Something popular protest movements have learned in the last year is that Twitter is an excellent medium for offering whoever wants it your unvarnished message. While that may please Western government when it comes to anti-totalitarian demonstrators, what happens when designated terrorist groups create Twitter accounts?
Al-Shabab, the fundamentalist Islamic group ruling most of southern Somalia, began tweeting its worldview this week under the handle "@HSMPress." Their self-written bio states: "Harakat Al-Shabaab Al Mujahideen is an Islamic movement that governs South & Cen. Somalia & part of the global struggle towards the revival of Islamic Khilaafa."
They join the likes of the Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as many other media-savvy Muslim fundamentalists using 140 characters at a time to push for a strict global Islamic caliphate.
Al-Shabab's big unveiling to the twitterverse happened Tuesday, when they engaged in a social network back-and-forth with Al Jazeera's Nazanine Moshiri, who conducted what was later dubbed a "twinterview" with them.
@HSMPress told Moshiri they established their Twitter account so that it can act like a virtual embassy, much like America's now-blocked virtual embassy in Iran. The Somali group also complained about their portrayal in the media, writing: "Most of it is propaganda masqueraded as objectivity, thus precluding the possibility of obtaining anything impartial."
The Islamic movement also seemed to needle Moshiri a bit for conducting such a lengthy interview over Twitter, dubbing it a "twinterview."
Moshiri shot back: "well it certainly isn't that easy or safe for me to come and interview you face to face is it?"
Some in the U.S. Congress have already taken notice of terrorist groups on Twitter. The most well-known English-language terrorist Twitter account at the moment may be the Abdulqahar Balkhi account (@ABalkhi), which is allegedly run by a Taliban member in Afghanistan.
The alleged Taliban Twitter account has a decidedly anti-American and anti-Israel view of world events. Two sample headlines from the account include "ISAF terrorists martyr civilian, detain 3" and "AIDS, American democracy's exclusive gift!!!"
In September, Balkhi exchanged Tweets with a NATO account during a battle in Afghanistan, reports The Hill newspaper. That exchange led to a hearing on Capitol Hill, where experts told lawmakers there is not yet definitive proof that terrorists' social media activity is a cause for concern.
After some members of Congress recently urged Twitter to stop hosting pro-Taliban tweets, Twitter executives "told lawmakers that the micro-posts do not violate the website's terms of service because the Taliban is not listed by the State Department as a foreign terrorist organization. That designation would make it illegal to provide 'material support or resources' to the militant group," The Los Angeles Times reports.
On February 29, 2008, the U.S. Government designated al-Shabab as a foreign terrorist organization.