U.S. Considers Combating Somali Militants' Twitter Use
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
NAIROBI, Kenya - The United States government is increasingly concerned about the Twitter account of the Shabab militant group of Somalia, with American officials saying Monday that they were "looking closely" at the militants' use of Twitter and the possible measures to take in response.
American officials would not disclose what action they were considering. But some American officials said the government was exploring legal options to shut down the Shabab's new Twitter account, potentially opening a debate over the line between free speech and support for terrorism.
Over the past two weeks, the Shabab, brutal Islamists known for chopping off hands and starving the famine-stricken populace, have been firing off pithy Twitter messages referring to their attacks and taunting the Kenyan military, which sent troops into Somalia in October to battle the Shabab.
"Your inexperienced boys flee from confrontation & flinch in the face of death," said a Shabab post addressed to the Kenyan Army.
Most of the Shabab's Twitter messages are in English, not Somali, and are clearly meant for an outside audience. American officials said they were worried that the Shabab might be using Twitter to reach potential recruits in the West.
Officials across the American government, from the State Department to local law enforcement, have said one of the top terrorism threats to the United States is the potential for American militants to travel to Somalia to fight with the Shabab and then return home to wreak havoc.
Already, several Americans have killed themselves as suicide bombers in Somalia working for the Shabab, who have claimed hundreds of victims with such attacks. The group has been fighting Somalia's transitional federal government, which is the internationally recognized authority and a recipient of millions of dollars from the United States government.
American officials say they may have the legal authority to demand that Twitter close the Shabab's account, @HSMPress, which had more than 4,600 followers as of Monday night.
Twitter, based in San Francisco, has about 100 million users. A company spokesman, Matt Graves, said on Monday, "I appreciate your offer for Twitter to provide perspective for the story, but we are declining comment on this one."
The Shabab have pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda, and in 2008 the State Department listed the group as a "specially designated global terrorist" and said it posed a significant risk of committing "acts of terrorism that threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security, foreign policy or economy of the United States."
A State Department spokesman said, "We are looking closely at the facts of this situation to determine what the appropriate next steps might be."
The Shabab have imposed a draconian version of Islam in the areas of southern Somalia that they control, yanking out gold teeth, beheading shopkeepers, sawing off arms and stoning adulterers. Yet, at the same time, they have shown technological savvy, showcasing their work through slick propaganda videos, Web sites and electronic chat rooms.
The State Department said federal law enforcement agencies had taken action in the past against individuals using "Web hosting and related services."
A version of this article appeared in print on December 20, 2011, on page A5 of the New York edition with the headline: Twitter Use By Militants In Somalia Incites U.S..