Days after a U.S. airstrike in May killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, a group of Taliban fighters gathered at a mosque in western Afghanistan to pledge allegiance to their new commander, Maulavi Haibatullah Akhondzada. Then they posted a video of the ceremony on Facebook.
Before the Taliban were toppled from power in the U.S.-led invasion of 2001, the hard-line Islamist group banned television, cinemas and photography as un-Islamic. When they came together again as an insurgency to fight the Afghan government and its foreign backers, they communicated in terse battlefield updates shared through their website and later on Twitter.
They also sent the occasional wordy missive to journalists.
Now, the Taliban are active on a variety of media platforms. They recently began releasing audio files with songs and news updates, and launched a smartphone app for their Voice of Jihad website, available in multiple languages. Their videos, once grainy, are sleek and widely shared.
The Taliban’s digital revamp has coincided with the rise of their rival, Islamic State, which early on surprised the world with its deft command of social media and highly-produced propaganda videos.
rom their hide-outs on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border, Taliban have started accounts on open platforms that often stayed below the radar of the companies that operate them. In late 2015, the group began using Telegram Messenger for official communications, following a similar move early in the year by Islamic State, whose technical experts had determined the messaging app was among the most secure encrypted platforms.
In March, the Taliban tech team headed by Mr. Khalil rolled out the Taliban’s Voice of Jihad app, designed for smartphones powered by the Google Android operating system. The idea was to make the group’s online content—updates from the front line, propaganda videos and official statements—more accessible to Afghans, who go online mainly through their mobile phones. “It became a priority for us,” said Mr. Khalil.
The stepped-up digital outreach comes as the Taliban, through its media office, has been trying to play down the appearance of growing divisions within the insurgency, even as rival factions battle each other in parts of the country. It also comes as companies, governments and hackers intensify efforts to confront extremist activity online.