Terrorists, Cops Battle on Twitter During Kenya Mall Attack

PHOTO: Kenyan security personnel and journalists duck behind a vehicle as heavy gunfire erupts from the Westgate Mall in Nairobi Kenya, Sept. 23 2013. Jerome Delay/AP Photo
Kenyan security personnel and journalists duck behind a vehicle as heavy gunfire erupts from the Westgate Mall in Nairobi Kenya, Sept. 23 2013.

As fighters of the al-Shabab terror group armed with assault rifles and homemade bombs targeted civilians at an upscale shopping mall this week, the group engaged simultaneously in an altogether different offensive on the internet, using Twitter to justify the carnage and taunt Kenyan authorities.

As the Islamists declared false victories and threatened greater destruction, Kenyan police also took to Twitter, using the Internet to broadcast information to the media and inadvertently creating a gripping narrative of close-quarters combat over four days of fighting that unfolded in 140-character missives.

On Twitter, al-Shabab blamed the attack on the Westgate mall, which ended in the deaths of at least 72 people and the building in ruins, on the "flagrant massacre of Muslims in Somalia" by Kenyan soldiers.

Twitter shut down the group's principal account, but by Monday a new account sprung up in its place, its authenticity confirmed to ABC News by a spokesman for the group.

On Monday, Kenyan authorities tweeted that they had taken control of the building and were ferreting out the last fighters.

"We have taken control of all the floors," Kenyan police said via their official Twitter account. "We're not here to feed the attackers with pastries but to finish and punish."


"[Kenya Defense Forces] has dominated all floors of Westgate Mall building. Troops are now concentrating on clearing the building," police continued in the waning hours of the siege.

But this morning as Kenyan officials were already declaring an end to the fighting, al-Shabab used its account to insist fighters were still engaging the military and more violence was to come.

"There are countless number of dead bodies still scattered inside the mall, and the Mujahideen are still holding their ground," al-Shabab said from its newly created Twitter handle. "The Kenyan govt and FM haven't the faintest idea of what's going on inside #Westgate mall. Rest assured, Kenyans are in for a big surprise!"

Throughout Tuesday, even as President Uhuru Kenyatta declared victory, the propaganda wing of al-Shabab was in full swing.

"We give this warning to the Kenyan Government and those who side with it: If it wants to live peacefully and safely, it must withdraw from our country, stop meddling in our affairs, set our captives free, and denounce all forms of fighting our religion," a spokesman for the group said in an audio message sent via Twitter. "If you refuse to do so, you have seen what you will reap, which is only the beginning. Thus, anticipate hard days."

When Kenyatta suggested that a woman may have been among the terrorists killed in the siege, al-Shabab denied the allegation, tweeting "we have an adequate number of young men who are fully committed & we do not employ our sisters in such military operations."

Cheap and effective in delivering a message to a global audience, terror networks around the world have adopted Twitter as an instant public relations house, able to confirm the deaths of members killed in clashes or drone strikes with national militaries, as well as claim responsibility for their attacks.

Twitter has taken note, shutting down at least five incarnations of the al-Shabab account since the group took to the microblogging site in 2011, according to Reuters and Site Intelligence Group, which monitors terrorist propaganda.

Twitter told ABC News it does not police users' content, but will remove accounts that violate the site's terms of service, which forbids making "specific threats of violence against others" and engaging in "illegal activities."