Dec. 8, 2011 -- Taking a page out of the Taliban's playbook, al Qaeda's Somalia affiliate has now opened a Twitter account, and started an on-line war of words with its real world military foes.
Al Shabaab, the al Qaeda affiliate battling for control of Somalia, launched a Twitter account Thursday under the handle @HSMPress with tweets disparaging the abilities of the Kenyan and African Union troops it is now fighting.
"#KDF (Kenya Defense Forces): An Army without experience, clear strategy & objective is fragile to winds of resistance & slightest confrontation precipitates defeat," reads one tweet.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban has attracted attention via a long-running Twitter battle with the NATO ISAF press office. The Taliban has a relatively sophisticated press and information operation, with a web presence and press releases and statements distributed to reporters via email and even text message.
Shabaab also seems to be increasing the sophistication of its propaganda war, having established a virtual press office that sends out English-language press releases to the international press corps. Now it may be rising to a Twitter battle challenge from the Kenyan military.
A KDF press officer has been tweeting since Kenyan troops entered neighboring Somalia in October. Using the hashtag #OperationLindaNichi and the handle @MajorEChichir, KDF Maj. E. Chichir has been tweeting both alleged victories and warnings to the local population. A few of his tweets have inspired ridicule, like the one warning Kenyans on the border not to sell donkeys to suspected Shabaab members, but he now has more than 10,000 followers.
So far @HSMPress, which uses the initials of al Shabaab's full name, the Harakat al-Shabaab al Mujahideen, has fewer than 1,000 followers. Whoever is tweeting for al Shabaab, however, seems to speak fluent, if stilted, English.
"#KDF envisaged a lightning invasion of #Somalia but the Blitzkrieg they'd hoped for became a thorny quagmire for the inexperienced soldiers," reads one.
Al Shabaab is known for recruiting militants from the English-speaking Somali diaspora. There have been at least four confirmed suicide bombings in the country carried out by Somali-American citizens. One of the group's top leaders, Omar Al-Hammami, hails from Alabama. African Union and Somali government officials say there are also Shabaab fighters from Canada, the United Kingdom and Sweden.
As in Afghanistan, behind the virtual war of words there is an actual physical fight for territory, a conflict that has intensified in the last few days. Mogadishu has experienced some of the heaviest fighting in months as Shabaab fighters clash with Somali government troops backed by the KDF. Witnesses report the use of heavy weaponry and casualties on both sides.
Via Twitter, Shabaab had a warning for the Kenyans.
"Military ineptitude, deteriorating economy, social imbalance, & public ambivalence trigger a desultory face-saving attempt by the #KDF: FLEE."