Social media, Taliban’s tactical intelligence and NATO
Musa Khan Jalalzai
The Afghan, NATO, US and European intelligence agencies have failed to fight the Taliban insurgency effectively through the social media
The adoption of mobile applications, web-based applications, social media use for intelligence purposes and the worldwide web have changed our traditional way of life and business. We live in an evolving world with an ever-changing situation, trying to stay competitive in dynamic markets. A new revolution of social media in the field of intelligence collection about insurgents and terror groups or foreign espionage networks opened a new chapter in the history of intelligence mechanisms across the world. We are living in the age of social media, in the age of facebook, twitter, Google, yahoo, LinkedIn and YouTube, which play an important role in intelligence information collection. Recent research in Europe has warned that social media is going to change the traditional concept of intelligence information gathering. As the concept of security and intelligence gathering changed after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, the use of social media for intelligence purposes diverted the attention of intelligence and counterintelligence experts to the new business of information collection.
The recent report of Professor Sir David Omand has also emphasised the use of social media for intelligence gathering because it is now significantly relevant to security. On many occasions, facebook has been used for contract killings and other legal and illegal activities. In the case of YouTube, we often hear that it gives users the ability to instruct others on many tasks. In a poor country like Afghanistan, access to facebook, YouTube, twitter and other social media instruments is limited. The intelligence agencies of the country have no specific training to use social media for intelligence information gathering. In Europe and in the United Kingdom, the importance of social media, facebook, YouTube, twitter and LinkedIn are being viewed as vital sources of intelligence collection. The Afghan, NATO, US and European intelligence agencies have failed to fight the Taliban insurgency effectively through the social media.
The Centre for a New American Security in 2010 quoted General McChrystal as saying that the way intelligence information is gathered in Afghanistan is no more effective. Major-General Michael J Flynn in his report has raised the same question: “Intelligence community is preoccupied with gathering a flood of highly detailed information on insurgents and has thus failed to provide vital general information on the environment in which the Taliban operates…The central problem with intelligence gathering in Afghanistan is the great emphasis placed on detailed information on insurgents…The intelligence community’s standard mode of operation is surprisingly passive about aggregating information that is not enemy-related, and relaying it to decision makers or fellow analysts further up the chain. The US intelligence community has fallen into the trap of waging an anti-insurgency campaign rather than a counterinsurgency campaign. Capturing or killing key mid-level and high-level insurgents is without question a necessary component of successful warfare, but far from sufficient for military success in Afghanistan.”
The issue of double agents is more irksome while from 2009 to 2012 dozens of intelligence collectors were killed by the sources that were playing as double agents. The US Combating Terrorism Centre has recently published a research report on intelligence and counterintelligence in which the author, Ben Brandt, has made revelations about the Afghan Taliban intelligence network, which conducts numerous functions such as advance information and warnings about the patrols of the NATO forces. They also provide US forces with misleading information. A former US intelligence analyst says that the Taliban are fighting a political war: “The Taliban are fighting a political war while the United States and its allies are still fighting a tactical military war. We remain focused on terrain, and they are focused on attacking the transition process and seizing the narrative of victory.”
The way Taliban intelligence operated before 9/11 is very queer. Their ministry of intelligence and ministry for promotion of virtue and prevention of vice were the main centres of intelligence information collection. The Taliban ministry of intelligence had employed 20,000 spies and 100,000 informers. At present, the Taliban conduct counterintelligence activities by infiltrating Afghan government institutions to retrieve important information about the weaknesses and intentions of the government forces. In October 2012, the Taliban used Afghan intelligence agents in a suicide attack against the US forces. A uniformed member of the NDS detonated a suicide vest in Kandahar killing an American soldier and a former US military officer as well as four Afghans, The New York Times reported. According to an Afghan private TV Channel, Tolo, the interior ministry immediately issued a directive to all police forces to be vigilant against Taliban infiltration.
The post-9/11 Taliban intelligence now operates in professional ways and it uses a wide variety of human intelligence. Their intelligence networks at district and village level continue to provide the Taliban with fresh information about the enemy’s movements. In their tactical intelligence and counterintelligence ways, they use human and signal intelligence to identify suspects. Interestingly, sometimes they force cell phone companies in the southern districts to shut down their networks. In March and April 2011, in some districts of Helmand and Paktika provinces, they often forced private cellular companies to shut down their networks. To retrieve information about the NATO and ISAF tactics, the Taliban use radio codes, throwaway phones and shorter range radio communication.
Finally, I want to conclude this analysis with some recommendations. To tackle the widely perceived incompetence of the NDS, KHAD and RAMA effectively, it is necessary to introduce a wide range of reforms to improve their tactical capabilities and counterinsurgency efforts. In recent years, several states in South Asia have introduced reforms in their intelligence system. India has ultimately changed its intelligence infrastructure after the Kargil war while Pakistan and Afghanistan have undertaken no reforms. In my understanding, these reforms would be to bring Afghan intelligence agencies under government control instead of reporting to warlords and their colleagues in the Taliban intelligence. The creation of a world-class intelligence agency in Afghanistan is necessary to meet the national security challenges.