in Somalia but some tend to exceed others in dishonesty and lack of professionalism.”[v]  The HSM Press Office charges journalists “to verify and double-check their sources instead of regurgitating unreliable accounts often from subjective media.”[vi]  @HSMPress even encourages its followers not to expect impartial reports from the “Kafir media” about the Mujahideen.[vii]  By framing opposition media as subjective and manipulative, the HSM Press Office further portrays itself as a legitimate “information creator.”

Al-Shabaab employs a two-pronged approach to achieving information creator status.  The first aspect is generating and circulating information.  As an aspiring information creator, HSM publishes its own press releases and provides live coverage of events via Twitter.[viii]  These activities help the HSM Press Office gain a following among information processors.  The second aspect of the strategy is fact checking.  Since trustworthy reputation is critical to success as an “information creator,” HSM portrays itself as upholding journalistic integrity by condemning media subjectivity and discounting allegedly false or malicious reports.  For example, on December 28th @HSMPress wrote: “The truth can’t be eclipsed by vindictive tales concocted by professional amateurs whose judgment is clouded by emotion” and included a link to a New York Times article critical of the movement.[ix]  This “whistleblower” frame further indicates that the HSM Press Office desires to be viewed as a dependable “information creator.”

With information creator status comes increased legitimacy, a necessary precursor for the final function that Twitter serves for Al-Shabaab—voicing grievances and directly sparing with ideological opponents.  Twitter’s response function enables the HSM Press Office to practice “dynamic propaganda,” which I define as an engagement that serves the dual purposes of challenging a critic and broadcasting a certain belief.  An @HSMPress conversation with Twitter follower @DianaNTaylor provides a good example of this phenomenon: “@DianaNTaylor what’s beyond abhorrence is the collective Western Crusade against Islam of which you seem quite blasé about if not supportive.”[x]  In this interaction, @HSMPress simultaneously questions the critic @DianaNTaylor’s credibility and exposes other followers to the argument that the West is at war with Islam.  As Twitter gains momentum, “dynamic propaganda” becomes an increasingly effective method of contention in the online world.

Target Audience

Online communities are increasingly becoming all-encompassing due to increased global interconnectivity.  Al-Shabaab capitalizes on this trend by writing almost every tweet in English.  I determined that the decision to use English is a strategic choice by analyzing the demographics of Al-Shabbab’s potential audiences.  Only 106,000 Somalis, or 1% of the population, use the Internet.[xi]  If Al-Shabaab had intended to appeal primarily to the Somali people, the organization would likely (1) write in Arabic, and (2) rely less on electronic means of communication.  A global audience, on the other hand, is much more amenable to information distributed in English on the Internet.  We can therefore conclude that the HSM Twitter account aims to resonate with individuals sympathetic to the broader Islamic cause, regardless of physical location.

Based on the number of people who follow @HSMPress (12,518 users in five months), this transnational strategy seems to be working.  Subscribers to the feed include self-described “political junkies,” students, Muslims, journalists, and nongovernmental organizations.  Most followers live outside of Somalia.  This flourishing global audience indicates that the organization has both regional and international goals that resonate with diverse individuals.  Although Al-Shabaab’s primary objective is to establish sharia rule in Somalia, it also aims to motivate and shape the worldwide debate on jihadism and Islam.

Thematic Messages

Technology’s evolution has made “winning hearts and minds” a priority for social movements around the globe, the Islamic world included.  In order to achieve just that, a movement must frame itself in a way that appeals to “the people.”  Al-Shabaab recognizes the importance of favorable public opinion and seeks it out by using Twitter to circulate its preferred frames.  On January 1st, @HSMPress tweeted that those with “shallow understanding” do not realize that territory can be won or lost; victory comes through ideological pervasiveness.[xii]  The HSM Press Office employs frames that it believes are most likely to resonate with the greatest number of people and that will give it the ideological upper hand in the Somali conflict.  These thematic messages are crucial to understanding the movement; they explain how Al-Shabaab would like to be viewed and highlight what issues Al-Shabaab believes are most important to its audience.  To maximize appeal, the organization advances messages that address both ideological and practical issues.

