Published in Huffington Post
“The latest sad news is that the Christian Crusaders (Americans) have burned a copy of the Holy Quran in Wardak province and have thus shown their enmity with Islam and the Muslims… The saddest aspect of this incident is that the American invaders have committed this heinous crime in a province (Wardak) that has been known for long as home to mujahedeen (the holy warriors). The people of this province have taken active part in past and current jihadi movements. The people of this province have always defended their country bravely and heroically. The people of this province had played a historical role in the war against British occupiers…”
The quote above comes from an article published in the latest issue of Shahamat (The Bravery), a Taliban propaganda magazine in Pashto — a language spoken by the ethnic Pashtuns across Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly the ungoverned tribal areas, now allegedly home to Al Qaeda, Taliban and other extremist networks of the region. The article is an example of how the Taliban’s propaganda tactics exploit a particular incident or issue by elevating it with seemingly related background information to provoke the local people to stand up for violence.
This example as well as numerous other tactics using traditional and modern media and effectively exploiting the religious, social, political, and tribal ties worked very well for the Taliban-led insurgents during their eight year long insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They (propaganda tactics) enabled the extremist groups to attract wider local and international support in terms of heavy recruitment and financial help and undermine the authority of both the governments. This turned out to be a headache for the international community which has now launched a multi-pronged strategy of launching an all-out campaign by adding more troops, arming and supporting the Pashtun tribes to fight against the Taliban, and devising a reconciliation and reintegration plan to peel away some mid level insurgent commanders and foot soldiers. Following is a look inside the Afghan Taliban’s successful propaganda tactics.
Mufti Latifullah Hakimi was the first full time and very active Taliban spokesman after the hardcore Islamic group fell from power and launched the bloody insurgency. When Pakistani security forces arrested him in October 2005, it was widely believed that this will significantly weaken the group’s propaganda against US forces and the Afghan government, but the Taliban were very quick in appointing two more spokesmen, Qari Mohammad Yousuf Ahmadi and Dr. Mohammad Hanif, who did not allow the propaganda war to slow down. Before Hakimi, Ustad Mohammad Yasir acted as head of the Taliban’s Information and Culture wing, but he was better known as a commander than a spokesman.
It is interesting that after coming into power in 1996 until their collapse in 2001, Taliban militants had banned all types of media except their propaganda Voice of Sharia radio and very few newspapers and magazines run under strict state control. The Supreme Leader, Mullah Omar, in his decrees had declared that using photographs and videos of human beings and animals was un-Islamic. But, after their collapse, when they re-organized their groups in Pakistan and the tribal areas and launched a guerilla war against the international forces and the Afghan government, they started using colorful magazines full of photographs of human beings and videos of fighting to reach out to the public in order to denounce the international presence in Afghanistan as ‘occupiers’ and the Afghan government as a ‘puppet.’
Surprisingly, the Taliban fighters proved more capable and their efforts more strenuous than the international forces and the Afghan government in reaching out to the people and improving their propaganda tactics beside a successful guerilla war. Mufti Latifullah Hakimi first appeared on the scene on January 28, 2004 after a suicide attack killed a British soldier in Kabul. From January 2004 till the writing of this piece, the insurgents have not only successfully kept their voice raised and messages heard, but they were also able to establish advanced measures to widen their propaganda for more effective results on the international as well as local level.
Danish Karokhel, Director of the first internationally recognized independent news agency of Afghanistan, Pajhwok Afghan News, told me, “90 percent of the information that the Taliban provide to the media is false: when only one Afghan soldier gets killed in an attack, the insurgents call the media and claim that 10 foreign soldiers are killed. They are not responsible to anyone for their false claims and misinformation while, on the other side, the government and the international forces have many responsibilities and obligations and can’t give false information.” Yet, he emphasized on the need of a plan to counter the false propaganda of the Taliban.
Talking about a plan, I must refer to a New York Times report about a US mission against Taliban propaganda. The newspaper reported on August 15, 2009, that: “The Obama administration is establishing a new unit within the State Department for countering militant propaganda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, engaging more fully than ever in a war of words and ideas that it acknowledges the United States has been losing.”
What happened to this plan? On the ground, there are no visible effects so far. When an official of the Ministry of Interior of Afghanistan was asked about this, he, on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media, said: “I don’t know if there is any such plan here. We have to make a plan for this purpose, but we need resources and technical support.”
