ALM and Loy Paktia Freedom Front claim use of drones against Taliban, but content is manufactured
AW investigators found that the content posted by both groups was fabricated using old satellite imagery and other content readily available online – likely an attempt to appear more technologically advanced than in reality.
27 Sept 2023
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Since the Taliban’s takeover, various resistance groups have declared a presence in Afghanistan. Some groups, such as the Afghanistan Liberation Movement (ALM), have been active since February 2022, whereas other groups, such as the Loy Paktia Freedom Front (RP01), only announced their presence in August 2023.
The ALM and RP01 both claim to be the only resistance groups in Afghanistan operating drones. Both have, however, produced very little evidence to support this claim and, on several occasions, recycled satellite or stock imagery in posts claiming ownership and usage of drones against the Taliban. While it is possible that the groups are deliberately obscuring their capabilities with these false videos, it is more likely they are trying to appear more capable and technologically advanced than in reality.
ALM claim to own and operate surveillance drones, but use old satellite imagery
On September 9, 2022, ALM’s current leader and spokesperson announced the group was given “few drone [sic]” by an undisclosed donor. The claim included a photo of a drone identified as a Yuneec Typhoon H 480, and a ST16 ground station, as seen below.
Despite claiming to be in possession of several drones in September 2022, neither ALM’s official social media accounts nor their leader mentioned drones or any activity involving the equipment in the following eight months.
On April 12, 2023, ALM’s X (formerly Twitter) account shared two photos which they appear to claim were taken using their drones. The message accompanying the images stated “Our A021 [ALM’s intelligence team] watch every movement of Taliban by our own drones and other technical equipment. The picture and videos which we collected, show clear new purchased aircraft’s [sic] of the Kabul Airport.”
The images, as described, showed a large number of military aircraft at Kabul Airport. However, the photos were not taken by a drone on April 12, 2023, as claimed by ALM, but by Maxar GeoEye-1, a satellite orbiting Earth on July 12, 2021. The figure below shows the two photos shared by ALM allegedly taken by their drone in April 2023, on the left with their logo, and on the right, the exact same scene captured by the GeoEye-1 satellite in July 2021. The military aircraft seen in the images were not newly purchased by the Taliban administration in 2023 but were US military vehicles stationed in the country in 2021.
A few weeks later, ALM again alleged ownership of drones. On May 20, the group’s leader posted a message stating “I was asked, if ALM have Drone Pilot. Yes we do! There are on Afghan soil ! [sic]”. The post contained a photo showing five military drones identified as Iranian-built HESA Shahed 136. However, the photo used for his claim dates back to at least September 2022, when it was used in an article by the Daily Lviv, a Ukrainian news agency, reporting on the ongoing war with Russia in Ukraine.
In August 2023, the ALM again claimed the use of drones against the Taliban. On August 19, the chief commander of ALM shared a screenshot of a video by Afghanistan International. The image showed an arrow pointing at a speckle in a blue sky, and the caption “We are everywhere!”, with the implication that the speckle was an ALM-operated drone flying over the city.
AW investigators found the original video shared by Afghanistan International on the same date. The footage showed the Afghanistan flag being lifted over Jalalabad with balloons, as part of the ongoing Independence Day celebrations on August 19. Although it was not possible to establish whether a drone was indeed present at the time the footage was filmed, it is highly unlikely. Both the media and a large crowd were watching the sky as the flag was raised, yet there was no mention or report of a drone observed at the scene.
On August 22, the ALM shared a photo on social media with the caption “Faryab Airport”. The image contained the resistance group’s logo and the name of the intelligence team, A-021. At the centre of the image was a crosshair and nine small red dots, mimicking a military-operated device, implying the photo had been taken by a drone operated by the A-021 ALM team. AW investigators found the exact same image on Google Earth Pro’s historical view. The photo was taken by a satellite orbiting Earth on December 28, 2021, as seen below.
Effects added to footage using app
On August 24, the ALM shared a video allegedly showing the “Qole Urdo - Taliban Base” in Kandahar. The footage appeared to again show drone activity by the A-021 team, however, unlike previous claims, this one was in the form of a video recorded in portrait mode, rather than a still image. The post was re-shared by ALM’s chief commander, who stated: “Terrorists [Taliban] and their lobbyists should remember that we have made every part of the country like a deadly front for you. We monitor everything!”
The video showed the area with a military grid reference system overlay, and a green filter implying the footage was recorded at night. AW investigators geolocated the footage to the Ahmad Shah Baba International Airport in Kandahar. Although implied that the video was recorded at night, it is clear that the imagery – matching Google Maps – was captured during the daytime due to the presence of large shadows near all buildings.
AW investigators also found the app used to add the military grid reference system and crosshair as seen in the footage. The video was recorded using the MGRS Live Map, a paid app for iPhone that can be found in the Apple App Store. The app page contained various screenshots showcasing the software in use. The details matched the ones seen in the video shared by ALM allegedly recorded using their drone. It also explains why the video was in portrait mode as opposed to the landscape view usually seen in drone footage.
The figure below shows the ALM footage on the left, and the screenshot of the MGRS Live Map app on the Apple App Store. The grid layout and the crosshair are identical in both images.
On August 28, both the ALM account and ALM’s chief commander shared a video with the message “#Afghanistan Test flight successful”. The same footage was also posted by the ALM leader with the claim that “#ALM improved now their own Night/day surveillance drones. Our serval test Flights was successful. [sic]” The footage contained ALM’s X (formerly Twitter) handle and showed a group of individuals training outdoors. The footage was recorded from above, allegedly using ALM’s “surveillance drones”.
Despite ALM’s claim that the scene was recorded recently, AW investigators identified the video as being from 2018. It showed the moment prior to an airstrike by the US Air Force on a Taliban training camp in Helmand, which allegedly killed a key Taliban leader in December 2018.
The figure below shows the post by the chief commander claiming to show footage recorded by ALM’s drones on the left, and the footage of the training camp released in December 2018 as seen on a Facebook account on the bottom right. ALM’s footage (top right) was rotated, however, it is still possible to confirm it is the same scene.
Despite multiple claims since September 2022, the ALM resistance group has yet to provide evidence of being in possession of surveillance in Afghan territory. The footage and photos used on ALM’s social media claiming to be from their drone surveillance activities came from satellite imagery freely available online and were between one and four years old.
Similar drone claims by Loy Paktia Freedom Front
Similarly to ALM, the Loy Paktia Freedom Front (RP01) also claims to be in possession of drones on their social media accounts. On August 25, the group shared two videos allegedly recorded by drones. Both pieces of footage show a green filter, a crosshair in the centre of the screen, and a soundtrack mimicking flying drones. One of the videos claimed to have been recorded in Khost province on August 28. The second video did not contain information about the location, however, AW investigations geolocated it to Paktia province. The locations were over 74km from each other. Despite claims by the RP01 that the footage showed the group using surveillance drones, it is clear that both videos contained old satellite imagery being rotated to simulate a flying drone.
The figure below shows screenshots from the footage allegedly recorded in Paktia province. The image contained a visible label which read “Kabul – Gardez Highway”, a capability not yet present in drone technology. It was also possible to discern various vehicles on the road which remained static as the drone “flew” around. An example can be seen highlighted in the boxes below.
AW investigators also analysed the soundtrack of both videos. The Paktia and Khost footage contained identical soundtracks despite allegedly being recorded 74km apart. The creator of both videos used the same soundtrack to imitate the sounds of drone flight in the two pieces of footage.
Similarly to the ALM, RP01 is yet to provide evidence of being in possession of drones in Afghanistan. Their online claims were manufactured using widely available old satellite imagery with a green filter, a crosshair, and the same flying drone soundtrack added.
As of September 2023, no resistance group has provided verifiable evidence of being in possession of drones and operating them in Afghanistan. It is possible the groups are deliberately obscuring their capabilities with these false videos, but it is more likely they are trying to appear more capable and technologically advanced than in reality.