A photo taken at Kabul’s Government Media Information Center on Tuesday captured a surreal moment: two Taliban officials arranging a white Taliban flag before a press conference, one of them wearing what appears to be an Apple watch.
Moments later, Zabhihullah Mujahid, a spokesperson for the hard-line group, appeared in front of news cameras for the very first time. Seated behind a stack of more than a dozen microphones, he delivered a message of peace to the people of Afghanistan and the world at large. At the end of the conference, the long-elusive spokesperson spent more than 20 minutes taking questions from journalists, including women and international reporters, many of whom were tweeting about the event. At one point he declared that such news conferences were to be a mainstay of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan going forward.
This was a far cry from the fundamentalist, technophobic Taliban of yore. When the extremist organisation ruled the country between 1996 and 2001, most electronic products were outlawed for being contrary to Islam doctrine. Taliban commander Mohammed Omar famously refused to be photographed; the act of watching a video cassette could lead to a public lashing; and militants were known to destroy television sets in acts of Luddite defiance.
But that was 20 years ago. The militants roaming Kabul this week, tweeting from the capital, sending WhatsApp messages to journalists and doing vox pops on the street, are members of what many have dubbed Taliban 2.0: a group that has embraced modernity, seized control of its own narrative and started wielding technology for its own political gain.
“It’s clear that they’ve mastered the art of having a PR machine, being able to promote their messages and get their word out there,” Raffaello Pantucci, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, who specialises in Jihadist groups and terrorist organisations, told VICE World News. “They’ve got a social media presence, they can see the value of getting their message out, and they are pretty adept at doing it … they’ve become quite sophisticated in that way.”
Gone are the days of video-taped declarations filmed in caves and mailed out to the international press. The Taliban now disseminate these messages in much the same way as everyone else: through websites, spokespeople, Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and, importantly, WhatsApp messages that are encrypted by default, meaning they can't be easily intercepted by Facebook moderators or military intelligence.
It’s possible that these social networks were instrumental in the Taliban’s lightning-fast conquest of Afghanistan. By utilising WhatsApp as a public mouthpiece, a direct line to the people, the group was able to launch a sophisticated PR and propaganda campaign that essentially persuaded Afghans to lay down their arms by convincing them that the extremist group was fierce but magnanimous; indomitable, but forgiving towards those who surrendered without resistance.
Rather than engage in armed conflicts that they in fact had no chance of winning, the Taliban appear to have used cell phones and DMs to bluff their way to victory by convincing civilians and enemy soldiers that defeat was inevitable, prompting them – and in some cases bribing them – to surrender so as to avoid the unnecessary bloodshed.
By the time the relatively meagre Taliban forces showed up at various towns, cities, and outposts, their victory had been prearranged. They were met with almost no formal resistance, and quickly went about the business of assuming the roles and responsibilities of government.
They then used social media to aid them further, setting up WhatsApp helplines so civilians could liaise directly with their new Taliban overlords. Shortly after conquering Kabul, the group posted on social media a series of WhatsApp numbers that city residents could allegedly use to contact a “complaints commission” and report any issues.
Not only is such an insurgency – one waged in cyberspace and using a kind of psychological gaslight as a means of disabling the opposition – somewhat unprecedented, it also would have been impossible 20 years ago when the Taliban were last in power. Internet connections, smartphones, and free social media services like WhatsApp have ushered in a new age of connectivity in Afghanistan. It was only in 2002, following the U.S. invasion, that easily accessible internet was introduced to the country. Now almost 20 percent of the population are considered regular users.
For a group that appears keen to reshape its image and cast itself as a peaceful and diplomatic improvement on the old model, the platform and level of engagement that this offers is invaluable to the Taliban. Where previously the group had minimal control over how people might interpret their dispatches to the outside world, now, according to Pantucci, they’re “much better at actually pushing their message out there and steering it in their direction.
“Over the past few years they have been quite active about pushing back when they see a story circulating that is untrue or against their interests, whereas previously I’m not sure that they were really able to do that in a quick way,” he said. “They’re better at understanding how the narrative is being shaped and how to shape it themselves, rather than others determining ‘well the Taliban said this and I interpreted it this way’ when in reality it might not have been their initial intention.”
To put it another way: the Taliban has discovered in communications technology a means of countering any claims made about them that they might perceive as fake news; of arming themselves with the right of reply and setting the public record “straight.” Of course, the other side of that coin is that the Taliban can use those same platforms to churn out fake news of their own—attempting not only to “correct” the narrative but to rewrite it. Social media, after all, may well be the most efficient and effective propaganda tool there is.
“In terms of how they can shape the international debate about themselves, rather than having it shaped for them, that’s important and has consequences for their capabilities and their ability to run the country,” said Pantucci. “If stories are constantly circulating about how door-to-door executions are happening or women’s rights are being trampled on, and those stories are the only narrative that’s coming out of Afghanistan, then it’ll be very difficult for whatever government comes to power to make the case that they should be engaged with as an international actor on a global stage.”
The group’s internet presence is not limited to a handful of social media managers, damage controllers, and spokespeople, either. Rita Katz, executive director of the Search for International Terrorist Entities (SITE) Intel Group – an NGO that tracks the online activity of jihadist organisations – told VICE World News that the Taliban's online infrastructure is so large and complex that “at times, one doesn’t even know they’re looking at it.”
“Virtually all of its members and supporters in Afghanistan are potential additions to its media machine, whether as on-the-ground photographers and videographers or self-described ‘journalists’ reporting about the group in a positive light,” Katz said. “Together, these parts comprise a sophisticated apparatus that the Taliban has learned to wield deftly. The group knows how to navigate different audiences while leveraging the features and censorship limits of different online platforms.”
