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Al-Shabab goes to war with Kenyan army on Twitter

A tweet from Major Chirchir.

With the Kenyan military bogged down in a slow-moving invasion of Somalia, its fiercest clashes with the enemy are now erupting in a new battlefield: the Twitterverse.

And in the Twitter wars between the Kenyan army and its Islamist foes, it was a senior Kenyan spokesman who suffered an embarrassingly self-inflicted wound this week.

The Kenyan army spokesman, Maj. Emmanuel Chirchir, admitted today that he made an error by posting old photos from Somalia and claiming they were new evidence of a barbaric stoning by the Islamist radicals of al-Shabab.

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Maj. Chirchir has been waging a ferocious Twitter campaign against the militant fighters of al-Shabab. But in his latest volley on Wednesday, he misfired badly by tweeting a series of photos from 2009, claiming they were proof that a man from Nairobi had been stoned to death by al-Shabab this week.

Maj. Chirchir, who was ridiculed last year for using Twitter to threaten a Kenyan attack on "loaded donkeys" at the Somali border, said the photos showed a Kenyan man from Nairobi who had been "recruited" by al-Shabab and then was stoned to death on Tuesday because he had a different "opinion" from them. He said the stoning took place in the southern Somali city of Kismayo, a key target of the Kenyan offensive.

A few hours later, a young Somali-American journalist dug up the truth. The photos were not taken in Kismayo this week. They were taken in 2009 in an entirely different place, near Mogadishu, and the circumstances were completely different from Maj. Chirchir's version. Al-Shabab was not even involved in the stoning.

The photos were famous because they had won a prize in the respected World Press Photo contest in 2010. They showed a 48-year-old Somali man, Mohamed Abukar Ibrahim, being stoned to death by another militant group, Hizb Al-Islam, for alleged adultery.

The journalist who uncovered the story, Minnesota-based freelancer Mukhtar Ibrahim, said the tweets by Maj. Chirchir were "naked propaganda."

On Twitter, many Kenyans were angered by the spokesman's actions. One Kenyan blogger, Robert Alai, tweeted that it was "pathetic" that the military spokesman had "lied to us."

On Wednesday, Maj. Chirchir did not respond to a flood of questions about his use of the 2009 photos. But today he finally acknowledged the mistake. "I take responsibility for posting an old photo," he tweeted today.

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He insisted, however, that a Kenyan man was stoned to death in Kismayo on Tuesday by al-Shabab militants on accusations that he was spying for Kenya, and he said two more men are likely to be executed on Friday. He has not provided evidence for these statements so far.

Al-Shabab, meanwhile, used the Kenyan blunder as an opportunity for its own Twitter offensive against the Kenyan army. "They seem unsophisticated, even in their propaganda campaign," said the Twitter account of al-Shabab. "A simple Google search would have saved them such an embarrassment."

The Twitter account, which has more than 8,300 followers, is officially called HSMPress, but it is known to be controlled by al-Shabab. For weeks, it has dueled aggressively with Maj. Chirchir on Twitter, taunting him repeatedly about the Kenyan invasion.

"It's a mission failed, Major," al-Shabab said in a tweet to Maj. Chirchir on Jan. 1. "Forget the gory details of war & try ballet instead for more suitable career. War is for Men!"

In response, Maj. Chirchir has used his Twitter account for a steady stream of victorious accounts from the battlefront, usually reporting heavy losses by al-Shabab. He sometimes responds directly to the Shabab spokesman on Twitter. This week, for example, he denied a Shabab tweet that had claimed the killing of six Kenyan troops, but he acknowledged that one Kenyan soldier had died.

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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