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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 34, August 19, 2023

Carol Winkler Review of The Taliban’s Virtual Emirate by Neil Krishan Aggarwal

Friday 18 August 2023



Reviewed by Carol Winkler (Georgia State University)

The Taliban’s Virtual Emirate: The Culture and Psychology of an Online Militant Community

by Neil Krishan Aggarwal

Columbia University Press

2016. xix + 211 pp. Ill. $60.00
(cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-17426-8

Neil Krishan Aggarwal’s The Taliban’s Virtual Emirate provides a much-needed, theoretically grounded analysis of the cultural and psychological dimensions of the discourse of the Taliban. His book shows the value of considering an interdisciplinary perspective when exploring the online discourse of such groups. His book is unique because it compares the Taliban’s usage of cosmopolitan, vernacular, and parochial languages to target messages to global audiences, Afghan citizens, and South Asian Muslims.

Highlighting the leadership traits that the Taliban has historically valued and illustrating a revised method for assessing leadership, Aggarwal examines the case of Mullah Omar. The chapter opens with his life accounts offered by the US Defense Intelligence Agency and various journalistic writings. After highlighting the need for psychological profiles of international leaders to have cultural validity, Aggarwal identifies biographical milestones from Omar’s life linked to his leadership style, conducts a personality profile based on value and belief systems, attitudes, leadership style, etc., provides an assessment of the leader’s worldview, and summarizes those findings in relation to Margaret Herman’s seven leadership traits.[1] He concludes that messaging associated with the virtual emirate positioned Omar to evolve from a village mullah into a global figure poised to lead “the transnational Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” (p. 62).

To identify the social identities of the Taliban in-groups and out-groups, Aggarwal uses Leonie Huddy’s four-part taxonomy.[2] It places a focus on the strength of group membership, characteristics of prototypical in-group members, core values of the group, and out-group portrayals. He applies those elements to the writings of the Taliban’s English, Dari, and Arabic authors and concludes that the in-group and out-group identity constructions of the Taliban vary by language. While an Islamic foundation is present in the language of each targeted group, Aggarwal maintains that the Dari authors focus on nationalism, the Urdu authors on South Asian regionalism, the Arabic authors on the Muslim world, and the English authors on the West. The identified differences by language are most acute in the depictions of the Taliban’s core values but are also present in the authors’ discussions of out-groups.

Aggarwal continues his language-based analysis by examining the Taliban’s conception of jihad, but he adds that a differentiation of the messaging strategies is needed based on the genre of the distributed media products. He examines chronicled casualty data, interviews with Taliban officials, biographies of dead militants, expository texts on jihad, and jihadist videos. He reveals that the consequences facing all Afghan citizens appear in casualty count data, while obituaries only memorialize militants. Further, the interviews with officials and the videos highlight military strategy, while the expository texts build on the cultural justifications for jihad. Aggarwal reveals that the different genres of Taliban communications vary both in substance and style, while the Taliban’s different genres and languages present militant goals and motivations in distinguishable ways.

To examine how the Taliban constructs nation-states and how the group positions itself in relation to such an international framework, Aggarwal relies on culturally informed, psychological theories of cognitive processing and applied social identity theories connected to international relations. Analyzing nation-states mentioned by Taliban authors, he explores the group’s depictions of Burma, Canada, Egypt, England, France, India, Israel, Mali, Pakistan, Palestine, Russia, Syria, Turkey, and the United States. He concludes that Taliban authors consider nations housing majority-Muslim populations as allies, while those that do not qualify as enemies. Aggarwal rejects the conventional in-group/out-group binary by showing how the Taliban varies its discourse framing, particularly when discussing out-groups. He also shows that the Taliban grant in-group status of Muslim populations living in out-group nations since the onset of the war on terror. Further, he highlights the cultural variability of cognitive processing in the Taliban context by showing how the writings of the group’s authors use different languages to vary their applications of in-group favoritism and analogous reasoning.

The cultural nuance and theoretical grounding of The Taliban’s Virtual Emirate make the volume a must-read for scholars of international relations and practitioners focusing on global actors. The book makes a clear contribution to understandings of the Taliban, but it also features useful analytical steps (and a justification for them) that should be reflected in future studies of virtual collectives. To ignore either the psychological or the cultural dimensions of such groups risks critical oversights and/or mistaken conclusions. In the epilogue to his volume, Aggarwal critiques his own work for failing to consider relevant insights from communication studies. While he highlights the communication field’s insights on narrative as a critical element needed for strengthening future studies of virtual communities, his focus on what the field has to offer is far too narrow. Studies of communication and rhetoric offer many additional theories and tools for understanding the interplay of groups and individuals in the online environment.


[1]. Margaret G. Herman, “Explaining Foreign Policy Behavior Using the Personal Characteristics of Political Leaders,” International Studies Quarterly 24, no. 1 (March 1980): 7-46.

[2]. Leonie Huddy, “From Social to Political Identity: A Critical Examination of Social Identity Theory,” Political Psychology 22 , no. 1 (December 2002): 127-56.

[This work from H-Net is reproduced here for non-commercial use under a Creative Commons License].

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