Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Are mass murderers using Twitter as a tool?

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
September 27, 2013 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
A woman shouts during a special prayer at the Legio Maria African Mission church in Nairobi, Kenya, on Sunday, September 29, for the victims of the Westgate Shopping Mall shooting. A woman shouts during a special prayer at the Legio Maria African Mission church in Nairobi, Kenya, on Sunday, September 29, for the victims of the Westgate Shopping Mall shooting.
HIDE CAPTION
Kenya mourns mall shooting victims
Kenya mourns mall shooting victims
Kenya mourns mall shooting victims
Kenya mourns mall shooting victims
Kenya mourns mall shooting victims
Kenya mourns mall shooting victims
Kenya mourns mall shooting victims
Kenya mourns mall shooting victims
Kenya mourns mall shooting victims
Kenya mourns mall shooting victims
Kenya mourns mall shooting victims
Kenya mourns mall shooting victims
Kenya mourns mall shooting victims
Kenya mourns mall shooting victims
Kenya mourns mall shooting victims
Kenya mourns mall shooting victims
Kenya mourns mall shooting victims
Kenya mourns mall shooting victims
Kenya mourns mall shooting victims
Kenya mourns mall shooting victims
Kenya mourns mall shooting victims
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Peter Bergen: Kenya was first major attack in which terrorists provided Twitter commentary
  • Terrorism has always been about theater, but use of social media takes it further, he says
  • Bergen says Al-Shabaab's tweets were a way for the group to shape media coverage

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad."

(CNN) -- It was the first major terrorist attack in history in which the group that mounted the operation used Twitter to announce to the world it was responsible.

The group then quickly tweeted what its rationale was for the attack and also gave operational details of the assault -- all in real time.

On Saturday a group of armed gunmen stormed the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, shooting at shoppers and mall staff with automatic weapons, killing at least 61 civilians.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

Several hours into the assault a Twitter account used by the Somali terrorist group Al-Shabaab tweeted: "The Mujahideen ('holy warriors') entered Westgate mall today at around noon and they are still inside the mall, fighting the Kenyan kuffar ('infidels') inside their own turf."

It was the first confirmation that the attack was the work of Al-Shabaab, and journalists around the world quickly reported this.

The terrorist group soon provided a tweeted explanation of its motives: "What Kenyans are witnessing at #Westgate is retributive justice for crimes committed by their military." The Kenyan army is part of a larger U.N.-sanctioned peacekeeping operation that has recently been fighting Al-Shabaab with much success, for instance, a year ago expelling the group from one of its last strongholds, the Somali port city of Kismayo.

Aftermath of Nairobi mall siege
Official: Mall attack highly coordinated

As the attack on the Nairobi mall unfolded, Al-Shabaab tweeted, "Since our last contact, the Mujahideen inside the mall confirmed to @HSM_Press that they killed over 100 Kenyan kuffar." HSM_Press is the name that Al-Shabaab has used as its Twitter handle.

Crucially, Al-Shabaab then explained in a tweet that the mall attack was going to be a fight to the death in which there would be no negotiations for the lives of the hostages the gunmen had taken: "We'll not negotiate with the Kenyan govt as long as its forces are invading our country, so reap the bitter fruits of your harvest #Westgate." This key aspect of the assault on the mall was then reported around the globe.

A day into the Nairobi assault, Al-Shabaab tweeted that three Americans were involved in the attack. Since 2007 some 40 Americans have traveled to Somalia to fight with Al-Shabaab, including at least three who volunteered to become suicide bombers for the group, so this claim is not implausible and the FBI is looking into it.

Indeed, whoever was live tweeting the Nairobi attack for Al-Shabaab has a command of colloquial English with a sardonic edge that you might pick up somewhere such as London or Minneapolis.

During the massacre, for instance, Al-Shabaab tweeted, "Like it or loathe it! our mujahideen confirmed all executions were point blank range!" The group also wrote, "#Westgate: a 14-hour standoff relayed in 1400 rounds of bullets and 140 characters of vengeance and still ongoing. Good morning Kenya!"

At one point during the mall siege, responding to media speculation that British-born Samantha Lewthwaite -- whom Kenyan authorities suspect of being a financier of jihadist militants in Kenya -- was part of the operation, Al-Shabaab took to Twitter to deny that a woman had any role: "We have an adequate number of young men who are fully committed & we do not employ our sisters in such military operations #Westgate."

(On Thursday, Interpol issued a red notice -- an international wanted alert -- for Lewthwaite.)

According to an authoritative study of Al-Shabaab's use of social media by the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, the group has been active on Twitter since December 2011, sending out a steady stream of tweets to at one point more than 15,000 followers that has included a good number of journalists and terrorism analysts.

