Al-Shabaab’s History of ‘Social Media Terrorism’ Precedes Texas Shooter’s Online Ties

Ole Spata/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
Ole Spata/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

An April report in Kenya’s The Standard noted that the nation’s officials were preparing to crack down on terror warnings on social media meant to alarm–calling them “themselves terrorism in nature”–and warned that the jihadist group al-Shabaab had taken too strong a foothold on Twitter.

Elton Simpson, one of the terrorists who attempted to storm a “Draw Muhammad” contest in Garland, Texas, on May 3, is believed to have, at least, been partly inspired by a prominent American waging jihad with al-Shabaab in Somalia who is active on Twitter.

Kenyan officials alerted members of the public to the potential for chaos caused by terror warnings in the aftermath of the Garissa University attack, in which four al-Shabaab gunmen stormed the campus and killed 147 students, verifying that they were Christians before ending their lives. The attack occurred before the Easter holiday in early April, and authorities were quick to blame the promulgation of radical jihadist thought for the potential of such an attack. Kenyan law enforcement announced more thorough inspections of Islamist preachers following the attack.

Nearly a month later, Kenya’s The Standard reported that authorities were ready to move on a repeated threat appearing on social media: users posting warnings about upcoming attacks that never happened.

Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery described the posting as “in themselves terrorism in nature,” noting that most warnings claimed the attacks would happen on “roads, learning institutions, and other social joints.” Kenya’s security laws do not protect these tweets as free speech, The Standard explains: “The Security Laws Amendment Act (2014) makes it a criminal offence to use social or any other media for purposes of causing alarm and despondency among citizens and that anyone engaged in such activities is warned.”

Nkaissery concluded his statement calling the postings “social media terrorism” and noting that the instances of such warnings increased considerably in the wake of the Garissa attack.

The Standard did not note whether authorities believed these threats were coming specifically from al-Shabaab members, but there is no denying al-Shabaab’s command of social media. Long before ISIS was the biggest Islamist terror organization on social media–when they were still a subsidiary of al-Qaeda, in fact–al-Shabaab was already using Twitter to terrorize Kenyans. In 2013, al-Shabaab terrorists live-tweeted their attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, sparing no gory detail to entice jihadists or those sympathetic to the cause to join.

The UK Telegraph described their use of social media as “extraordinary running commentary,” unprecedented in the medium at the time. The newspaper notes that al-Shabaab has been active on Twitter “since September 2011,” adding:

At the time, the move onto Twitter was seen as an attempt to counter the widespread message of Kenya’s military spokesman Major Emmanuel Chirchir, who uses his own Twitter account to highlight the government forces’ success in battling Shabaab to his almost 50,000 followers.

The use of social media, at least in part, must have worked. Of the four gunmen involved in Garissa, one was the wealthy son of a Kenyan politician, educated in the field of law. The message, this proved, had gotten outside of those too desperate not to accept it to non-Somalis who had no overt reason to abandon their otherwise comfortable lives for jihad.

The attack on Garland’s Draw Muhammad contest this weekend, while an utter failure resulting in the deaths of only the jihadis involved, can be seen as another al-Shabaab success. Simpson, long before plotting the attack, had been arrested for telling an FBI informant that he wanted to “bounce” from the United States to Somalia to join the group. He was later convicted for lying to the FBI when he denied he had said this, despite audio tape evidence.

Five years later, Simpson was on Twitter networking with Mohamed Abduhallahi Hassan, an American who has joined al-Shabaab’s jihad in Somalia. Hassan is believed to be the first to begin tweeting that someone should attack the free speech event in Garland, after praising the attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. CNN describes Hassan today not as a high-ranking officer of any jihadist group, but as a “cheerleader” whose role in the organization is to attract like minds and convince them to act without clear directives from above.

Hassan is described as “tech-savvy” and has been accused of being behind the hacking of U.S. Central Command’s Twitter account earlier this year.

Despite the clear links to al-Shabaab–which is still technically an ally organization of its rival, al-Qaeda–the Islamic State has confused much of the media into thinking they orchestrated the attack in Garland. They plainly stated so in an audio recording this week and called for the killing of event organizer Pamela Geller in a written statement also claiming the jihadists as theirs. Islamic State actors clearly had some impact on Simpson, and there is evidence in direct messages to perceived allies on Twitter in which he claimed he wanted to leave to Syria, not Somalia as he did in 2010.

The Islamic State attempted to court al-Shabaab in March of this year, likely sensing that the group was gaining momentum both in Africa and abroad. There is no indication that al-Shabaab responded in the affirmative, however, unlike their West African counterparts Boko Haram, and they are still allied with al-Qaeda. While that has not stopped the Islamic State from taking credit and confusing law enforcement, it does not take away from the advances al-Shabaab has made in the past year as a terror group.

The Garissa attack, says one expert, is proof that al-Shabaab is a far more organized terror effort than previously believed. J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center for the Atlantic Council, said in August that al-Shabaab appeared to be “morphing more and more into a transnational regional terrorist organization,” not a ragtag group of insurgents, and that “intelligence capabilities,” not just airstrikes in Somalia, would be necessary to stop their spread.


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