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Taliban denies texting Mullah Omar's death, blames hacking

A spokesman for the Afghan militia says its phones and website were tampered with. Later emails angrily denounce the death report.

July 19, 2011|By Laura King | Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — In this Murdochian age, it somehow seems inevitable: The Taliban movement says it was phone-hacked.

The group said Wednesday that text messages announcing the death of supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar were fake, and asserted that the telephones of its main spokesmen, together with the Taliban website, had been tampered with.

Earlier Wednesday, text and email messages, purportedly from accounts used by Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, had announced the death of the "Amir ul-Momineen," or commander of the faithful, as Omar is known. Mujahid, reached by phone, denied that he was the sender, and said Omar was alive and directing Taliban operations in Afghanistan.

The reclusive Taliban leader has long been thought by Western officials to be based in or near the Pakistani city of Quetta, though there were reports after the killing of Osama bin Laden that he had been moved to another location.

Soon after the death reports began circulating, Mujahid and another principal spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, sent emails angrily denouncing the actions of a "cunning enemy" who had committed "technical larceny."

The statements added that the "technical workers of the Islamic Emirate's Information and Cultural Commission" -- effectively, the Taliban's IT team -- had opened an investigation. The Reuters news agency said the group had threatened to take revenge on the phone companies.

The insurgency has long recognized that technology can aid in the dissemination of its message. There is a Taliban website in English and Pashto; the group is also on Twitter and recently began tweeting in English.

In recent years, speedy Taliban announcements of attacks against NATO forces and Afghan government targets prodded the Western military into a more aggressive public-relations stance, utilizing Facebook and other social media.

Afghan officials, too, have sought to discredit the Taliban media machine, which routinely makes exaggerated claims of military triumphs for the insurgents, but often includes some truthful detail, such as the location of a given attack.

Earlier this year, the main Afghan intelligence service moved to "out" one of the Taliban spokesmen, declaring that Mujahid was the pseudonym of a man named Haji Ismail, who was based in the Pakistani border town of Chaman. The Taliban movement retorted that its messages originated from inside Afghanistan.

laura.king@latimes.com

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