It’s worth noting that this social media strategy – of laundering the Taliban’s public-facing brand and offering a gentle, more reassuring face to the organisation – is almost diametrically opposed to that which has been seen from other extremist groups like ISIS or Al Qaeda. While ISIS were in many ways pioneers of using social media to transmit ideological propaganda to a wide, global audience, their agenda was mainly driven by a campaign of fearmongering: fanning the flames of hysteria, sowing anxiety and amplifying their reputation as a clear and present danger through acts of literal online terrorism.
The Taliban’s approach is the opposite. While they may well be the same oppressive, medieval regime that inflicted tyranny upon the people of Afghanistan in the 90s, their online representatives and spokespeople are peddling a unified message of peace and equanimity.
“The Taliban is in full-on PR mode right now. Its propaganda and statements have been meticulously crafted to boost its reputation within the international community: promising safety to government workers, pledging productive engagement, and so on,” said Katz. “The group uses its intricate online machine to give a shape-shifting presentation of itself to the world, never deterred by how its actions contradict its stately promises of civility.”
It’s clear that the Taliban are capitalising on the benefits of 21st century life. Their willingness to adopt technology, engage with social and broadcast media and utilise the various channels of the internet to advance their own political agenda has undoubtedly made them a more influential force.
Pantucci stressed, however, that he believes the group’s “absorption of modernity” has been a passive transformation – a kind of cultural osmosis – rather than a conscious overhaul of the organisation from within.
“I don’t know that they’ve done anything dramatic to change,” he said. “I think all they’ve done is continue to adopt technology in much the same way as the rest of Afghanistan has.” The Taliban’s increased presence on their most frequently used apps – WhatsApp, Twitter, and to some extent Telegram – is, in his view, simply “a reflection of how people in Afghanistan use social media.
“Afghans and South Asians in general are very active on WhatsApp, so [the Taliban are] kind of echoing in some ways the medium of the world around them.”
It’s also worth noting that this shift away from traditionalist technophobia is not a sudden development. For more than 10 years, members of the Taliban have been using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and their own personal website, Voice of Jihad, to advance their ideological agenda. In 2019, a Taliban spokesperson told AFP “We are not against modern technology … This is the need of the hour and using it is not against Islamic Sharia.”
Gilles Dorronsoro, a scholar for the South Asia Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in a 2009 paper titled “The Taliban’s Winning Strategy in Afghanistan” that the organisation often distributed propaganda via cell phones and monitored local and foreign media. He noted that Mullah Dadullah, a key Taliban commander, had invited Al Jazeera to meet him on several different occasions, and that the Taliban subsequently cut together clips that portrayed him as “a herolike persona.”
Dorronsoro writes that “In this context, the conventional wisdom that the Taliban, being fundamentalists, are not open to new technologies has also been debunked by their sophisticated use of modern media for propaganda purposes.”
Nor have they limited their digital footprint to tweets and media appearances. In 2012, Taliban militants posted a video online of fighters attacking a U.S. military base in the eastern province of Khost. The footage, filmed from at least three angles, showed the extremists storming the base and engaging in combat with Western and Afghan forces – scenes that were later cut together into a slick propaganda video. It also showed them using satellite images to plan the raid on the base.
This is another worrying trait of Taliban 2.0 – their use of modern technologies to enhance their proficiency in combat. And it’s yet to be seen how it might manifest in the coming weeks, months and years.
“I think in terms of their ability to communicate on the battlefield using technology, mobile phones, social media applications, GPS – using all these various basic tools that we all now have at our disposal to function – that will undoubtedly make them a more effective fighting force on the battlefield,” said Pantucci. “It will also enable them, I’m sure, to control things a little bit better.”
The Taliban’s weaponisation of technology as a tool of oppression has raised concerns in recent days as the group takes possession of supplies and resources left behind by both Western and Afghan forces.
On Wednesday, The Intercept reported that Taliban militants had seized U.S. military biometrics devices – known as Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment, or HIIDE – that could aid in the identification of Afghans who assisted coalition forces. The devices, which use iris scans and fingerprints to identify individuals from a biometric database, were initially deployed as a means of tracking terrorists. Now, there are fears the Taliban could use them to single out and persecute Afghan civilians who assisted Western forces.
It is as yet unclear whether this is within the Taliban’s scope. Pantucci suggested that it’s unlikely the group would have the hardware or technical acumen to properly use the device – “If you've been living in a cave in Helmand for God knows how long, or even if you’ve been staying in a hotel in Doha for God knows how long, how are you going to know how to use some sort of biometric system?” – and that they wouldn’t be able to acquire the necessary skills overnight. He hasn’t seen any evidence to suggest that the Taliban, as a whole, have any specific expertise in utilising systems like this. Such fears as those raised in relation to the HIIDE devices seemed, he said, “a little hysterical to me.”
Pantucci also said that it’s possible foreign governments or agencies like Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence could assist the Taliban. But in terms of assessing the level of danger posed by the Taliban going forward, he indicated that it’s too early to tell – and that he’s in “wait and see mode.”
“I think the degree to which they’re able to absorb and use some of the technological capabilities that the Afghan government had in the military space or the societal space ... that will change as an organisation and make them a much more capable entity,” he said. “It could make them a more dangerous, worrying organisation going forward … [And] if they are able to crack the code of some of these more advanced technologies it might enable them to rule the country with a more iron fist, or impose their will down on people better. But we have to see.”
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Correction: An earlier version of this article included statements from an expert that has since been removed after further vetting. We regret the error.