The Taliban’s Latest Battlefield: Social Media

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The Taliban’s Latest Battlefield: Social Media

The Taliban has drastically ramped up its presence on services like Twitter and WhatsApp in the past few years.

The Taliban’s Latest Battlefield: Social Media

An Afghan man takes a photograph with his mobile phone in Herat (December 11, 2009).

Credit: REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl

More than a few observers have noted the Taliban’s hypocrisy toward technology. During the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s heyday in the late 1990s, when the militants controlled 90 percent of the country and implemented a fundamentalist, totalitarian vision of religious law, they shunned the advances of the 20th century. The Taliban’s religious police beat taxi drivers for playing music on cassettes while its one-eyed leader refused to appear in photographs. Radios became a rarity.

Only an abrupt but brutal defeat by Western militaries in 2001 caused the Taliban to embrace technology without a hint of irony. Much like al-Qaeda in Iraq (which would later fracture to become the Islamic State or ISIS), Taliban militants filmed their attacks and posted them to the Internet, hoping to convince local audiences of the group’s impending return to power and foreign ones of the war in Afghanistan’s ultimate futility.

Though the Taliban has relied on technology for over a decade in the name of propaganda and public relations, its relationship with social media has only taken root in the last few years, in parallel with the rise of ISIS. Just as terrorist organizations in the Middle East have made Facebook pages, Telegram channels, and Twitter accounts, the Taliban has expanded the breadth and depth of its outreach to the international community in general and the news media in particular.

The complexity of the Taliban’s presence on social media is startling in its scope. The militants inform their international audience of battles and other events in six languages—Arabic, English, Pashto, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu—through Telegram, Twitter, and WhatsApp. Their Pashto WhatsApp chatroom, updated throughout the day, includes cellphone numbers from Afghanistan, the Emirates, Iran, Kuwait, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. When social networking services ban terrorist-linked accounts, channels, and pages, the Taliban will tell its supporters through available means of communication where to find the latest outlets of its news agency, rebuilt through fresh numbers and usernames.

The militants have named their news agency al-Emarah, meaning “the emirate” in Arabic, in reference to the sovereign state that they once ruled. According to their English Telegram channel, al-Emarah is the “official channel of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” providing “updates on news, articles and official statements.” The signature of Zabihullah Mujahid, the better known of the Taliban’s two spokesmen, appears at the end of many statements. Other updates refer to the Cultural Commission, an apparent government agency within the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s defunct state. Asad Afghan, chief of the Multimedia Branch within the Cultural Commission, manages the Taliban’s presence on Telegram, Twitter, and WhatsApp. He also goes by Asad Mujahid and Muhammad Darwish.

“Given the realities on the ground, social media allows us to contact foreign and local journalists easily,” Qari Muhammad Yousuf Ahmadi, the other Taliban spokesman, told The Diplomat over Viber. “This way, we both benefit from the publication of your article.”

The militants have a mixed relationship with journalists, often kidnapping them but more often using them to speak to wider audiences. The Taliban will email or text war correspondents with relevant information after battles and suicide attacks. On rarer occasions, the two spokesmen will sit with journalists for lengthy interviews. In an interview with Asharq al-Awsat, a London-based Arabic newspaper, Ahmadi even explained the importance of social media to the Taliban. “I use computers and have accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube,” he said, describing the the militants’ goal of “winning over the minds and hearts of the masses” in one of the world’s longest-running civil wars.

The benefits of the Taliban’s presence on social media are neither immediate nor obvious. The militants’ Pashto and Persian Telegram channels, though written in Afghanistan’s two official languages, have 4,336 follows as of this article’s writing. The Turkish channel, with the least followers, has 349. For reference, estimates placed the number of Taliban fighters at 60,000 in 2014. ISIS has used social media to recruit thousands of non-Arab foreigners and strengthen the legitimacy of its global caliphate in the Muslim world. The Taliban, meanwhile, only has ambitions to rule Afghanistan, a country with 31 percent literacy where the computers and smartphones needed to access social media are few. Public relations have been a separate disaster, with the the Taliban’s popularity declining from 56 percent in 2009 to 29 percent in 2011. Its tiny audience therefore has little reach and less hope of growing.

Renowned for its patience and resilience, the Taliban is using social media not for the instant gains on which ISIS thrives but as an example of soft power to achieve two long-term goals. First, the Taliban sees itself as a government in exile or state within a state whose legitimacy is visible through al-Emarah: the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan still exists on social media, and, as the militants expand their territory, they can turn their Internet emirate into a reality. Second, the Taliban’s limited but targeted broadcasts to audiences in the Muslim and Western worlds can help it achieve its long-held goal of expelling foreign soldiers from Afghanistan as military adventures in the country lose more popularity.

Bill Roggio, managing editor of The Long War Journal, assessed that the Taliban controls a fifth of the country and influences half of it. Combined with recent Taliban victories in the vicinity of Lashkar Gah and Kunduz, the militants’ presence on social media reaffirms their legitimacy and longevity.

Social media could prove a mixed blessing for the Taliban in the short term. On the one hand, smartphones give American combat drones flying over Afghanistan and Pakistan an excellent opportunity to monitor and target Taliban members, perhaps including the militants’ leader killed earlier this year. On the other, application software with end-to-end encryption such as Telegram, Viber, and WhatsApp has made the CIA’s job of surveilling the militants that much more difficult.

For now, the Taliban forms part of a wider trend in which local revolutionaries and terrorists, maybe inspired by ISIS, use social media to brand themselves and plot their agendas. Throughout the failed coup d’état in Turkey, the military putschists schemed over WhatsApp. In a similar fashion, Shia militias in Iraq are pushing their narratives over broadcasting satellite services.

As the Taliban, like ISIS and other insurgents in Asia, entrenches itself into civil society and popular culture through social media, the war on terror will become that much harder. Today, experts in counterinsurgency are debating whether killing one militant creates ten new, radical recruits. Tomorrow, they may have to have the same debate about banning militants’ accounts on social media.

Austin Bodetti is a freelance journalist focusing on conflict in the Muslim world. His writing has appeared in AskMen, The Daily BeastThe Daily Dot, Vox, and Wired UK.