By AP / Jason Straziuso
(NAIROBI, Kenya) — The flagship Twitter account of al-Shabab, Somalia’s al-Qaida-linked terror group, was closed Friday for the second time this year, less than 24 hours after a U.S.-based terrorism expert reported violations of Twitter’s terms of service.
The closure comes only days after al-Shabab claimed a failed assassination attempt against Somalia’s president and tweeted that the next time the president wouldn’t be so lucky.
Al-Shabab uses Twitter mainly to make claims of enemy kills and to spread its view of events in Somalia and East Africa. A United Nations report on Somalia released last month said U.N. experts believe the person running the English-language account is a British member of al-Shabab.
Twitter in January suspended al-Shabab’s previous account two days after the group used the platform to announce a death threat against Kenyan hostages. Twitter’s terms of service says it does not allow specific threats of violence against others in its posts.
The extremists’ use of Twitter has upsides and downsides, say terrorism analysts. Analysts and governments can use the rebels’ Twitter postings to gather intelligence, but militants can use the accounts to spread propaganda and recruit fighters.
The closing of the account is likely to keep al-Shabab off Twitter only temporarily. Whoever ran the account can easily open another one.
J.M. Berger, the U.S.-based terrorism analyst who made several posts on Thursday about al-Shabab’s violations on Twitter, said in a post early Friday that “I’m sure Al Shabab will be back on Twitter, but maybe next time they’ll know they have to behave like civilized people to stay.”
Analysts debate whether society is better served by closing social media accounts and the messages they propagate or if it’s better to keep the accounts open so intelligence can be gathered. Berger argues that there is little intelligence of value to be mined from the accounts.
Berger wrote earlier this year, following the first Twitter closure, that closing the accounts strengthens intelligence gathering because experts can track who quickly follows the new Twitter account, and that they are often people with a connection or interest in al-Shabab or terrorism.
Meanwhile, a wanted American who moved from Alabama to Somalia to join al-Shabab resurfaced on Twitter on Friday. Omar Hammami was once an avid Twitter user who engaged in long Twitter conversations with U.S. terrorism experts when his Twitter handle suddenly went silent in May.
Hammami, who had a well-publicized falling-out with al-Shabab, reported earlier this year that he had survived an al-Shabab assassination attempt. He then disappeared from social media sites. Hammami on Friday took to Twitter to complain that Voice of America had publicized only a small portion of a 30-minute interview he gave. VOA says it will air a special news report on Hammami later Friday.