Your new Twitter friend, al-Shabaab

Al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda linked Somali terrorist group, best known for stoning teenage girlsblowing up soccer fans, and blocking food aid to their starving countrymen, is now on Twitter. You can talk to them if you like.

SLATE  Al-Shabaab’s handle is HSMPress, HSM being the initials of al-Shabaab’s formal moniker. No one knows for certain that HSMPress—which has about 6,000 followers—speaks for al-Shabaab; the account holder’s identity is a mystery.  

I tweeted at HSMPress and emailed [email protected] asking if the feed was genuine, and I got a polite reply affirming that it was. HSMPress has on several occasions tweeted what seems to be evidence of its authenticity, such as the identification cards of enemies killed in action and an audio clip of a captured Burundian soldier. If it’s not al-Shabaab, it does a very good al-Shabaab impression.

The U.S government seems to be taking the terrorist Twitter account seriously. The New York Times, citing anonymous American officials, reported this week that the U.S government was looking into shutting it down. I talked with a State Department spokeswoman who wouldn’t confirm that outright, but told me, “We are looking closely at the facts of this situation to determine what the appropriate next steps might be.”

Since its inaugural tweet in Arabic on Dec. 7—which read, simply and piously, “In the name of Allah”—HSMPress has tweeted almost exclusively in English. (It does have an Arabic counterpart,  HSMPress_arabic.) The first few tweets were updates about successful suicide bombings, with dates and casualty counts, plus a generic call to jihad from the group’s military spokesman. But then things started to get interesting.

On the evening of Dec. 7, HSMPress tweeted a link to a BBC article about Kenya sending troops to join the African Union forces battling al-Shabaab for control of Somalia’s lawless capital, Mogadishu. It kept up the taunts in successive tweets, each one more gleeful and grandiloquent than the last. Kenya’s military operation in Somalia—launched in response to a spate of attacks by Somali bandits on Kenyan soil this fall—was “extravagant but wretched,” devolving into a “thorny quagmire.” The Somali government militia was “feeble,” perhaps because its members were “intoxicated” from their “excessive Qaat sessions”—a reference to a leaf chewed as a stimulant by many in Somalia.

HSMPress is using Twitter the way social media experts have always advised—not just broadcasting, but engaging in conversation. Spend some time following the account, and you realize that you’re dealing with a real human being with real ideas—albeit boastful, hypocritical, violent ideas.

J.M. Berger, author of Jihad Joe, a book about U.S.-born jihadists, says HSMPress’ tone is consistent with his experiences interviewing terrorists. Their public statements may be venomous and grandiose, but they tend to subscribe to the normal rules of polite human interaction. “You can have a very civil conversation with someone whose stated goal is to see you dead,” he says.