Taliban arrest two satirists over rush on Kabul airport
Several hundred people gathered at Kabul International Airport on February 8 after rumours circulated that Afghans could fly to Turkey to support the earthquake relief effort – however, AW’s assessment of the arrested men’s social media profiles suggests they were not initiators or significant amplifiers of the ‘flights to Turkey’ story.
28 Feb 2023
Cover image: Google Earth / Maxar Technologies, 2023 On February 19, the Taliban’s General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) released a video showing the ‘confession’ of two Afghan satirists, Imran Ahmadzai and Sadullah Didan. The two men were accused of spreading rumours of flights to Turkey – which resulted in chaos around Kabul Airport – anti-regime propaganda, creating Facebook accounts using fake profiles of women and posting unethical content.
However, an assessment of the profiles associated with the men shows they were not initiators or significant amplifiers of the ‘flights to Turkey’ story, and it appears the Taliban have used the incident as an excuse to detain popular social media activists.
Imran Ahmadzai, a Pashtun man from Logar province, was arrested by the Taliban on February 10 in the Ahmad Shah Baba Maina area, PD12, Kabul City. Sadullah Didan, a Pashtun man from Logar, was arrested on February 14 in Jalalabad City, Nangarhar province.
On February 16, the Taliban’s Director for Publication at the Ministry of Information and Culture, Abdul Haq Hammad, mentioned their arrest on his Twitter account but did not name them, “…the saboteurs who spread the rumour of the transfer to Turkey were arrested by the Intelligence Department.”
At least several hundred people gathered at Kabul International Airport on the evening of February 8, after rumours circulated of flights to Turkey being arranged for Afghans to support the earthquake relief effort, with all visa requirements being waived.
Anti-Taliban activists pointed to the incident as an indication of the desperation of Afghans to leave the country, but it also shows how mis- or disinformation can rapidly translate into real-world events.
The GDI published a video of Imran Ahmadzai confessing that he was behind three Facebook accounts, namely Imran Ahmadzai (24,251 followers) and fake accounts Haji Yaqoot Sha (11,988 followers) and Marzia Spesali, a female name (only friends/no followers).
Each post from the first two accounts previously received dozens of comments and hundreds of likes. After Ahmadzai introduced himself and his alleged Facebook accounts in the GDI confession video, he stated that he used them to promote anti-Taliban propaganda, post unethical content on Facebook, encourage people to go to Kabul airport, and cause chaos.
When looking at the content on Ahmadzai’s Facebook accounts – which are still active at the time of writing – there are no posts that demonstrate propaganda against the regime, except for some criticism of the Taliban’s ban on girls’ education – not unusual for non-Taliban accounts. For example, on the Marzia Spesali account, a post from December 21, 2022, shows a photo of a University Professor resigning in reaction to the Taliban’s ban on girls’ education. The post reads, “Another university lecturer also resigned. Congratulations to the Taliban.”
The fake Facebook account of Haji Yaqoot Sha portrays the narrative of an imaginary Jihadi commander, 60 years old, from Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami party. The commander has two wives but wishes to have a third one and also claims to like ‘beautiful boys’. Under this character, he criticises the negative aspects of anti-Soviet Jihad and the Mujahideen, including the prominent role of Pakistani intelligence and the torture and killing of civilians by the Mujahideen in Afghanistan’s civil war.
The Taliban accused Ahmadzai of using his Facebook posts to encourage people to go to Kabul airport for the purported flights to Turkey. He posted three times on the eve on February 8, when the rush to the airport was underway, pretending to be among the crowds. The first post, at 20:08 local time, said he had lost a shoe in the rush; the second post, at 20:24, suggested he was on a plane; the third post, three hours later, was a video of people running to the airport commenting they were going to Turkey. All the posts generated approximately 400 likes and 50 comments – a reasonable level of engagement but not at a level likely to have been a major catalyst to the rumours of flights to Turkey.
While the posts show Ahmadzai engaged on the rumours, it is a stretch to say he was responsible for the rush on the airport. Ahmadzai was not among the early promoters of the rumours – indeed pro-Taliban Twitter accounts can be found posting the story seemingly as genuine almost two hours before Ahmadzai’s first post.
In the GDI’s video, Sadullah Didan confessed that he was behind several Facebook accounts, including Haji Kaka (10,725 followers), Haji Didan (22,091 followers) and Gull Bashra Sabarai (an account with a female name and 543 followers). He claimed that he used those accounts to promote anti-Taliban propaganda and spread immorality, adding that he regrets his actions, “At this old age, it was too bad for me to do so.”
AW investigated the timeline of the Facebook accounts in the video and saw that all were active. Furthermore, the account with the female name, Gull Bashra Sabarai, included posts critical of the Taliban. For example, two posts from November 2022 criticised the Taliban’s apparent double standard of respecting foreign women and beating Afghan women. Another post from the same month showed two photos of the Pakistani State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Hina Rabbani Khar, visiting Iran and Afghanistan. On a visit to Iran, she wore a Hijab, but in Afghanistan, she did not. The post's text read, “When you are not important, and no one cares about you,” implicitly saying Pakistan doesn't take the Taliban seriously.
There are some unconfirmed reports on social media of the release of Sadullah Didan and Imran Ahmadzai on February 21, 2023. However, no confirmation or proof is available yet. It is possible they have been released, but on the condition that they do not talk publicly about their detention – as has been the case with other arrested journalists, women's rights, human rights, and social media activists.
While pro-Taliban sources on Twitter welcomed the arrest of the two satirists, mocking their choice of female Facebook names, some Afghans called on the Taliban to release them, claiming they were just posting content for fun.
On Twitter, the Taliban’s Director for Public Relations for the Ministry of Borders and Tribal Affairs mocked Sadullah Didan for using a Facebook account with a girl’s name. The former Ministry of Higher Education spokesman asked the two satirists to be punished, blaming them for insulting Afghan culture and spreading anti-Taliban propaganda “for years”.
Criticising the Taliban’s double standards, Esmat Qani, a political analyst who would frequently comment on the satirists’ posts, wrote, “If you make from Hasiba Atakpal (a female name), Hedayatullah Hedayat, that's right, but if Haji Didan became Gull Bashra, you torture him with an electric shock.” Qani pointed to the story of the Taliban’s Deputy Director for the state-run Radio and Television, Hedayatullah Hedayat, who renamed Hasiba Attakpal’s Twitter account to his name.
The Facebook posts of the two satirists reviewed by AW included some criticism of the Taliban, but not beyond what is commonly found on non-Taliban social media profiles. Importantly, they cannot be singled out for initiating or significantly popularising the rumours about flights to Turkey, and so it appears the Taliban have used the Kabul airport incident as an excuse to go after popular social media activists.