Al-Shabaab's Twitter account first used the handle @HSMPress, an acronym based on the group's full official name, Harakat Al-Shabaab Al Mujahideen (Movement of the Holy Warrior Youth).

Since then Al-Shabaab has used other Twitter accounts with some slight variations on the same name such as @HSMPRESS1, @HSM_PressOffice, @HSM_PROffice and the current @HSM_PR.

Al-Shabaab seems to change the name of its Twitter account as it gets taken down, likely because the account is in violation of Twitter's terms of service, which explicitly explains that users cannot "publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others."

It's impossible to tell definitively if all the tweets on Al-Shabaab's purported accounts are really from the group, but the tone and content of the tweets have generally been consistent over the past two years, and information that the group has tweeted about the Nairobi mall attack, such as its responsibility for the assault and its unwillingness to negotiate for the release of hostages, has, unfortunately, proved to be accurate.

An analyst who has tracked Al-Shabaab's Twitter feed carefully is J.M. Berger, the author of a book about Americans fighting overseas for groups such Al-Shabaab titled "Jihad Joe." Berger has filed a number of reports with Twitter that Al-Shabaab is in violation of its terms of service.

Twitter doesn't comment on why it suspends a particular account -- a representative told CNN, "we don't comment on individual Twitter accounts, for security and privacy reasons" -- but clearly Al-Shabaab is egregiously violating those terms of service, and during the Nairobi attack the group had to use five different Twitter handles as its account kept getting taken down, presumably by Twitter employees.

Since Tuesday, Al-Shabaab has tweeted at its newest site and, as of this writing, it had more than 5,000 followers and had tweeted some 40 times.

Berger says that Al-Shabaab militants have also taken to Twitter in recent weeks during other smaller-scale operations: "They have also tweeted bombing attacks on Mogadishu and attempts to assassinate Somalia's president within the last several weeks."

On Wednesday Al-Shabaab posted via Twitter audio of a short speech by its leader Mukhtar Abu Zubayr, crowing over the attacks and congratulating the "holy warriors" who carried out the Nairobi operation. He gloated, "The attack has also glaringly illuminated the sheer vulnerability of the different sections of the Kenyan forces, be they police, intelligence or the military. ... It's a disaster for the Western politicians and their intelligence apparatuses who have miserably failed to save their own citizens. "

Abu Zubayar also goes by the name Ahmed Abdi Godane, and a U.S. official has told CNN the belief is he ordered the Nairobi operation. The fact that on Wednesday Al-Shabaab posted to Twitter a speech by Abu Zubayar taking ownership of the operation would seem to confirm that belief.

In 1974 terrorism analyst Brian Jenkins wrote an influential paper for Rand in which he made a key observation in the then-fledgling field of terrorism studies. "Terrorism is theater," Jenkins wrote, explaining that the real point of a terrorist attack is not the violence that is visited on its victims but the large number of people watching the event that serves to advertise the terrorists' cause.

A decade later British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gave a speech in which she made a similar point, declaring that terrorists depend on "the oxygen of publicity."

Nothing had underlined this better than the Munich Olympics in 1972 during which 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists. All the Israelis were killed either by the hostage takers or during the course of a botched rescue operation.

The hostage-taking was covered by TV networks from around the world who came to cover the games but ended up providing coverage of a terrorist event that unfolded before the first truly global audience for such an attack. More than any other single event, it brought the Palestinian cause to the world's attention.

On 9/11 untold hundreds of millions around the world watched the attacks as they happened in New York and near Washington on live television. Osama bin Laden himself listened to live coverage of the attacks on BBC Arabic radio in his hideout in Afghanistan.

The 9/11 attacks, which took place in the city that is many ways the capital of global media, thrust bin Laden and his terrorist group al Qaeda onto the world stage in a spectacular manner.

But in neither the Munich Olympics hostage-taking nor on 9/11 did the terrorists have actual control over the content of the coverage, which was instead determined by those media networks covering the event.

So what we saw unfold in the attack on the mall in Kenya is something quite new: a terrorist group shaping the media coverage of the event in real time through the medium of Twitter.

The next logical step will be for terrorists to cover their deadly operations using their own real-time live video feeds linked to sites such as Twitter, Facebook or YouTube.

If that happens, terrorist attacks will become a form of theater in which terrorists not only get to write the play but also act as the primary producers of the coverage of the event.

A dark glimpse of this brave new world could already be seen in Al-Shabaab's assault on the Nairobi mall.

Unfortunately, that may not be the end of Shabaab's terror attacks outside Somalia. On Thursday Shabaab posted the following chilling tweet: "The mesmeric performance by the #Westgate Warriors was undoubtedly gripping, but despair not folks, that was just the première of Act 1."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT