“Wars today cannot be won without media. Media aims at the heart rather than the body, [and] if the heart is defeated, the battle is won.”
This statement could be from any public relations professional or university professor in America, but it’s not. This decidedly modern approach to public relations campaigning was made by Abdul Sattar Maiwandi, administrator of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan website, which is the media and communications arm of the Taliban. It is also known as the “Voice of Jihad.”
As America celebrates Osama bin Laden’s death as a victory in the war against terrorism, Taliban leaders have been busy at work, rallying the troops with greater speed and in greater numbers than ever before. The tenets of sharia law and Muslim extremism may find their roots in ancient texts and legendary leaders, but the old ways have quietly and stealthily been uniting with the new by embracing the modern age of the internet and social media.
The “Voice of Jihad” and its network of followers is no accident. While U.S. and coalition armed forces battled terrorist cells in Kandahar and Zabul, and covert intelligence missions combed the hills of Pakistan, a quiet revolution was brewing. It took years in the making, but the end of one era in the death of bin Laden has made way for another.
U.S. news shows and political commentators describe today’s Taliban as a shadow of its former glory, slowly worn down and weakened, its terror cells fractured, training camps demolished, and communications unreliable. President Obama has stated publicly that with “mission accomplished,” the time is coming to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.
But a new war has been building; a cyber war of words, challenging the West to be better and faster at viral messaging — emailing, texting, Twittering, YouTubing, blogging, and Facebooking. It’s pervasive, sweeping across terrorist breeding grounds in the Middle East and taking root right here among us.
In an interview with al-Samood monthly magazine — an Islamic Emirate-Taliban publication — Maiwandi proudly details the many ongoing activities of jihad in cyberspace:
Among other committees, the Islamic Emirates established a special media committee to spread (news) about jihadist activities in different fields and chase away the voice of the unjust enemy who, before the entire world, was distorting the image of the jihad in Afghanistan and was claiming false victories here and there over the mujahideen.
The website is as fully functioning as any user-friendly site, with handy links to movies, interviews, and all the latest news according to the Taliban point of view.
A recent sample headline reads: “10 puppets killed, scores wounded as enemy’s ten military posts attacked.”
Another from its May 11 homepage reads: “Informant police kills 6 invaders in Herat.”
At first glance, the headline could be one in any American media source, but it’s the content that betrays the source:
Wednesday, 11 May 2011 10:52 Qari Yousuf Ahmadi – HERAT – Mujahideen from Rabat-e-Sangi district say that 6 US invaders were killed when an informant police detonated a mine planted inside the invaders tank, blowing it to bits in Khalawak area at 07:30 am on Monday morning (May. 09). The wreckage of the tank is still lying at the blast scene which the puppet government officials attributed to a traffic incident.
The brief news piece is fully equipped with a Facebook “Share” link and email tab. In the interview, Maiwandi explains the media committee’s activities with all of the technical savvy and pride of any corporate public relations rep launching a new campaign:
In addition to articles and official analysis, we have many sections: for example, there’s an Islam page, a magazines page, and a page for films produced by official studios. We also produce different publications and regulations and distribute them among the Mujahideen. There is also a “Voice of Shariah” that broadcasts news and official statements day and night.
The webpage is published in real time in five different languages: Pashto, Urdu, Farsi, Arabic, and English.
Their “weekly analysis” includes a piece on Osama’s recent death, describing their “Sheik Osama” as a “Skyscraper of bravery” “with a sword of magnanimity” against the “invading unbelievers.”
The analysis then goes on to issue this warning: “The invading Americans and coalition of the crusade should not think that their wicked war against the Islamic Ummah will triumph or weakness will permeate the ranks of jihad of the Muslims….As long as the invading infidels are bent on continuing their colonialist ambitions against the Islamic Ummah, every committed son of the Ummah who has wake conscience and feeling will keep on protecting the Islamic values and sovereignty. Therefore, the martyrdom of Sheikh Osama will not benefit the Americans.”
More than just an amateur-made Taliban home page, the “Voice of Jihad” is a full-service, well-managed, multi-media tool that is seemingly well-funded and poised for growth: Maiwandi says that the media committee has also appointed an official global spokesman who will speak on behalf of the “Voice of Jihad.” His role is that of promulgator, spreading important news stories to other internet sources.
Seemingly overnight, the rules of war have gotten less literal and more virtual. Like an army of ants that surround their host and then simultaneously attack as one synchronized unit, the Taliban is now able to instantly disseminate orders across cyberspace to targeted audiences using every available technology. In addition to the website, Maiwandi’s media committee has effectively created sustainable tools across the communications spectrum:
Their print component publishes monthly magazines tailored to recruitment and support across the Middle East. Shahamat (Gallantry), Sarrak (Gleam of Light), Morgil (The Trench), and Somood (Steadfastness) are published in Arabic, Pashto, and Farsi.
According to Maiwandi, the Taliban sends daily messages via text to cell phones in the region. Using the phone-tree technique, messages from the website are converted to SMS and sent out to a core group of loyalists. Each one who receives it then forwards the text to at least 20 people, who then each forward to 20 people, and so on. Texting operations serve a dual purpose: the first is to disseminate information instantly to members and create a unified movement, particularly if action is required; the second is to intimidate and threaten civil society and quell any uprising.
The Taliban Pashto radio broadcast is called “The Voice of Sharia,” which Maiwandi describes as being very effective at “raising the morale of the Mujahideen.”
