NAIROBI, Kenya — The website’s headlines trumpet the imminent demise of the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab and describe an American jihadist fretting about insurgent infighting.
At first glance, it appears to be a sleek, Horn of Africa news site. But sabahionline.com is run by the U.S. military.
The site, and another one like it that centers on northwestern Africa, is part of a propaganda effort by U.S. Africa Command (Africom) aimed at countering extremists in two of the continent’s most dangerous regions – Somalia and the Maghreb region of North Africa.
Omar Faruk Osman, secretary-general of the National Union of Somali Journalists, said sabahionline.com is the first website he has seen devoted to countering the terrorists’ message.
“We have seen portal services by al-Shabab for hate and for propaganda, for spreading violence. We are used to seeing that. In contrast we have not seen such news sites before. So it is something completely unique,” Mr. Osman said.
Although he had noticed prominent articles on the site, which is advertising heavily on other websites, he did not realize it was bankrolled by the U.S. military.
The Pentagon and State Department, a partner on the project, say the goal of the two sites is to counter propaganda from extremists “by offering accurate, balanced and forward-looking coverage of developments in the region.”
“The Internet is a big place, and we are one of many websites out there. Our site aims to provide a moderate voice in contrast to the numerous violent extremist websites,” said a written statement from Africom, based in Stuttgart, Germany.
The military said nine writers work for sabahionline.com in Kenya, Tanzania, Djibouti and Somalia. The other site – magharebia.com – concentrates on Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania.
Africom says the websites are part of a larger project that costs $3 million to pay for reporting, editing, translating, publishing, technology costs and overhead.
Al-Shabab and other terrorists have used websites for years to trade bomb-making skills, to show off gruesome attack videos and to recruit fighters. The U.S.-funded websites – which are available in languages such as Swahili, Arabic and Somali – rely on freelance writers in the region.
Recent headlines on sabahionline.com show a breadth of seemingly evenhanded news: “Death toll in ambush on Kenyan police rises to 31” and “Ugandan commander visits troops in Somalia” are examples.
Web ads for the site appear on occasion on mainstream websites such as YouTube, and they show a clear anti-terrorist slant. Ads showing men on the ground blindfolded or Somalia’s best-known American jihadist, Omar Hammami, entice Web users to click.
Headlines such as “Somalis reject al-Zawahri’s call for violence,” in reference to the leader of al Qaeda, is slowly attracting readers. The military said that sabahionline.com averages about 4,000 unique visitors and up to 10,000 articles read per day. The site clearly says under the “About” section that it is run by the U.S. military, but that link receives relatively few clicks.
Abdirashid Hashi, a Somalia analyst for the International Crisis Group, said he has read articles on sabahionline.com, mostly because of advertisements on other Somali websites, but he also did not realize it was funded by the United States. He said he has no issues with the U.S. government running a news site.
“I don’t think they hide it. That’s up there. There’s an information war going on, so I don’t have any problem with that,” Mr. Hashi said.
Mr. Osman said the articles on sabahionline.com are accurate and professional, but he fears terrorists could attack writers affiliated with the site. Eighteen Somalis who work with media outlets have been killed this year, often in targeted assassinations.
Somali writers “can lose their lives for working for this kind of a news outlet because of the extremists who target any critical voice or news service,” Mr. Osman said.
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