Since the Taliban took control in Kabul on Sunday, the world has witnessed eerie and horrific scenes from the Afghan capital: people scrambling to secure passports, heartbreaking footage of Afghans clinging to flying planes (and later falling to their deaths), and pictures of women being covered up from public view.
But amid the chaos and uncertainty that has gripped the war-torn nation as it again faces life under Taliban rule, another set of videos shows members of the fundamentalist group engaging in almost childlike playfulness at local theme park rides and in a workout facility.
In one viral clip emerging in recent days, two men shared a ride in a bumper car while holding onto what appear to be rifles. Outside the rink, people looked on.
Meanwhile, another video shows bearded men perched on small painted ponies on a merry-go-round.
Yet another video showed armed men using the gym. In the recording, a man pedals backwards fiercely on an elliptical machine while another is seen holding what appears to be a rocket launcher.
Sajjan M. Gohel, a security and terrorism expert specializing in Islamist ideology, told VICE World News that the videos of purported Taliban members having fun at the gym and amusement park sheds light on how “sheltered” they’ve been from the outside world.
“They will have never experienced places like this before, other than rigid ideological training,” he said.
The widely shared videos could not be independently verified, but they are in line with some of the reporting that has emerged in the days since the takeover by the Taliban, which is projecting a softer image and promising to uphold many basic rights even as skepticism of the vows runs deep.
Gohel noted that the Taliban has become more media savvy than they were in the 1990s due to greater exposure to technology and increased interactions with the West. He also highlighted the value of these videos as propaganda “to try and show a softer, perhaps more clownish side” of the notoriously cruel organization.
In a tweet on August 15, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen advised the Islamist fighters to “pay utmost attention” to public facilities that are the “trust and property of the nation.”
In Mazār-i-Sharīf, a city north of Kabul, Taliban members were seen snacking and sprawled about the opulent residence of Abdul Rashid Dostum, a warlord who reportedly fled the country when his city fell to the Taliban on Saturday in their breakneck advance on Kabul.
But many are justifiably suspicious of the Taliban’s hands-off approach so far.
“It's important not to be taken in by this propaganda,” said Gohel, citing the group’s continuous repression of civil liberties. “The Taliban have not changed, and their misogynistic doctrine remains intact.”
The hard-line Islamist group, which was in power from 1996 to 2001, is infamous for its brutal treatment of Afghan civilians, having used stoning, amputations, and executions to enforce their interpretation of Shariah law, while also prohibiting women from getting a complete education, listening to music, and moviegoing.