In MINNEAPOLIS — Two days after he became a U.S. citizen, Abdiwali Warsame embraced the First Amendment by creating a raucous Web site about his native Somalia. Packed with news and controversial opinions, it rapidly became a magnet for Somalis dispersed around the world, including tens of thousands in Minnesota.
The popularity of the site, Somalimidnimo.com, or United Somalia, also attracted the attention of the Defense Department. A military contractor, working for U.S. Special Operations forces to “counter nefarious influences” in Africa, began monitoring the Web site and compiled a confidential research dossier about its founder and its content.
In a May 2012 report, the contractor, the Northern Virginia-based Navanti Group, branded the Web site “extremist” and asserted that its “chief goal is to disseminate propaganda supportive” of al-Shabab, an Islamist militia in Somalia that the U.S. government considers a terrorist group. The contractor then delivered a copy of its dossier — including Warsame’s Minnesota home address and phone number — to the FBI. A few days later, federal agents knocked on the webmaster’s door.
Although he did not know it, Warsame had been caught up in a shadowy Defense Department counterpropaganda operation, according to public records and interviews.
In its written analysis of his Web site, Navanti Group identified “opportunities” to conduct “Military Information Support Operations,” more commonly known as psychological operations, or “psy-ops,” that would target Somali audiences worldwide. The report did not go into details, but it recommended that the U.S. military consider a “messaging campaign” by repeating comments posted on the United Somalia Web site by readers opposed to al-Shabab.
Military propaganda and the spread of disinformation are as old as war itself, but commanders usually confined the tactics to war zones.
With the Iraq war over and U.S. combat operations scheduled to finish in Afghanistan by the end of next year, however, the Pentagon has begun shifting psy-ops missions to other parts of the world to influence popular opinion. Many of the missions are overseen by the Special Operations Command, which plays a leading role in global counterterrorism efforts.
In the past, psychological operations usually meant dropping leaflets or broadcasting propaganda on the battlefield. Today, the military is more focused on manipulating news and commentary on the Internet, especially social media, by posting material and images without necessarily claiming ownership.
Much of the work is carried out by military information support teams that the Special Operations Command has deployed to 22 countries. The command, which is based in Tampa, also operates multilingual news Web sites tailored to specific regions.
The Southeast European Times covers the Balkans with original news dispatches and feature stories written in 10 languages. Magharebia covers North and West Africa in Arabic, French and English. Readers have to scour the Web sites to find an acknowledgment that they are sponsored by the U.S. military.