(Special to Middle East Online)
TUNIS - Tweeting their way through their assault on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, “Al Shabab” terrorists were clearly seeking propaganda dividends from their murderous attack.
After crushing defeats on the ground, the group wanted to show that news of its demise were slightly exaggerated. It could have calculated, also, that a “spectacular operation”, could improve its chances of attracting new recruits. The Nairobi attack “will be a great shot in the propaganda arm to show that al-Shabab is a vibrant militant group,” commented Mark Schroeder, senior analyst at Stratfor, the global terrorism research firm.
During the attack itself, “al Shabab” considered maintaining its Twitter channel of communication a vital matter. Despite the cancellation of its account many times by the Twitter Company, the terrorist group kept on coming up with new variations on its Twitter handle, @HSMPress, (which referred to the group’s official name, “Harakat al Shabab al Mujahideen”). Firing off tweets was important even when its fighters were dodging the bullets of the Kenyan anti terror squads.
Al Shabaab’s Case
Throughout the years, “Al Shabab” has fought a particularly “sophisticated” propaganda war. More than other affiliates of the Al Qaeda franchise, the group has demonstrated in its uses of social media a level of colloquial fluency in English and constant willingness to interact with non-Jihadi audiences.
In a taunting message to Kenya's army spokesman, Major Emmanuel Chirchir, Al Shabab’s tweets even displayed an eerie sense of humour. “Your boys are a grotesque parody of an army! They can outpace our world-class runners by far. Indeed, they ‘Run like a Kenyan,’” said one particular tweet.
The English language colloquialism of al “Shabab” tweets is a reflection of the crucial role of the “Muhajirun”, the contingent of western Jihadists within its ranks. (The word “Muhajiroun”, meaning “emigrants” in Arabic, refers to Prophet Mohamed’s followers who migrated with him from Mecca to Medina). Intelligence sources estimate the total number of “al Shabab” fighters hailing from the United States at about 50. The largest contingent of them was constituted by Somali immigrants and American converts to Islam, from the US state of Minnesota.
One of al Shabaab’s best known figures was Syrian-American Jihadist and Albama native, Omar Hammami. The former Baptist was the author of video messages and rap songs, such as “Make Jihad with Me” and “Send me a Cruise”. Eventually, it was not a US cruise missile which granted him his death-wish but the bullets of al “Shabab” hitmen (who executed him after he defiantly alienated himself from the Somali leadership of the group).
The United States government paid attention at the “Shabab” propaganda, not because it carried incitement to carry out acts of terror in the US, but because of its focus at recruiting Jihadists among US based Somalis and Moslem converts. The group even produced a video, entitled "The Path to Paradise," glorifying the martyrdom of recruits from Minnesota.
The case of Somalia’s “Shabab al Mujahideen” has also shown that, in terms of propaganda, local is also global. The “diversification” of AQ affiliates has let to the diversification of the sources of propaganda without constraining its scope or impact. A recent United Nations report noted that the growing sophistication of terrorist propaganda along the continuing trend towards the “localization of al-Qaeda affiliates”. Al Shabab’s propaganda is a case in point. Its target audience well beyond Somalia or even the US-based Somali migrant communities. Its English language tweets and videos are aimed at global audiences, including world Moslems. In an email to “al Shabab” specialist Will Oremus, talks about target audiences without geographic barriers: “Muslims in the West have been inundated with a barrage of derogatory material—often by journalists with a blinkered perspective of Islam—and Islamic Shari’ah law is often portrayed as anachronistic and needing reform—so much so that this derogatory view of Islam has become deeply entrenched in their minds.”
Within the Al Qaeda’s franchise, the propaganda efforts of the regional affiliates can also become a case of the tail wagging the dog. A few days after the Nairobi attack and the notoriety gained by the “al Shabab” tweets during that event, “Shumukh al-Islam”, the Al Qaeda Central’s flagship website, opened an account on Twitter.
The diversification of affiliates has also helped diversify the terrorist tools of communication. If password protected forums constitute “private” mobilization and coordination venues for the secretive Jihadist operators, the more open tweets can widen the scope of terrorist propaganda and add another recruitment channel. Terrorism Expert Aaron Zelin noted that “the newer technologies lowered the bar for participation, making the involvement of low-level or non-jihadis in the online conversation a new feature of the global jihadi movement.”
This type of interaction between the general public and “Shabab”-type social media propaganda raises novel questions. Experts are in fact in disagreement whether the interactive use of social media, such as Twitter or Facebook, will push terrorist groups to “moderate” their stands (as they reach out to non Jihadi-audiences), or if at the opposite such new channels will allow terrorists to widen their base of recruitment and influence. The latter alternative sounds more realistic. “Moderation” and terrorism are a contradiction in terms.
Countering Terrorists’ Propaganda
Since the Twin Tower attacks, Western governments and several private institutions have kept track of Al Qaeda’s propaganda and tried to devise counter communication strategies to blunt its impact.
In the United States, countering radicalization and extremist propaganda has been one of the objectives of state-sponsored international broadcasting and internet counter-propaganda efforts, such as those of the State Department’s “Digital Outreach Team” or the Pentagon’s “information operations”. An annual budget of about $750 million is allocated to radio and television programs supervised by the congressionally-mandated Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). For the fiscal year 2014, official documents show that American BBG broadcasting objectives include supporting “critical initiatives to counter violent extremism”, targeting young audiences in “the Trans-Sahel region of Africa” and providing “deeper, on-the ground coverage in the critical Maghreb region.”