Central to Al-Shabaab’s ideology is the “clash paradigm” dictating that the West is not battling isolated military threats in the Middle East but is rather at war with Islam as an ideology and as a culture.  The “clash” frame portrays Islam as endangered and encourages Muslims to defend their religion against perceived extinction.  For the HSM Press Office, this framing strategy portrays the West as immoral while simultaneously emphasizing Islam’s triumphs.  The depiction of the West as deviant strengthens the idea that Islam is a righteous cause, a concept that resonates with many Muslims.  The HSM Press Office condemns Western decadence, writing “The Kuffar have proudly nurtured a godless society of moral degenerates and are not known for having too savory a reputation.”[xiii]  HSM also emphasizes perceived Western hypocrisy by highlighting that the West preaches morality while simultaneously imprisoning Muslims in horrific conditions.[xiv]  In HSM’s portrayal, the West’s mere existence threatens the ideals of Islam.  This frame encourages Muslims to subvert the West for their religion’s sake by joining an organization like Al-Shabaab.

The HSM Press Office is heavily focused on attacking any Western presence in the Muslim world.  It frequently blames foreigners, ranging from nearby Kenyans to the Western world, for creating Somalia’s problems.  For many Muslims, frustrations regarding foreign occupation and cultural imperialism are easy to sympathize.  Such individuals are sensitive to HSM reports that the West is acting deceptively or subversively toward Islam.  The HSM Press Office aims to harness these fears by framing the West on its Twitter page as immoral, barbaric, and illegitimate.

The HSM Press Office also appeals to long-standing Muslim anger regarding Western colonialism and exploitation.  @HSMPress accused the British government on February 13th of trying to “colonize Somalia” and of “meddling in Islam affairs in the hope of reviving a hopeless dream of a British Empire.”[xv]  HSM further emphasized perceived Western oppression in writing that foreign involvement is used as a tool to suppress Muslims in Somalia.[xvi]  For many regional inhabitants, frustration arises specifically from Western extraction of resources that residents believe belong to them.  On February 25, @HSMPress accused the West of abusing Somalia’s natural resources and rendered continued usage illegitimate: “Western companies must be fully aware that all exploration rights & drilling contracts in N.Eastern #Somalia are now permanently nullified.”[xvii] By framing the West as an exploitative and oppressive force, @HSMPress encourages Muslims to take responsibility for their own nations: “you must carve the destiny of your nation – not the invaders,” it wrote.[xviii]  The HSM Press Office highlights foreign exploitation to strengthen Al-Shabaab’s case for resistance in Somalia.

In an effort to subvert support for foreign involvement in Somalia, the HSM Press Office demonizes foreigners, who are portrayed as interventionist and belligerent.  @HSMPress rejected the decision of some East African nations to invade Somalia, calling it a victory for “Western imperialism.”[xix]  The HSM Press Office also tries to highlight the perceived futility of Western involvement.  @HSMPress provided a link to an Independent article with the caption “Decades of interference—and not a single success…Foreign interventions have never succeeded in Somalia.”[xx]  This tweet implies that the West cannot achieve victory because the people of Somalia are too strong to be broken and empowers Somalis to believe that they can successfully resist foreign interference.  HSM Press Office makes a further case via Twitter for why that resistance should be violent.  In a response to one follower, @HSMPress denounced diplomatic negotiations with the explanation that “you can’t negotiate under the muzzle of aggressor’s gun; Invasion nullifies every peace attempt.”[xxi]  This statement depicts nonviolent dialogue as unfeasible due to foreigners’ actions.  By eliminating a peaceful option, this frame intends to justify HSM’s violent methods of contention.

