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US military behind Africa news websites

NAIROBI — The website’s headlines trumpet al-Shabab’s imminent demise and describe an American jihadist fretting over insurgent infighting. At first glance it appears to be a sleek, Horn of Africa news site. But the site — sabahionline.com — is run by the US military.

The site, and another one like it that centers on northwest Africa, is part of a propaganda effort by the US military’s Africa Command aimed at countering extremists in two of Africa’s most dangerous regions — Somalia and the Maghreb.

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Omar Faruk Osman, the secretary general of the National Union of Somali Journalists, said Sabahi is the first website he has seen devoted to countering the militants’ message.

‘‘We have seen portal services by al-Shabab for hate and for propaganda, for spreading violence. We are used to seeing that. In contrast we have not seen such news sites before. So it is something completely unique,’’ Osman said.

But although he had noticed prominent articles on the site, which is advertising heavily on other websites, he had not realized it was bankrolled by the US military.

The US military and State Department, a partner on the project, say the goal of the sites is to counter propaganda from extremists ‘‘by offering accurate, balanced, and forward-looking coverage of developments in the region.’’

‘‘The Internet is a big place, and we are one of many websites out there. Our site aims to provide a moderate voice in contrast to the numerous violent extremist websites,’’ Africom, as the Stuttgart, Germany-based Africa Command is known, said in a written statement.

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Al-Shabab and other militants have for years used websites to trade bomb-making skills, to show off gruesome attack videos, and to recruit fighters. The US-funded websites — which are available in languages like Swahili, Arabic, and Somali — rely on freelance writers in the region.

Recent headlines on sabahionline.com show a breadth of seemingly even-handed news. ‘‘Death toll in ambush on Kenyan police rises to 31,’’ one headline said. ‘‘Ugandan commander visits troops in Somalia,’’ another reads.

Web ads for the site appear on occasion on mainstream websites such as YouTube, and they show a clear antiterror slant. Ads showing men on the ground blindfolded or Somalia’s best-known American jihadi, Omar Hammami, entice web users to click. They then access a headline like: ‘‘Somalis reject al-Zawahiri’s call for violence,’’ referring to the leader of Al Qaeda.

The site, which launched in February, is slowly attracting readers. The military said that Sabahi averages about 4,000 unique visitors and up to 10,000 articles read per day. The site clearly says under the ‘‘About’’ section that it is run by the US military, but many readers may not go to that link.

Abdirashid Hashi, a Somalia analyst for the International Crisis Group, said he has read articles on Sabahi, mostly because of advertisements on other Somali websites, but he also didn’t realize it was funded by the United States. He said he has no issues with the US government running a news site.

‘‘I don’t think they hide it. That’s up there. There’s an information war going on, so I don’t have any problem with that,’’ Hashi said.

Osman said the articles on Sabahi are accurate and professional. But he said he feared that militants could attack writers who work for the site.

Africom says the websites are part of a larger project that costs $3 million to pay for reporting, editing, translating, publishing, IT costs, and overhead. It believes the project is paying dividends.

‘‘The fact that we have seen an increase in website traffic is good news alone. The website’s readers provide a significant number of comments on a regular basis, which often reflect their growing frustration and anger with extremist organizations in the region. Those comments are one indicator of a positive effect,’’ Africom said.

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