As the volatile situation in Afghanistan develops, these complex and rapidly evolving events have migrated online. ActiveFence has investigated the use of social media platforms by extremist Islamist factions to provide information for those working in Trust and Safety as the need for new policies and community guidelines increases.
At the start of August, the world began to witness the swift return of the Taliban to power and the fall of Afghanistan’s democratically elected government. The Sunni extremist and fundamentalist Islamist movement violently retook thirty-two of Afghanistan’s provincial capitals in nine days, with Kabul, the country’s capital, falling last. Today, only one province, Panjshir, remains free under the rule of the “Northern Alliance” and Afghanistan’s former Vice President.
Twenty years after their expulsion, the Taliban has renamed Afghanistan as “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” and continues to expand and toughen its grip. As the Taliban cements its rule on the ground with military force, the group has weaponized the online realm as well, utilizing social sharing platforms to further consolidate its control.
Tracing online activity, ActiveFence outlines how the Taliban and terror groups are abusing social platforms and are quickly capitalizing on the ambiguities within platform policies that seek to protect users and keep platforms clear of terror, violence and extremism.
Shahada Flag Of The Taliban
The Taliban Takes To Social Media
Currently the Taliban is not designated as an foreign terrorist organization (FTO) by the US, yet it is by the UN Security Council. This variance creates a grey classification about the terrorist nature of the organization, which has enabled Taliban leaders to effectively utilize social media platforms openly to promote their narrative, organization, and jihadist ethos and actions. Additionally, the Taliban uses sophisticated social media practices to avoid violation of online rules. Their management of uploaded content ensures that their uploads do not breach community guidelines and can remain on these platforms since guidelines prohibit graphic, violent, and gory media.
Taliban Public Relations Campaign: Legitimizing Rule
After the Taliban’s capture of most of Afghanistan the organization’s official and affiliated social media accounts promoted propaganda seeking to legitimize and normalize the organization’s conquest of Afghanistan. Sharing Taliban news, these accounts spread the Taliban’s political messaging and intimidate their enemies into surrender and submission.
Videos uploaded to these channels include Taliban members declaring that the future Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan would be created peacefully, which would put an end to democracy. Glorifying Islamic martyrdom, the Taliban calls for continued fighting until the full establishment of an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan has been completed, with the implementation of strict Sharia law.
These videos seek to demonstrate the organization’s advance, strength, and legitimacy to take Afghanistan.
Digital Promotion of Taliban Laws, Ethos and Action
Already, official accounts are sharing graphic images of child martyrs, celebrating their death and encouraging violent jihad. Graphic content glorifies the martyrdom of dead infants, teenagers and men.
We are witnessing the Taliban utilize these platforms to instill its laws, sharing announcements limiting free speech and movement in their effort to silence critics and adversaries, and enforce their strict interpretation of Sharia law in the country. Arrests of Afghans who, in their eyes, share anti Taliban sentiment online, are broadcasted throughout Taliban social media. In particular, Taliban accounts proclaim that online support of India will result in arrest.
The Taliban is moving quickly, already trying to control social media, limiting freedom of expression.
ISIS Joins the Digital Fight
An important development following the recent capture of Afghanistan is the vehement rivalry between the Taliban, a jihadi movement with nationalist orientations, and ISIS and it’s local branch, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). This development is displayed online, exhibiting another example of terror organizations utilizing social media to spread violence and extremism.
We have observed how in numerous private messaging groups ISIS supporters slam the Taliban as “apostate traitors who deserve to die.” ISIS rejects the Taliban claiming that because they do not follow Sharia law strictly, nor swear allegiance to the ISIS Caliph, and are nationalist, the group should be annihilated. These allegations are shared on a variety of ISIS online channels with video publications, entire magazine articles, and posters detailing the organization’s position.
Further ISIS messaging glorifies the terror attacks on 9/11 to claim the mantle from Osama bin Laden, and uses online platforms to declare that an invasion of the US will occur. Claiming that the US gave Afghanistan to the Taliban to guard the country against ISIS, and prevent the establishment of the Caliphate there, ISIS urges online social media users to choose the right path and join the ISIS’ holy war against the Taliban and the US.
Managing The Online Conflict
The potential ensuing three-way conflict between the Taliban and its allies, the Northern Alliance and its allies, and the ISIS forces, has the potential to draw recruits from across the world to Afghanistan. The conflict, waged online and on the battlefield, will likely be used to radicalize vulnerable users from across the world.
While social platforms have implemented varying policies regarding illegal violent activities, there is not yet a cohesive decision from technology platforms regarding the Taliban. In light of the recent conflict, some platforms have moved to define the Taliban as a dangerous organization and ban it from their platforms, while others choose to remove specific violating content instead. Furthermore, select platforms are working to implement policy to protect users from potential Taliban reprisals. For instance, Facebook added a “one-click” way for Afghans to instantly lock their accounts and hide posts on their timeline, preventing anyone outside their network from downloading or sharing their profile picture.
The Taliban’s continued ability to present themselves online enables them to propagandize and embolden their supporters and convince external parties to pursue limited future interference. In our exclusive report, ActiveFence researchers dive into the existing threats of these dangerous online actors, share implications for the future, and expose rising threats from terror organizations outside of the Taliban.
ActiveFence will continue to monitor the situation across all platforms as it develops, supporting our partners to keep their users safe.