WHILE its militants on the ground were waging war in a Nairobi shopping centre, Al-Shabaab’s leaders were conducting a simultaneous battle online.
The Somalia-based organisation, which is linked to al Qaeda, provided an extraordinary running commentary of the attacks on Twitter – glorifying the militants, taunting the Kenyan security forces, and justifying their actions. When it was shut down, it re-emerged under a different name hours after. When the Kenyan government made calls for negotiation, the account was used to ridicule their suggestion.
Referring to its followers as “Mujahideen” – or holy warriors – and the victims as “kuffar” – a highly derogatory term for non-Muslims, the person behind the Twitter account gloated about the attacks – writing in Somali, Arabic, English and local language Kiswahili.
“The Mujahideen entered Westgate mall today at around noon and they are still inside the mall, fighting the Kenyan kuffar inside their own turf,” it said on Saturday evening.
“The attack at Westgate Mall is just a very tiny fraction of what Muslims in Somalia experience at the hands of Kenyan invaders.”
The account, @HSM_Press – Shabaab is also known as Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen – was shut down by Twitter on Sunday morning. Twitter’s terms of service state that users “may not publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others.”
But only a few hours later, the jihadists had opened another account, @HSM_PressOffice, in an illustration of the impossibility of ever silencing terrorists who choose to use social media.
“#Westgate: a 14-hour standoff relayed in 1400 rounds of bullets and 140 characters of vengeance and still ongoing. Good morning Kenya!” they posted.
“It’s slowly approaching the 24-hour mark – the darkest 24 hours in Nairobi – highlighting the sheer fragility of the Kenyan nation.
“The Mujahideen are still firmly in control of the situation inside Westgate Mall. Negotiation is out of the question!”
Later on on Sunday, they gloated about the "Westgate Warriors."
"They say Kenyan forces tried to storm the building but failed miserably."
Shabaab have been avid users of Twitter since September 2011. At the time, the move onto Twitter was seen as an attempt to counter the widespread message of Kenya’s military spokesman Major Emmanuel Chirchir, who uses his own Twitter account to highlight the government forces’ success in battling Shabaab to his almost 50,000 followers.
Around that time the organisation also tried, unsuccessfully, to rename itself “Imaarah Islamiyah,” or the Islamic Authority.
“Al-Shabaab means ‘youth’ but many of us, including the leaders, are very old,” said spokesman Mukhtaar Robow.
The account was shut down in January, after using the service to announce it had killed a French hostage and showing graphic photos of a French soldier killed during a rescue attempt.
It restarted, only to be shut down again earlier this month.
When it emerged once more, reporters received an email from the group’s press office informing them that they could now follow the new handle @HSMPress, “for the Mujahideen’s take on the events in Somalia as well as current events in the wider global context.”
Harriet Alexander, Telegraph.co.uk