Al Qaeda opens first official Twitter account

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The split over Syria first emerged in April when the leaders of the Iraqi al Qaeda group, Islamic State of Iraq, announced its merger with al Nusra Front in Syria.

That prompted al Zawahiri to issue a statement a month later denying the merger and announcing the appointment of a mediator to try and bridge relations.

ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi then issued an audio message that rejected al Zawahiri’s decree and stated that the merger would continue.

The split opened yet another front in the civil war in Syria. The battle lines now include Syrian government forces against three opposition rebel factions, al Nusra, ISIL, and the more secular but still Islamist Free Syrian Army.

A translated tweet from the new account included a reference to an earlier statement from Shamukh that stated: “Obviously extremely serious challenges and state of dissension at this very sensitive juncture.”

Other messages noted divisions among “brothers” into three camps: those who are staying silent on the Syria division; those that favor al Nusra; and those supporting ISIL.

The rival al Nusra and ISIL members in the past asked online administrators to remove postings from each other’s faction.

To address the problem, the administrator for the Twitter account said both it and the web site would remain neutral. Members also were warned that voicing hostility toward either al Nusra or ISIL would lead to account suspension.

It is not known why Twitter has not suspended the Shamukh account, as it did to the Somali al Qaeda affiliate Al Shabaab during the recent attack in Nairobi, Kenya.

The Twitter account also sought to promote unity between the warring factions and to provide jihadists with trusted statements and information.

Shamukh al Islam is one of two official al Qaeda web sites that are closed to non-members. The second is Al Fida. Another unofficial al Qaeda-related website is Ansar al-Mujahidin, which has been shut down since July. It was among the first al Qaeda sites to open a Twitter account last year.

Poole, the counterterrorism expert, said the recent Al Shabaab terrorist attack in the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, involved the use of Twitter as part of an overall attack strategy. The group used Twitter to provide live updates and the four-day attack progressed in what Poole said was a relatively advanced psychological warfare operation.

“We’ve also seen divisions within these groups played out in social media, the most obvious example being the criticism on Twitter and YouTube directed at Al Shabaab leaders by former member American jihadi Omar Hammami, who had helped them develop their social media presence,” he said.

Al Shabaab then used Twitter to admonish Hammami and challenge his views, Poole said. Hammami’s online criticism was viewed as so serious a threat that he was pursued and reportedly killed in a gun battle with Al Shabaab within the past few weeks.

Aaron Y. Zelin, a counterterrorism analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, stated in a report published earlier this year that while jihadist are attracted to Twitter and Facebook, most favor approved online forums.

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