Tech-savvy Taliban fights war in cyberspace

KABUL Wed Jul 20, 2011 9:13am BST

Taliban fighters pose with weapons as they sit in their compound at an undisclosed location in southern Afghanistan in this May 5, 2011 picture. REUTERS/Stringer

Taliban fighters pose with weapons as they sit in their compound at an undisclosed location in southern Afghanistan in this May 5, 2011 picture.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

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KABUL (Reuters) - The war in Afghanistan entered cyberspace on Wednesday when the tech-savvy Taliban said their phones, email and website had been hacked to spread a false report that the movement's spiritual leader, Mullah Omar, was dead.

Although the Islamist group banned television during its time in power between 1996 and 2001, its communication strategy in the decade-long war now includes a website, mobile phone text messages, emails and posts on Twitter and Facebook.

The Taliban -- ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces for harboring al Qaeda militants blamed for the September 11 attacks on the United States -- regularly promote their attacks, opinions or exploits online in a publicity war with the West.

Pakistani author and Taliban expert Ahmed Rashid said that, prior to 2001, the Taliban's "media reach to the Afghan people and the world had been virtually zero and totally ineffective."

"They learnt quickly that the war against the Americans had to be fought on many fronts," he said.

The online proficiency of the Taliban could be attributed to an influx of younger recruits during the past decade, said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, but he said the overall strategy was not new.

"Islamists, even the early modernist and non-violent ones like Sayed Jamaluddin Afghani or the Egyptian Muhammad Abdu, have always suggested to use Western advanced technology to overcome the West's domination," he said.

"That's not much different from today's Taliban."

The Taliban are paranoid that modern technology will betray hiding places. They have threatened to attack mobile phone operators' towers and offices if networks aren't shut down at night, when they fear foreign troops could track them down.

HACKING INQUIRY

The cyber attack on Wednesday again sparked Taliban threats of revenge against the telephone network providers. They blamed "American intelligence" and accused a "cunning enemy" of committing "technical larceny.

A spokeswoman for NATO-led troops in Afghanistan said they had no information about the incident.

The Taliban regularly change the addresses of their websites, and website addresses are often corrupt or link to other websites such as dating or online shopping sites.

A "security encyclopedia" for Islamist militants posted online several years ago -- and translated by the U.S.-based SITE institute -- urged strict precautions when using mobile phones, warning that Mullah Omar had come close to being assassinated after his phone signal gave away his whereabouts.

The Taliban is also concerned about Afghans using mobile phones to pass on information to foreign and government troops.

In the Panjwai district of southern Kandahar province recently, villagers in rural areas where the Taliban are still influential said insurgents had started smashing mobile telephones found on people outside their homes. Villagers said phones found at homes by insurgents were not destroyed.

Now it has to be on alert against cyber attacks.

Mullah Omar was the second false high-profile death this week blamed on hacking. On Monday, the website of Britain's The Sun newspaper was hacked and a fake report posted that media mogul Rupert Murdoch had been found dead in his garden.

And just as the British parliament is investigating claims of phone hacking by Murdoch's News of the World newspaper, the Taliban said their Information and Cultural Commission has started an inquiry into how its communications were hacked.

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force declined to comment on the Taliban allegation.

(Additional reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison, editing by Paul Tait and Sugita Katyal)

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