U.S. military officials assigned to the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, as the coalition is known, took the first shot in what has become a near-daily battle waged with broadsides that must be kept to 140 characters.
“How much longer will terrorists put innocent Afghans in harm’s way,” @isafmedia demanded of the Taliban spokesman on the second day of the embassy attack, in which militants lobbed rockets and sprayed gunfire from a building under construction.
“I dnt knw. U hve bn pttng thm n ‘harm’s way’ fr da pst 10 yrs. Razd whole vilgs n mrkts. n stil hv da nrve to tlk bout ‘harm’s way,’ ” responded Abdulqahar Balkhi, one of the Taliban’s Twitter warriors, who uses the handle @ABalkhi.
The running spat appears to be the sole open line of communication between Americans and the Taliban after exploratory peace talks collapsed this year. U.S. military officials say the dramatic assault on the diplomatic compound convinced them that they needed to seize the propaganda initiative — and that in Twitter, they had a tool at hand that could shape the narrative much more quickly than news releases or responses to individual queries.
“That was the day ISAF turned the page from being passive,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Badura, a military spokesman, explaining how @isafmedia evolved after the attack. “It used to be a tool to regurgitate the company line. We’ve turned it into what it can be.”
Spreading the message
It’s hard to say who is winning the war of words. If the number of followers is the benchmark, @isafmedia is far ahead. Over the past year, the number of users following the coalition has swelled from 736 to nearly 18,000. The two Taliban accounts — @alemarahweb, which mainly links to news releases and official statements, and the more pugnacious @ABalkhi — have just over 9,000 combined.
Many terrorist organizations maintain sophisticated Web sites and aggressive social media operations, despite widely suspected efforts by Western intelligence agencies to hack into and deactivate their online sites.
U.S. officials have grown increasingly concerned about extremists’ stepped-up activity on social media sites, citing cases in which Americans have been recruited online by terrorists overseas. The House Homeland Security subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence convened a hearing this month on how jihadists were using social media.
“Terrorist networks are spreading their message, recruiting sympathizers and are connecting operationally online,” subcommittee chairman Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.) said in opening remarks, according to a transcript.
Although the Taliban is not the only extremist group on Twitter, it appears to be the only one exchanging regular tweets with the U.S. military.