Monday, July 8, 2013

Somali American caught up in a shadowy Pentagon counterpropaganda campaign



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,, 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

 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.


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

 Support Operations.”


“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 — 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

 his byline.


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 FBI.


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, a federal

 Web site.


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

 stopped calling.


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

 ================================================================ - Computer Security, & Intelligence -



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