Foreigners are also portrayed as physically and ideologically deceptive.  For instance, @HSMPress provided extensive coverage and photos of an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) scandal in Somalia earlier this year.  The report identified that 70% of the food provided during a shortage by ICRC, a Western organization, was expired and likely to make consumers ill.[xxii]  By releasing and promoting this story, Al-Shabaab highlighted perceived Western disregard for the Muslim world.  The HSM Press Office also accuses the West of waging a misleading ideological battle against Islam.  In a response to a follower, @HSMPress wrote on December 14th, “Western Media has spent years inculcating derogatory anti-Islam views into ur minds.”[xxiii]  These frames are designed to agitate suspicion of Western actions in the hopes that sympathizers will in turn view Al-Shabaab as trustworthy and join the movement.

In support of the clash paradigm, the HSM Press Office contrasts Western immorality with Islamic values.  Al-Shabaab uses religious metaphors and symbols as framing tools.  Muslims concur on the validity of some of Al-Shabaab’s principles, like Muslim responsibility and unity (although definitions of these values differ); the Al-Shabaab doctrine regarding martyrdom, however, is contested within the Muslim community.  The HSM Press Office uses both allusions and direct appeals to religious authorities to frame Al-Shabaab’s actions as consistent with Islamic values.

In response to a follower’s comment, @HSMPress touted Islam’s advances in physics, math, astronomy, architecture, and other disciplines while Europe was still languishing in the dark ages.[xxiv]  In this frame, Islam’s rise to the forefront of a cultural revolution is portrayed as inevitable. A sheikh affiliated with Al-Shabaab asserted, “While the crusaders continue to weaken politically, economically & militarily, clear signs of Islam’s triumph are becoming apparent.”[xxv]  Every movement wants to appear victorious to its followers; Al-Shabaab strives to achieve this by framing Islam as slowly, but surely, victorious in the culture clash with the West.

The HSM Press Office appeals to a sense of Muslim responsibility, asserting that Muslims both within and outside of Somalia are compelled to challenge the West by supporting Al-Shabaab.  @HSMPress consistently encourages Muslims around the world to wage jihad against unjust and illegitimate governments.[xxvi]  Wrote @HSMPress on January 24th, “To propound, propagate and promote the forgotten obligation of Jihad among the Muslims around the globe is the essence of #JihadPhilosophy.”[xxvii]  The movement also legitimizes its “obligatory jihad” frame by quoting religious authorities: “Sheikh; Jihad is an individual obligation; so all Muslims, and Somalis in particular, must march forth for Jihad against the enemy of Allah.”[xxviii]  By labeling its actions as jihad and therefore mandatory for every Muslim, HSM seeks to gain greater validity and support among the Islamic community.

Al-Shabaab also asserts the importance of international unity in resisting the West.  Nationalism has historically limited Muslim unity because regional objectives have often been prioritized over transnational ones.  While Al-Shabaab’s true objectives may be regionally focused, the movement recognizes the value of international Muslim support.  To attract a worldwide audience, the HSM Press Office emphasizes global Muslim solidarity; the HSM Press Office thus frames its regional goals as general Islamic ones that Muslims around the world can relate to, regardless of nationality.  HSM portrays the transnational Muslim community as coherent and strong to draw support from outside Somalia.  Al-Shabaab’s affiliated sheikh emphasized, “Despite still being a distance apart, the bond of unity of the Mujahideen cannot be severed on the basis of nationality and ethnicity.”[xxix]  In response to a “bogus” news story, @HSMPress also encouraged Muslims to be suspicious of reports “that intend to sow sedition and disunity among the Mujahideen and the wider Muslim Ummah.”[xxx]  In this frame, Muslims are encouraged to maintain solidarity despite physical separation and Western sabotage.

