Two months after Kenya launched a military intervention into Somalia in an effort to seize the al-Shabaab stronghold of Kismayu, the Kenyan military and the Somali militants have entered into a new campaign – a propaganda war through Twitter, a popular online social networking service that is still finding new applications.
Since the start of the Kenya intervention, Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF) Major Emmanuel Chirchir (@MajorEChirchir) — the press officer for the Kenyan Army – has been leading a Twitter war of words and propaganda against the KDF’s foes in southern Somalia, the militant Islamists of al-Shabaab. Major Chirchir developed a large following by tweeting both warnings and claims of victory to people on both sides of the Kenyan-Somali border.
Major Chirchir gained more than 10,000 followers in a short time. At the time of publication he had over 12,700 followers. His warning tweets of imminent attack on the al-Shabaab-controlled areas of Baidoa, Baadheere, Baydhabo, Dinsur, Afgoye, Bwale, Barawe, Jilib, Kismayo and Afmadow led residents in those places to flee from their houses (SomaliaReport, November 2).
However, al-Shabaab, which is battling forces of the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and peacekeeping troops of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in Mogadishu, has opened a Twitter account to challenge the KDF spokesman.
Al-Shabaab’s Twitter account is under the handle @HSMPress, the initials standing for the group’s full name, Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (Mujahideen Youth Movement). On December 7, its first tweet said in Arabic, "In the name of Allah the merciful and compassionate", a common Islamic invocation known as the Bismillah pronounced at the beginning of a new undertaking. Since then, a stream of tweets have followed in excellent English providing updates on al-Shabaab successes and issuing new threats to Kenya.
In response to the following Twitter from Major Chirchir: ”@HSMPress …life has more meaning than denying women to wear bras…RT [re-tweet] in support of Somalia women,” al-Shabaab replied: "@MajorEChirchir Like bombing donkeys, you mean! Your eccentric battle strategy has got animal rights groups quite concerned, Major." Al-Shabaab referred here to KDF assertions in November that militants were using large numbers of donkeys as transport for weapons and that large concentrations of the animals would henceforth be regarded as indications of “al-Shabaab activity” and therefore subject to Kenyan military action (BBC, November 4; Garowe Online, December 4).
Abdirahman Taysiir, a technology journalist at Somali-language Bar-Kulan Radio in Nairobi, said it seems that al-Shabaab understood the power of Major Chirchir’s tweets: “Now they want retaliatory tow they want retaliatory tatbecause it will the spread the militant’ twitter. p them gain some international ages reaches the weets.”  Taysiir noted that in the bloodless Twitter battle-ground the warriors are limited to weapons of 140 characters.
However, al-Shabaab’s adoption of Twitter is a sign that the group is embracing modern technology in the propaganda battle that accompanies the guerrilla war, the mine explosions and the suicide bombings. But the question is what their target audience is on Twitter. Is it the international community, foreign jihad sympathizers, or Somalis in the diaspora? Aside from the initial Arabic-language invocation, all Shabaab Twitter messages have been in English. Neither Twitter nor the English language is popular with southern Somalis. Local flight from areas about to be attacked by the KDF came only after some Somali media companies translated the messages into Somali. It has also been al-Shabaab policy to ban learning English and communicating in that language (Garowe Online, March 6, 2010; al-Arabiya, March 5, 2010).
Taysiir suggests al-Shabaab may just want to use Twitter as a “showcase space,” but the Shabaab Twitter message sent on December 7 had 4,000 followers, most of whom are understood to be journalists, analysts, aid workers or terrorism researchers.
However, @HSMPress (the Shabaab Press Office) tweeted “#KDF: An army without experience, clear strategy & objective is fragile to winds of resistance & slightest confrontation precipitates defeat.” This message initiated a Twitter exchange between al-Shabaab and Major Chirchir, who proposed a Twitter counter-offensive against al-Shabaab: ”#Operationlindanchi [i.e. Operation Linda Nchi, “Defend the Country,” the KDF operation in southern Somalia], With al-Shabab joining Twitter, let’s take fight to their doorstep, lets follow them for a week then un-follow.” However, as-Shabaab was undeterred by this and @HSMPress retweeted: ”Unable to foot the bill, the young & temperamental #KDF joins the fatigued & timid #AMISOM in a turbulent marriage of convenience.”
The Jamestown Foundation approached @HSMPress for comment but he/she neither wants to talk about their location nor the person behind the tweets. Al-Shabaab militants were initially uncomfortable about electronic communications and other “innovations,” banning television, music and sports. In some areas under al-Shabaab control using the internet can cost one’s life due to suspicions of espionage. Now it seems that al-Shabaab is looking for a new way of reaching and spreading its message internationally through Twitter, which has greater penetration internationally than the movement’s largely Arabic and Somali al-Qimmah website. “[Al-Shabaab] can use Twitter and other social platforms for recruiting and spreading their extremist ideologies,” said Elmi Abdi, an Information and Communications Technology student at Jomo Kenyatta University in Nairobi. 
Ibrahim Sheikh Hassan, a Nairobi –based political analyst and former professor at Mogadishu’s Strategy College, said that KDF efforts to engage al-Shabaab via Twitter will gain nothing and advised the KDF press team to avoid engaging in such communications because these efforts will only help spread the militants’ message. 
Muhyadin Ahmed Roble is a Nairobi-based analyst for The Jamestown Foundation’s publication Terrorism Monitor.
1. Author’s interview with Abdirahman Taysiir, Nairobi, December 15, 2011.
2. Author’s interview with Elmi Abdi, an ICT student at Jomo Kenyatta University, Nairobi, December 16, 2011
3. Author’s interview with political analyst Ibrahim Sheikh, Nairobi, December 15, 2011