Five Taliban websites that were key to how the militant group delivered its official messages to those inside and outside Afghanistan abruptly went offline Friday, a sign that moves to limit the Taliban’s online reach were gaining traction.
It was not immediately clear who or what took the Taliban sites offline, though all five previously had protection from Cloudflare, a San Francisco-based company that helps websites deliver content and defend against cyberattacks. The company did not respond to a request for comment Friday on whether it was still protecting the Taliban sites, which had versions in Pashto, Dari, Arabic, Urdu and English. All were offline Friday afternoon.
SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors online extremism, said numerous WhatsApp groups used by the Taliban also had been shut down by Friday. WhatsApp, an encrypted chat service used widely in much of the world, is owned by Facebook, which has banned official Taliban accounts from its services.
WhatsApp spokeswoman Alison Bonny declined to comment on whether the company had taken new action against the Taliban on Friday, but she reiterated previous Facebook company statements on the subject generally: “We’re obligated to adhere to U.S. sanctions laws. This includes banning accounts that appear to represent themselves as official accounts of the Taliban. We’re seeking more information from relevant U.S. authorities given the evolving situation in Afghanistan.”
Notably, Twitter has not followed a similar policy of shutting down Taliban accounts on its platform, reflecting both its different corporate judgments and the murkiness of U.S. policy and law. The State Department has designated the Pakistani Taliban a foreign terrorist organization but has not applied the same label to the Afghan Taliban. The Afghan Taliban, however, is listed as a sanctioned entity under rulings from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Twitter has allowed several official Taliban accounts, including some used by spokesmen for the group, to continue operating so long as they obey rules against objectionable content, such as inciting violence through tweets.
The Taliban has used social media and the Internet adeptly for years to spread its messages, casting itself as a liberation army aiming to free Afghanistan from outside occupation and restore a traditional brand of Islamic law. At the same time, it also has sought to soften its harsh image – inside and outside Afghanistan – as a brutal insurgent force bent on revenge nearly 20 years after U.S.-led coalition drove them from power.
“The proliferation of the Taliban’s online infrastructure, regardless of whether it officially meets some companies’ criteria for content moderation, is significantly contributing to the empowerment of global violent extremists,” said Rita Katz, executive director of SITE. “In short: Cutting off Taliban’s online media is definitely a good thing.”
On Twitter, for example Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen has told his more than 375,000 followers that the militant group will respect the rule of law, property rights and the rights of women. The messaging has been sharply at odds with the reputation for violence and repression that has followed the Taliban, which during its previous rule forced women from schools and workplaces, carried out mass executions and enforced rigid moral codes by floggings or by stoning alleged violators to death.