Al-Shabaab particularly emphasizes transnational unity by depicting its alliance with Al-Qaeda as a model of Muslim solidarity.[xxxi]  In a quote from the Al-Shabaab-affiliated sheikh, @HSMPress emphasized “the unity of the Mujahideen & their mutual objective in fighting a common enemy.”[xxxii]  The HSM Press Office scoffed at “Western outrage at the merger,” implying that the West felt threatened by Muslim cohesion.[xxxiii]  Al-Shabaab’s alignment with an organization that addresses global Muslim grievances is designed to bring legitimacy and attention to its regional goals.

Finally we come to martyrdom, a controversial topic in the Islamic community.  Many Muslims reject the use of violence, including suicide bombings, to achieve political, territorial, or ideological objectives.  To counter this dissatisfaction, the HSM Press Office attempts to legitimize its violent methods of contention by asserting that they are sanctioned under jihad and considered martyrdom in the name of Islam.  Those who die fighting for the Al-Shabaab cause are glorified on Twitter and become part of the “Martyrdom Brigade.”[xxxiv]  The dead militants receive prayers via tweets that Allah will accept their sacrifice and have mercy on their souls.[xxxv]  In the HSM Press Office’s frame, death in the name of Islam is a reward that all Muslims should aspire to achieve.[xxxvi]  This strategy aims to validate fatal violence despite widespread criticism within the Muslim community, and attract soldiers by portraying death in battle as a glorified reward.

The clash paradigm clearly plays a central role in Al-Shabaab’s thematic messages.  Many potential followers, however, are more concerned about their day-to-day quality of life than an abstract, and often distant, ideological battle.  To appeal to those individuals who are focused on practicality, Al-Shabaab asserts that it is more adept than the West is at offering stability and social services.  Studies have shown that populations in the midst of conflict often support the side that delivers consistent day-to-day security.  Al-Shabaab capitalizes on this trend by undermining its opponents’ efforts to stabilize society while simultaneously providing safety for the population.  The HSM Press Office aims to frame Al-Shabaab as more successful than its opponents at protecting the populace, while depicting the West as actively eroding Somali stability.  A series of tweets on January 25th continuously criticizing a UN established political office in Somalia (UNPOS) is one example of this frame.  The HSM Press Office cited its Office for Supervising the Affairs of Foreign Agencies in calling UNPOS an “impediment to attainment of peace and stability in Somalia” and an attempt “to fragment the homogeneous Somali society and revive old hostilities.”[xxxvii]

On the other hand, the HSM Press Office highlights Al-Shabaab’s successes at establishing security.  It reported that 3,000 families fled opposition areas for the safety of Mujahideen-controlled camps.[xxxviii]  In response to a follower’s comment, @HSMPress boasted that “the one thing residents of HSM-administered regions do fully enjoy, unlike the other regions of Somalia,” is safety.[xxxix]  Al-Shabaab also claimed to have enacted a reconciliation strategy that “doused the flames of enmity between warring tribes” in Somalia.[xl]  @HSMPress encourages followers to believe that Al-Shabaab can provide better protection from violence and suffering than the West –or the Somali government—can.

The provision of social services is another common strategy employed by Al-Shabaab to establish roots within communities and win supporters by alleviating public grievances.  This approach highlights the inability of incumbent governments to provide basic amenities for their citizens.  Al-Shabaab’s chosen social service is education.  @HSMPress reported that a schooling system was nonexistent before the Mujahideen gained control.[xli]  According to the Twitter account, Al-Shabaab has since established three universities, 550 madrassas and 150 primary and secondary schools.[xlii]  With 50% of Somalia’s population under 18 years of age (and eligible for schooling), this strategy is likely to resonate among the young men and women who view education as a means to a better life.[xliii]  Providing educational resources gives Al-Shabaab an opportunity to demonstrate its competency in light of existing socioeconomic policy disappointments; by spreading the news of the movement’s educational successes on Twitter, Al-Shabaab portrays itself as an organization working to create positive and substantive change for society wherever the government falls short.

Conclusion

Al-Shabaab’s Twitter account offers revelations that are central to understanding the movement.  The microblogging platform is used by the HSM Press Office to accomplish three primary objectives: coordinate information within the movement, become an “information creator,” and engage in “dynamic propaganda” as a method of contention.  Recognizing the benefits of global recognition and support, the HSM Press Office tweets with a global audience in mind.

