MINNEAPOLIS – Two days after he became a U.S. citizen, Abdiwali Warsame embraced the First Amendment by creating a raucous website 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 website 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 website “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 website, 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 website 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, Florida, also operates multilingual news websites 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 websites 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 circumstances.”
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 websites 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 website as part of a counterpropaganda campaign.
The company said it assumed that the website 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.”
Navanti’s report, however, indicates that the company knew at an earlier stage that Warsame resided in the U.S. 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, the report said.
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.
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-Qaida 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 email 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-Shabab 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.
Between shifts as a city bus driver, the 30-year-old Warsame runs his website 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. The site aggregates items from others and has reader submissions, but Warsame also posts original articles and interviews under his byline.
It takes only a cursory glance at the website to see that Warsame views the world through the lens of a fundamentalist Muslim. He strongly opposes military intervention in Somalia by the U.S., 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 for al-Shabab. Such activities are prohibited by U.S. law.
“I’m an American citizen,” Warsame said in Minneapolis, home to the largest concentration of Somali refugees in the country. “I don’t support al-Qaida. 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 website had been mentioned in a document posted on the Internet. It was Navanti’s research report, posted on OpenSource.gov, a federal website.
The four-page paper described his site as an al-Shabab propaganda arm. It said the site “blends extremist religious ideology with nationalist sentiment in an attempt to gain Somali and foreign support” for the group.
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 reposted 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 press.”
He also translated the document into Somali. Dozens of other Somali-language news sites around the world quickly reposted the document.
“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 a Navanti attorney accusing him of violating copyright law by republishing the firm’s research. Warsame responded by publicizing the letter and ignoring a demand to remove Navanti’s report from his 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.
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 agency’s role “in investigating people inside the United States with possible ties to an extremist group such as al-Shabab.”
The defense contractor also accused the website 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 website may have crossed a line by recruiting al-Shabab followers or inciting violence. Black, the firm’s CEO, likewise could not cite examples.
“We’ve got clear evidence that his website 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 website 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 Pulitzer.”
Warsame said he began reporting about a decade ago, when he lived as a refugee in Kenya, by submitting pieces to a website called Somali Talk. 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. He 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 website 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 pro-Shabab.”
“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 websites 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 website 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.”