From medieval Taliban to a tech-savvy militia

Published: December 1, 2011

On Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — the Taliban are now fighting the war in cyberspace and on airwaves. DESIGN: JAMAL KHURSHID

KARACHI: 

They hated modernity, secular education and modern scientific inventions – they banned music and smashed television sets during their rule in Afghanistan until 2001. But 10 years on, things appear to have changed – radically.

The media-shy Taliban have transformed into a tech-savvy militia. For them, the Internet is no longer ‘pornography’, nor does the television promote ‘vulgarity’. They’re now fighting their war not only on the battlefield but in cyberspace and on airwaves. They have a slick website, Voice of Jihad, in five languages – English, Urdu, Arabic, Pashto and Persian – clandestine radio stations and magazines. They’re increasingly using social networking sites Twitter and Facebook. And their jihadi studios regularly produce propaganda videos which are uploaded on YouTube.

The two virtually ubiquitous talking heads of the Taliban – Zabiullah Mujahid and Qari Yousaf Ahmadi – regularly make phone calls to media persons and send them text messages and emails to get coverage for their guerrilla operations.

Radical shift?

Is this a shift in policy? “No,” say the Taliban.

“It’s a wrong perception. We never opposed modernity. We’d introduced computers in some of our government departments. Our information department was fully computerised which published newspapers and magazines,” Mujahid told The Express Tribune by phone. “We had not banned the Internet. But it wasn’t common back then,” he said of the five-year Taliban rule in Afghanistan.

Nonetheless he conceded that the Taliban religious hierarchy had decreed against the use of television as a medium of communication.

Few experts agree with Mujahid’s interpretation.

“This is a radical change. And this shows that they’ve realised the crucial role the media can play in their psychological war against the US-led Nato forces,” says Dr Asharaf Ali, an Islamabad-based expert in militancy and former broadcaster.

Where are the experts

The Taliban are thought to be a medieval ragtag militia. If so, from where did they get expertise and training to use modern media tools?

“We trained our mujahideen in the use of (modern) media at scattered places in Afghanistan. Our mujahideen are also studying in different universities of the country, including in Kabul,” said the Taliban spokesperson.

But Dr Ali doesn’t believe this, nor does the Afghan spy agency.

“I think they got their expertise from al Qaeda, which is a modern, sophisticated terror network, having in its ranks IT and communication specialists,” he said.

Afghan officials have consistently blamed Pakistan for helping the Taliban – a charge that Islamabad denies. The Taliban spokesperson denied receiving help from outside or from al Qaeda.

The Islamic Emirate, as the Taliban prefer to be identified, has a separate commission for its information war.

“Our Cultural Affairs Commission has wings for different media where hundreds of volunteers work, some part-time, others full-time, with dedication and commitment to supplement our jihad,” Mujahid said.

Recently, Voice of Jihad website was hacked to spread a rumour about Mullah Omar’s death. The Taliban were quick to reject the report as “Western propaganda.”

Mujahid says that every website entry, Facebook wall-post and Tweet is monitored.

“The leadership of the Islamic Emirate monitors our media operations and continuously gives guidance to our strategists,” he added. “The Afghans who are associated with the Cultural Affairs Commission are highly trusted and ideological people.”

Not your average militant site

Techies say Voice of Jihad website appears to have been developed by professionals.

“It’s definitely someone who is aware of what makes a good website. The fonts, the layouts, the sectioning all suggest knowhow,” said Jahanzaib Haque, Web Editor at The Express Tribune.  He says the Taliban don’t need to have an elaborate system and a large workforce to maintain their website or Facebook and Twitter accounts.

“The setup is less than a handful, for sure. Six to eight people, including development team, content managers and translators and all of them can be working independently from laptops or smartphones,” he said.

“But the way updates are happening suggest that it is updatable via mobile phones, which requires some sophistication on the back end,” he added.

Videotape is another important tool that the Taliban use in their psychological warfare. Their propaganda films are available on their site and on YouTube. How and where do they produce these videos?