Al-Shabaab’s projected identity and perception of the relative importance of particular issues are then well reflected in @HSMPress’ tweets, which provide valuable insight into the nature of that identity.  HSM self-identifies as a righteous savior of Islam in the face of Western manipulation, intervention, and subversion, justifying Al-Shabaab’s controversial actions through a religious framework with allusions to Islamic values and appeals to Islamic authorities. In other rhetoric, Al-Shabaab recognizes that many Somalis are frustrated with the government’s inability to provide social services and stability; the movement therefore focuses on constructing schools and securing locations as a way of expanding its appeal.  Above all, the movement seeks through its self-presentation on Twitter to gain both religious and secular legitimacy.  In all these efforts, Al-Shabaab recognizes the strategic value of a global vision and forms its rhetoric and its alliances accordingly.

Al-Shabaab is just one of the many movements engaged in a struggle to amass the most devotees.  Because population is finite, the global audience is a limited resource.  Every supporter attracted by one movement means that a rival organization has lost a potential follower.  In such a heated competition, the worth of Twitter and other social media platforms cannot be ignored.  Such an invaluable tool can make or break a social movement in today’s interconnected world.

References

  1. CNN Wire Staff. (2012, 9 Feb). Al-Shabaab joining al Qaeda, monitor group says. CNN. Retrieved from http://articles.cnn.com/2012-02-09/africa/world_africa_somalia-shabaab-qaeda_1_al-zawahiri-qaeda-somali-americans?_s=PM:AFRICA
  2. HSMPress. [Twitter]. Retrieved from http://twitter.com/#!/HSMPress
  3. Somalia. (2012, 12 Apr). In the CIA World Factbook. Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/so.html

[i] HSMPress, 4 Apr 2012

[ii] HSMPress, 20 Mar 2012

[iii] HSMPress, 28 Mar 2012

[iv] HSMPress, 15 Dec 2012

[v] HSMPress, 28 Mar 2012

[vi] HSMPress, 9 Dec 2012

[vii] HSMPress, 10 Apr 2012

[viii] HSMPress, 29 Dec 2011

[ix] HSMPress, 28 Dec 2011

[x] HSMPress, 9 Dec 2011

[xi] “Somalia,” 2012

[xii] HSMPress, 1 Jan 2012

[xiii] HSMPress, 19 Jan 2012

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] HSMPress 13 Feb 2012

[xvi] HSMPress 23 Feb 2012

[xvii] HSMPress, 25 Feb 2012

[xviii] HSMPress, 13 Dec 2011

[xix] HSMPress, 18 Jan 2012

[xx] HSMPress, 10 Dec 2011

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] HSMPress, 30 Jan 2012

[xxiii] HSMPress, 14 Dec 2011

[xxiv] HSMPress, 14 Dec 2011

[xxv] HSMPress, 19 Mar 2012

[xxvi] HSMPress, 14 Apr 2012

[xxvii] HSMPress, 24 Jan 2012

[xxviii] HSMPress, 19 Mar 2012

[xxix] HSMPress, 19 Mar 2012

[xxx] HSMPress, 10 Apr 2012

[xxxi] CNN Wire Staff, 2012.

[xxxii] HSMPress, 19 Mar 2012

[xxxiii] HSMPress, 12 Feb 2012

[xxxiv] HSMPress, 24 Jan 2012

[xxxv] HSMPress, 21 Jan 2012

[xxxvi] HSMPress, 10 Mar 2012

[xxxvii] HSMPress, 25 Feb 2012

[xxxviii] HSMPress, 28 Dec 2011

[xxxix] HSMPress, 10 Jan 2012

[xl] HSMPress, 2 Jan 2012

[xli] Ibid.

[xlii] Ibid.

[xliii] “Somalia,” 2012

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