START: Al Shabaab mostly used Twitter to spin its narrative of events

Account was recently suspended after about 1,250 tweets
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Al Shabaab has used Twitter largely to promote its preferred narrative of world events, research out of the University of Maryland says.

The university's National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism released interim findings (.pdf) about the group's use of Twitter shortly after the website suspended al-Shabaab's account, @HSMPress, on Jan. 25.

The terrorist group's English-language account had tweeted about 1,250 times and accumulated 20,000 followers since its December 2011 launch. Researchers at START broke down several months of tweets into seven categories, and found that a plurality tried to promote a narrative where Western powers and proxies are at war with Muslims in Somalia.

The next most common type of tweet, the researchers say, had al-Shabaab trying to show that its members are serious warriors who can effectively execute attacks.

Many tweets sought to portray al-Shabaab as the only reliable source of information. Some sought to promote al-Shabaab's cohesion as a group, and some claimed that the group was doing what God wanted.

Relatively few tweets, meanwhile, focused on the group's relevance and strategic competence.

Strategy may have been an uncommon topic, the researchers say, because the objective of the tweets seemed to be more to connect with Muslims around the world who may know nothing about militant strategy.

If al Shabaab starts a new Twitter account and Twitter doesn't remove it, future studies should look at how the group's messaging changes as the group itself evolves, the START researchers say. They also say to look at the group's messaging related to specific events, in order to get a sense of its strategy.

For more:
- download the research brief, "Violent Jihadism in Real Time: Al-Shabaab's Use of Twitter" (.pdf)

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