Quoted in the media as “purported,” the formal spokesmen of the Taliban insurgents are the most active and effective measure of the group’s propaganda front. They are appointed by Mullah Omar through a formal decree or statement, delivered to the media by a top aide. This was not the case with Mufti Latifullah Hakimi, the first full time Taliban spokesman, but all the later spokesmen were appointed this way. After his arrest on October 4, 2005, the number of spokesmen was increased to two: one for their activities in the southern and western provinces (Kandahar, Zabul, Oruzgan, Helmand, Herat, Nimroz, Farah, Badghis, Ghor and Sar-e-Pul) and the other for eastern, central and northern provinces (Badakhshan, Baghlan, Balkh, Bamiyan, Daykundi, Faryab, Ghazni, Jowzjan, Kabul, Kapisa, Khost, Kunar, Kunduz, Laghman, Logar, Nangrahar, Nuristan, Paktia, Paktika, Panjsher, Parwan, Samangan, Takhar, and Wardak). Currently, Qari Mohammad Yousuf Ahmadi acts spokesman for the former provinces and Zabiullah Mujahid for the latter.
These spokesmen never provide regular and exact information about their fighters’ casualties nor their attack tactics, operations, commanders’ whereabouts and their own identities. But they are very fast in contacting local and international media for taking responsibility of attacks, claims of successes, formal statements, rejecting government officials’ and international forces’ claims, and other such issues. For this purpose, they call reporters, send them mobile messages, email them and some times even use faxes. Though they change their mobile numbers now and then to avoid being tracked, most of the time they keep them on to receive calls from media. At the same time, they post all their claims and statements on a number of websites in five different languages (Pashto, Dari, Arabic, Urdu, and English). Some times they even use internet forums for interaction and communication. Recently, members of a popular Pashto internet forum felt their presence was increasing. In fact, accessing a Taliban spokesman for information about incidents and issues is far much easier and useful for getting information than contacting a government or NATO/Coalition spokesman.
After the arrest of Mufti Hakimi and later on Dr. Hanif, which created problems for the insurgents in introducing their new spokesmen to the media, they are believed to have adopted a new tactic: never acknowledge the arrest or murder of the spokesmen; the new spokesmen should use the same old names. Hence, it is believed, even observed, that there are many Qari Yousufs and Zabiullah Mujahids.
But it is not limited to this point. Within the Taliban there are other groups who have their own spokesmen. For example, the Salafi (Wahhabi) Taliban in the eastern Kunar and Nuristan provinces, the Tora Bora Front in Nangrahar, and the Haqqani Network in the provinces bordering Waziristan (Khost, Paktia, Paktika) have their own spokesmen who contact the media on their own. Sometimes field commanders also contact the media for immediate effects of their attacks because they believe in the importance of a propaganda war. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami, which associates himself and cooperates with the Taliban because of the “common enemy,” has its own spokesman and it is observed, particularly in the case of major attacks, for example, the attack on French troops in Sarobi and the attack on a new year’s celebrations in Kabul, that both Taliban’s and Hekmatyar’s spokesman claimed to have them carried out. Though he was member of the Taliban’s leadership council, Mullah Dadullah, who was killed by the coalition forces in May 2007, had his own spokesman.
Propaganda at the village level
As the propaganda front through formal spokesmen is vital to undermine the government and reach out to the world, the propaganda campaign at the village level is important for recruiting youths and acquiring local support. Mosques are favorite places for the Taliban propagandists who always seek to convince the villagers that the international forces are fighting against Islam and it is their holy obligation to stand up for jihad. Quoting from different religious sources and fatwas (Islamic decrees), they describe the international sources as ‘occupiers’ and the Karzai government as their ‘puppet’ and tell the local population that providing them support at any level is an un-Islamic act, hence punishable by the ‘holy warriors.’
In areas where the Taliban fighters don’t have strong presence, they use night letters for propaganda purpose as well as for threatening local people. For example, if they want to close down a school, clinic, or suspect that a local elder or some villagers provide support to the ‘occupiers’ or the government, they throw warning night letters at a known place of the village, such as a mosque, school, clinic or the village center. Several such incidents have taken place in which the victims were warned beforehand through night or direct letters by the insurgents.
Internet has proved the fastest and the most useful propaganda tool for the Taliban during these years. They have their own websites which are designed attractively and are full of all kinds of content such as news stories, statements, religious sermons, photos, videos, audio messages, guerilla war guidelines and training manuals. They update the websites regularly and post all these data in five languages: Pashto, Dari, Urdu, Arabic and English. When any of the websites gets closed by CIA or the coalition forces, they shift it to another server and put it online with a slightly different name. Al-emarah, Shahamat, and Tora-Bora are the main Taliban websites.
Email is another way of effective communication for the Taliban insurgents. Through email, they communicate with reporters, news agencies, newspapers, magazines, and radio and TV channels for taking responsibility of attacks and providing official statements and other information. Email interviews are also provided. Some times clarifications and statements about some issues are sent to Pashto websites through email.
Online internet forums and social networks are also used as part of this propaganda network. All the content posted on official websites is subsequently posted on Pashto and Dari forums for a wider audience and lengthy discussions. Videos are shared on youtube and other information on facebook, etc. As certain members of these online networks forward the videos and information to other groups and people, the propaganda content reaches to hundreds of thousands of people inside and outside Afghanistan and Pakistan and becomes part of the global campaign for jihad and, as a result, attract youths to join the insurgent forces or support it financially.
