Yasir had locked up his shop and was walking to his home in the Afghan capital, Kabul, when he was stopped by Taliban fighters, who demanded to see his smartphone.
“They went through my phone and saw photos of me playing sports, working out at the gym, and hanging out with my friends,” Yasir, who did not give his real name for fear of Taliban retribution, told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.
“Then they beat me,” he added. “They slapped me and then kicked me for having music on my phone. I could do nothing but wonder what crime I had committed.”
Yasir is not alone. Afghans across the country have complained that Taliban fighters are prying into the personal photos and videos, contacts, and social media accounts on their smartphones.
The presence of music or videos that the Taliban deems to be violating its strict moral code has often led to harassment and violence, residents said. In many cases, Taliban fighters have confiscated, broken, or erased data from smartphones.
The Taliban’s practice has provoked outrage in Afghanistan, a deeply religious and conservative country of some 38 million people. Many Afghans consider it offensive for strangers to look through their private information.
‘Undermines Peoples’ Dignity’
Yasmin, a young woman, said she no longer carried her mobile phone in public. She recalled how Taliban fighters beat up her male cousin when they discovered music on his smartphone.
“They beat him in front of his friends and passersby,” Yasmin, who did not reveal her real name because of safety concerns, told Radio Azadi. “They don’t care about how this kind of treatment undermines peoples’ dignity. They just want to impose their extremist worldview.”
A militant Islamist group, the Taliban adheres to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic Shari’a law.
During its brutal regime from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban banned music, independent media, and many sports. It also barred women from working and girls from attending school as well as forcing men to pray and grow beards.
Since regaining power in August, the Taliban has reimposed many of the same repressive laws and retrograde policies that defined its former rule.
Subhan Misbah, a legal expert based in Kabul, said the Taliban’s practice of searching smartphones violated the same Islamic laws that the group claims it is defending.
“Islamic Shari’a law forbids any interference in the personal privacy of anyone without permission,” he said. “Prying is only allowed if someone is suspected or accused of committing a crime. People engaging in these activities need to be investigated.”
The Taliban has denied that its fighters are searching residents’ smartphones.
“Nobody has been authorized to search anyone’s mobile phone,” Taliban spokesman Ahmadullah Wasiq told Radio Azadi. “We have not heard of such incidents.”
But Mufti Lutfullah Hakimi, the head of a Taliban commission established to weed out “undesirable” individuals within the group’s ranks, rejected that denial.
“Why are you infringing on peoples’ privacy by searching their pockets and snooping through their phones?” Hakimi asked during a speech in the southern city of Kandahar on November 23.
Afghans say the Taliban’s practice is nothing new. During its 20-year insurgency, Taliban fighters regularly stopped people at makeshift checkpoints on highways and searched their smartphones.
Many Afghans reported intimidation or harassment as the Taliban snatched smartphones and, in some instances, copied phone data.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, in an audio message sent to Radio Azadi in October 2020, admitted that the militants searched the phones of people who they considered to be suspicious.
“We do not check anyone’s phone to look at their photos or data,” said Mujahid. “We only look at the phones of suspected individuals to complete our information,” he added. “We look at their contacts and other information to decide whether we need to detain them and take them away [for further questioning].”
When the Taliban regained power, some Afghans fearful of Taliban retribution scrubbed their digital profiles, deleting messages, music, and pictures on their smartphones.