The Taliban's massive social media presence that's being ignored

The Taliban's massive social media presence that's being ignored
Analysis: The United States has spent countless man hours working to counter Islamic State's online presence - but has neglected to do the same in Afghanistan, writes Austin Bodetti.
4 min read
20 November, 2017
The US has been fighting in Afghanistan since 2001 [Getty]
After the rise of the Islamic State in 2014, the United States response was not only through force on the ground - but also against its perceived conquests on social media. 

The militants had spread effectively across Facebook, Twitter, and even Instagram, effectively expanding into the online hearts and minds of the misaffected everywhere. 

Now, the Federal Bureau of Investigation continues to stalk social networking sites to catch Americans interested in joining IS and to help American warplanes identify targets for airstrikes.

The National Security Agency is launching cyber attacks designed by the same hackers who built Stuxnet, while the US Air Force is bombing militants who forget to switch off geolocation on their phones.

Few would argue that Americans have failed to acknowledge and meet the apparent online threat presented by IS.

By comparison however, the Taliban has fought American soldiers for well over a decade and used the Internet for even longer - yet it has encountered no such similar response.

Instead, Afghan insurgents have flourished on social media while Western intelligence, law enforcement, and news agencies have focused their attention on IS. One of the US' oldest enemies on the battlefield (and online) receives the least recognition from a superpower rarely preoccupied with the minutiae of the War on Terror.

Al-Emarah runs Telegram channels in six languages: Arabic, Dari, English, Pashto, Turkish, and Urdu

To gain an insight into this murky world, The New Arab combed the Taliban's somewhat-hidden but well-known presence on its two favorite Internet messaging platforms: Telegram and WhatsApp.

The insurgents have named their in-house news agency "al-Emarah" after their ill-fated attempt at governance between 1996 and 2001, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Al-Emarah runs Telegram channels in six languages: Arabic, Dari, English, Pashto, Turkish, and Urdu, in addition to WhatsApp chat rooms in Dari and Pashto.

Though the English channel struggles with spelling and the insurgents rarely update the Turkish one, all six Telegram channels and an unknown number of WhatsApp groups allow the Taliban to disseminate its ideology whenever and wherever it wants.

Sometimes, the insurgents' online enterprises can prove entertaining. Earlier this year, Taliban leader and self-described "Commander of the Faithful" Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada asked Afghans to plant more trees in the name of environmentalism and Islam.

On other occasions, however, the Taliban's posts to Telegram have forecast more alarming implications.

Last year, the insurgents requested donations so that, as they claimed, they could finance care for Afghan orphans and widows. The Taliban made a similar request in 2012, that time pleading for money for weapons.

According to the book The Taliban's Virtual Emirate: The Culture and Psychology of an Online Militant Community, the insurgents first sought online donations as early as 1998, when the Taliban needed cash to fund its war against the Northern Alliance and its Indian and Russian allies.

The insurgents have employed social media for more creative purposes, creating Facebook profiles of attractive women to trick Western soldiers into disclosing intelligence. Their affiliates in Pakistan even tried to recruit propagandists for an online magazine through a Facebook page.

Read more: Selfie jihadi: Inside al-Qaeda's Snapchat network

The social networking site soon closed the page, in keeping with its cooperation with law enforcement agencies. The Taliban's short-lived YouTube channel, opened in 2009 and suffered a similar fate.

Little suggests that the US has dedicated as many resources to combating the Taliban online as it has to IS, even though Western soldiers have experienced the phenomenon firsthand: in 2011, a Taliban propagandist engaged an American press officer in an argument online.

Only GhostSec, a hacker group purporting to fight Islamic extremism, has attempted to thwart the Taliban's push into new media. The insurgents have on occasion sabotaged themselves, such as when one of the insurgents' spokesmen forgot to BCC his email list in 2012 or when the other tweeted his location in Pakistan in 2014 - but these mishaps seem minor at most. On the battlefield and social media, the insurgents have become ascendant as their competition disappeared.

Whereas IS is collapsing across the Middle East, the Taliban remains strong in Afghanistan and is killing Americans to this very day.

American soldiers returning to the country may prompt the US to reconsider how it has allocated resources for its proactive cyber defense. Until then, the Taliban will continue to enjoy the benefits of Internet messaging platforms and social networking services.

Austin Bodetti is a freelance journalist focusing on conflict in the greater Middle East and a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College majoring in Islamic Civilization and Societies and studying Arabic and Persian. 

He has reported from Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, South Sudan and Thailand, and his writing has appeared in Motherboard, The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, Wired, and Yahoo News.