x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Al Shabaab offline

Al Shabaab used its now-defunct Twitter feed to make death threats. The social media site has some hard questions to answer about its own complicity.

Two days after Somalia's Al Shabaab militants announced a death threat against Kenyan hostages, the militants' Twitter account was suspended. And it was about time, too.

It is one of the ironies of Al Qaeda-related groups that, while preaching a political vision that is straight out of the Dark Ages, militants are also diligently polishing their social media skills to spread their obscurantist propaganda.

What is peculiar about Al Shabaab's case was that they were allowed to operate as long as they were. According to Foreign Policy blogger Joshua Keating, the group launched its account in 2011 and earlier this month used the platform to announce its intention to kill a French hostage - and then tweeted that the murder had been committed. The more recent messages threatened the Kenyan government with the execution of several captured soldiers: "All the Kuffar Kenyan prisoners who appeared in the recent video will be executed," read the final tweet.

Keating describes the feed as "obnoxious and occasionally horrifying". It was also a tool of terrorism and, almost incidentally, a violation of Twitter's policy. It's a sober reminder of the dark side of social media and a wake-up call for Twitter, which facilitated death threats, however unknowingly.