The New York Times responded to the hype by publishing a quasi-investigative article about @HSMPress (while simultaneously acknowledging that al-Shabaab's use of social media was nothing new). Worryingly, the article relied on unnamed "African Union and Western officials" for evidence that the account was "legitimate," while begging the question of how to determine a spokesman's "legitimacy" within the context of a terrorist organization.
Another Times article published in March devoted about half its screen space to reprinting @HSMPress tweets outlining al-Shabaab's response to homegrown American jihadi Omar Hammami al-Amriki's panicked YouTube video, noting only that the Twitter page "appear[ed]" to belong to al-Shabaab. This, despite the fact that the true identity of the page's owner remains unknown, as do his connections to the organization, his place in the hierarchy, his sources, and a host of other details with which a journalist would usually be familiar before citing an official source.
I don't mean to pick on The Times; Somalia hacks regularly quote @HSMPress as if his (or her) bombastic and self-congratulatory musings represent the official doctrine of a factionalized and fragmented Islamist organization. I was surprised when one prominent Nairobi-based journalist once told me that @HSMPress was their source of first resort when reporting on a developing story in Somalia.
But I am hardly one to judge, being myself guilty of "Twitter journalism." A few months back, I posted a brief story on Somalia Report detailing the puerile Twitter duel between @HSMPress and the Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF) Twitter spokesman @MajorChirchir, who, to his credit, at least has the official endorsement of his home government. It was not until staring at the screen some days later did it occur to me what a fecklessly trite article it was. For all I knew, I could have been reporting on Major Chirchir's repartee with a deluded teenager in a dank London basement.
Believe me, I get it: Somalia reporting is a tough gig. Sifting through conflicting statements from Shabaab faction leaders, contradictory rumours, and vague eyewitness reports is a Sisyphean labour. Having a colourful official spokesman available at the end of a few mouse clicks sure beats calling Ali Dheere (al-Shabaab's putative "head of media") for a bland and contentless statement (what I call "the-infidels-will-taste-our-bullets" quotes).
Al-Shabaab, an opaque, squabbling semi-confederation, does not speak with close to a unified voice when it comes to policy (its closest approximation is the so-called "General Leadership" council, which is dominated by transnationalists such as Ahmed Godane and Ibrahim al-Afghani), or even whether a given event has transpired (when Omar Hammami was reported arrested in March, every Shabaab leader contacted by Somalia Report had their own version of the story). Yes, whoever is behind @HSMPress has intimate access to al-Shabaab information channels, and may even accurately represent the media stance of a particular Shabaab faction. When the tragic shooting of two MSF Mogadishu staffers took place last December 29, for instance, @HSMPress shocked many, including MSF's own media personnel, with an accurate (and exclusive) play-by-play account of the incident as it unfolded. But inside information does not an official spokesman make; if it did, then Julian Assange could well be considered a USG media rep.
Granted, nothing @HSMPress has tweeted has been so out of line as to provoke any senior Shabaab leader to publicly repudiate him. But neither has one officially endorsed him. Not a single public endorsement, ever.
As with any propaganda, the information supplied by @HSMPress can be a useful source if digested critically, and is certainly valuable as a counterpoint to the Kenyan government's own ludicrously lopsided depiction of Operation Linda Nchi. (Perhaps a rudimentary equation yielding accurate al-Shabaab casualty figures for a given engagement between Islamist and Kenyan forces might be as follows: (KDF casualty figures + @HSMPress casualty figures/ 2)).
But quoting @HSMPress tweets as al-Shabaab's official stance on any issue or event, however tempting, is simply lazy journalism.