Islamabad, May 30 (Dawn): They exist in plain sight, just one search and one click away from any of Pakistan’s 25 million Facebook users.
An investigation carried out by Dawn across the month of April 2017 has revealed that 41 of Pakistan’s 64 banned outfits are present on Facebook in the form of hundreds of pages, groups and individual user profiles.
Their network, both interconnected and public, is a mix of Sunni and Shia sectarian or terror outfits, global terror organisations operating in Pakistan, and separatists in Balochistan and Sindh.
For the purpose of this investigation, the names of all banned outfits – including acronyms and small variations in spelling – were searched on Facebook to find pages, groups, and user profiles that publicly ‘liked’ a banned outfit.
The biggest outfits on the social network, in order of size, are Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) with 200 pages and groups, Jeay Sindh Muttahida Mahaz (JSMM) with 160, Sipah-i-Sahaba (SSP) with 148, Balochistan Students Organisation Azad (BSO-A) with 54 and Sipah-e-Muhammad with 45.
Other banned outfits which exist on Facebook at a smaller scale include Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Tehreek-e-Taliban Swat, Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, Jamat-ul-Ahrar, 313 Brigade, multiple Shia outfits and a host of Baloch separatist organisations.
An examination of some user profiles linked to these banned outfits indicates open support of sectarian and extremist ideology. A few of these profiles have also publicly ‘liked’ pages and groups related to weapons use and training.
While some of the Facebook pages and groups claim to be ‘official’ representatives of the outfits, others appear to be managed by members and supporters in ideological agreement.
The content shared on their forums is varied. Although there are occasional posts in the form of text or status updates, the more common updates feature photos, videos and memes shared to explain and elaborate on the outfit’s ideology; provide updates on recent or ongoing events and on-ground activity; and encourage private contact and recruitment of motivated Facebook users.
In general, the Facebook updates are in Urdu or Roman Urdu rather than English, suggesting the content is primarily for local consumption. A very small number are in Sindhi or Balochi, also indicating a niche target audience.
Invariably, most of the Facebook pages and groups glorify existing leaders or those killed in the past while some banned outfits also campaign for the release of their activists or leaders.
In their Facebook updates, all banned outfits place blame on the state, or, in the case of outfits focused on Kashmir, on India. In rare cases, pages and groups linked to these banned outfits share graphic content depicting acts of violence — including photos and videos of bodies.
The more organised outfits appear to have ‘official’ media cells sharing press releases and religious sermons or political speeches as both audio and video. Such pages and groups also share links from websites, blogs or Twitter accounts that appear to be run by members of these outfits. The content in general includes anti-state propaganda or hate speech directed at religious minorities and other members of society.
Of the pages, groups and users investigated for the purpose of this story, a majority appeared to be based in larger urban centers such as Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta. Those users that had publicly listed the educational institutions they had attended are mostly based in large, government-run universities, particularly in Sindh and Balochistan.
Many banned outfits have pages and groups with their names followed by district names, inviting users to join based on locality e.g. in the case of Baloch separatists, divisions include Gwadar, Kharan, Mastung, Panjgur etc.
Others, such as sectarian outfits, are organised down to localities e.g. North Nazimabad in Karachi, or even by-election constituency e.g. NA-68. Furthermore, others are organised using terms such as ‘student wing’ or ‘youth wing’.
At all times, members and supporters of these banned outfits operating on Facebook have the option to shift communication from public to private.
Any user linked to, or interested in a proscribed organisation can befriend and chat with like-minded users, message those operating the pages and groups or click the provided links to websites and blogs. To establish contact off Facebook, all they would need to do is use the publicly listed email addresses or local phone numbers provided by some outfits.
The findings of this investigation are just the tip of the iceberg however, as a far larger number of pages and groups could exist without publicly using the name of the banned organisation in order to operate in secret. Unlike the profiles examined, most Facebook users would also not leave their list of pages and groups public – unless they feel they can use the social network with impunity.
Delete, block or hand over information to authorities — these are Facebook’s primary responses in the event that the social network is used for terror or criminal activity.
Although the company has acknowledged working with Pakistan in multiple cases, due to a lack of real transparency the nature of the cases is unknown, as is the process by which the requests and exchange of information is made. It is entirely possible that these requests are related to politics, blasphemy, sexual harassment etc. rather than on investigating banned outfits.
Details of Pakistan’s requests to Facebook provided in its ‘Government Requests Reports’ from 2013 to 2016 show a sharp upward trend from 2015 onwards, reaching a high of 1,002 requests in July-December, 2016. The percentage to which Facebook complied with the requests to some extent has been between 64% to 68% since 2015.
As stated in its policies, Facebook “may access, preserve and share your information in response to a legal request (like a search warrant, court order or subpoena) if we have a good faith belief that the law requires us to do so.”
It also does not allow any organisations engaged in terrorist activity, or organised criminal activity to have a presence on Facebook.
More controversially, the company also removes user accounts and content “that expresses support for groups that are involved in the violent or criminal behavior mentioned above. Supporting or praising leaders of those same organisations, or condoning their violent activities, is not allowed.”
This specific policy led to many user accounts being blocked or deleted in 2016 for criticising India following the killing of Kashmir’s young ‘freedom fighter’ Burhan Wani and the resulting violent protests and crackdown by India’s security forces.
The Kashmir conflict is just one example of the quagmire Facebook faces as it tries to govern 1.9 billion users. Preventing the social network from being misused by militants and terrorists spread across all the continents, and also distinguishing those outfits from legitimate freedom movements is a task that Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg has admitted to being beyond the company’s capacity.
In a note shared on Facebook, Zuckerberg said, “In the last year, the complexity of the issues we’ve seen has outstripped our existing processes for governing the community…We’ve seen this in misclassifying hate speech in political debates in both directions — taking down accounts and content that should be left up and leaving up content that was hateful and should be taken down. Both the number of issues and their cultural importance has increased recently.”
Formerly known as the SSP, the ASWJ was banned 10 years after its predecessor, on February 15, 2012. They are known to spread anti-Shia sentiment across Pakistan, and often attack minority groups.
Despite the ban, the organisation remains active in spreading hatred and violence. They engage in local politics by holding rallies and gatherings, amassing a following in an attempt to legitimize the group.
Founded in 2000 by Shafi Burfat, the JSMM is a separatist group fighting for the seperation of Sindh from Pakistan. Proscribed on March 15, 2013 for alleged ties to Indian intelligence’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the JSMM is thought to have been involved in sabotage through the offshoot militant faction Sindhudesh Liberation Army.
Due to lack of incidents and reported activity after being proscribed, the organisation is believed to have refocused their efforts on recruiting students for protests.
Founded in September of 1985, SSP is acknowledged as one of the largest and oldest anti-Shia militant factions. They have targeted Shia mosques and leaders in the past.
Having changed their name twice after they were banned for terrorist activities in January of 2002, the faction is presently known and operates as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat.
(The featured image at the top shows the banned Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat operating openly)