By Craig Whitlock
The Washington Post
July 7, 2013
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
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
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.
Given the global nature of online communications, the Pentagon’s
information operations are perhaps inevitably becoming entangled on
the home front.
At a time of intense focus on the targeting of Americans’
communications by the National Security Agency, Warsame’s case also
illustrates how other parts of the U.S. government monitor the
material that some Americans post online.
The Pentagon is legally prohibited from conducting psychological
operations at home or targeting U.S. audiences with propaganda, except
during “domestic emergencies.” Defense Department rules also forbid
the military from using psychological operations to “target U.S.
citizens at any time, in any location globally, or under any
Last year, however, two USA Today journalists were targeted in an
online propaganda campaign after they revealed that the Pentagon’s top
propaganda contractor in Afghanistan owed millions of dollars in back
taxes. A co-owner of the firm later admitted that he established fake
Web sites and used social media to attack the journalists anonymously.
In written responses to questions for this article, Navanti Group said
it did nothing improper in regard to United Somalia. The firm, which
specializes in “understanding social media and Internet trends” in
Africa, said it was just conducting research and did not target
Warsame or his Web site as part of a counterpropaganda campaign.
The company said it assumed that the Web site was based overseas.
Once Navanti discovered that Warsame lived in Minnesota, “we
immediately turned that information over to the U.S. Government and to
relevant law enforcement agencies, as both regulations and our own
guidelines dictate.” Navanti also said that it did not know that
Warsame was a U.S. citizen and that it collected only public
information about him.
“We don’t deal with domestic. End of issue,” Andrew Black, Navanti’s
chief executive, said in an interview. “We turned it over to the
cognizant authorities. That’s where we stopped.
That’s really important that that is where we stopped.” The firm
“followed the law,” he added.
Navanti’s report, however, indicates that the company knew at an
earlier stage that Warsame resided in the United States. It describes
him as “a young man who lives in Minnesota, is known for his extremist
believes [sic] by Minneapolis Somali residents.”
The two unnamed Navanti employees who wrote the analysis — both native
Somalis — also cited secondhand information that their “friends in
Minnesota” had provided about Warsame, according to the report.
Black declined to identify the arm of the Defense Department that
Navanti was working for or to explain what the military was doing with
the information that his company collected and analyzed.
It’s unclear whether the military carried out a messaging campaign
aimed at Warsame’s site.
“We do work for the government,” Black said. “I’m not going to be able
to provide specifics on things. . . . It’s for the client if they
choose to share stuff.”
Public records, however, show that Navanti was working as a
subcontractor for the Special Operations Command to help conduct
“information operations to engage local populations and counter
nefarious influences” in Africa and Europe.
Navanti was hired to perform “research and analysis” about al-Qaeda
and affiliated groups in Africa, according to contracting documents
posted online by the government. The partially redacted documents
state that the company’s research methods “fit the unique needs” of
military information support operations.
In 2010, the U.S. military stopped using the phrase “psychological
operations” because of its negative connotations.
Instead, it adopted a blander term, “military information support
operations,” or MISO.
Lt. Col. Damien Pickart, a Pentagon spokesman, said Navanti’s research
is unclassified. He said in an e-mailed statement it is “designed to
address planning gaps” for Special Operations forces in Africa and
Europe, “not just specific capabilities like Military Information
“If a U.S. person was identified as a potential risk or threat as a
result of a search — as in the case of the research on Al Shabaab
websites like Somalimidnimo.com — they direct the contractor to
discontinue that research,” Pickart added.
He said Navanti “is not involved in production and dissemination of
MISO products.” But he declined to say how the military might have
used the firm’s research.
Warsame has not been charged with a crime, and it is unclear whether
he is under formal investigation by the FBI.
Kyle Loven, a spokesman for the bureau in Minneapolis, declined to
‘I don’t support al-Qaeda’
Between shifts as a city bus driver, the 30-year-old Warsame runs his
Web site from home — a one-man show.
Most of the news and commentary is in Somali, though several items
each day are posted in English, including links to CNN.
United Somalia aggregates items from other sites and submissions from
readers, but Warsame also posts original articles and interviews under
It takes only a cursory glance at the Web site to see that Warsame
views the world through the lens of a fundamentalist Muslim. He
strongly opposes military intervention in Somalia by the United
States, Ethiopia, Kenya and other countries. He features material
portraying al-Shabab as freedom fighters, not terrorists. He also says
that he welcomes dissenting views.
But Warsame said he steers clear of posting anything that could be
construed as fundraising or recruiting followers for al-Shabab. Such
activities are prohibited by U.S. law and have been under scrutiny by
The Justice Department has prosecuted several Somali Americans in
Minnesota on charges of providing material support to al-Shabab.
Warsame has closely covered their cases on his Web site and advocated
for their defense.
