The brutal attacks by Al-Shabab on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya (21 September 2013) confirmed the media sophistication of terrorist networks.
It is no coincidence that the attacks happened in Nairobi, the media capital of East Africa. Nairobi is an important hub for journalists and broadcasters reporting the region, and most international press and news channels have staff located there. The journalists did not have to hunt down this story; the story came to them. Echoing the way the the 9/11 hijackers delayed their attack on the second tower of the World Trade Centre until they could be sure of maximum live news coverage, Al-Shabab knew that a large scale event in Nairobi would attract immediate attention from the global media (simultaneous bombings in Mogadishu, Somalia, received no coverage due to the absence of reporters).
Moreover, the siege of Westgate lasted for four days which, in an era of 24/7 rolling news assured the terrorists of continuous coverage and therefore publicity. In fact we may argue that by controlling the pace of events and continuously releasing information from inside the mall, Al-Shabab commanded the news agenda. This was facilitated by the terrorist network's appreciation of how the social media work. Al-Shabab's organisation of Twitter accounts and its almost uninterrupted flow of news and information, inevitably picked up and used in the coverage by major international news networks, guaranteed that the terrorists' justification, beliefs and demands were disseminated to global audiences. This has provoked considerable self-reflection among journalists: in the new media environment, have they become the mouthpiece for terrorists? After Westgate, journalists and news organisations have started to think more critically about their work and how they use social media communications in their coverage of terrorist activities.
Terrorists have long understood the importance of information, as they require what British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once called 'the oxygen of publicity'. Media coverage of their activities, and especially the consequences of their actions, is perhaps their greatest weapon, particularly if such coverage succeeds in generating fear and paranoia and results in state-imposed counter-measures which restrict civil liberties. However, the days of 'minimum casualties, maximum publicity' were swept away on 9/11 when terrorists sought maximum casualties for maximum media coverage. And in creating fear, paranoia and the severe curtailment of civil liberties by states across the democratic world, Al-Qaeda's attacks on 9/11 and Al-Shabab's seizure of the Westgate sopping mall were both doubly successful.
Long before the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, we were aware that terrorist networks and insurgents have adapted to this new information environment, and they have often acclimatised to it much quicker than their adversaries. Early in its life, Al-Qaeda embraced information as an asymmetric weapon against powerful nation-states, especially the US, and identified its potential for disseminating propaganda and recruiting new members. In fact, since 9/11 Al-Qaeda has become a formidable, sophisticated and prolific multi-media communications machine, with ready access to the As-Sahab (‘The Cloud’) Institute for Media Productions and its huge media library allowing the creation and dissemination of information and propaganda to a global audience. As-Sahab continues to produce high quality news releases, documentary films and now even iPod files and videos available on mobile telephones. As-Sahab’s production expertise combined with Al-Qaeda’s enthusiastic use of the internet means the terrorists are able to converse persistently, securely and in multiple audiences with members, sympathisers and potential recruits across the world, especially among younger generations who may be most attracted and therefore susceptible to the message. This ability to communicate is essential for Al-Qaeda which is not really a formal organisation, but exists as a loose international network of cells and affiliate groups who can remain in contact with each other via the internet. This is demonstrated most clearly in the creation of the al-Fajr (‘Dawn’) Media Centre, an elaborate network of local terrorist units and dozens of anonymous webmasters around the world (each webmaster is unaware of the others’ true identities), with Al-Qaeda functioning as a an umbrella propaganda organisation that gives guidance to local movements. Computer-literate sympathisers using internet cafes, codes and special software to circumvent detection, help maintain the flow of information through the network. Gone are the days when Al-Qaeda had to depend on dead-letter drops of propaganda video tapes to Al-Jazeera and hope that the station would broadcast them; now the films are uploaded and distributed around the world on the internet, often with subtitles in English, German, Italian, Pashto, French and Turkish. This not only gains them a wider audience and bypasses the media, but should television stations so wish, they can download the films as ready-packaged products, thus enhancing their appeal. The events in Nairobi suggest that terrorist organisations are now capable of using social media networks like Twitter in the knowledge that media organisations will depend on their feeds for a unique perspective on events.
The power of information in this asymmetrical war has not been overlooked by political elites at the highest levels in Washington: In 2007 US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, noted ‘It is just plain embarrassing that Al-Qaeda is better at communicating its message on the Internet than America. Speed, agility, and cultural relevance are not terms that come readily to mind when discussing US strategic communications’. Gates recalled how one US diplomat had asked him, ‘How has one man in a cave managed to out-communicate the world’s greatest communication society?’ Four years later, Washington’s political elite were still pondering the US’s incapacity to compete in the communications landscape: In March 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted in testimony to the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee that ‘We are in an information war and we are losing that war.’ It seems that governments are still playing catch-up in an information war the terrorists are winning, sometimes with the unwitting help of journalists and news media organisations.