Al-Shabaab Returns to Twitter

by David Mair

On Thursday 21st January 2015, al-Shabaab attacked the Lido Beach area of Mogadishu in the heart of Somalia.  The area is regarded as Somalia’s premier tourism destination; where Somalis can relax on white sands and enjoy the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.  Despite being on the Foreign Office no-go list, Lido beach also plays host to foreigners engaged in extreme tourism who are keen to experience life and luxury in the Horn of Africa.  In Thursday’s attack, 20 people were killed and 14 were injured.  Caught up in the attack were recent graduates and a wedding party.

The attack began with the detonation of a car bomb before militants opened fire with semi-automatic firearms on those on the beach and in local restaurants.  Reports indicate that some militants approached the beach by boat, giving a sense of how organised the attack was.  For those following the attacks online, it was a surprise to see the emergence of a new Twitter account claiming to be a spokesperson for the terrorist group; again, giving a sense how how organised the attack was (to include an in-sync press release).

This is not a new phenomenon where al-Shabaab are concerned.  In September 2013, theylive-tweeted throughout the Westgate terrorist attack.  In March 2015, a new account was created to tweet from the Maka-al-Mukarama hotel attack.  Interestingly absent from the list of tweeted terror attacks is the Garissa University attack in which 147 students lost their lives; arguably al-Shabaab’s deadliest ever assault.

This raises the question as to whether the account tweeting from the Lido beach attack was genuine; and if so, what can we learn from the tweets about the motivations, narratives and objectives of the group?

Tackling the validity of the account first; there were a number of similarities between the accounts identified in both the Westgate and the Maka-al-Mukarama attacks.  First, the profile picture was the same across all accounts identified in each occurrence.  The black flag of jihad – often confused for the ISIS flag – was used each time.  Also similar was the Twitter handle in each new account.

As al-Shabaab are a designated terrorist organisation, they are banned from using Twitter. Any account identified as al-Shabaab official or even pro-al-Shabaab is suspended on discovery.  When this happens, the creator of the account usually creates a new account with a slightly altered handle (@al-Shabaab becomes @al-Shabaab1, for example).  The name of the Lido beach account followed a consistent pattern with accounts that had previously been identified during Westgate and Maka-al-Mukarama.

So what did the account say?

Sadly, as the account only tweeted 4 times over the course of its two-hour lifespan, not a great deal.  The account identified that 20 individuals had died as a result of the attack and claimed that those targeted were “spies, government officials and foreigner crusaders”, giving the impression that the attack was an intelligence led operation aimed at specific individuals professionally tasked with combating al-Shabaab.  Being that those caught up in the attack were recent graduates and newly-weds, we can interpret this as propaganda attempting to justify the attack and provide it with a level of legitimacy that is unwarranted.

The second narrative to come out of the account was a claim that the creator had spoken to the attackers who confirmed that they were still alive and in control of the targeted hotels.  This depicts al-Shabaab as being in power and control and represents the responding Special Forces and police teams as being powerless against the superior tactics and might of al-Shabaab’s fighters.  This, in turn, creates a wider sense of doubt in the ability of the Somali government to effectively protect their citizens, stop al-Shabaab from attacking city landmarks and respond to incidents of violence.

Both of these narratives were found in previous uses of Twitter by the terrorist group, indicating that the creator was either a bona fide al-Shabaab spokesperson, or a fanboy with a sharp eye for detail in regards to constructing a valid and consistent al-Shabaab narrative.

To read more about the narrative espoused by al-Shabaab on Twitter, David Mair has written on the Westgate Tweets in a forthcoming article to be published in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism and a chapter in Violent Extremism Online edited by Stuart Macdonald, Anne Aly and Lee Jarvis.


David Mair is a PhD Candidate at Swansea University within the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. He is a member of the Cyberterrorism Project. He can be followed on Twitter – @CyberTProject

This post was first published on The Cyberterrorism Project blog on 27 January 2016. Re-published here with permission.


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