He was clearly an expert typist – composing the prose in English and Urdu simultaneously on two different computers, albeit with the help of his juniors. Neither posters nor pamphlets or mere DVD covers, these students are busy typing translations of Arabic for the video discs their elders or seniors had prepared to spread the message – Long live Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. Three of his colleagues were working with him, on the floor of a room so small you had to squeeze to accommodate a fifth person. The setting was a small, two-room house in Wana, the capital of South Waziristan. Here, the Pakistani Taliban has set up a media cell to serve and ‘educate’ its supporters, as well as communicate with them.
Suddenly, all the young men, each of whom looked to be in his mid-20s, stood up and started offering prayers. Afterwards, one of them came forward and introduced himself as Abu Akasha, the head of this media cell. As another colleague went to get tea, he told us that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has had several media cells in areas where they either dominate or have significant influence. These offices are used to counter ‘propaganda’ by the state-run and private media houses.
For the most part, the TTP media departments focus on making videos of their work, everything from attacks to pre-attack sermons. These are then distributed on CD by the thousands, circulated across Pakistan and Afghanistan, oftentimes by TTP fighters personally in their home towns. ‘In 2002, some of our seniors decided a media cell should be established to communicate with the general public,’ Akasha said. ‘This technique was adapted from al-Qaeda, as it has frequently made videos comprising of messages from their leaders, fighting and training, and showing punishment imparted to those who have committed wrongs.’
Akasha said the work of the media cell was as important as fighting the security forces. Proud of his labour, he said the propaganda videos play an important role in recording and distributing the movement’s various operations. ‘One of the major reasons for utilising the power of the media was that the top commanders wanted their voices and messages to be heard, and to be able to give responses to the propaganda presented by the foreign media,’ he said. ‘The first cell was established on a temporary basis in early 2004 here in Wana.’
After purchasing equipment, the Wana media cell completed work on its initial project. For this, they released a video message from Naik Muhammad, the first head of the TTP, a few months before he was killed in a US drone strike, along with seven colleagues, in Doag village of Wana in mid-2004. Subsequently, the cell began functioning at full capacity, releasing several videos about the infrastructure of the movement, its training process and operations. All along, the motivating idea was to encourage the public to take note of, and interest in, the movement’s work. The videos worked both ways – they scared some, forcing them to flee their homes, while encouraging others, especially students, to join their ranks and fight with the Taliban.
‘How horrible!’ blurts Saifuddin, when asked to comment on one of the videos. Saifuddin works as a tea assistant in a multinational office in Karachi, a city he made his home two years ago. At that time, Saifuddin fled his home town in the north, when the army moved in to take on the militants. Terrified, he gets up midway through viewing the video, saying the pictures brought back horrors of what could happen if the militants were to get their hands on his son, who is now with him in Karachi.
The experience has been electrifying for others, including Zaheer and his classmates, who study in a government school in Karachi. ‘We support the Taliban and we think this form of action is much needed,’ Zaheer says while his friends nod in his support. Another said approvingly: ‘Through these video messages, the Taliban can spread their message, and this will help them in recruiting more volunteers for their cause.’
In March 2004, the movement’s higher-ups called a meeting to discuss increasing the cell’s influence. Following the office’s success, with people pouring into the Taliban fold and Taliban representatives bringing back scores of volunteers ready to fight the NATO forces in Afghanistan, the leaders decided to dedicate part of the TTP’s resources to establishing a proper media cell, which they called Ummat (Nation) Studios.
A recruitment drive was launched, and a call went out for CVs for experts in information technology. The Taliban started looking for video-editing staff, cameramen and assistants – the latter, in case the one with the central responsibility was injured or killed in fighting. Evidently the response was significant, and the TTP leaders were able to choose individuals who had significant experience in information technology and video-operating systems. The first batch to run Ummat was selected from a list of volunteers, a house in Wana was chosen to house the media cell, and more than a dozen people were posted to the new undertaking.