“Our Cultural Affairs Commission has three main jihadi studios – Alamarah, Manbaul Jihad and Alhijrat – besides several small studios where such films (based on the Taliban guerrilla operations and motivational discourses) are produced,” Mujahid said.

These films are uploaded on the Taliban website, on YouTube and distributed among the people in Afghanistan’s villages and towns.

Experts say some of these propaganda videos are of stunning quality.

“The mixing of sounds, editing, voiceovers and lighting in some films show that they have been produced by master broadcasters,” said Dr Ali, who has worked with the BBC Radio for 15 years.

The Taliban media arsenal also includes radio. “Apart from the main Radio Shariat, we’ve a number of FM stations in different provinces of the country,” the Taliban spokesperson said but didn’t name the provinces or the exact number of stations, citing security reasons.

Journalists in Afghanistan say the Taliban are smarter than the Afghan administration or even the US-led Nato forces in their media strategy.

“Usually, it’s difficult to confirm news with government officials, they are either not available or their cell-phones are switched off. But the Taliban are quick and accessible. One of their two spokespersons is always at hand to share their side of the story,” said Kamal Sadaat, a Kabul-based journalist working for a foreign broadcast.

“They’re facilitating the media which, they believe, is crucial for grabbing headlines,” he told The Express Tribune by phone.

Dr Ali agrees with Sadaat. Initially, he says, the Taliban were hostile towards the media, they harassed, attacked and killed media persons who, they thought, were siding with their enemy.

“But over the years, they have learnt a lot. They have realised that they can use the same media for their own interest,” he added.

For the success of a guerrilla war, support and sympathies from local population are important. Cognizant of this, the Taliban decided to use the mass media, says Qazi Raza Rehman, a counter-insurgency and communication expert based in Peshawar.

“Their media strategy has three objectives: to demoralise the enemy and to counter its propaganda; to promote their ideological discourse; and to win over the neutral population of Afghanistan,” Rehman told The Express Tribune. He believes that the Taliban have already won the information war because they have made the Afghan population believe that the US and its allies have lost the war in Afghanistan.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 1st, 2011.

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Reader Comments (18)

  • Dec 1, 2011 - 9:56AM

    TTP commits crimes, Talibans are blamed.

    Recommend

  • Sajida
    Dec 1, 2011 - 10:12AM

    It is really sad that the Afghans’ either have the current government or the Taliban to choose from.Neither is capable of fulfilling the needs of the people.And backward people are in the current Government not just amongst the Taliban
    See:
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2065301/Afghan-woman-jailed-raped-cousins-husband-offered-release-marries-attacker.html
    Afghan woman jailed for being raped by her cousin’s husband is offered release if she marries her attacker
    Gulnaz was convicted of adultery because she had sex outside of marriage by being raped
    After falling pregnant by her attacker, she and the baby were jailed for 12 years
    She has been given the choice to marry her rapist and be freed from jail

    This is the result after NATO said lives of women were improved by the foreign presence. Doesn’t look like it!

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  • SalSal
    Dec 1, 2011 - 10:47AM

    The Taliban doesn’t rape women it all propaganda!!! Recommend

  • Yuri Kondratyuk
    Dec 1, 2011 - 10:51AM

    @Sajida:

    There was a similar case in India couple of years ago where a Muslim raped his daughter-in-law. When the victim approached the nearest available congregation of mullahs, it was declared that the victim divorce her husband and marry her father-in-law.

    And I assure you there is no NATO presence in India. I suspect that the roots of such barbarity lies elsewhere.

    Recommend

  • zalim singh
    Dec 1, 2011 - 11:49AM

    @ SalSal

    The Taliban doesn’t rape women it all propaganda!!!

    Obsolutely agree.. You need four witnesses, right? And who gives witness against Taliban?

    Recommend

  • Afghan
    Dec 1, 2011 - 12:37PM

    @Sajda:

    This IS a matter of fact that the social lives of Afghan women have changed, not necessarily their domestic lives. Because, the NATO can not deter the common people not to beat up their wives.
    Women are now publicly allowed (by the government) to work, educate and even participate in the general elections, unlike during the Taliban when the women were beaten up by the personnel of Amri bil Marouf wa Nahi Anil Munkir, the department of Promoting Virtue and Forbiding the Sins within the Taliban government; by not accompanying a male Mahram relative when going out of their homes. There were even no Madrass’as for women to get Islamic education during the Taliban.