Also, as congressional hearings and news reports have revealed, a lot the US counter-propaganda effort is carried out by the Pentagon and its subcontractors. The US Defense Department does “sponsor” international news websites; create radio and television material and work to influence social media and internet content.
Similar objectives are pursued by government-sponsored programs in Europe. France Médias Monde, the French external communication outfit, plans for next year to develop a broadcasting program in Bambara, a language with “strategic importance” in Mali, where France is involved in a war against Jihadist formations.
But more than television broadcasting, it is the internet that provides the most cost efficient tool of propaganda, incitement, organization and recruitment. “In many ways, the terrorists are very successful in cyberspace,” said counter-terrorism analyst Rohan Gunaratna, who heads the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore. There are more than 10,000 Islamic Extremist websites on the Internet compared to fewer than 100 countering them.”
Still an Uphill Battle, But Why?
But winning the hearts and minds is another matter. And it is legitimate to enquire today whether counter propaganda efforts have adequately addressed the problem?
Not according to the results a recent Pew Global Attitudes Project survey on the perception of extremist groups in the region, released last month.
The Pew pollsters seem themselves satisfied that “across 11 Muslim publics surveyed, a median of 67% say they are somewhat or very concerned about Islamic extremism,” and that “half or more of Muslims in most countries surveyed say that suicide bombing and other acts of violence that target civilians can never be justified in the name of Islam.” But looking closely at some of the survey details, one finds reason to worry. The percentage of those who still think suicide bombings can be at least “sometimes justified” varies between 12% in Tunisia and Jordan, 25% in Egypt and 33% in Lebanon.
It might also seem comforting that “a median of 57% across the 11 Muslim public surveyed hold an unfavourable view” of Al Qaeda. But certain aspects of the poll results provide reason for concern. For instance, the percentage of those of hold a favourable view of the Al Qaeda is still too high in many parts of the region. It goes from 13% in Jordan, to 15% in Tunisia, 20% in Egypt 23% in Indonesia and 35% in the Palestinian territories. Also, the rate of support for the Taliban is no less than 12% in Pakistan, 13% in Tunisia, 23% in Malaysia and 28% in Egypt.
Such pro-Taliban and pro-Al Qaeda “segments” of the population might be small in terms of percentages. But in real numbers, these are millions of potential sympathizers who are receptive to the terrorists’ propaganda.
What Role for Arabs and Moslems?
The West has reason to fear terrorism. But the daily body count shows that this scourge is more of a threat to the Arab and Moslem world. The car bombs, the suicide-attacks, the hostage-taking operations and the traumatizing assassinations are more a security problem for Arabs and Moslems than for Europeans and Americans. Combating propaganda manifestations of terrorism should therefore be more their concern than that of others.
In terms of counter-propaganda strategies, there have been little or no indigenous strategies encompassing the Arab and Moslem regions. A "unified legislation against cybercrime," was adopted by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in December. The legislation targets those who "create sites and publish information on the Internet or a computer network for the benefit of a terrorist group to enable contacts among its leaders or its members, to promote its views or funding."
In the Maghreb, there has been an increasing awareness of the terrorist abuse of the Internet. According to the news website, “Tout sur l’Algérie”, the Electronic Security Centre of the Algerian Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS), has warned the Algerian government last month that "terrorist organizations are using advanced technologies to plan and execute terrorist operations such as the attack carried out last January on the Tiguentourine gas plant at In Amenas in the wilaya of Illizi, chiefly using the internet to communicate."
To stem internet recruitment activities, Algerian authorities have been trying since 2011 to implement a ban on minors in internet cafés. According to Algerian journalist Aymen Mendjer: "Terrorist propaganda is chiefly targeted at that age group. Adolescents often end up as the victims of jihadist websites and forums."
But the problem of dissemination of terrorist propaganda remains largely unaddressed in the Maghreb. Spokesmen for the al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) continue to use the Internet to publish their communiqués and videos. Their messages often find their way to local and regional media.
In many countries of the region, the anti-terrorism narrative is confused because of the insufficient awareness of the elites (including the media) about the relevance of the terrorist threat to their own countries and the temptation of some of the elites to spin terrorist events through their own ideological and sectarian prisms. Turbulent transitions have led to even more violent and intolerant trends in society and politics. The situation is also complicated by a multifaceted legacy. From the authoritarian past, there is the suspicion of any anti-terrorism strategy as indiscriminately targeting all Islamists, violent or nonviolent. Conservative fringes even misconstrue the fight against terrorism as a “threat to Islam” itself. Another legacy from decades of authoritarian rule is the lack of any tradition of public debates about national security issues. Excessive uses of hard power by foreign powers has led Western actions to be perceived, by large fringes of public opinion, as “neo-colonialist acts of aggression” (a perception kept alive at least partly by unpopular US and western policies in the Middle East).
This confusion is often reflected in the uneven attitude of the region’s media towards terrorism. When regional television channels air unedited terrorist propaganda or broadcast raw video footage of bloodshed, they unwittingly play in the hands of terrorists. At times, the battle is even lost on the semantics front, well before any pictures are shown. As TV presenters systematically place the adjective “so-called” before the word “terrorism”, a blur is cast in the minds of viewers about who is the victim and who is the aggressor.
Countering anti-terrorist propaganda requires first and foremost involvement of Arabs and Moslems themselves. Not only of their governments but also of civil society, academics, religious institutions, and the media. The counter-propaganda effort in the region is today still too fragmented, too confused, and too western in origin. Arabs and Moslems must eventually claim ownership of the awareness-building process if they want to deprive terrorists of any constituencies in their midst.
Oussama Romdhani is a Tunisian international media analyst.