Social Media and the Evolving Intelligence Landscape in Afghanistan
The dramatic increase in internet and social media access has affected the people of Afghanistan and the Taliban in different ways. See how OSINT helps to keep the pulse on the evolving intelligence landscape.
According to The Afghanistan Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) prior to the beginning of the war in 2001, Afghanistan had only 15,000 analogue telephones, which provided access to only 0.3 percent of the population. By the end of 2019, the country had nearly 10 million internet users and around 23 million cellphone users, with 89% of Afghans able to access telecommunication services.
A 2014 study by GIZ, the German international development agency, estimated that in Kabul and the six Northern provinces covered under the study, 87.8% of the social media users had profiles on Facebook, followed by 12.9% on Google+, 5.8% on Youtube, and 3.8% on Twitter. These users were based primarily in urban areas of Afghanistan.
The dramatic increase in internet and social media access has affected the people of Afghanistan and the Taliban in different ways.
Even though the Taliban banned the internet from Afghanistan in the period before being removed from power in 2001, they have since embraced platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Telegram, none of which existed during their last period in power.
In 2005 the Taliban launched their first website called Al Emarah (The Emirate), overseen by the cultural commission of Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan (IEA), headed by their spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid. His first Twitter account was suspended by the company, but he created a new account in 2017 which remains active; that account has more than 371,000 followers.
Mixed messages online
While the Taliban’s social media team tends to post images of peace and stability in an effort to gain local and international credibility as a governing body, the international media and local social media users broadcast scenes of the chaotic American evacuation from the Kabul airport or footage of protesters being pepper sprayed and beaten.
In September 2015 following the fall of the northern city of Kunduz to the Taliban, within hours of the government forces retreating from the city, news and pictures of the Taliban militants posing in the city centre were widespread across Afghan social media networks. Taliban spokespeople made announcements of the victory on social media, and Taliban members posted selfies with local citizens and shared videos of Taliban troops taking control of the city. This was replicated in August 2021 when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan once again, following the withdrawal of US troops.
Prior to the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan in 2021, there were many influential social media users in urban areas of Afghanistan who were critical of the Taliban. When it became evident that the Taliban were taking over, many of these users deleted their accounts on social media, or removed photos and tweets, fearing they would be targeted for reprisals for their posts. Facebook, which had previously banned accounts held by the Taliban, even introduced additional features for users in Afghanistan - which included allowing them to lock their profiles and deny access to content, in an effort to protect their accounts.
So what does this mean for OSINT—and intelligence gathering in general—in Afghanistan moving forward?
The intelligence outlook
Experts say that HUMINT operations and technical collection on groups on the ground will be compromised going forward. Marc Polymeropoulos, former CIA officer who was the base chief in Afghanistan told the Daily Beast that the loss of the US Embassy in Kabul and the Afghanistan Intelligence Service will materially affect the ability of the US to gather Intel in Afghanistan ongoing.
And as Douglas London, the CIA’s former counterterrorism chief for South and Southwest Asia, said: “I think what you’re going to see is as time goes on the quality of the timeliness of the intelligence is going to decrease and our options for actioning it will be limited,”
For now at least, Afghan social media may not be an accurate indicator of public sentiment. With many of the Taliban’s critics and supporters of the U.S.-backed government going underground, the social media field in Afghanistan now belongs largely to the Taliban. As a member of the Taliban’s social media team said to the BBC:
"Social media is a powerful tool to change public perception. We want to change the perception of the Taliban."
Communication methods to consider
While the current situation in Afghanistan means that standard social media sites like Twitter and YouTube may be of limited usefulness from an intelligence perspective, terrorist groups also utilize other communication methods including alt-tech platforms, imageboards, and deep web forums, which hold a wealth of information that is important for intelligence teams to access. By using commercial OSINT software or APIs to gather data from these networks, intelligence teams can still gain valuable context for situational awareness, as well as potentially discover early alerts like manifestos and planning that may precipitate a critical event like a terrorist attack.
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