By Jason Straziuso
NAIROBI, Kenya — The website’s headlines trumpet al-Shabab’s imminent demise and describe an American jihadist fretting over insurgent infighting. At first glance it appears to be a sleek, Horn of Africa news site. But the site — sabahionline.com — is run by the U.S. military.
The site, and another one like it that centers on northwest Africa, is part of a propaganda effort by the U.S. military’s Africa Command aimed at countering extremists in two of Africa’s most dangerous regions — Somalia and the Maghreb.
Omar Faruk Osman, the secretary general of the National Union of Somali Journalists, said Sabahi is the first website he’s seen devoted to countering the militants’ 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,” Osman said.
But although he had noticed prominent articles on the site, which is advertising heavily on other websites, he had not realized it was bankrolled by U.S. military.
The U.S. military and State Department, a partner on the project, say the goal of the 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,” Africom, as the Stuttgart, Germany-based Africa Command is known, said in a written statement.
Al-Shabab and other militants have for years used websites 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 like Swahili, Arabic and Somali — rely on freelance writers in the region.
Recent headlines on sabahionline.com show a breadth of seemingly even-handed news. “Death toll in ambush on Kenyan police rises to 31,” one headline said. “Ugandan commander visits troops in Somalia,” another reads.
Web ads for the site appear on occasion on mainstream websites such as YouTube, and they show a clear anti-terror slant. Ads showing men on the ground blindfolded or Somalia’s best known American jihadi, Omar Hammami, entice web users to click. They then access a headline like: “Somalis reject al-Zawahiri’s call for violence,” referring to the leader of al-Qaida.
The site, which launched in February, is slowly attracting readers. The military said that Sabahi 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 many readers may not go to that link.
Abdirashid Hashi, a Somalia analyst for the International Crisis Group, said he has read articles on Sabahi, mostly because of advertisements on other Somali websites, but he also didn’t realize it was funded by the U.S. 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,” Hashi said.
Osman said the articles on Sabahi are accurate and professional. But he said he feared that militants could attack writers who work for the site. Eighteen Somalis who work with media outlets have been killed this year, often in targeted killings.
Somali writers “can lose their life for working for this kind of a news outlet because of the extremists who target any critical voice or news service,” Osman said. “The other issue is professionalism, because if someone is intimidated and is threatened all the time then he or she is reduced to self-censorship. He or she would be afraid if he files some important news that he would be targeted.”
The military said there are nine writers who work for Sabahi from 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, IT costs and overhead. It believes the project is paying dividends.
“The fact that we have seen an increase in website traffic is good news alone. The website’s readers provide a significant number of comments on a regular basis, which often reflect their growing frustration and anger with extremist organizations in the region. Those comments are one indicator of a positive effect,” Africom said.
Seth Jones, the associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corporation think tank in Washington, said a significant part of the struggle with extremist groups like al-Shabab is ideological and is a battle for the hearts and minds of local populations.
“Based on this reality, the U.S. and other governments should be involved in countering extremist messages on websites and other forms of social media. After all, every Arab government provides substantial money to television, radio, print media, and Internet sites,” Jones said.
“They key question for the United States is gauging whether locals view these kinds of news sites as legitimate sources of information and read them. If not, it’s worth asking: Is the United States getting a bang for its buck?”