Audrey Kurth Cronin has argued that “blogs are today’s revolutionary pamphlets, websites are the new dailies, and list services are today’s broadsides” The slithery cold pipes of the internet have done incalculable damage to the psyche of impressionable minds in Kashmir Valley. Virtual indoctrination through what is now described by internet spooks as digihad is where the real cyber war is being fought. It is a battlefield which allows recruitment, proselytising and brainwashing through propaganda and virtual ummah. In the shadowy world of the internet, there are no half measures. Jihadist scholar al-Suri is one of the senior al-Qaeda strategists who first recognised the enormous potential of the Internet and satellite television as instruments of propaganda. Suri wrote that jihad is best understood “as a comprehensive war, where its soldiers employ military, political, media, civil and ideological tools.” The internet’s appeal to Islamic militant groups is readily apparent. It offers anonymity and redundancy and, most importantly, it cannot be censored.

Dark labyrinth of internet

Smallwarsjournal's Jeremy White in a seminal piece explained the onset of this digital tsunami succinctly - The main purpose of these sites is to introduce potential recruits to the narrative of jihad and to legitimise al-Qaeda’s mission and tactics. The key to understanding the Digihad is to break down the types of websites that comprise the online Jihadi community’s infrastructure. There are many prongs – Directories of Links to External Sites, Mailing Lists and Message Boards, Non-Interactive Homepages of Sympathisers and Mother Sites. Tracking the deep and dark labyrinth of the internet where encrypted networks are now overlaying TOR (The Onion Network), identities of the sender and receiver are being masked and kept secret. The new cyber combat zone which pushes human warriors into actual battle is seeing a see-saw battle between ethicality and unethicality. Aware of the alarming rise of internet jihadism, the government has moved with alacrity using instrumentalities like NTRO (National Technical Research Organisation) to monitor traffic and, sites, message boards for chatter, plans, recruitment, fund transfers et al. Concerned over the happenings in Kashmir in the last year and a half, in the main after the killing of terrorist Burhan Wani, data mining by government agencies has helped them put together a comprehensive dossier by wading through socmedia platforms mainly operated out of Pakistan, which intelligence agencies believe were fomenting a relentless anti-India discourse and stoking antagonistic and war like narrative on Kashmir.

The database lists out more than 100 twitter handles, tens of #hashtags and videos and posts posted through platforms such as Twitter, blogs and Facebook among others (all told 133 such soc media platforms are on the radar) that have consistently followed a pattern to attack India and its stand on Kashmir. Erstwhile ADG CID, J&K Police S. M. Sahay, who knows Kashmir better than most in recent memory, was at the vanguard of checking this digihad in the Valley. As a part of a survey conducted by the state police on youth radicalisation in Kashmir, messages, posts and conversations were intercepted last year based on certain keywords on popular online platforms. Out of 5,00,000 conversations related to certain keywords, around 100,000 were identified as “a matter of concern” by him. With the advent of political Islam distilled with the spread of Wahabi Salafism in the Valley replacing religious Islam, the internet has proved to be the single most damaging tool leading to rapid radicalisation.

Part of the planned ‘de-radicalisation project’ included setting up a Social Media Monitoring Centre (SMCC), identifying and counselling youth radicalised online and running a counter propaganda that highlights Islam’s message of peace. The proposal had the blessings of the Ministry of Home Affairs. The Institute for Studies, Learning and Analysis (ISLA) then conducted a case study on “growing radicalisation among youth of J&K through social media.” The study found ‘radicalisation’ was “spreading among youth through cheap and accessible means like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.” As a part of the study, a survey was conducted wherein messages, posts, and conversations on chat messages were intercepted based on certain keywords on popular online platforms. The focus of the de-radicalisation project was to ‘reintegration and inclusion of the youth back in mainstream.’ In addition to social media monitoring, the project also looked at establishing NGOs to hold discussions and roping in ‘moderate ulemas’ to discuss subjects related to religion, Islam and conciliatory messages of Quran. Rehabilitation of former militants, a counselling programme for detainees in prison, involving parents are some of the other measures suggested as part of the de-radicalisation project.

