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Are mass murderers using Twitter as a tool?

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Peter Bergen: Kenya was first major attack in which terrorists provided Twitter commentary

Terrorism has always been about theater, but use of social media takes it further, he says

Bergen says Al-Shabaab's tweets were a way for the group to shape media coverage

Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation and the author of “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden – From 9/11 to Abbottabad.

CNN —  

It was the first major terrorist attack in history in which the group that mounted the operation used Twitter to announce to the world it was responsible.

The group then quickly tweeted what its rationale was for the attack and also gave operational details of the assault – all in real time.

On Saturday a group of armed gunmen stormed the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, shooting at shoppers and mall staff with automatic weapons, killing at least 61 civilians.

Peter Bergen
Tim Hetherington for CNN
Peter Bergen

Several hours into the assault a Twitter account used by the Somali terrorist group Al-Shabaab tweeted: “The Mujahideen (’holy warriors’) entered Westgate mall today at around noon and they are still inside the mall, fighting the Kenyan kuffar (’infidels’) inside their own turf.”

It was the first confirmation that the attack was the work of Al-Shabaab, and journalists around the world quickly reported this.

The terrorist group soon provided a tweeted explanation of its motives: “What Kenyans are witnessing at #Westgate is retributive justice for crimes committed by their military.” The Kenyan army is part of a larger U.N.-sanctioned peacekeeping operation that has recently been fighting Al-Shabaab with much success, for instance, a year ago expelling the group from one of its last strongholds, the Somali port city of Kismayo.

As the attack on the Nairobi mall unfolded, Al-Shabaab tweeted, “Since our last contact, the Mujahideen inside the mall confirmed to @HSM_Press that they killed over 100 Kenyan kuffar.” HSM_Press is the name that Al-Shabaab has used as its Twitter handle.