So far, Akasha says, the media wing has released more than 5000 videos, ‘involving messages of their leaders, training camps and other issues’. Ummat has produced mujahideen propaganda videos and released exclusive footage of military operations along the Pakistan-Afghan border. Primarily, though, Ummat videos focus on Taliban activities in Waziristan, including scenes from local training camps. In March 2005, Ummat released a video titled ‘Murtid Army’, which featured Taliban attacks against the Pakistan Army. During this period, Ummat set up four more media cells throughout Pakistan’s tribal areas, each of which focuses on creating work depicting operations in their localities.
‘The media wing also played a role in eliminating individuals who had contacts with the Pakistan Army,’ Akasha claims. Indeed, Ummat has released some gruesome videos of people being killed by the Taliban, accused of having contacts with army officials. These videos created panic among local communities, and have forced many to think twice about having any contact with the army.
Ummat has also played a central role in TTP recruiting, particularly following the Lal Masjid army operation in Islamabad in July 2007. At that time, violence erupted in several parts of the tribal areas after soldiers stormed the mosque’s seminary, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of male and female students. After the Lal Masjid operation, a wave of anger against the government of then-President Pervez Musharraf and the Pakistan Army led to tribal areas such as Swat, Malakand, Orakzai, Dera Ismail Khan and several other coming under increased influence of religious hardliners. ‘Youngsters from all over were contacting us, and the higher-ups of the Taliban noted this strong public reaction against the government,’ Akasha says. ‘The leadership instructed us to release as many videos on the Lal Masjid operation as possible – which we did.’
In all, Ummat Studio released more than 100 videos on the Lal Masjid situation, particularly focusing on the students killed during the operation. The Taliban commanders watched these developments with great interest, and eventually decided to deploy lieutenants in the areas where fighting had begun. They also decided to send along a team from the media cell, to film the operations and to distribute CDs of past missions. ‘We established media wings in different areas and trained the people to run the setup of media cell,’ Akasha elaborates. ‘We established eight media cells in these areas, all under different names.’
Today, the decision is seen to have paid off. On average, the new cells have been releasing 100 videos a month. The Al-Mansoor Studio was set in Dara Adam Khael, for instance, while the Handzala Studio was established in Kurram Agency, run by fighters loyal to Taliban commander Tariq Afridi. In addition, Ummari Studio was set up in Orakzai Agency, and Idar-e-Ahya al-Khilafa Studio was set in Mohmand Agency. In April 2008, Taliban commanders started a new cell in North Waziristan, after NATO troops began to show signs of planning to strike TTP offices there. Shortly thereafter, the Umar Studio was set up and, like its predecessors, began to release footage of Taliban operations to the local communities.
It was only recently that NATO commanders began to take these propaganda operations seriously. ‘In March this year, our high command issued an order asking us to seal off or pack up all the studios, after NATO drones increased their attacks in the north,’ explains Akasha. ‘Now, only Umar Studios remains open, and is releasing all of our footage.’ Akasha, who was originally working in Ummat is now heading the Umar, from where he dispatches videos in compact discs.
Pakistani security agencies are also trying to counter these efforts. They have begun to release their own propaganda through more traditional media channels, such as the state-run Pakistan Television as well as private TV channels like Geo News. These videos tend to be oddly similar to those released by the Taliban, with men in khaki uniforms shown training, scaling mountains in search of the enemy and (in the case of the military) jumping from planes. The videos have created a ripple among the public, with those supporting the army’s cause praising them while those against the ‘war on terror’ saying quite the opposite. ‘The videos show the strength of our army,’ says Nayaz Khan, who twice has had to deal with Taliban attacks in his home town of Swat. ‘Long live the Pakistan Army!’ But Akasha says that he is unconcerned about the army’s counter-propaganda. ‘Let them,’ he said. ‘We will continue to release our united opinion on any issue.’
A few months later, such a reaction was echoed again in the aftermath of the death of Osama bin Laden. Spokesmen for the media cells of the three central organisations fighting NATO forces in Afghanistan – Gulbaddin Hikmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami, Tehreek-e-Taliban and al-Qaeda – made separate announcements vowing revenge for the death. Abu Husnain, a spokesman for as-Sahaab, the media wing for al-Qaeda, sounded eerily similar to Akasha: ‘The death is a great blow but it will not deter us or stop us or hinder the work our leader began which is in the name of the Muslim world. We will continue his message and work until justice is served to the United States.’
~ Tariq Habib is a crime reporter in Karachi.