Back in the Day When Taliban Were Kings of Twitter

The preconceived notion of the Taliban's primitive use of technology doesn't hold up looking at their prolific social media machine

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Taliban combatants in Kabul, on Thursday
Taliban combatants in Kabul, on ThursdayCredit: Rahmat Gul/AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“Do you have a cellphone?” the “correspondent” asked the Taliban “ambassador,” Abdul Salam Zaeef. “What do you think, you idiot? You have questions and I don’t know whether I should answer or make your wife a widow,” responded the “ambassador.”

“We have cottage cheese containers connected by string, and we’ve run out of string. When you want to talk to someone you call, and if they answer, you go to his house and say, hello, what did you want to say?” Zaeef and the Taliban were shown in this old skit as pathetic figures, primitives ruling a shattered country.

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When the “correspondent” asks Zaeef if the Taliban would agree to hand over Osama bin Laden, Zaeef says: “We will, on condition that America under no circumstances doesn’t.” “Doesn’t what?” asks the puzzled correspondent. “Don’t know,” replies Zaeef.

Now, the Taliban know very well what they want, how to hold negotiations and handle sophisticated communications systems. They didn’t have smartphones back then. Even regular landline phones weren’t available everywhere in the country they ruled between 1996 and 2001. Operational communication was done through 2-way radios, many of them made in the U.S., remnants of the booty that fell into their hands after they got rid of the Mujahedeen warlords, who had waged a bloody civil war right after defeating the Soviet Union.

Civilian communication, which included draconian decrees transmitted to the population, was handled by the Taliban through wall posters, radio and TV broadcasts and dissemination of information to individuals, as well as through horrific public displays, in which they murdered, stoned, or burned anyone suspected of violating custom or religious law. Every such incident served as a terrifying media event, shown to the local population and to the world at large.

ISIS further developed these methods. The executions it carried out were well staged, hiring production experts, directors, photographers, and people who could articulate their message well. They often held rehearsals before the actual event. The group set up a media division called the “Al-Hayat Media Center,” which published a digital periodical called Dabiq, opened Facebook accounts and disseminated its content in English, German, Russian, and French, as well as in Arabic, turning social media into an effective weapon whose importance was greater than the weapons and ammunition it possessed.

But the Taliban preceded ISIS by several years when they set up their first official website in 2005, later placing all their spokesmen under the command and management of Zabihullah Mujahid. Despite the internal dissension among its factions, in one matter the general council of the group (the Quetta Shura) managed to gain consensus: propaganda would be subordinate to a central body.

In 2011, the Taliban joined Twitter, which became the main means of communication in Afghanistan after it was inundated with millions of smartphones. Access to the internet became available to 60 percent of the population. In 2016, they developed an application which reached the app store at Google, only to be instantly removed. The use of social media did not free the Taliban from the need to continue using traditional methods of communication, such as video recordings and “nighttime heralds,” which included issuing threats and warnings for the purpose of disseminating their teachings in villages in which access to the internet was limited, making social media irrelevant.

Propaganda officials were dispatched to remote areas in order to disseminate knowledge of the group’s heroic feats and to ensure that schools were teaching the “correct” material. Studies conducted by the Atlantic Council and Wired magazine showed the massive investment by the Taliban in the media campaign against the Afghan government and later against ISIS, mainly against its branch in Afghanistan. Last year alone, the Taliban published more than 38,000 messages, 45 times more than ISIS elements in the country had.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s official spokesman, did not manage the propaganda machine he was in charge of using cottage cheese containers tied together by string. He gave dozens of interviews, including to Western journalists, by cellphone or on social media, always without showing himself. His secrecy raised suggestions that he wasn’t a real person, but a group that had taken on the name of one person.

“It’s impossible for one man to take so many calls. It must be multiple people,” said one intelligence official to the New York Times in 2011. His first public appearance on August 17, sitting in the chair of the Afghan minister of communications (who had been murdered shortly before that), announcing the takeover of Kabul, dispelled any lingering doubt.

The difficult task facing him now is to construct a new image for the Taliban. Mujahid has made declarations on behalf of the Taliban promising not to infringe on human rights. Senior Taliban members were asked to visit and be photographed in factories in which women work, and to talk with them. Others were told to walk through the streets in civilian clothes, proudly displaying their expensive smartphones, in order to demonstrate the calm atmosphere and personal security citizens can now expect. Many of their posts are now directed against ISIS.

In Mujahid’s overloaded Twitter account, @Zabehulah_M33, there are over 37,000 registered followers, with many others joining every day. By the way, Abdul Salam Zaeef, the hero in the skit, has 117,000 followers. Zaeef was arrested and imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba in 2001 and released in 2005.

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