By Bilal Sarwary
It’s a chilly winter evening in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province. Several men with blankets draped over their shoulders are playing cards under a solar-powered streetlight when someone turns on the radio. It’s time for Voice of the Caliphate, a programme broadcast by the so-called Islamic State on its pirate station.
“God loves those mujahideen who fight in the way of Allah,” says the presenter, who urges young men to join IS. “There will be an Islamic state, a pure Sharia regime all over the world.”
The men quieten down as the broadcast rules the cold, windy air for the next hour.
Just a couple of years ago, 90.7 was occupied by Qalam FM, which broadcasted songs, religious talkshows and social programmes that focused on topics ranging from agriculture and health to elections and good governance. Then IS blew up the radio station and took over the frequency.
The broadcast is part of an IS propaganda assault that has accompanied its efforts over the past couple of years to spread from the Middle East into South and Central Asia. So far, IS has only been able to take over a relatively small area of Nangarhar Province, as it battles the Taliban for territory and fights off assaults from Afghan and American forces.
ISIS in Afghanistan. (Photo: EPA)
But the militant group’s influence stretches much further afield, in part due to its extensive use of various media. Radio is especially important, as it is by far the most important medium in Afghanistan due to high illiteracy rates.
IS “has put far greater effort into its media activities than would normally be expected from a nascent group of its size”, said the Afghanistan Analysts Network in a report last month that examined its reach on social and traditional media, as well as the content. The militants are “already outmatching” the Taliban, noted AAN.
‘Baffled’ by recruitment
Nangarhar residents told IRIN that they often tune in to the evening radio programme, but not to show support IS. Instead, they hope to learn what’s happening on the battlefield and how close the fighting is. However, people have been won over, including some surprising recruits.
The first half of the nightly broadcast is mainly filled with bulletins about IS victories in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The second half is hosted by Firdoas Bahar, a former professor of Pashto literature, who fills his programme with rhetoric attacking the Taliban and the government. The entire hour is interspersed with jihadi music, messages from IS members in Syria and Iraq, and interviews with captives in Afghanistan who say they regret fighting IS.
Bahar, who joined IS recently along with nine members of his family, tells listeners that the militant group represents true Islam and peppers his presentation with quotes from the Quran. His decision to join IS came as a surprise to his friends and professors at Kabul University, where he was pursuing a graduate degree.
“He was very smart and there was hardly any reason to suspect him,” one of his professors told IRIN on condition of anonymity. “I suspect he was recruited by a secret cell in Kabul University.”
Another IS recruitment that has baffled many people is that of Sultan Aziz Azam, a journalist and poet who was popular in Jalalabad, Nangarhar’s provincial capital. “Now, he calls and threatens his former friends about IS beheading reporters,” said a local journalist, who asked to remain anonymous.
Ahmad Ali Hazrat, chief of Nangarhar’s provincial council, pointed to a mix of motivations for people to join IS. They include hatred of the Taliban, which may have killed their friends and relatives, as well as poverty and unemployment.
In addition to radio, IS makes extensive use of social media, said a senior security official on condition of anonymity. “Most of the recruitments take place via WhatsApp, Facebook, and online,” he said. “Mostly, they target younger Afghans on university campuses and in the cities.”
Abdul Rahman, 23, was a shopkeeper in Jalalabad before joining IS for a year. He said he started watching videos of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, which his friend sent via Facebook. One day, the friend arrived at the shop with a young mullah. They went for a walk and the mullah spoke about the sufferings of Muslims in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and other parts of the world, and the dream of an Islamic empire.
In early 2015, Rahman joined IS at its Afghan headquarters, in Nangarhar’s Achin District, where he met foreign fighters as well as locals. He told IRIN that he loved the idea of everyone living together, and that the commander would always make sure that everyone had enough to eat.
“It was a happy family,” he said.
In the following months, Rahman learnt to use guns and started working with a team that used Facebook, Viber, and WhatsApp to recruit people. He enjoyed it, but missed his wife and children – a feeling that intensified when his family managed to send him a message.
One day, Rahman saw IS fighters brutally kill one of their own after accusing the man of being a government spy. It shook him up, and he defected after telling his commander he was going to meet someone he’d recruited at Nangarhar University.
“I came straight to my home and told my father everything,” said Rahman, who quickly left Jalalabad with his family so that IS couldn’t track him down.
But Rahman is an exception. Most people who join IS stick with them, and wouldn’t dare to run away even if they wished to.
Security officials told IRIN that they are struggling to counter IS propaganda on social media, and that they have twice destroyed the militants’ pirate radio station.
“But it is a mobile radio station, on the move, working from some house or a room,” said a different senior security officer, who also requested anonymity.