Brow Beat

Follow Friday: Terrorists Who Tweet

The Twitter avatar used by the Harakat Al-Shabaab Al Mujahideen.

If you follow just one terrorist on Twitter, make it @HSMPress.

As I wrote in a recent Slate piece, the Somali Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab runs by far the most interesting social media feed in the insurgency industry. With breaking news about suicide bombings and useful insights into al-Shabaab’s thinking on, for instance, its new alliance with al-Qaida and British companies’s quest for Somali oil, it’s a must-follow for anyone who cares about Somalia and its tragic, unending civil war.

And you needn’t be an expert on East African affairs to find @HSMPress’s tweets fascinating—and even, sometimes, darkly funny. For the full surrealist effect, you’ll want to follow two related accounts as well: @MajorEChirchir and @AskAlShabaab.

@MajorEChirchir is Emmanuel Chirchir, the official spokesman for Kenya’s military. He’s been tweeting engagingly for years, but in @HSMPress, he found his bête noir. The two squabble, taunt, and one-up each other like the best of frenemies. And the huge gap between their accounts of various battles can read like unintentional satire of military propaganda. In the world of @HSMPress, the Kenyan Army is in a permanent state of being routed and demoralized, while in @MajorEChirchir’s eyes al-Shabaab is forever on the verge of disintegration. Try to reconcile the two, and you’re left with a picture of a war in which both sides are continually retreating in disarray—which might not be so far from the truth. When @MajorEChirchir boasted that his army had its sights set on taking the city of Kismayo, a Shabaab stronghold, @HSMPress sneered:

In another classic exchange, @MajorEChirchir chided al-Shabaab for its treatment of women, only for @HSMPress to retort by making fun of the major’s warning that his forces would target large caravans of animals, since they might be transporting weapons for the militants:

But if @HSMPress’s goal is to use the equalizing power of social media to level the PR playing field with legitimate governments, then it has an even better nemesis in @AskAlShabaab.

Part of Twitter’s appeal is the opportunity it affords to interact directly with people you’d never meet in real life, as when fans get a thrill from tweeting at their favorite celebrities. After I wrote about @HSMPress, a witty Slate reader started @AskAlShabaab as a way of applying the same concept to monstrous terrorists. Tweeting in the voice of an over-enthusiastic tween, @AskAlShabaab asks @HSMPress questions that range from inane to insulting to really awkward. All come studded with a  profusion of punctuation marks, mainly exclamation points. The inaugural tweet:

In the weeks since, @AskAlShabaab has built up a rich fantasy relationship with @HSMPress, whom he chummily refers to as “Al.” Like any smitten teen, @AskAlShabaab gets a little peevish about the relationship’s one-sidedness now and then, but usually bounces back soon enough. Some of his questions play cleverly off of trending Twitter topics: “Do you support online piracy, or just real piracy?” Others are based on dumb puns. And if making light of a brutal conflict strikes you as juvenile, note that certain of @AskAlShabaab’s tweets are not without a streak of moral outrage:

There’s a good chance, of course, that @HSMPress has blocked the account. But even that would mean whoever’s behind it is aware of the parody and was irked enough to take steps to make it stop. The image of a deadly serious insurgent sitting in a bunker somewhere in the desert, exasperatedly being forced to confront tweets like this every time he opens his timeline, gladdens my heart.