I just published an article in the Brown Journal of World Affairs which explores Al-Shabaab’s use of social media from 2007 to 2013. Access to the full article is only available to subscribers, but most university libraries have a subscription so students and faculty can access the article that way. For copyright reasons, I cannot reprint the full article on this blog, but I paste the conclusion below along with the full citation and link:
Ken Menkhaus, “Al-Shabaab and Social Media: A Double-Edged Sword,” Brown Journal of World Affairs 20, 2 (Spring/Summer 2014).
New communication technologies have hurt Al-Shabaab as much as they have helped it. The organization has exploited the internet and social media to recruit, fund-raise, issue threats, monitor enemies, amplify its messaging, and reinforce its narrative, and it has used remittance and telecommunications sectors to move money and raise revenues. But that same technology has exposed the militant group to lethal armed counter-insurgency strikes, broadcast its internal feuds, and made it impossible for Al-Shabaab’s leadership to control its image and message. In consequence, the group has a schizophrenic relationship with new communication technologies, simultaneously using them to communicate globally while and seeking to ban or tightly restrict them domestically. Over time, these new technologies have become more of an Achilles heel and less of an asset to Al-Shabaab. The unregulated and hyper-democratic nature of the new social media has collided with the leadership’s obsession with tight control.
The evidence reviewed here suggests that claims of Al-Shabaab’s “savvy” in use of social media and the internet are generally but not entirely true. Some of its videos have been powerful and helped it build a brand that for a time was very popular; its employment of Twitter to instantly send photos or sound-bytes have helped it shape media coverage; and its use of chatrooms and Facebook gave it a very strong recruitment tool. But the group has also been amateurish at times in use of these tools, from the pompous tone of its tweets to the jihadi rap that was more a source of derision than inspiration.
Al-Shabaab’s success in harnessing social media to advance a radical narrative was not an act of creation, but of appropriation. Al-Shabaab inherited an existing Somali grievance narrative, which it adapted, repackaged in more radical Islamist garb, and transmitted with social media back to an audience which had already internalized the basic story line. Al-Shabaab used Twitter to reinforce, not build, that narrative with shards of evidence and images that conformed to the belief system of its target audience. Twitter can be a more effective tool for narrative wars than meets the eye, but only if the audience has already accepted the broad contours of a grievance narrative.
Finally, the Al-Shabaab case suggests that both realist and constructivist theories are useful lenses through which to view jihadi use of social media. The explanatory value of the two theories depends in part on the state of play of the jihadi movement itself. Al-Shabaab has always been in the business of projecting a narrative, but in its early years – when it was advancing on the battlefield and holding territory – its main goal in using social media was for tangible assets – funds and recruits, as a realist would anticipate. Al-Shabaab’s shift toward a greater focus on advancing a global jihadi narrative occurred at a time when its ability to hold territory, win battles, and maintain organizational coherence was waning. This points to the possibility – and one that requires more investigation — that jihadi groups like Al-Shabaab tend to embrace the “constructivist” war of ideas via new social media not so much as an expansion of their activities but as a form of strategic retreat. In this sense, they replicate the behavior of leaders of failed states, by devoting more energy to projecting a narrative to win recognition and support from an external audience than earning legitimacy at home. Failing states and failing jihadi movements, it turns out, have more in common than either would care to admit.