Early last May, when US and NATO troops began to withdraw their last troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban immediately intensified military attacks against local government forces.
But they also did something rare during the conflict in Afghanistan: The Taliban launched a comprehensive social media campaign.
A network of accounts on social media highlighted the regime’s failures in Kabul and praised the achievements of the Taliban.
The tweet spreads recent Taliban victories – sometimes too early to broadcast – while including hashtags, such as #kabulregimecrimes (attached to the tweet accusing the Afghan government of war crimes); #westandwithTaliban (an effort to launch grassroots community support) and #ﻧَﺼْﺮٌ_ﻣٌِﻦَ_اللهِ_ﻭَﻓَﺘْﺢٌ_ﻗَﺮِﻳﺐٌ (help from Allah and victory is at hand).
That first hashtag is at least trending in Afghanistan.
In response, Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan’s vice president at the time, warned the military and the public not to be swayed by what he called “false claims of the Taliban’s victory on social media”.
He also asked the public not to share details of government military operations that could jeopardize security.
This development shows that the Taliban have changed their attitude from rejecting information technology and modern media, to now building elements of social media to amplify their message.
Form a dedicated team for social media
When the Taliban first came to power in Afghanistan in 1996, they banned the internet and confiscated or destroyed televisions, cameras and videos.
But in 2005, the official website of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate, ‘Al-Emarah’, was launched and now publishes its content in five languages – English, Arabic, Pasto, Dari and Urdu.
The audio, video and written content is under the supervision of the cultural commission of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), which is headed by their spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid.
Mujahid’s first tweet was immediately blocked by Twitter. But his new account, which has been active since 2017, has more than 317,000 followers.
Under Mujahid’s tutelage there is a team of volunteers dedicated to promoting the ideology of the Taliban online.
The team leader who is also the IEA’s director of social media is Qari Saeed Khosty.
Khosty told the BBC that his team had their own group focused on Twitter – working on the Taliban hashtag to trend – and spreading messages through WhatsApp and Facebook.
“Our enemies have television, radio and verified accounts on social media, whereas we don’t. But we still fought through Twitter and Facebook and were able to beat them,” said Khosty.
His job, he continued, was to bring those who joined the Taliban because of their ideology “to social media platforms so they can amplify our message”.
More focus on Twitter
There are around 8.6 million internet users in Afghanistan and the lack of affordable network and data services remains a major constraint.
Khosty said the IEA’s social media team incentivized 1,000 Afghans (approximately IDR 164,000) per month for data packages to team members to “fight on the battlefield online”.
He claims that the IEA “has four studios equipped with multimedia tools that are used to enhance imaging through audio, video and digital”.
The result is a high-quality propaganda video praising the Taliban fighters and their battles against foreign and government forces, which is widely shared on their YouTube account and Al-Emarah website.
The group publishes content for free on Twitter and YouTube, but Facebook has branded the Taliban a “dangerous organization” and regularly removes accounts and pages associated with the group.
Facebook has said it will continue to ban Taliban content on its platform.
Khosty told the BBC it was difficult for the Taliban to spread their publications on Facebook, so they focused on Twitter.
In fact, the US State Department has listed the Haqqani Network as an international terrorist group. But their leader, Anas Haqqani, and many of his members have accounts on Twitter and each have thousands of followers.
On condition of anonymity, a member of the Taliban’s social media team told the BBC they decided to use Twitter to spread an opinion piece from The New York Times written by Sirajuddin Haqqani, deputy leader of the Taliban, in February 2020.
Related to the article, a number of active accounts on Twitter were created.
“Most Afghans don’t understand English, but the leadership of the Kabul regime is actively communicating in English on Twitter – because their audience is not Afghans but the international community,” he said.
“The Taliban want to fight their propaganda and that’s why we’re also focusing on Twitter.”
Khosty also revealed that the accounts of some of its members already have tens of thousands of followers. All members were instructed “not to comment on foreign policy issues of neighboring countries that could interfere with our relations with them.”
In the past, the Taliban were known to be very secretive about the identity of their leaders and fighters.
No wonder the photo of the founder of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, is very rare.
Now, in an effort to gain international legitimacy, their leaders not only appear in front of the mass media, but are also promoted on social media.
After not appearing in public, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid appeared at a press conference after the fall of Kabul to them. Not only that, the Taliban’s Twitter account also changed the appearance of its profile with a photo of Mujahid.
In contrast, many Afghans who have worked for international forces, foreign organizations and media, and those critical of the Taliban on social media have now frozen their accounts, fearing they might be targeted.
Human rights activists from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said they had received reports that the Taliban were hunting and allegedly killing people in retaliation.
Meanwhile, Facebook has rolled out a “one click” feature for citizens in Afghanistan to quickly lock their accounts, preventing anyone not on the friends list from seeking more detailed information about the account owner.
The platform also announced that it will temporarily remove the feature that can view and search the “friends” list for accounts in Afghanistan.
The question is whether the Taliban have transformed and abandoned the brutality inherent in the group.
Many people in Afghanistan and around the world still do not believe the group’s promise to change.
However, they seem to have realized that some elements of technology, which they once avoided, can now help them in their quest to form opinion on the international stage.
“Social media is a powerful tool to change public perception,” said a member of the Taliban’s social media team.
“We want to change the perception of the Taliban,” he said.