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  • Proud Christian
    Dec 1, 2011 - 8:15PM

    @Yuri Kondratyuk:
    I thought the highest number of honor crimes in India are from UP or some state like that and i just yesterday i read a news in which a minor girl was raped by 3 hindu boys.

    Just curious why did you mention Muslim

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  • muhammed
    Dec 2, 2011 - 5:15AM

    before having a soft corner in your heart for these creatures called Talibans, do read the book ”TALIBAN” by ahmed rushdi!!!

    Recommend

  • Farhan
    Dec 2, 2011 - 3:30PM

    @muhammed:
    Sir its Ahmed rashid, good book though.

    Recommend

  • Yuri Kondratyuk
    Dec 2, 2011 - 6:07PM

    @Proud Christian:

    My previous reply was deleted by mods.

    1) My reply was in context to @Sajida’s post. Read the original post before you get all Pavolovian on me. My context was the application of the sacred shariah law that persistently victimizes the rape victim rater than the perpetrator. The fallacy of argument was that implying NATO was somehow responsible for the social evils of Afghanistan.

    2) The crimes cited by you have indeed happened in India, but, please be as kind as to give their reply in the context of my comments. BTW, UNODC statistics show that crime rate in Pakistan is more than twice that of India. So, I am sure that even UP is in fact safer than any part of Pakistan.

    Recommend

  • Proud Christian
    Dec 2, 2011 - 10:18PM

    @Yuri Kondratyuk:
    Well sorry for that. And no India is not safer. It is just marginally better. While we are on number 20, you are on number 26 on the crime rate according to South Asia investor.

    Recommend

  • climp
    Dec 2, 2011 - 10:24PM

    What these jihadi geeks fail to realize is that their increased exposure and use of technology has made easier for them to be hunted down and killed. It has also helped in allowing the ‘target audiences’ to better appreciate and understand the threat that jihadi’s pose to their way of life.

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  • climp
    Dec 2, 2011 - 10:25PM

    @SalSal: yes we already know that. They murder women and rape little boys.

    Recommend

  • Spirit
    Dec 2, 2011 - 10:50PM

    @Yuri Kondratyuk: These crimes are indeed sad. But when will you understand that Sharia law is not the problem. It is the people who use Sharia as a front but in fact are not using it at all.

    Recommend

  • Yuri Kondratyuk
    Dec 3, 2011 - 12:01AM

    @Proud Christian:

    India is not safer. It is just
    marginally better. While we are on
    number 20, you are on number 26 on the
    crime rate according to South Asia
    investor.

    Respected Sir, I salute your logical and data interpretation capabilities

    Recommend

  • nomi
    Dec 3, 2011 - 1:02AM

    Unfortunately pakistanis are so polarized that either you are on one side or the other.

    When we say that Taliban are fighting the NATO this means that anyone would fight the invaders. Its not just taliban, every occupation is fought by the native people or is at least hated if they are unable to fight. Vietnam is a prime example.

    Now as far as agreeing with the Taliban is concerned, not even their moral fathers agree with their version of the sharia. Hameed Gul admtited in many programs that he never agreed with the Taliban on their intrepretation of the religion. As simple is that.

    Recommend

  • Dec 3, 2011 - 11:27AM

    @Yuri Kondratyuk: You have focussed and identified your opinion on a bunch of myopic hardline mullas. It is very shocking to read this but you do find crackheads all over the world in padres, rabbis and others. So dont get obsessed and epoxyed on this opinion. Peace to SAARC, North and South Korea, Palestine, Kashmir and wherever US forces are.

    Recommend

  • The anonymous
    Dec 3, 2011 - 8:59PM

    @zalim singh:

    Well it can be proved using medical facilities and in Islam such evidence is totally acceptable even if you don’t have witnesses.

    Recommend

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