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Twitter suspends account run by Al Qaeda-linked Somali militants

January 25, 2013|By Emily Alpert
  • In this Feb. 17, 2011, photo, Shabab fighters march with their weapons during military exercises on the outskirts of Mogadishu, Somalia.
In this Feb. 17, 2011, photo, Shabab fighters march with their weapons during… (Mohamed Sheikh Nor / Associated…)

Twitter suspended an account run by Somali extremists linked to Al Qaeda on Friday, two days after the militants threatened to execute Kenyan hostages and posted a video of one pleading for the Kenyan government to help free them.

Shabab militants released the video titled “Kenyan POWS: The Final Message” on Twitter on Wednesday. In the short video, one of the hostages asks Kenyans to pressure their government to ensure the captives are freed, according to the SITE monitoring service, whose analysts track extremist statements.

In a string of Twitter messages, Shabab then demanded that Kenya unconditionally release Muslim prisoners held on terrorism charges and meet other conditions. Kenya had three weeks to respond “if the prisoners are to remain alive,” one of the tweets stated.

As of Friday, anyone trying to view the @HSMPress account was greeted by a message saying, “The profile you are trying to view has been suspended.”

Twitter said it did not comment on individual accounts for privacy and security reasons, but referred to its terms of service, which state, “You may not publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others.”

Shabab militants had earlier used Twitter to spread the gruesome image of a slain French soldier, captured during a failed attempt to rescue French secret service agent Denis Allex. In one tweet, Shabab taunted the French president, writing, "Francois Hollande, was it worth it?”

At least one researcher, Foreign Policy magazine contributor J.M. Berger, had publicly called on Twitter to shutter the account after the threats, but other analysts and reporters scrambled to make sure other Shabab accounts were still active. Arabic and Somali accounts named for Shabab were still operating as of Friday morning.

Blocking the Twitter account is “justifiable but is it helpful?” tweeted Daniel Howden, a journalist who covers Africa for the Independent. The short messages posted on Twitter have provided a digital window onto militant groups.

The messages illustrate the importance that Twitter has taken on as an international forum, putting it squarely in the middle of global debates on free speech and its limits.

The San Francisco-based company closed the Shabab account at the same time that it faces a French court order to identify Twitter users whose posts are racist or anti-Semitic.

Hate speech is punishable under French criminal law. The case came up after a Jewish student group took Twitter to court over a stream of French postings such as "a good Jew is a dead Jew," which were later followed by posts making references to “a good black” and “if I was a Nazi,” according to French media. The court sided with the student group on Thursday.

Twitter has said that it can shutter accounts that run afoul of its terms of service, which include using Twitter for “any unlawful purposes or in furtherance of illegal activities.”

Starting last year, it began restricting accounts so that they are not visible to users in the countries where they ran afoul of the law, but they can still be seen elsewhere. The company has yet to say how it will respond to the French court order.

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