Though long hostile to social media, the Taliban regime readily embraced the haven on the Internet, setting up social media channels for propaganda purposes. These channels are fervently used to bolster an ‘acceptable’ image (of the Taliban) with a modern pretext. In reality, the Taliban regime is far from its glossy altruistic image broadcasted through social media. Official channels on instant messaging apps such as Telegram demonstrate how the Taliban aspire to advance their version of an autocratic theocracy while promoting an altruistic image. This opens the door to understanding not only the political outlook of the Taliban but with whom they would naturally connect, intrinsically forming alliances.
This Insight looks at two official Taliban Telegram channels. The analysis of these channels is backed up with semantic analysis on the official website of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, official Taliban Twitter accounts, and the news, analysis, and reports on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. This Insight focuses on how the Taliban regime fosters an acceptable social media pretext to cover up an otherwise ruthless fundamentalist organisation and the trajectory of their natural alliances in a rapidly changing world.
Afghan Taliban, for decades, has been a brutal extremist organisation famous for carrying out medieval punishments. Then a breed of ‘hipster’ Taliban brandishing designer sunglasses swarmed Kabul in August 2021. This is the perils of social media as it provides means to gloss out any medieval savagery with facades of glitz and glamour. Telegram offers the Taliban regime an image management platform. Though once shunned with a vengeance during their former regime (1996-2001), the Taliban embraced social media, fully aware of how they could build a positive image for themselves.
The Taliban adhere to extreme versions of Deobandi and Hanafi Islamic revivalist thoughts, seeking to revive a traditionalist or ‘purest’ form of Islam by implementing a strict interpretation of Sharia law (Islamic law). The Taliban regime readily established a Ministry to oversee ‘vice and virtue’, which is likely to be used for the crackdown on individual freedom. Evidence suggests that the Taliban regime in Kabul has not denounced its links to terrorism. For example, the regime is linked to proscribed foreign terrorist organisations such as the Haqqani Network with ties to al-Qaeda. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani Network, who carries a $10 million reward on the FBI’s most wanted list, became the Interior Minister of the Taliban’s new regime. Afghanistan under the Taliban is a textbook case of a failed state, producing profound international security implications: a haven for terrorism, organised crime, fundamentalism, infighting, social turmoil, economic disenfranchisement, inequality, insecurity, population displacements, and mass migration.
Conceptually, Afghanistan under the Taliban is ripe for a crime-terror continuum, creating a black hole state. In 2014, Phillips and Kamen explained how an organisation could enter a black hole state, or a sanctuary state, by using the Taliban as an example. The new regime in Kabul is poised to benefit from both the conceptual and empirical preconditions to develop a black hole state or a sanctuary where terrorism and organised crime could thrive. The Taliban are no strangers to organised crime. With economic hardships biting the new regime, their usual vocation of illegal profit generation has already started without any constraints. Production and trafficking of opium and heroin have long been the primary revenue of Afghanistan’s illegal narco-economy. The new regime in Kabul is back in business despite their promise to ban opium. The Taliban also participates in other criminal activities, working with human smugglers to arrange human cargo out of Afghanistan. With the Taliban and the Haqqani Network’s terrorism, organised crime, and fundamentalist authoritarianism finding sanctuary in Afghanistan, the following section will explore how these actors use their leverage to advance their networks worldwide.
Taliban Sanctuaries: Geographic, Electronic, Geopolitical
The Taliban regime makes use of three sanctuaries to give themselves a solid foothold to launch their version of fundamentalist authoritarianism with crime-terror links: geographic, electronic, and geopolitical.
The Taliban’s Geographic Sanctuary
The Taliban seized Afghanistan with the withdrawal of the US troops in August 2021 and established a regime rooted in fundamentalist authoritarianism. They implemented a strict version of Sharia law, removing the fundamental rights of the Afghan people. Under religious law, many petty crimes and behaviours are punishable by death. Women’s place in society is severely hampered, and economic disenfranchisement creates food insecurity and a humanitarian catastrophe. While the Taliban builds its desired geographic sanctuary in Afghanistan, it has created another sanctuary on social media, messaging apps, and the wider Internet. Unlike its elusive character in Afghanistan, its electronic sanctuary is accessible and presents an amicable front.
