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 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. 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.
Monitoring the populace
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.
In written responses to questions for this article, Navanti Group said it assumed Warsame’s 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’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.
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.
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, but 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 website 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 website 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-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.”