Second to the website, the video component of the Taliban communications arsenal is perhaps the most elaborate, consisting of a “jihadi studio” that publishes mujahideen operations in live stream and digital video. “Through the grace of Allah Almighty it has created some good products in this field,” says Maiwandi.
“In addition to publishing live images of jihad and battles,” he explains, “the jihadi studio also produces films to preach (da’wa) and reform with the goal of illuminating the minds of the mujahideen and making them ideologically aware. These films have so far had a good impact in mujahideen circles.”
The films are long, sometimes thirty minutes or more, and many have high production value, with professional edits, fades, music, narration, and special effects. Videos show attacks on U.S. and Afghan forces, suicide bombings, and musical videos celebrating warriors against Jews and Christians. The most gruesome of videos show beheadings of “infidels” and suicide bombings juxtaposed with glassy-eyed parents praising their sons’ bravery and extolling the greatness of Allah.
Help from the West
Even better for their efforts is the fact that the Taliban has unwitting participants all over the world aiding in the dissemination of their message. News from the “Voice of Jihad” is being voluntarily promulgated by American websites that feature Taliban messages, spreading the word even further.
One in particular is a website called “Jihadology.”
It acts as a kind of one-stop-shop for jihad literature and articles, and includes a blog where jihad and Taliban supporters have most recently mourned the death of their Sheikh Osama.
The site is run by Aaron Y. Zelin, a self-described research assistant at Brandeis University. He has a disclaimer that reads: “this blog is for academic purposes only and it does not endorse any of the jihadist material that is posted on it,” yet, as of this writing, Zelin’s home page features the original May 11 interview of Maiwandi.
The fact is that whether Zelin endorses them or not, the interviews and other information posted to the site serve the aims of the Taliban very nicely. Anti-American/pro-Taliban material is posted as though the site were simply an extension of the original “Voice of Jihad,” and isn’t all publicity, good publicity in the end? Such editorial decisions beg the question: why would Zelin find it at all beneficial to act as a promotional tool for Taliban propaganda?
Zelin claims that it’s all in the interest of education, providing a forum for academics to find and share original research on Taliban and jihad subjects. A quick look around, however, shows that the site also clearly provides a forum for jihadists to share their hatred for Americans — through an American website — as Zelin gladly posts their propaganda for them.
Titles to a a couple of the latest posts: “Goodbye, Oh Honorable Shaykh,” “You Lived Benevolent and Died a Martyr: Statement on the Death of Usamah Bin Laden.” Certainly while research necessitates the collection of information, the question in having a site like this is whether or not the price of assisting the Taliban in spreading their message to the Western world is worth the price of doing research in this way.
With sites like Jihadology, the Taliban can be sure that their message will be easily disseminated within American borders, but the pervasiveness of the Taliban’s use of social media and technology is a sure sign that there is more to come.
The latest Rassmussen Report shows that 56% of Americans agree with Obama that a world without bin Laden can and should mean an Afghanistan without U.S. troops.
But the latest reports from the Taliban website would seem to indicate that such plans could be in haste: “The Americans and their puppets should know the spirit and tenacity of the operations launched by the mujahideen in Afghanistan under the name of Badre, which are now in full swing all over the country.”
“Badre” is a likely reference to the “Al Badre Mujahideen,” who were mentioned as far back as 2001 in the Daily Mail as then being a “relatively” small group of foreign militants with base-camps in Pakistan. If one is to believe the statements from the “Voice of Jihad,” this group has not only survived, but has thrived and is operating successfully in Afghanistan today.
While it’s clear that America continues to have challenges fighting the Taliban, in his interview Miawandi doesn’t miss the opportunity to disparage our allies either, pulling Afghan President Karzai’s loyalty into question: “Even though the Americans, NATO troops and the security forces of the lackey government all exert great efforts to impede the activities of the Islamic Emirate, it frequently occurs that members of families from the upper class in the Karzai administration display their sympathy with the mujahideen.”
Of course it can certainly be said that any information originating from Maiwandi or the “Voice of Jihad” must be taken with great consideration for the source; however, Maiwandi isn’t the only one touting the achievements of effective Taliban messaging.
In a 2009 interview in Foreign Policy, Michael Doran, the former American deputy secretary of defense, said: “The Taliban have great skill in directing their media activities and are very quick to publish news: if any attack is conducted against our forces news is being published 26 minutes later on the global satellite networks, taking its place in the breaking news tickers for most of the global satellite networks like al-Jazeera, BBC and CNN.”
But two years later we’re not better and they’re not weaker, leaving analysts scratching their heads as to why. Traditionally, militaries have been the organized force behind state security, protecting physical borders from invasion. Terrorist groups were haphazard and lacked unity of message. Having a borderless enemy of disparate cells rather than a clearly identifiable government presented new challenges to launching an offensive, but as with so many things, be careful what you wish for.
Today terrorism is organized. It may have lost an icon in bin Laden, but it still has a name; an identity. It has funding. And now more than ever, it has the power of networking and communication, the one ingredient previously missing that kept the Taliban from truly growing.
Al-Somood ends the interview with Maiwandi by saying, “We beseech Allah Almighty to grant you more success in all your jihadist activities. Amen.”
The United States and allied countries have to raise the bar in cyber-technology and keep raising it to always stay one step ahead of extremists. It’s a new kind of battlefield that can’t be seen, but one that mustn’t be ignored.