The Taliban’s e-Sanctuary
One of the Taliban-linked Telegram channels analysed captions Afghanistan as the ‘Pure Country’, possibly based on their interpretation of an undiluted and fundamentalist form of religion. There is an incredible absurdity between the words and actions of the Taliban. A Taliban official Twitter account tweeted the adage of their ‘Supreme Leader’ Hibatullah Akhundzada: “Be just and fair in all your work. Avoid bias whether based on ethnicity, geography, language, or cronyism.” A Twitter user sarcastically replied, “I wonder if that applies to women too.” A Taliban official Twitter account also cites the elusive leader of the Haqqani Network turned Interior Minister of the regime Sirajuddin Haqqani: “We have made the commitment to the world that we will not be a threat to them and made a commitment to our people that their life and property are secure.” The Taliban official spokesman also claimed “in Islam, rules are servants of people. They rule over the hearts of people, not their shoulders. It is one of our main goals.” The difference in perspective is evident. The Taliban emphasises the rule over the hearts through religious fervour rather than universal values such as equality, liberty, and justice.
Taliban social media and messaging channels provide contradictory details about their altruism. Taliban social media is full of photos and news about the charity work of the Taliban, distributing food and even currency notes to impoverished communities. This is despite its long-standing reputation as an accomplice of extortion, kidnapping, ransom, and other illegal activities. We must not forget that the Taliban narrative originates from a deep-rooted ideology, a value system, and a way of life. The Taliban may not be fooling the world; they believe what they preach. Despite a stark contrast in practice, the Taliban believe in their version of fundamentalism and fashion themselves as the followers of the purest form of religion. This is the danger of political religions since their followers blindly justify any conduct in the name of religious beliefs. Social media provides a space where narco, criminal, terrorist, and totalitarian groups such as the Taliban can build their image and attract followers. After conquering the geographic sanctuary in Afghanistan, the Taliban regime is now on a mission to develop its online presence.
Authoritarian Inc: Geopolitical Positioning
From the outset, the Taliban knew their incompatibility with liberal democracies. The irreconcilable differences in the core values between liberal democracy and autocratic religious fundamentalism stare in the face of the Taliban despite their desperation for approval from the international community. Taliban Telegram channels boast about how the Chinese Foreign Minister welcomed the formation of the Taliban government. China started to leverage its geopolitical and economic interests in Afghanistan, slowly building ties with the Taliban. Countries such as China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan supported the Taliban regime, including the initial Chinese aid of $31 million. Pakistan is the Taliban’s long-term enabler, driven by the desire to have its proxy in Afghanistan but not without the risks. Additionally, the Taliban’s official Telegram channels describe Qatar as a “brotherly country”, and an arbitrator for peace. The Taliban regime naturally gravitates towards the orbit of China and other autocratic regimes, trying to forge ties where the Taliban would be viewed in amicable terms.
Strategically, autocratic regimes see the Taliban regime in Afghanistan within their expanding sphere of power and influence. The autocratic sphere of power in a failed state makes things easier for the Chinese geostrategic ambitions, given the vast natural resources of Afghanistan. The Taliban’s relationship with authoritarian regimes can have many complications, such as in the case of Saudi Arabia, where the regional tensions with Iran and Turkey would distance it from the Taliban. However, the natural geopolitical sanctuary for the Taliban irrevocably lies with authoritarian regimes. The Taliban can thrive as the attention of the West is now fixed on much more significant problems such as the rise of China and belligerent Russia. The rise of global authoritarianism and democratic backsliding create the necessary preconditions for the Taliban regime.
Conceptually, the Taliban regime has already succeeded in becoming a fundamentalist-crime-terror organisation, ruling over Afghanistan. After securing their physical sanctuary, the Taliban is hard at work reaching out to international audiences over the Internet. Ominously, with the rise of global authoritarianism, the Taliban is offered a geopolitical foothold to build ties with autocratic regimes such as China. The current Taliban regime in Afghanistan sets a chilling precursor, where a fundamentalist-crime-terror organisation achieves geographic, electronic, and even geopolitical footholds.