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Jihadi recruitment: The Taliban moves to the bottom of the class

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14 April 2015 11:41

 On 4 April 2015 the Afghan Taliban made an interesting move: it released a biography of its leader Mullah Omar in order to commemorate the 19th anniversary of his leadership. For many it raised a question: why now? For others it was clear: The Taliban has an image problem. 

Some speculate rightfully that the biography was written to counter persistent rumours that Mullah Omar is no longer among the living. After all, it has been a while since he was seen alive. 

It is tricky to use a biography as proof of life, as they are often written posthumously. For individuals who are still alive, a biography might be a desperate attempt to regain relevance by telling the world how important the subject is. And this, according to analysts such as my friend Graeme Smith from the International Crisis Group in Kabul, is what the Taliban is doing – desperately trying to grasp attention at a time when 'another caliph has announced himself to the world'.

That caliph is the head of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. ISIS after all understands the Kim Kardashian way to fame: posting as many images, movies and stories about yourself as possible to 'break' the internet. That is the way these days, where anybody and anything (just think grumpy cat) can become instantaneously famous as long as it receives enough attention on social media.

ISIS understands this, but the Taliban seems to have lost its edge.

Long gone are the days when the Taliban was described as having 'a sophisticated communications apparatus that projects an increasingly confident movement' and as 'Winning the Propaganda War', sending the Western military propaganda machine into a desperate spin to regain the upper hand.

That was seven years ago, which by internet standards is an eternity. The Taliban is being outmanoeuvred when it comes to online presentation of a successful (and may I add 'attractive', in the eyes of potential recruits) movement by the new kids on the jihadi block. ISIS seems to better understand the demographic it is talking to. In its recruitment drive, religious conviction and ideology are no longer the main mobilisation tool.

The Mullah Omar biography fails to speak the language of the young fighters when it reminds them of their leader's long list of war credential. Describing Mullah Omar as coming from a family of jihadists with the RPG-7 as his 'preferred weapon of choice,' in which he is said to be 'proficient and an expert,' does not seem particularly impressive. Where are the videos in which we can see Mullah Omar touting said RPG? That is what ISIS would have done. Furthermore, many know that the rock-star name of Mullah Rocketi has long been booked by ex-Taliban Mullah Abdul Salam. If Mullah Omar was better with the rocket than Rocketi, why did Abdul Salma get the name?

The biography then moves into describing Mullah Omar's winning personality and intellect, which seems a little desperate: 

As a leading personality, Mullah Mohammad Umar 'Mujahid' has a unique and charismatic personality. Contrary to high ranking officials and leaders, he does not want to show off or boast. He is not eager or excited to speak if it is un-necessary to do so. And if needed, his words and sentences are keen, perceptive and logical.

Perhaps this worked two decades ago when the Taliban first took Afghanistan by storm, but in an age in which selfies and YouTube rule, this is a poor substitute for presenting video footage to demonstrate the charisma of your leader. Perhaps there is some truth to Mullak Rocketi's own critique of his ex-colleague: 'He (Mullah Omar) is a dumb person, illiterate, ignorant...he thinks he knows everything. But he can hardly speak to be understood.'

But wait, the biography anticipates such a critique and goes on to say: 'Besides the natural silence of Mullah Mohammad Umar 'Mujahid', he is affable and has a special sense of humor...He treats them cheerfully, cordially, compassionately and with reciprocal reverence. In most of his meetings, he usually speaks about Jihad.'  

If I may be so bold as to put myself into the shoes of a young wannabe jihadist, I might sum up Mullah Omar's biography as follows: a silent yet humorous one-eyed grandfather who likes to speak about his days of jihad. Too shy to appear on video, he 'begins his working day with the prayers to Allah Almighty and recitation of the Holy Quran. In free time, he studies various commentaries of the Holy Quran.'

Move over Taliban, because at this point you have likely lost the interest of young men in the jihad internet dating game. This description of Mullah Omar no longer excites. The part on his daily activities basically describes a boring desk-bound bureaucrat, not an exciting fighter to be followed. If you want to learn from ISIS, then you know the allure of the modern jihadist is violence (including sexual violence), power, and a sense of belonging, with pious devotion way down the list. In many ways the sex, drugs and rock-and roll credo of rock stars has been replaced with the sex, violence and bromance (brotherhood) credo of the jihadi star (though I'm sure many of the ISIS fighters also enjoy a wicked tune). 

On all these fronts, the Taliban simply fails to deliver, and Mullah Omar's biography only illustrates all too painfully a movement that has lost touch with its younger generation. This of course could be an opportunity for the Afghan Government to reach into the vacuum and try to woo its young men to join a peaceful future.  Sadly, I am not convinced Afghan Government elites understand the psychology of youth either.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user thierry ehrmann.

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