After a four-day standoff, the Kenyan military took down as many as fifteen heavily armed Islamist militants after a gruesome attack at a shopping mall in Nairobi, leaving at least 69 killed in the deadliest terrorist attack in the country in fifteen years. Somalia’s al-Shabab militia, a terrorist organization linked to al-Qaida, claimed responsibility for the attack, which was committed in retaliation for Kenya sending troops to fight in Somalia, insurgents said. The horrific event played out inside the shopping mall and on Twitter, as both the insurgency and Kenyan government utilized the social networking site to associate with the public. As shown by the massacre in Nairobi, the rise of Twitter as a primary means of communication emboldens terrorist organizations to spread their message, and ultimately, become more powerful.
While the attack was occurring, al-Shabab frequently tweeted from its account, which was later disabled, declaring its motivations for the shooting. “There is no way that you, the Kenyan public, could possibly endure a prolonged war in Somalia and you cannot also withstand a war of attrition inside your own country,” according to an al-Shabab Twitter feed in English. “So make your choice today and withdraw all your forces . . . [or] be prepared for an abundance of blood that will be spilt in your country, economic downfall and displacement” (Raghavan). Analysts say the attack was an attempt for the al-Shabab leader Admed Abdi Godane to establish legitimacy in the global jihad and make his organization more influential (Raghavan).
As the days wore on, there was confusion about what exactly was happening inside the mall. Via Twitter, al-Shabab and the Kenyan government reported different stories. The militia tweeted it was still holding hostages inside, who were “looking quite disconcerted but nevertheless, alive.” Another tweet said: “Mujahideen are still holding their ground #westgate,” as the Kenyan military attempted to invade the area (Ragahavan).
Kenyan government officials tweeted an opposite development, saying they had information that all hostages had been released. “We’re very near the end,” Kenya’s Interior Ministry’s account released.
The divisive twitter conversation between al-Shabab and Kenyan officials continued. “One more terrorist of the Westgate siege has been gunned down, bringing the death toll of these terrorists to three, Kenya Secretary of Communication Manoah Esipisu tweeted.
Al-Shabab rapidly replied. “None of the Mujahids is dead … Everything under control,” the militia said.
Tweets progressed, as al-Shabab disputed the government’s claim it had seized control of the mall. The insurgents later identified several of the gunmen as American, heightening FBI attention to the case. The next day, al-Shabab denied sending the earlier messages. Nevertheless, the point had been made: Twitter is now a critical tool for terrorists to operate swiftly and effectively, an action that expands their reach and empowers future attacks. Before the explosion of the Internet, terrorist organization were highly secretive, operating inside closed doors in distant locations across the world. While that phenomenon has not entirely ended — secrecy is critical for planning and executing attacks — the fact that terrorist groups have embraced the Internet as a means of enhancing their missions shows a recognition of the importance of online connectivity. Without social media, terrorist groups are illegimate.
An estimated 90 percent of terrorist activity on the Internet is using social networking tools (Weimann 19). This interactivity transcends international borders and security safeguards, as the Internet provides easy access to information and enhances connectivity. Indeed, “Post-modern terrorists are taking advantage of the fruits of globalization and modern technology — especially advanced online communication technologies that are used to plan, coordinate and execute their deadly campaigns” (Weimann 45).
Twitter and other social media platforms are use for both communicative and instrumental purposes. The 2008 Mumbai shooting and bombings were perhaps one of the first terrorist attacks that utilized social media to execute a plan. An interception of terrorists’ phone conversations by the Indian government revealed the insurgency collected situational information on the ground through live media and websites. This information was used to make decisions of the exact locations to conduct their attacks, and how to identify specific targets. In the late 1990s, al-Qaida operated on only one website, but today the group has a multifaceted online presence, hosting forums and chatrooms that no doubt spill over to Twitter handles (Oh 34).
The U.S. Military quickly identified the danger of terrorists on Twitter, releasing an intelligence report in 2008 that stated the Army’s concern over the use of online networking. The report says that Twitter could become a forceful coordination tool for terrorist aiming to pull off attacks. Instant updates could prove to be dangerously consequential for national security. The report highlights three potential scenarios of terrorist usage. The Army reasoned situations where terrorist could receive real-time updates on troops’ movements to conduct ambushes, send images of operatives equipped with explosive devices to other operatives to coordinate simultaneous detonations, and cyber terrorists could hack into a soldier’s’ account and communicate with other soldiers under the stolen identity (22). The possibilities are endless for terrorists to take advantage of Twitter to elevate their efforts.
Oh, Onook, Manish Agrawal, and H. Raghav Rao. Information Control and Terrorism: Tracking the Mumbai Terrorist Attack through Twitter. Emmitsburg, MD: National Emergency Training Center, 2011. Print.
Raghavan, Sudarsan. “Al-Shabab Leader’s Ambitions Appear to Be as Complex as His Personality.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 26 Sept. 2013. Web. 27 Sept. 2013.
Raghavan, Sudarsan. “Gunmen Who Stormed Kenya Mall Reportedly Spoke English, Were from Different Countries.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 24 Sept. 2013. Web. 27 Sept. 2013.
Weimann, Gabriel. “Terror on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube.” Brown Journal of World Affairs (2010): n. pag. Print.
Weimann, Gabriel. “Terrorist Facebook: Terrorists and Online Networking.” Web Intelligence and Security: Advances in Data and Text Mining Techniques for Detecting and Preventing Terrorist Activities on the Web. Ed. Mark Last. By Abraham Kandel. Amsterdam: IOS, 2010. N. pag. Print.