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The Internet Aided A Digital Dunkirk. But Under Taliban Rule, Afghan Activists Go Dark

On Aug. 21, Azizzada sat in his home office as he talked on the phone with a friend he was trying to help escape Afghanistan. He leaned back in his chair as he talked, gazing at the tweets racing down his Twitter timeline on a large monitor on his table.

"No, no. You need to get out. You need to get out," Azizzada said into his phone. "I know I told you to delete social media, but I know you're not going to delete it. … Did you take the thing off your Twitter, at least?" (His friend had been ignoring suggestions to stop posting for his own safety.) "I'll let you know if anything changes from here, but so far, nothing."

The other man on the line was Abdul Basir Shakeri, who in an interview later said he was deputy director for administration and services for the National Security Council of Afghanistan. Shakeri said he was high-ranking enough that he had a chance to fly into exile with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani but chose not to because he didn't want to leave his family behind.

After receiving an odd WhatsApp verification notice, which Shakeri feared was a Taliban attempt to track him, he took the SIM card out of his phone, reconnected with a VPN, switched to using the encrypted messaging app Signal and started removing photos and other identifiers from social media.

"From that moment, I stopped responding to phone calls," Shakeri said. He messaged others and lied that he had already left the country in an effort to throw the Taliban off his trail.

"To be honest, social media and this technology we're talking about, it was very useful for me," Shakeri said. "At the same time, it was a risk to my life. If they could track me, they could find me."

But the posting and messaging, as risky as it felt, ultimately got him out. He said a friend from Spain connected Shakeri to Spanish officials, who arranged for Shakeri to take a bus to the airport with his family — his mother, father, sister, niece, his sister's husband and his sister's husband's parents (two elders, who were barely able to walk). After delays, they escaped on one of the final flights out.

"It was social media, it was Instagram, it was Signal to get in touch with everyone, and now I'm here," said Shakeri, who was en route to Colombia, where he holds dual citizenship and where he is expecting to help assist resettlement efforts for Afghan refugees.

For those remaining in Afghanistan, uncertainty lies ahead. Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook have already taken steps to limit the ability to view Afghan users' networks. At the same time, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International USA and other such groups have requested that social media platforms preserve and archive posts that show human rights violations while working to protect "the privacy and security of vulnerable individuals associated with that content."

Although the Taliban is not likely to have the technological sophistication to enforce Chinese-style censorship of the internet, "they are certainly savvy enough to use phones in their own mobilization and ruling practices," Moss said. In other crises in the Middle East, such as the civil war in Syria, residents have tried to delete their social media profiles or unfriend acquaintances to avoid incriminating connections, "but this interrupts the exact kind of network tie and communication that social media can facilitate, which they need."

In an Afghan YouTuber's final video, journalism student Najma Sadeqi told viewers, "since we are not allowed to work and go out of our homes, we all had to record you a last video," according to CNN. "And through this video say goodbye to you all." She was among the nearly 200 killed in the Thursday bombing outside the airport, reportedly carried out by a branch of the Islamic State extremist group. Her videos are no longer available online.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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