Creating social firewalls against militants’ online propaganda is critical for Pakistan’s internal security

Creating social firewalls against militants’ online propaganda is critical for Pakistan’s internal security

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Propaganda is the lifeline of terror groups, they do not perpetrate violence for the sake of it, but to draw attention to their political or ideological frameworks, grievances and demands. According to Louise Richardson, militants want 3 R’s: revenge (for real or imagined atrocities), reaction (provoking counter-terrorists to use excessive force to generate a victimhood narrative) and renown (publicity). In the digital age, propaganda has attained an added significance for terror groups. They have to maintain a presence on social media to promote their narratives, rebut those of their adversaries and issue responsibility claims, among others. 

In Pakistan’s militant landscape, Daesh-Khorasan, and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have well-developed propaganda arms on social media. Despite massive purges by major social media companies like Facebook and Twitter and the introduction of Artificial Intelligence checks, TTP and Daesh-K have maintained their presence, albeit limited, on both platforms. At the same time, both groups have a more pronounced presence on encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp, Telegram, Rocket Chat, Hoop Messenger, etcetera. To avoid crackdowns, TTP and Daesh-K have also moved a large portion of their propaganda materials to the dark web. At any rate, given the proliferation of social media platforms, removing social media contents of TTP and Daesh-K, has been an arduous task.  Both groups have continuously adapted to the evolving social media environment and shown tremendous resilience. They are constantly searching for new, albeit small and less known, but secure encrypted platforms to survive and disseminate their propaganda. 

TTP’s social media arm goes by the name of Al-Umar Media and operates under centralized organizational control. Since 2020, the social media capabilities of Al-Umar Media touched new levels of sophistication following mergers of various militant factions into TTP’s fold. More importantly, the absorption of Al-Qaeda in the Indian sub-continent’s faction led by militant commander Muneeb who was linked with Al-Qaeda’s media wing, As-Sahaab, has been the gamechanger for TTP’s social media propaganda. In January 2023, Muneeb was given the charge of Al-Umar Media. Likewise, the brief stint of former Al-Umar Media head and TTP commander Khalid Balti also contributed to the improvement of TTP’s propaganda following his release from Afghan prisons after the Taliban took over. Subsequently, he was killed in Afghanistan under mysterious circumstances. 

One indicator of TTP’s evolved propaganda messaging is that it is not restricted to publishing responsibility claims or statements concerning organizational matters anymore. Rather, the group regularly comments on important political and economic developments in Pakistan as well. Al-Umar Media’s propaganda materials include routine statements, infographics, a bi-weekly Pashto-language podcast Pasoon (uprising), Umar Radio which publishes daily Pashto- language broadcast and a monthly Urdu-language magazine Mujallah Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. Al-Umar media occasionally publishes books as well along with running some video series. 

Despite a hostile environment, both TTP and Daesh-K have persisted in the cyber space in one form or the other. As these groups have evolved organizationally, their social media arms and the nature of propaganda on social media platforms has too.

Abdul Basit Khan

Daesh-K’s social media arms are more decentralized as compared to TTP. After losing territorial holdings in Afghanistan, Daesh-K put great emphasis on social media propaganda to keep its militant brand alive in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region’s competitive militant landscape. After the Taliban takeover of Kabul, Daesh-K’s propaganda has gone into overdrive to de-legitimize the group politically and ideologically by bringing into sharp focus its ties with Pakistan, China, Iran, India, and other regional states. Daesh-K publishes three magazines in English, Pashto and Arabic languages, the Voice of Khorasan, Khorasan Ghag, and Saut-ul-Khorasan, respectively. Al-Azaim Foundation is the main social media arm of Daesh-K which publishes the above-mentioned magazines, books, videos, and audio statements. Daesh-K also ran a radio channel Khilafat Ghag from eastern Afghanistan’s Jalalabad city which stopped its transmission in 2018 and then re-emerged in early 2021 and again went dormant after the Taliban takeover.

A cursory comparison of TTP and Daesh-K’s propaganda arms reveals that the former is centralized, while the latter is decentralized or less centralized. Moreover, TTP’s propaganda focus is local and Daesh-K’s publication materials are regional and global in their scope and mandate. TTP’s focus is Pakistan and its security institutions, Daesh-K’s adversaries range from the Taliban regime to Al-Qaeda and regional states like China, Pakistan and India. Moreover, Daesh-K’s language is more bellicose towards its adversaries as compared to TTP. Likewise, TTP publishes its propaganda only in Urdu, Pashto and sometimes in Arabic, while Daesh-K publishes materials in Urdu, English, Pashto, Dari/Farsi, Arabic, Uzbek, Tajik, Malayalam and occasionally in Uyghur as well. Al-Umar Media rarely publishes books or translated materials, while Al-Azam Foundations regularly publishes books as well as translated materials. 

Despite a hostile environment, both TTP and Daesh-K have persisted in the cyberspace in one form or the other. As these groups have evolved organizationally, their social media arms and the nature of propaganda on social media platforms have metastasized accordingly. The past track record suggests that account suspensions and removal of propaganda materials from social media platforms is necessary but not a sufficient condition for countering terror narratives in the cyber domain. De-platforming and censorship simply push these groups to more encrypted and secure platforms. Therefore, promoting a culture of critical thinking and digital literacy is critical for creating social firewalls against extremist propagandas. Likewise, the government should promote an alternative vision against extremist narratives and disseminate it through the same social media channels so that these groups are not successful in exploiting vulnerable social segments’ grievances under the cover of religion. The battlefield in the last few years has expanded from physical to cyber domain and to prevail against extremist networks and their ideologies, it is necessary to counter them in both spheres.     

- The author is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. Twitter @basitresearcher. 

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