NAIROBI, Kenya - The U.S. official who oversees American efforts to counter al-Qaida and other militants in the online battlefield keeps a quote on his desk from a "Most Wanted" jihadi from America's South. The Alabama native wrote that "the war of narratives has become even more important than the war of navies, napalm and knives."
"I keep that on my desk because that is true," Alberto Fernandez, the top official at the State Department's Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, told The Associated Press. "It doesn't mean I think he's a great thinker or anything. I just thought that was right."
The wanted fighter behind the quote is Omar Hammami, who joined the Somali militant group al-Shabab about seven years ago and is a prolific user of Twitter, where he nostalgically posts about America - like the U.S. children's television show Reading Rainbow or his grandmother's cooking - as well as analyses of al-Shabab's battlefield strategy.
Fernandez' Digital Outreach Team has had online exchanges with Hammami in Arabic, though Fernandez says that while Hammami is engaging, silly and flippant in English, his Arabic is "staged and formal, as if someone is doing it for him."
Hammami, Fernandez says, has responded to the U.S. online efforts "in superficial ways ... he hasn't engaged in a substantive way."
"We are focused on specifics on al-Qaida/al-Shabab actions in Somalia, their violence and brutality against the Somali people, the disconnect between their words and their actions," Fernandez said in a telephone interview from Washington. "A week ago they beheaded an 80-year-old Somali imam for disagreeing with them."
The Digital Outreach Team tweets, posts updates on Facebook and uploads video to YouTube in Arabic, Punjabi, Somali and Urdu.
The 50-person unit had more than 7,000 what it terms "engagements" - postings, updates or uploads in 2012, its second full year in operation.
Foreign fighters once mostly confined their online conversations to militant chat rooms and forums, but they have been migrating to more public Internet platforms in recent years, Fernandez said.
"The goal is to contest space that had previously been ceded to extremists, to confront them, to expose the bankruptcy and contradictions, the incoherence of al-Qaida, their friends and allies," said the Arabic-speaking Fernandez.