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START Research Brief: Al-Shabaab's use of Twitter

Before account suspension, Jihadist group used social media to perpetuate its own telling of events
Before its account was suspended by Twitter Jan. 25, 2013, the Somali jihadist group al-Shabaab had been using Twitter actively -- sending about 1,250 tweets to its more than 20,000 followers since December 2011. The primary goal of the group's (@HSMPress) tweets had been to engage with English-speaking supporters and promote its own overarching narrative of current events, according to new analysis published by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) and the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR). In its tweets, the group frames invading East African forces and the Transitional Federal Government as Western proxies at war with Muslims in Somalia.


In the new START Research Brief, "Violent Jihadism in Real Time: Al-Shabaab's Use of Twitter," researchers outline the group's (@HSMPress) messaging priorities and illustrate how those priorities are carried out. In addition to trying to shape its followers' understanding of events, through its tweets, the group actively encourages the perception that it is ready and able to carry out operations against its enemies.

To date, al-Shabaab's messaging had not focused extensively on matters of strategy, religious authority, or its internal cohesion. Rather, it promoted a broad narrative bolstering its legitimacy and undermining competing sources of information about the group, and offered quick updates on operational capacity, incidents and outcomes to frame the actions on the ground before governments or news organizations had an opportunity to do so.

"Twitter offers a form of communication in which one can describe specific atrocities committed by the enemy, or tout operational successes in real-time, allowing followers to experience events as they unfold through the eyes of the organization," said James Sheehan, a START- and ICSR-affiliated researcher and editor of TheRiskyShift.com.

"And unlike traditional media, Twitter doesn't require an editorial process, so messages can be delivered in real-time."

Using an analytical tool from Topsy, which provides deep, comprehensive analyses of hundreds of billions of Tweets and web pages gathered from millions of unique websites, blogs and social media services, the researchers also evaluated the reach of al-Shabaab's Twitter account. Al-Shabaab's most prolific tweets included those about how Hurricane Sandy was a small fraction of the destruction the United States deserves, and how the horrors of 7/7 and 7/21 will be eclipsed by what is looming on Britain's shores. Such analysis shows that the group's cumulative exposure had grown over the past year.

The START Research Brief is part of a broader paper recently published by ICSR, "Lights, Camera, Jihad: Al-Shabaab's Western Media Strategy." The project was sponsored by the Office of University Programs within the Science and Technology Division of DHS.

To read the START Research Brief, which includes a link to the full ICSR report, visit: Violent Jihadism in Real Time: Al-Shabaab's Use of Twitter.