By Joe Kiarie
When US forces launched four satellite-guided bunk busters under the cover of darkness to spark off the Iraq invasion on March 19, 2003, the next 21 days were to keep the world under intense suspense.
The media across the world was thrown into confusion as propaganda war took its toll on accurate reporting, with coalition forces and the battle-hardened Mujahedeen claiming key victories in chorus.
One minute, the alliance forces would claim they had wiped out an entire troop of Iraqi soldiers, only for local fighters to instantly announce on radio that it was coalition forces that had bombarded each other in friendly fire.
Fast-forward to 2012 and Kenyans relished a similar scenario first-hand yesterday as the Kenya Defense Forces finally made a predawn beach landing on Somali’s Al Shabaab-laden port city of Kismayu.
The social media was this time round the main launching pad for a sequel of messages rich in confusion, suspense, wit, rage and caution, totally mystifying what was transpiring on the battle front.
With the operation by the Kenyan and Somali forces heavily anticipated, the Kenya Defense Forces sent out signs of things to come with the message “KDF appeals to residence of Kismayu to stay calm and not to panic” on its official Twitter account late on Thursday.
KDF spokesman Major Emmanuel Chirchir, who has been an ever-present figure in the social media since Kenya invaded Somalia last year, then claimed Kenya’s victory early yesterday morning.
“AMISOM forces...KDF and Somali National Army delivers on the promise.” “Kismayu falls and under control.” “All forces in good shape and spirit.” “We thank you all for your patience and support.” “We have delivered. Kismayu falls,” he stated in a series of tweets.
A seemingly reassured Chirchir was not mean with details of the military assault dubbed Operation Sledge Hammer, revealing that the forces had beach-landed in Kismayu’s Old Airport at 2am and the operation executed as planned.
“Will it be safe to say it was the first amphibious operation by an African force (?),” he posed.
The chest thumping was extended to the KDF account. “Amphibious ops are complicated, delicate and highly dangerous to execute.” KDF and SNA undertook meticulous planning on the ops and executed it with utmost effectiveness never before seen in Africa,” they stated. The military’s top spokesman Col Cyrus Oguna said the surprise attack met minimal resistance.
But this was just one part of the story. Elsewhere, the Al Shabaab-run Twitter account, HSM Press Office, was painting a totally different picture.
“KDF cowards attempt to attack Kismayu from the sea but the courageous Mujahedeen thwart their attempts,” read a message posted at around midday. “Kismayu remains firmly in the hands of the Mujahedeen, stay tuned for updates.”
It later claimed two of Kenya’s Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) had been ripped apart by Improvised Explosive Devises while one had been destroyed by a rocket-propelled grenade.
Claims that Kismayu was still in the hands of the Al Shabaab did not end there. Daudoo, a Somali-based freelance journalist focusing on the Al Shabaab, had indeed been at hand to diffuse the reports from early morning.
“It’s 09:00 morning in Kismayu, KDF enter the city is false, fight is taking place 8km outside Kismayu,” he posted on his Live From Mogadishu Twitter account.
“It’s 09:50 Morning In Kismayu, Al Shabaab are still in control, No KDF troops on the ground. Radio Al-Andalus still on air. More to follow.”
Daudoo later confirmed that the KDF had started shelling the city but stated the Al Shabaab were unmoved with no KDF soldier on the ground.
“It’s 1:30 pm in Kismayo Al-Shabaab still in control, situation still calm, people leaving the mosques after Friday prayers,” he announced later. It did not end there “Now, 15:30pm in Kismayu, Al Shabaab’s Radio Andalus still airing live, urging residents to take up their guns and join the Jihad against KDF.” By 5pm, Daudoo said nothing had changed and that Al Shabaab reinforcements were arriving.
While the KDF did not react to these messages, it is an assertion by Martin Plaut, the Africa Editor of BBC World Service News that seemed to hit under the belt and drew an instant rebuttal.
In an interview on BBC News at 12.00pm, Plaut said Kismayu residents had reported seeing European and American lead the invasion alongside the African Union forces.
“Report by Martin Plaut that Americans and European forces (involved) not true. AMISOM troops involved, none from either country as reported,” Major Chirchir tweeted almost immediately.
With the reports on the involvement of ‘whites’ provoking rage among the public, US Africa Command (AFRICOM) officials later clarified that while they closely monitor the Somali situation, they were not participating in Kenya’s military activities in the region. British officials made a similar explanation.
Radio and television stations, which were highly relying on information from the military, Al Shabaab insurgents and Kismayu residents, were reduced to making regular embarrassing amendments to goofs in the name of breaking news.
A number of television stations, among them Al Jazeera, for instance had to change their headlines from ‘Kismayu captured’ to ‘Kismayu surrounded’.
And with the battle for the port city that is a stronghold to the Al Qaeda cell having just started, the propaganda war can only get more absorbing.