• The Taliban Influencer

    The Taliban Influencer

    Before they took Kabul, the Islamists took the internet. A jihadi social media star reveals how his smartphone has become mightier than the AK-47 

    Published in Focus Magazin (Germany) in October 2021

    He grins and waves at camera. “Peace be upon you!” greets the Talib in his local Pashto language, stroking his black beard. The noise of car horns and the calls of the muezzin blare in the background. It is just after midday in Kabul and the man who calls himself Uqab Afghan has finished his guard duty. Now he has time for a video call via Whatsapp.

    Uqab Afghan means “Afghan eagle” but the man’s real name is Mullah Muhamad Rasol. He is 28 years old, married and father of two daughters and a son. He was born and raised in a village in Parwan province, one hundred kilometers north of Kabul, and has been fighting as a ‘simple soldier’ for the Taliban since he was 18.

    Rasol has been policing the streets of Kabul since the Islamists took control of the country in mid-August. And he also works for the Taliban’s media department, which is becoming more important and professional. The new Islamic Emirate has been using a new weapon to great effect, a weapon that could be mightier than a Kalashnikov or a suicide bomber: the smartphone.

    Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries on earth, yet internet usage has surged in recent years. About 40 percent of Afghans have access to the Internet and 90 percent to a mobile phone, a study from 2018 found. ‘Social media, no longer merely a novelty or plaything of the rich, had become a pillar of Afghan civic life’, says a report by the Atlantic Council.     

    To secure their power the Taliban increasingly rely on digital propaganda distributed via social media. Therefore Rasol has been running Taliban accounts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter long before they conquered the entire country. Some accounts were blocked when platforms took action against his propaganda, which cost him many thousands of followers, as he complains. But at the moment he can spread photos, YouTube videos and audio messages almost without restrictions.  

    The tweets he sends under his nom de guerre show the Taliban handing out candy in the streets or flying captured Black Hawk helicopters. There’s an image of schoolgirls sitting as faceless figures wrapped in black veils in a classroom and images. And he documented a visit of a Taliban delegation in Katar on Twitter. Rasol also puts himself into some pictures. In one shot he sits in a TV studio, in another he poses with an M4 assault rifle and tweets cheekily a smiley with the words “Let’s go!”

    Muhamad Rasol essentially runs a digital marketing campaign for the new Afghan Emirate. You could call him one of the first Taliban influencers. And the fact that he gives interviews to Western media is part of the Islamist’s rebranding campaign.

    There is a particular hardness in Rasol’s face. For most of his life he has only seen war, death and misery. But his demeanor also exhibits the vanity of the social media narcissist. ‘There is jihad with guns and jihad with words. The intellectual jihad is much more effective,’ he says. 

    Rasol sounds relaxed and clearly enjoys the attention. He seems to be flattered that journalists from all over the world want to speak to him. In his eyes that makes the Taliban’s victory, and his personal victory, even greater.

    According to analysts the work of Rasol and other media activists was crucial for the Taliban’s triumph that shocked the West. ‘Today’s Taliban are extremely tech-savvy and familiar with social media – they have nothing in common with the Islamists of 20 years ago,’ analyst Rita Katz, who studies online extremism for the SITE Intelligence Group, recently told the Washington Post. In just nine days, 70,000 Taliban overran the country and defeated a 300,000-strong Afghan army that surrendered almost without a fight.

    In fact, the Taliban had meticulously planned their final campaign and with an emphasis on psychological warfare. According to a study by the magazine Wired around 38,000 propaganda messages were published online in the year before the American withdrawal and the conquest of Kabul. Every attack, small or big, was stylized online as further proof of the impending victory, which created a sense of momentum and inevitability. 

    Smartphone videos of victorious commanders and humiliated prisoners spread rapidly on WhatsApp channels among the local population. With every meter of territory the Taliban conquered the propaganda tsunami grew – and eventually swept away nearly all resistance. As a result it was tweets and posts that led to the fall of Kabul – not bullets.

    The extremists understood the famous dogma of the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu who famously said that ultimate victory is to break the enemy’s resistance without fighting. 

