Official Taliban websites go offline, though reasons unknown

Aug 20, 2021, 6:16 PM | Updated: 7:15 pm

BOSTON (AP) — Taliban websites that delivered the victorious insurgents’ official messages to Afghans and the world at large in five languages went offline abruptly Friday, indicating an effort to try to squelch them.

It is not immediately clear, though, why the sites in the Pashto, Urdu, Arabic, English and Dari languages went offline Friday. They had been shielded by Cloudflare, a San Francisco-based content delivery network and denial-of-service protection provider.

Cloudflare has not respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment on the development, which was first reported by The Washington Post. The Cloudflare shield prevents the public from knowing who exactly hosts the sites.

Also Friday, the popular encrypted messaging service WhatsApp removed a number of Taliban groups, according to Rita Katz, director of SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks online extremism.

The websites’ disappearance may just be temporary as the Taliban secures new hosting arrangements. But the reported removal of the WhatsApp groups followed the banning of Taliban accounts by Facebook, the service’s parent company, on Tuesday after the U.S.-backed Afghan government fell to the Taliban.

WhatsApp spokesperson Danielle Meister did not confirm the removal but referred The Associated Press to a statement the company issued earlier this week saying it was “obligated to adhere to U.S. sanctions laws. This includes banning accounts that appear to represent themselves as official accounts of the Taliban.”

Katz said via email that she hoped the removal of the Taliban websites is just a first step to diminishing its online presence.

Unlike the Taliban of 20 years ago that the U.S. drove from power in Afghanistan, today’s Taliban is immensely media savvy and its online infrastructure “inspires and mobilizes” al-Qaida and other extremist Islamist factions, said Katz.

“Tech companies should do what they can to get ahead of this problem as soon as possible, as the group’s online presence is stoking a newly emboldened jihadi movement worldwide,” she added.

Twitter has not removed Taliban accounts and the group’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, has more than 300,000 followers there. The company indicated Tuesday that as long as such accounts observe its rules — including not inciting or glorifying violence — they will remain up.

Like Facebook, Google’s YouTube considers the Taliban a terrorist organization and prohibits it from operating accounts.

The Taliban is not on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, but the U.S. has imposed sanctions on it.

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Official Taliban websites go offline, though reasons unknown