Following the devastating attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School on December 16, 2014, where the Pakistan Taliban killed more than 130 children, military and political leaders formed a National Action Plan to counter terrorism. One point in the 20-point plan called for the formation of a committee to counter online terrorism, in a country estimated to have nearly 30 million Internet users.
The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has been taking action against pages on social media and online videos posted by terrorist groups. There are approximately 60 banned organizations in Pakistan, according to the National Internal Security Policy (NISP) document. Recently the federal government has been reluctant to confirm a reported ban on Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD), but news reports say that the ban is part of the National Action Plan. The Twitter account of JUD chief Hafiz Saeed was suspended two months ago but the organization’s website can still be accessed and Twitter accounts with his name still exist.
According to Ahmed Rashid, author of several books on Pakistan and Afghanistan and veteran policy critic, questions the priorities. “Social media is a very big part of recruitment in the West. In Pakistan it helps produce a point of view amongst those on Twitter and other such sites but doesn’t have the power to recruit.” Rashid says that access to social media is limited in Pakistan, as opposed to more developed societies in Europe where there are huge online followings.
“Before we get on to internet and social media, what is needed is better state control of mosques and seminaries,” says Rashid. “The real danger in Pakistan is from mosques that continue to deliver Friday sermons calling for jihad and extermination of India and America.” Rashid adds that most Muslim countries have a centralized system where the sermon is drafted and regulated by the state, unlike in Pakistan where, he says, “We have a free-for-all system which is extremely dangerous. It is from here that most of the hate material, posted online, actually finds inspiration.”
Yet addressing the mosque is but a fraction of the overall picture. There are a total of 22,052 seminaries in Pakistan, 15,954 in Punjab, 4,264 in Sindh, 1,400 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), 1,247 in Balochistan and 187 in Islamabad.
Rashid maintains that, “The government should bring seminaries under control. A large number are under the control of militant groups and their ideology and don’t serve as function of seminaries which is to produce religious scholars and not preach militants.”
The government’s campaign to register seminaries in the country and obtain data on their financial resources, teachers and students has met with strong resistance. In many seminaries, which are always affiliated with a mosque, a modern education is replaced with a questionable interpretation of religion that influences young minds. These seminaries then become fertile ground for terrorist recruitment.
Globally, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is strengthening its grip by recruiting online. “Look at our online numbers, this isn’t our main problem,” says Farieha Aziz, Director at Bolo Bhi, a Karachi based nonprofit geared towards digital security privacy. “Blocking sites will not solve any problem as terrorists just recreate new accounts. This is just a face saving measure for the government.” Aziz emphasizes the need for a multi-dimensional approach to deal with social media. “The mechanism requires a lot of thought and we are not even talking about it.”
Aziz believes that the Pakistani government should be focused on disseminating a cogent counter narrative. It needs to come up with its own websites that explain a peaceful version of religion to provide a “soft” alternative to extremist views.
A recent news report in The Guardian says that the U.K. “is creating a special force of Facebook warriors, skilled in psychological operations and the use of social media to engage in unconventional warfare in the information age.” The Israeli and U.S. militaries already have similar teams. The Guardian continues: “Against a background of 24-hour news, smartphones, and social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, the new British brigade will attempt to control the narrative. Soldiers with journalism skills and familiarity with social media are among those being sought.”
“Psychological-ops or unconventional warfare is fairly common now. But the danger of that is that it can be propagandist when it’s run by state institutions,” says Aziz. “For example, Israeli IDF has a Twitter account and uses it to valorize its soldiers or promote a particular view on the Gaza conflict. Then locally, DG ISPR also has a Twitter account.” Aziz adds that while this can be one way of putting information out there, or countering certain views you have identified, it is just one perspective. There may be others. “There aren’t just banned outfits but also people who may not be militants but they are either sympathetic towards them or subscribe to and promote their views. And this does need to be tackled and it can’t just be done by blocking. You block one page or account and another will be created almost immediately.”
Aziz says she feels the country is still figuring out how to respond to online extremism and needs to “sift through situations and come up with adequate, proportionate and effective responses.”
The Pakistani government has banned some websites but no concerted effort has been made to block all terrorist sites. The government has blocked access to YouTube and pornographic sites. It regularly shuts down websites run by the Tehriki-i-Taliban, which quickly reemerges with new ones. With YouTube and other blocked websites being used through proxies in Pakistan, blocking may seem useless, but Sagheer Wattoo, spokesman for the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, disagrees. Wattoo says that “deterrence is the best defense.” He adds that a local NGO filed a petition with the Islamabad High Court seeking to protect the rights of internet users. ”After the attacks, a change came in all of us,” he says. “If we do not even deter terrorists organizations from operating their sites online then things are likely to go haywire.”
However, experts say that an online government policy will be severely crippled without corresponding or supporting action in the offline world. Many mosques deliver inflammatory preaching and propagate extreme views, clerics breed sectarianism and fatwas are often issued against minority Shia. Part of the government’s strategy in countering terrorism is to take steps that show tangible progress. That means monitoring – if not completely ending – public sermons that spread hate and eventually find their way on social media in the form of brazen video messages and clips.
Mina Sohail is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad.