The black-and-white videos show ghostly images of men in combat gear sheltering behind ruined walls in the crosshairs of Taliban snipers, who under cover of darkness pick them off one by one. While the Taliban have been known to use thermal-imaging technology for night-time combat for years, the Afghan insurgents are increasingly publishing sniper videos online as part of an apparent propaganda effort. An investigation by the France 24 Observers shows that most of the videos feature thermal scopes that are commercially available for civilian use.
The latest video was released on March 11 on one of the Taliban’s official Twitter accounts with an English caption that read, “NV Operations, Balkh Province.” The two-minute video shows the sniper taking two shots at a figure in combat gear sheltering behind a wall. A third shot appears to hit the soldier. Three subsequent shots appear to hit three of his comrades, including a shot fired through a hole in a wall.
A similar video published on closed Taliban groups on Telegram in mid-February appeared to show a sniper hitting at least 9 Afghan soldiers in the space of 17 minutes. The video was published as a two-minute edit, with a soundtrack of menacing music reminiscent of a video game.
While different combatants in the Middle East, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iran’s IRGC, and the Afghan army, have in the past used video game footage for propaganda purposes and pretended the images showed thermal imaging from real operations, experts believe these new Taliban videos are authentic. With the Afghan army seldom giving casualty counts of Taliban attacks, it is impossible to verify the circumstances of the individual videos, but experts say they are consistent with recent Taliban battleground activity.
According to a UN report published in 2019, for each typical squad of 10 to 16 Taliban insurgents, at least one man is equipped with a sniper rifle with a night-vision scope. Afghan media on March 6 reported Taliban insurgents had killed seven Afghan soldiers in a “midnight attack” in Balkh. And an incident on October 21, 2020 in which 48 Afghan soldiers were killed by Taliban snipers in a single night in northeastern Takhar province gave rise to a parliamentary inquiry.
Where do the Taliban get the thermal scopes?
US and Afghan officials have claimed in recent years that Russia has been providing weapons including night-vision equipment to the Taliban. A Taliban spokesman claimed in 2017 the insurgents purchased such equipment directly from soldiers of the Afghan and US forces, and US officials have noted that equipment issued to their Afghan allies often goes missing.
However most of the Taliban night-vision videos published in recent months came from commercially available thermal scopes designed for civilian use. Thermal scopes are a form of night-vision device that transforms heat into images, meaning that warm-blooded animals, including humans, are visible even in total darkness. A military expert who has followed the Afghan insurgents’ tactics for years, and who requested anonymity for this article, explains:
Military analysts, along with the Afghan army and the UN, have been raising the alarm about the use of thermal and night-vision scopes by the Taliban since mid-2018. The devices have had a direct impact on the battlefield: there is a difference between when the Taliban had a few dozen of these scopes and now that they have hundreds of them.
The devices have tilted the balance of firepower in certain battles and have caused serious damage to the Afghan national army. The videos reveal another problem: the lack of training of Afghan soldiers. They have no idea what to do in these situations.
The Taliban mostly obtain the devices on the civilian market of neighboring countries. Each scope costs between €1,500 and €5,000. They and their supporters publish the videos as a form of propaganda. They want to show their strength against their adversary. The Taliban occasionally post such videos on their official Twitter accounts, but they are more often than not released by Taliban supporters on closed platforms like Telegram, WhatsApp, or private Facebook groups. The Taliban is not a concentrated hierarchical group and its media operations are confusing. It’s not as clear-cut as the Islamic State organisation.
The scopes are widely available for civilian uses, like hunting
Thermal scopes are widely available for civilian uses such as hunting and are a frequent topic of discussion in YouTube videos and on other social media platforms. By watching YouTube videos and comparing them with images published by the Taliban and their supporters, the France 24 Observers team found that most of the Taliban videos were produced using commercially available scopes popular among civilian hunters.
According to our investigation, the majority of the thermal- or night-vision videos published by the Taliban come from scopes manufactured by a handful of companies based in China (Longot), the United States (ATN) and Lithuania (Pulsar).
For example, in the last six months, Taliban supporters published at least three videos showing attacks on Afghan soldiers using thermal scopes made by Pulsar, a brand manufactured by Lithuania-based Yukon Advanced Optics Worldwide. The company acknowledged the similarities between the Taliban images and those produced by their products, but said the devices could be copies “made by a third-party manufacturer”. The company said its products are intended for civilian use only: “We have a strict policy that we do not develop solutions for the military industry, nor provide it for military purposes, nor do our products meet the military standards. Our customers have no authorisation for the export of our products without our consent and without obtaining special export licenses from the government agencies in their countries,” the company said. ATN and Longot did not reply to our requests for comment.
Published first here on France24.