MEMRI’s Behind-The-Scenes Role In Twitter’s Shutdown Of Accounts Belonging To Designated Terrorists: The Case Of Al-Qaeda Affiliate Al-Shabaab And The Westgate Mall Attack

By: Steven Stalinsky and R. Sosnow*

November 6, 2013

Introduction

When the Somali Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen launched its September 21, 2013 attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, it had an important tool at its disposal for disseminating information about its actions and its ideology – the microblogging service Twitter. Al-Shabaab tweeted step-by-step details of the attack, from taking credit for it and explaining its reasons to releasing information about its killing of over 60 civilians, to the names and nationalities of its fighters participating in the operation, and more – all in real time. During the attack, and as soon as the media began reporting that Al-Shabaab not only had a Twitter account but was actively tweeting during the attack, Twitter shut it down; Al-Shabaab then moved rapidly through a series of official and unofficial accounts and handles to continue to get its message out.

With the Westgate attack, the threat of designated terrorists, including Al-Qaeda affiliates, using Twitter has finally grabbed the world’s attention.

MEMRI – At The Forefront Of The Push For Twitter’s Removal Of Accounts Of Designated Terrorists

Al-Shabaab should not have had Twitter at its disposal when it was carrying out the Westgate attack. For nearly two years, or since Al-Shabaab began tweeting in late 2011, MEMRI has been warning of the dangers inherent in providing Foreign Terrorist Organizations, Specially Designated Global Terrorists, Specially Designated Nationals, and other jihadi and terrorist organizations and individuals such as Al-Shabaab with access to Twitter accounts, beginning with its report Somali Al-Qaeda Affiliate Al-Shabaab Tweets Jihad and Martyrdom.

Since then, as the initial handful of such Twitter accounts quickly became a few hundred and then multiplied into thousands, until they could no longer be counted, MEMRI has published over a dozen research reports on how these organization use Twitter to promote their agendas, spread their messages, call for attacks against American and Western interests, recruit new members and build their audience of sympathizers, raise funds, and other purposes (see Appendix I:  MEMRI Reports On Terrorists’ Use Of Twitter).

To request a full copy of this MEMRI Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor report, send us an email with the report title, number, and date in the subject line, and include your name, title, organization, and official contact info in the body of the email.