    Since holding power the Taliban have changed the narrative of their communication. The new rulers want to present themselves as a forgiving force that brings stability and order. Their reputation as stone age Islamists originated in their draconian rule until 2001, with public executions and a ban on music and film. Today’s Taliban portray themselves as moderates – at least by their standards.

    But online there is also ample evidence that shows the opposite. There are clips depicting executions and kidnappings of opponents. Many Afghans were particularly shocked by the murder of the popular comedian Khasha Zwan, a social media star, who made fun of everything and everyone on TikTok, including the Taliban, and was filmed on the way to his execution.

    ‘All enemies have been forgiven,’ says Rasol, ‘we don’t want to intimidate anyone”. Rather, he wants to point out ‘the good deeds’ that the Taliban do every day and which he claims to be overlooked by the Western media.

    Twitter, however, has only half-heartedly prevented the Taliban from spreading their propaganda as long as their posts don’t violate the network’s guidelines. Conservative politicians in the USA complain that Donald Trump has been excluded from Twitter while Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen, who has half a million followers, has been able to make the network his most important communication tool.

    But that’s not the only dilemma the social media companies are facing. The Taliban rely on social media to govern the country and to provide security. When Facebook blocked official Taliban accounts on WhatsApp a hotline for victims of violence was also no longer available, which had been criticised by aid workers.

    But according to experts that should not mean that the Taliban’s communication should be less regulated. Analyst Rita Katz warns: Even propaganda that does not violate the rules of the networks fuel an ‘extremely dangerous and militant global Islamist movement.’

    The fact that the technology of the archenemy works to their advantage is ‘a particular pleasure,’ says Rasol. ‘We love it when we can turn our enemies’ weapons against them.’ The Talib learned to read and write in a madrassa, a Koran school. His father was a mujahideen who had fought against the Soviets. Rasol’s dream has always been to become a mujahideen and to fight for the Taliban.

    In all these years he never got a salary, says Rasol. The fighters were given food by villagers. His brother runs a business and provides for the entire family. One brother works, two brothers fight, that’s how it is in many families, he says. His first cell phone was an old Nokia which he felt a little ashamed of. Now he owns a cheap Samsung smartphone with a data package setting him back 120 afghanis per month, around € 1.50 euros. 

    Does he watch Youtube or Netflix? Does he like Kim Kardashian’s or Cristiano Ronaldo’s posts on Instagram? Is he exploring the wacky, Western and utterly un-Islamic world of digital media?

    “I have seen so much suffering and pain, so many of my friends have died as martyrs, there is no place in my life for easy entertainment,” says Rasol. In his spare time he only listens to the audio messages of his leaders, he claims.

    Then we talk about his family and how the Taliban treat women. He wants to protect his daughters, they shouldn’t have to do any hard work, he says. He hopes that his children will become successful. But they should never become traitors and come under the influence of the West. ‘My children should always be loyal to their country and Islam,’ he says.

    As long as the Taliban rule, men like Rasol seem to be the future of the country. They were ideologically indoctrinated early on and have only seen war for most of their lives. Now, however, they are supposed to build a state – and protect it against the rival Islamists of ISIS-K.

    More than 180 people died after a bomb attack by Islamic State extremists during the chaotic evacuations at Kabul airport in late August and in the eastern provinces the Taliban are being attacked almost on a daily basis. IS terrorists have long been considered the leading media experts among extremists and their assaults in Afghanistan will also feed into their propaganda apparatus. 

    A new civil war is looming and this time it will also be an information war being fought out in the digital world. Rasol however hopes for peace: ‘The jihad is over. We no longer need jihadists. We will not allow war to be waged against our people on our soil.’

    Then he has to hang up. He wants to attend a friend’s wedding later today, the groom is a former prisoner that he hasn’ seen for 14 years. ‘It’s another very happy day,’ Rasol says and smiles. 

    A few hours after our conversation and the wedding, the Taliban influencer is back on the digital frontline. He tweets: ‘I spoke to a foreign journalist about my media work today. Will share the article shortly .. !!’