Vinay Kaura in his ORF paper explains this – Taking a cue from the IS, Pakistan-based terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), along with HuM (Harkat ul-Mujahideen) have entered the cyberspace. It was reported that the Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD), LeT’s charity arm, launched its cyber initiative during a conference on social media that it organised in Lahore in December 2015. Emphasising the growing importance of social media in disseminating propaganda, JuD chief Hafiz Saeed called upon his followers to use this medium to strengthen the Kashmiri separatist movement. The LeT has been using the cyberspace to fuel the Kashmiri insurgency. A few years ago, it used the Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) – a technology that allows data encryption making it difficult to decode messages – for communication purposes. The LeT is said to have its own private VoIP, Ibotel, to communicate with its cadres in both Pakistan and Kashmir. Minister of State for Home, Hansraj Ahir, confirmed this in the Rajya Sabha in 2016 that the “Pakistan strategy has been to try and promote radicalisation through vested groups and social media so that this can be given the shape of a civil resistance”.

War mongering

Intelligence agencies have collated this data (see central graphic) based over a period of the last two years. The comments on some of these handles were nothing short of war mongering, seeking to internationalise the vexatious Kashmir issue. Most of the twitter handles listed in the dossier have started putting out anti-India posts since 2014, suggesting a pattern that these may part of a larger social media strategy to launch an anti-Modi government narrative. Some posts are carry disturbing pictures with remarks in Urdu and Arabic, including sympathetic commentaries about ISIS. Most of these Twitter handles have a strong Pakistan-based following base who routinely comment out in support of Kashmiri separatists and also remark on India’s domestic political developments.

Pertinently, as recently as last month, IS upped its cyber Islam ante by putting out a warning. In a series of messages, a user on a pro-ISIS Telegram channel called on ISIS media activists not to confine their activity to Telegram but to renew it on Twitter and Facebook as well. This, because Telegram posts have limited circulation, and because the activists’ absence from the more popular networks leaves the stage to ISIS’s enemies, causing ISIS to lose the information war. The author of the posts offered readers to contact him through a bot to receive a ready-to-use Twitter account. It should be noted that ISIS media activists and supporters left Facebook and Twitter for Telegram due to increasing censorship measures on those networks, and also due to security concerns, but this move comes at a cost due to the more limited visibility of Telegram. These posts reflect the feeling among activists that with ISIS facing defeats on the battlefield, there is a need to step up propaganda efforts by resuming activity on the more popular and accessible platforms.

To cauterise this running sore, according to multiple reports, Twitter was told categorically by the government to block hundreds of accounts and tweets that have been found “propagating objectionable content”. Significantly, most of the content and accounts appear to involve Kashmir and Kashmir-related issues. The issue was first reported by on September 2. The report claimed that “scores of Kashmiri activists” received emails from Twitter’s legal division, stating “official correspondence” about their Twitter accounts being in violation of Indian law, particularly Section 69 A of the Information technology Act, 2000. Several of these Kashmiri activists then found themselves either blocked or “shadow-banned”. The official email stated – “The correspondence claims that your account is in violation of Indian law. Please note we may be obligated to take action regarding the content identified in the complaint in the future. Please let us know by replying to this email as soon as possible if you decide to voluntarily remove the content identified on your account.”

South Kashmir, which remains the fountainhead of the insurgency, is obviously most active in this regard. The malaise, however, goes beyond stealth banning of socmedia platforms and periodical internet shutdowns (between 2012 and 2017, there have been 31 shutdowns) in the Valley, it is the messaging and secret communication that filters through it, using the layers of the web to conceal information which is far more destructive. In July, a pre-emptive internet shutdown was put in place as security was being beefed up for the first death anniversary of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. This was the seventh such shutdown in the state this year alone. An imperative, which is at the core of Digihad and Virtual Ummah is a deadly dangerous way to further the message of political Islam for the larger purpose of a cyber or electronic warfare.

Sandeep Bamzai