“I’m an American citizen,” Warsame said in an interview at a cafe in
Minneapolis, home to the largest concentration of Somali refugees in
the country. “I don’t support al-Qaeda. I don’t support al- Shabab. I
don’t send them money. I’m not supporting killing anyone.”
“I just want the community to know what’s going on,” he added.
“My job is to allow people to express their views. It’s news.
It’s public information. People want to know what the professors are
saying, students are saying, what the single moms are saying, what
al-Shabab are saying.”
In June 2012, Warsame said, a Google Alert notified him that his Web
site had been mentioned in a document posted on the Internet.
It was Navanti’s research report, posted on opensource.gov, a federal
The four-page paper described United Somalia as an al-Shabab
propaganda arm. It said the Web site “blends extremist religious
ideology with nationalist sentiment in an attempt to gain Somali and
foreign support” for al-Shabab.
Warsame may have been a relatively new American, but he displayed a
firm grasp of his civil rights and a knack for defending himself.
He downloaded the report and re-posted a copy under a bold headline in
imperfect English, “Breaking News: The Somalimidnimo’s website, it’s
writers and editors were threatened in-order to suppress the free
He also translated the document into Somali. Dozens of other
Somali-language news sites around the world quickly re-posted the
“Their research was partial, unprofessional and with malicious
intent,” he said of Navanti. “I took it as a personal threat and
betrayal of freedom of speech.”
Soon after, Warsame received a letter from an attorney for Navanti,
accusing him of violating copyright law by re- publishing the
company’s research. Warsame responded by publicizing the letter and
ignoring a demand to remove Navanti’s report from his Web site.
Around the same time, FBI agents visited Warsame’s apartment and later
phoned him, asking to meet. “I said, ‘I don’t want to talk to you
without a lawyer,’ ” he recalled saying. He consulted a federal public
defender and a private lawyer.
At first, Warsame said, the FBI told him that he was under criminal
investigation. But after his attorneys intervened, he said, the bureau
Navanti defends role
In its written response to The Washington Post’s questions, Navanti
said it gave its report on United Somalia to the FBI “out of an
abundance of caution” because of the law enforcement agency’s role “in
investigating people inside the United States with possible ties to an
extremist group such as al-Shabaab.”
The defense contractor also accused the Web site and Warsame of
aggregating propaganda on behalf of al-Shabab “for the purposes of
recruitment and incitement.”
But Navanti’s dossier does not specify any instances in which the Web
site may have crossed a line by recruiting al-Shabab followers or
inciting violence. Black, the company’s chief executive, likewise
could not cite examples.
“We’ve got clear evidence that his Web site is part of the information
domain of al-Shabab,” Black said. “This is the United States. We have
freedoms and liberties. You’re allowed to defend yourself. And that’s
fine. But that’s not between us and him.
That’s between him and the FBI.”
Black disputed that Warsame was a legitimate journalist or that his
Web site could be considered a news outlet.
“I have a very hard time seeing his work as journalistic. I don’t see
Walter Cronkite coming through his words here,” Black said.
“He’s got comments on his front page that Osama bin Laden blew himself
up to avoid being captured. I’m not sure this guy is going for a
Warsame said he began reporting about a decade ago, when he lived as a
refugee in Kenya, by submitting pieces to a Web site called Somali
He wrote more frequently after he and his family moved to Minnesota in
2005. Five years later, he started United Somalia.
He is a dues-paying member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, an
association of professional journalists, and estimated that he has
conducted hundreds of interviews.
Warsame said his site attracts more than 100,000 readers a month, with
a dedicated following from North America to Europe to Australia.
Asked for an outside perspective, Matt Bryden, a former senior U.N.
official in Somalia, said the Web site appeals to “a range of readers”
who dislike the weak national government in Mogadishu. He said the
site “publishes a combination of news and commentary, some of which is
“It is certainly more widely read and more popular than most other
pro- Shabab Web pages,” added Bryden, who works as director of Sahan
Research, a think tank in Nairobi. “Other Shabab- affiliated Web sites
tend to be more exclusively jihadist in content, which makes them
appeal to a narrower audience.”
As an American, Warsame said, he treasures his free-speech rights and
doesn’t hesitate to take unpopular stands, such as the time he ripped
Muslim clerics for participating in an interfaith prayer service at a
church. The largest mosque in Minnesota banned him from its premises
because of his writings.
“Sometimes he has controversial things, which I may not agree with,
but his Web site is definitely well read,” said Abdinasir Abdi, a
friend, law student and Somali community activist in Minneapolis. “The
irony is that if he was in any country other than the U.S. right now,
I don’t think he’d survive.”
"Communications without intelligence is noise; Intelligence without
communications is irrelevant." Gen Alfred. M. Gray, USMC
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