Somalia's al-Shabab militants rebrand

Want a play-by-play of the battles al-Shabab militants are waging today with Kenyan forces in southern Somalia and Somali troops in Mogadishu? Look no further than al-Shabab's Twitter feed, which launched yesterday with a quote from the Koran ("in the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful") and has since tweeted in vivid and impassioned English. The Kenya Defense Forces "envisaged a lightening invasion of #Somalia but the Blitzkrieg they'd hope for became a thorny quagmire for the inexperienced soldiers," @HSMPress (short for Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen) declared this morning, adding, "Military ineptitude, deteriorating economy, social imbalance, & public ambivalence trigger a desultory face-saving attempt by the #KDF: FLEE!" A battle cry followed minutes later: "Despite the tragedy and loss of life & wealth, a Mujahid does not desert the dignity to defend what he holds dearest: His Faith!"

The new presence on Twitter, as Wired notes, may be part of a larger rebranding effort for the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic militant group. Earlier this week, Somalia Report noted that al-Shabab had decided to change its name to Imaarah Islamiyah ("Islamic Authority"). "Al-Shabab means 'youth' but many of us, including the leaders, are very old," a spokesman for the militant group explained. Wizened but still very much with it, mind you. After all, they're on Twitter.

In truth, though, al-Shabab's Twitter account represents more of a propaganda campaign than a branding campaign. On Wednesday, Wired pointed out that "journalists, terrorism researchers and aid workers make up the lion's share of its early followers, not eager Muslim youth" (hence the value of English-language tweeting). @HSMPress serves as a counterweight to the much-publicized Twitter feed maintained by Kenyan military spokesman Maj. Emmanuel Chirchir, who has used the microblogging service to warn Somali civilians about air raids and get in the occasional jab. "Even with Al Shabaab change of name, KDF/TFG is committed in delivering the promise," Chirchir tweeted this week, in reference to the Kenyan and Somali militaries. "Reduce Al Shabaab effectiveness."

The proxy microblog battle speaks to a larger trend: Twitter, for all its pluses, is becoming a bit of a propaganda cesspool as the power of new media becomes more difficult to ignore. NATO has been tweet-sparring with two Taliban feeds for months now (a sample salvo from NATO today: "Scores of coalition killed in Kunar mortar attacks, huh? @Alemarahweb How about none killed"). The North Korean government launched a Twitter feed -- @uriminzok ("our nation") -- last year, prompting the South Korean government to threaten any of its citizens who reply or retweet @uriminzok's messages with legal action. This week, the House Homeland Security subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence held a hearing on the threat posed by terrorists using social media tools such as Twitter to attract followers.

Propaganda, as the popular feeds mentioned above attest, does indeed attract followers, though one imagines not all of them are ideological sympathizers. After two days and 21 tweets, @HSMPress already has 759 followers and counting.

Abdurashid Abikar/AFP/Getty Images


Move an embassy, drill baby drill, or repeal Obamacare? How the GOP candidates plan to spend their first day in office.

My attention was struck by this tweet today from Newt Gingrich: "My first day in office, I will move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Israel's chosen place, Jerusalem."

Putting aside the wisdom of that decision, is this symbolic gesture really the best use of the president's first day in office during a time of recession and war? I doubt that would even be the first thing on Benjamin Netanyahu's wish list for the new president.

Not to worry though, Gingrich has other plans for his first day -- and he's even taking suggestions on his website. In addition to the Jerusalem move, Gingrich will sign executive orders to "eliminate the thirty-nine White House "Czar" positions created during the current administration," reinstate the ""Mexico City Policy," to prohibit the funding of international NGOs that provide abortions (which is also what George W. Bush did on his first day) and "Restore conscience clause protections for Healthcare Workers."

These all seem like somewhat niche issues. But still, not a bad day's work.

Here's how the other candidates are planning to spend Jan. 21, 2013:

Michele Bachmann also says she'll use her first 24-hours to move the embassy to Jerusalem. (History suggests this will not happen.)   

Rick Perry's going to repeal Obama's healthcare law on his first day, and he's even picked out the sharpie he's going to do it with. 

Ron Paul says he'd start with foreign policy by "bringing the troops home so they can spend their money here instead of overseas.'

Jon Huntsman's got a busy day planned for himself, with "three immediate steps" on energy policy including clarifying rules to allow offshore drilling and fracking, opening the U.S. fuel network to alternative energy, and eliminating "every subsidy for energy companies."

But no candidate in the race has as ambitious a plan to hit the ground running as Mitt Romney, who has five bills and five executive orders planned for day one,  including eliminating energy regulations, implementing the free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, labeling China a currency manipulator, and giving states waivers to opt out of Obamacare.

In case you don't remember, on Obama's first day, he froze White House salaries, unveiled new ethics rules, appointed George Mitchell as Mideast peace negotiator, and issued an executive order closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. (The last two didn't work out so well.)