Traditional methods of propaganda
Traditional methods of propaganda include traditional print and electronic media — newspapers, magazines, news agencies, books, radio channels, pamphlets etc. According to news reports, several times the Taliban established its Voice of Sharia radio which aired propaganda programs at least two hours a day and was listened to on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border from Waziristan to Khost and as far as Ghazni and Logar. There is so far no official Taliban newspaper (though there are two Hizb-e-Islami newspapers: Shahadat and Tanveer openly published and distributed in Peshawar and the adjacent areas) after the group fell from power in 2001, but many Pakistani newspapers volunteered to fill this vacuum. The Urdu media of Pakistan in particular has been observed as pro-Taliban. They publish the group’s baseless claims with great exaggerations and pose them as heroes and liberators of Afghanistan in special editions and color pages. As Pakistan provides the main base for Taliban recruitment of fighters and suicide bombers, and majority of the target audience reads these newspapers, this propaganda helps it a great deal to achieve its goals in Afghanistan and the border areas. Readers of these newspapers, fed with romantic stories and exaggerations and untrue claims of the group’s successes and achievements as well as lengthy articles about “brutalities against Muslims by the Americans,” easily fall to the extremists and become very aggressive fighters.
The Taliban have several Pashto, Urdu and Arabic magazines openly published and distributed in Peshawar and the adjacent areas. These colorful magazines are often printed on expensive foreign paper and distributed free. They are published by different groups within the Taliban and are full of extremist propaganda, distorted facts, photos of victims, lengthy interviews with insurgent commanders, and articles on different political and religious topics. These magazines publish only news stories and newspaper articles that back their own claims.
The people behind these magazines also publish propaganda books and pamphlets. Most of these books are jihadi propaganda translated from Arabic and other languages into Pashto. But some times they publish books that provide information about bomb-making techniques. Two years ago, the Taliban published a book called ‘Nizami Darsoona’ (Military Courses) which was widely distributed in Peshawar and the tribal areas. The book provided information about making IEDs, suicide vests, and the use of different weapons.
But the most favorite of the young extremists are the fighting videos and cassettes of jihadi anthems openly sold in the tribal areas, Peshawar, Quetta, and other major cities in Pakistan. These videos consist of scenes of direct attacks on foreign forces and Afghan soldiers, scenes of beheadings of “American and Afghan spies,” scenes from training camps, scenes from suicide attacks and testimonies of the suicide bombers, and speeches by well-known insurgent commanders.
Fatwas (decrees) by religious figures to wage jihad against the invaders and their supporters are also part of the insurgent propaganda. Due to lack of proper educational opportunities, majority of the people residing on both sides of the Durand Line believe in these fatwas and respect the clerics who issue them. The insurgents take advantage of people’s ignorance and use the fatwas to achieve their goals. So far, they seem to have been succeeded in this.
Basis for propaganda
The post-2001 wave of terrorism and insurgency in Afghanistan has become a complicated issue. The motivation behind the Afghan insurgency is to defeat the international forces and overthrow the Karzai-led government while Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda want to establish a caliphate or Islamic state in the region from where they could continue their agenda for global jihad. On the other hand, the elements within the Pakistani government which support the Afghan Taliban and in some cases Al-Qaeda too, seek their strategic depth in Afghanistan. There are other regional actors who have problems with the US presence in the region; hence they support the Taliban or other anti-US groups.
So the goal for the Afghan Taliban somewhat differs from the Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The Afghan Taliban wants to put an end to the present system and take control of Afghanistan and eventually impose their strict Sharia laws. They receive support from the Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda but they have their own strategy and tactics. They try to avoid killing civilians (but they still get killed), do not take responsibility for the suicide attacks and bomb blasts that result in civilian casualties, and often provide protection and financial incentives to the local population. They have their shadow ministers, governors, district chiefs, judges, and directorates. And they are told to act according to a detailed Layeha (code of conduct) issued by Mullah Omar. The Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda, however, believe that killing anybody inside the borders of Afghanistan is a legitimate goal because, in their view, the country is occupied and the local people either should fight against the occupiers or be killed by the holy warriors.
However, the propaganda base for all of them is the same: they want to achieve their goals by all available means and propaganda is one among them. The main things that provide base for effective propaganda are using the history of wars between Christians and Muslims, using religious and cultural differences between the West and the East, the idea of the clash of civilizations, by denouncing the West as oppressive against Islam, by calling the War on Terror a War against Islam, by condemning the international forces as “occupiers and invaders,” the government of Afghanistan as its puppet, and the reconstruction works as “efforts of Christianizing Afghanistan,” by using civilian casualties of air strikes and using media reports of prisoners’ abuses and mistreatment in their favor. In some cases, some people believe, that the insurgents and terrorists use brutal military tactics to use them in propaganda. For example, attacking the coalition forces from villages where villagers get killed in crossfire and then then using the killing of the same innocent villagers in the propaganda campaign.