A sleek website that features stories on the demise of Islamist militants in Somalia, is one of two run by the U.S. military's Africa Command aimed at countering extremists in two of Africa's most dangerous regions — Somalia and the Maghreb.
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.
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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 the 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 evenhanded 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-terrorism 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.