Somali insurgents’ adoption of Twitter takes Kenya by storm
NAIROBI, Kenya, Jan. 4 (UPI) -- The Twitter account of a Somali militant group threatening stability in the horn of Africa has garnered a surprise following among social media devotees in Kenya.
“Yes, I am following them, out of curiosity,” said Sumeya Ali, a student at the United States International University in Nairobi. “They say keep your enemies closer. So, I guess that would be one of the main reasons why I am following them.”
The al-Qaida affiliated group al-Shabaab joined Twitter in December with an introductory post that quoted the first verse of the Koran. Since then the group has used the social media site to issue a litany of taunts directed at the Kenyan army, which is engaged in a battle with al-Shabaab along the Somali border.
Analysts suggest that al-Shabaab is using Twitter as a platform to help amplify its victories, downplay its defeats and show that it has a bead on modern technology.
“Related to this is al-Shabaab’s recognition of the fact that modern warfare is not only fought with guns and missiles but with information-sharing and projection as well,” said Andrews Atta-Asamoah, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi. “Joining Twitter is an attempt to basically take this to the virtual world.”
In little over a month, Al-Shabaab's Twitter account has attracted nearly 8,000 followers, a close survey of which reveals a cross section of Kenyan society. Physicians, journalists, students, engineers, casting agencies, lawyers and youth groups are among those keeping tabs.
Natasha Wanjiru, a university student who follows the Twitter feed, said the al-Shabaab social media presence came as a shock to her.
“There is a stereotype that al-Shabaab just sit in caves and plan attacks,” Wanjiru said. “They seem very aware of what is happening around the world.”
In recent weeks, the Twitter page, which is written in English, has showcased a war of words between al-Shabaab and the official spokesman for the Kenyan military, Maj. Emmanuel Chirchir.
“The formidable Somali terrain has subdued the vicarious thrill KDF [Kenya Defense Forces] boys got from war movies; the bullets, they’ve realized, are real here!” reads an al-Shabaab's post from Dec. 11.
“Life has more meaning than denying women to wear bras,” Chirchir replied, referring to al-Shabaab's practice of flogging women caught wearing the undergarments, which the group claims violates Islamic teaching.
The online exchange has also captured the attention of journalists and media professionals in the country.
“I think it is a victory for the Internet and social media in particular,” said Charles Onyango-Obbo, who directs digital media for Nation Media Group, Kenya’s largest private media company. “Even though groups like al-Shabaab don't believe in the underlying liberal society that produces social media, they have had to accept that that is where you have to be to be heard by, especially, the younger people who will swell their ranks.”
Despite the groundswell of interest in the Twitter feed, some in Kenya worry about the risks associated with following al-Shabaab through social media, given the fact that the US labeled them a terrorist group in 2008.
Officials contacted at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi said that they were closely monitoring the account.
"In as far as I suspect that the Americans must be keen to keep tabs on anyone that views al-Shabaab’s Twitter page, yes, I am a little insecure,” Mary-Sanyu Osire, a freelance journalist, said.
However, Deco Langa, a master’s degree candidate from Tanzania, said that he feels no such fear. Langa said that the Twitter feed offers a rare and entertaining glimpse into al-Shabaab's activities.
“I don’t feel insecure at all,” said Langa. “It's a fan page like any other, just like the Joyce Meyer page or Manchester United page.”