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From ‘Night Letters’ to the Internet: Propaganda, the Taliban and the Afghanistan Crisis

From ‘Night Letters’ to the Internet: Propaganda, the Taliban and the Afghanistan Crisis
16th August 2021 Kabir Taneja
In Insights

The fast-unfolding crisis in Afghanistan, spearheaded by the Taliban’s territorial juggernaut and the fall of Kabul, also became a significant war of narratives. However, unlike traditional and social media use of other jihadist groups such as Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda, the Taliban does not operate in the shadows, but uses every media avenue possible to get its narrative out not just to the people of Afghanistan, but a worldwide audience.

A large section of Afghanistan being rural, tribal, uneducated, and not very connected with the Internet allows (although this has changed significantly since the early 2000s) the Taliban to use a mixture of old and new strategies to get their communications across. One of the most effective ways the Taliban has communicated with rural Afghanistan for years is using ‘night letters’ or shabnamah. Night letters are in effect on-paper communiques usually delivered by hand during the night to a village, a group or an individual or pasted on the wall of the local mosque of a locality, threatening consequences if the people or individual in question who did not follow the diktats. These letters, popularised during the mujahideen’s war against Soviet Union, are seen as a common means of intimidation to establish control over local communities using folklore, poems, and even music, as themes to anchor the messaging through.

Scholar Thomas H Johnson has highlighted in his work that such messaging has historically been critical to social mobilisation in Afghanistan, whether for peaceful or violent purposes. In 2021, the age of the Internet and hyper-communications, the shabnamah is still being used as a proven and effective mode of communication with tribal and rural Afghanistan by the Taliban as the insurgency makes significant ground on back of the US withdrawal.

The Taliban, like any other modern insurgency and terror group, uses communication and narratives as the second most potent weapon, only after actual weapons. While many Afghans are not connected to the Internet via smartphones, enough now have access to messaging services and apps such as WhatsApp, Telegram and so on, for the Taliban to have a strong approach towards online narratives. According to the World Bank, in 2000, Internet usage in Afghanistan was at 0%, and in 2018 11.5% of Afghans had access to the same. In the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, as the Taliban took over, Facebook became a critical tool to access local information by civilians who had dug-in to let the fighting pass. However, there is a significant difference in what the Taliban is able and capable to do online, using various platforms, compared to others such as IS and al-Qaeda.

The crossover from offline messaging and propaganda to online has already seen clashes on the sidelines of the conflict. As the Taliban took control of more territory, thousands of Afghans protested the group, using the chants of ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is great) on social media and on the streets of Kabul, making it into a trend that reflected on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Telegram and even Instagram (largely by expat communities). While the trend is portrayed as an act of defiance against the Taliban, it has historical connotations as far as the Taliban’s history is concerned. According to some accounts, the mujahideen used night letters during the war against the Soviets to coordinate with villages and cities, including Kabul, to collect on their rooftops at night time to chant ‘Allahu Akbar’ as an act of defiance against the ‘secular communism’ of Moscow. Fast forward to 2021, and the cooption of the chant by those against the Taliban in Afghanistan and the online sphere worldwide irked the Taliban so much, that the group released a statement via its official spokesperson on Twitter saying that ‘Allahu Akbar’ was a motto belonging to the mujahideen, and not one to be used by “American slaves and secularists.” However, unlike the 1980s when there was no Internet, the anti-Taliban trend this time made it big on global news cycles.

The Taliban’s digital footprint can be traced back to the 2005-06 period when parts of its website, named Alemara, went online. Today the website and its content is available in Dari, Pashto and English, much like most of the official and semi-official social media handles that are either run by or run in support of the Taliban. On social media, the Taliban has an expansive presence, led by its use of Twitter. It is important to remember here that the Taliban is not officially designated as a terrorist group by the US, giving it legitimacy to use Western social media tools without the threat of repercussion. As another example, Alemara is hosted via Cloudflare, a San Francisco based online services provider.

The Taliban’s social media presence is led by three main figures, Zabiullah Mujahid, spokesperson of the ‘Islamic Emirate’ who has over 255,000 followers on Twitter. Next is Dr M Naeem, spokesperson for the political office in Doha, Qatar, who has over 178,000 followers, and finally, Suhail Shaheen, Taliban in charge of foreign media, who has nearly 300,000 followers. Together, the three representing Taliban’s official narrative on Twitter, have nearly 800,000 followers. Twitter, as a platform, legally or as per American terrorism listings, can host them without issues as the group negotiated with the US and other countries towards a political resolution in Afghanistan. However, an interesting question arises here, that as a group involved in mass atrocities and killings, does Twitter as a platform have a moral and ethical responsibility off its own merit to curtail the Taliban’s very effective use of its platform to develop a global image while it perpetrates violence on the ground?

Over the past month, the Taliban’s narratives presented via social media have been, in an often-unquestioned manner, lapped up by mainstream media without independent verifications and other fact-based checks and balances. Pro-Taliban accounts and their claims gathered much more traction than information being released by official Afghanistan government accounts attempting to counter these narratives. Previously, accounts such as Zabiullah Mujahid would tweet two to three times per day. Now, as the Taliban gained ground, these accounts tweet nearly 50 tweets per day, getting immense traction by getting picked up by mainstream news organisations. In comparison, a study published in September 2020 by scholar Hazrat M Bahar, months before the current crisis, highlights that both Zabiullah Mujahid’s Twitter account and Afghan Ministry of Defence Twitter account posted on average 13-15 tweets per day. Drastically lower at least for the Taliban as of July 2021.  The shock value of the Taliban’s victories on the ground allows their narratives to gain a similar level of pace online as it is offline, which becomes difficult to counter in real time in a conflict zone by both official government handles and private fact-checking and counter-narrative ecosystems.

To put it in perspective further, when the first pictures of the Taliban inside the seized Presidential Palace in Kabul emerged, there were almost as many Taliban members armed with video cameras and smartphones as those brandishing guns. The presence of smartphones everywhere around the Taliban’s rise despite the low-level Internet penetration in Afghanistan is a fixture of modern times in every sense of the term, as both clicks and Kalashnikovs become part of the future of modern warfare, terrorism and violent extremism. Here, scholar Martine van Bijlert notes that “the Taliban appear to have media teams accompanying their fighters as they take control of the cities or, at the very least, an intentional media engagement strategy. Much of the footage seeks to convey a message of law and order and seems intended to reassure and intimidate in equal measure.”

The legitimacy the Taliban gained by online platforms, emboldened on the sidelines of the Doha process, and its violent and extremist ways raises significant questions over individual platforms and their own counter-extremist and counter-terrorism policies. Whether legal clearance given to an insurgency or terror group purely due to political strategy or prudence of a state’s foreign policy is a good enough reason to allow such groups digital legitimacy as well is a question that merits a strong debate.