Pak-Afghan Relations And The Role Of Social Media: Pakistani Youth’s Perspective

By Talal Raza

Note: This article originally appeared at CRSS Afghan Studies Center website: http://afghanstudiescenter.org.

On July 24, 2017, the beautiful cities of Kabul and Lahore were rattled with suicide terrorist attacks. Around 50 people were martyred in both cities owing to these cowardly terror attacks. However, before I could jump on to the opportunity of once again bashing Afghanistan for Pakistan’s security woes, I was held back by the sympathies offered to me by Afghan students during a dialogue.

I was lucky to participate in Pak-Afghan Youth Dialogue organized by Center for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad. The dialogue was attended by youth from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The topic of discussion was the role of media and social media in Pak Afghan relations.  I kept thinking about this topic and realized how suffocated our media seemed when it came to candidly discussing foreign policy and security issues.

There was a time when Pakistani media used to critically dissect not only the domestic political issues but also foreign policy and security challenges. Although, the debate would have not been very mature but there was some urge to critically analyze issues. However, over the past few years, it seems that the media has taken a downslide and simply shunned its responsibility to raise critical questions on security and foreign policy matters. Instead, we now have a situation where private TV channels more or less toe the line of establishment on foreign policy and security issues.   The outcome is that clichéd narratives such as “Nexus of RAW-NDS is destabilizing Pakistan” overshadow any discussion and leave little room for an intellectually enriching debate. Thus, common Pakistanis, who do not have enough time and resources to read books, journal articles or even experts of Pak-Afghan relations, carry these narratives with them without full contextual knowledge or information. I would like to emphasize that I do not mean that there is no nexus of foreign intelligence agencies in Pakistan. But looking at Pak-Afghan relations only through that prism and that too without critically analyzing it, only hinders understanding of the root causes of tense Pak-Afghan relations.

It was interesting to note during dialogue that the youth of Afghanistan also shared similar concerns about their local media. They also realized that media on their side only projected negative side of Pakistan.  Some members of the dialogue even complained that the people of both countries didn’t have access to TV channels of each other. However, renowned journalist Tahir Khan called it a blessing in disguise as he believed that the content of the channels was such that it could stoke feelings of animosity rather than reduce it. He pointed out that the agenda of our news programs was being set by the powerful political actors who were responsible for the current state of unpleasant Pak-Afghan relations.

However, participating in the discussion made me realize that people from both countries have lost faith in the objectivity of conventional electronic and print media. Instead, they are looking at social media that, despite its own set of challenges such as fake and unverifiable news, might be able to provide us with crude yet honest views of a situation. I pointed out that a lot of journalists in Pakistan quite often took to social media to share the views that were earlier censored by their media organizations. In fact, instead of waiting for conventional media to help quell misunderstandings among Pakistanis and Afghans, we all agreed that we could use social media to create a campaign rooted in understanding, tolerance and respect for people from both countries. I suggested that the campaign should highlight the sufferings of Pakistanis and Afghans owing to terrorism at the humane level. It should also focus on other issues such as poverty, polio, trade and make people realize that the relationship between the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan had many other common interests and challenges that warranted equal attention.  Another suggestion that I really liked from one participant was to set up joint media channels/social media sites from both sides to promote peace and harmony among the citizens.

However all these suggestions cannot be regarded as quick fixes. These are baby steps to replace the prevalent myopic narratives with tolerant ideas that promote cordial relations between the people of two countries at least in cyberspace.

 

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poosan/shutterstock.com

Cyber crimes-A “non-issue”

By Talal Raza

“Cyber-crime is a non-issue,” remarked my journalist friend while I was trying to convince him on why it was important for all of us to understand the nature of cyber crimes, the world faces today.

This is not just my journalist friend. A lot of people in security circles think that cybercrimes do not pose a significant threat to us. But the stark reality is that they are out there in various forms and threaten not only human well-being but also state security. According to an estimate, cybercrimes cost world economy US$450 billion in 2016.[1] Some believe that the annual cost of cyber crimes could be between US$400-500 and could go up to US$ 2 trillion by 2019.[2] Ironically, in UK, Germany and USA, only 30% businesses are “experts” enough to prevent cyber-attacks from breaching their security.[3]

Some of you might be wondering about how can cybercrimes affect your lives and why should you be concerned about it?  Cyber crimes are the crimes committed by criminals over the internet. This involves online sexual harassment, defamation online, provoking violence against a particular community/sect, identity theft, stealing of bank details, or even hacking computers and demanding money in exchange for providing access to hacked materials.  Other forms of cybercrimes involve targeting national security installations of the cyber world, also known as critical infrastructure. Every country defines its own critical infrastructure but usually it could include nuclear installations, power plants, dams, airport facilities, national identification authorities such as NADRA in Pakistan et al. In other words, with increased internet penetration, criminals and terrorists do not necessarily have to come to you and harm you. With a stroke of their fingers, they can use the internet to loot you, harass you or even kill you in extreme circumstances.

Pakistan is not immune from cyber crimes.  According to a recent report, since 2013, around 900 cases of cybercrimes have been registered.[4] The prime concerns in Pakistani circles have been the alleged cyber-attacks from India backed hackers, terrorist use of internet and cyber harassment. These cyber issues entail their own set of implications. Publicly, Indian cyber-attacks have only managed to deface Pakistanis websites and no verifiable information is available about any significant devastation caused by Indian cyber-attacks. Meanwhile, terrorists use internet to collect funds, propagate hate speech and convince young people to join them on ground. A recent report by Dawn showed that 61/64 banned organizations were openly operating over the Facebook.[5] Furthermore, another report by Pakistan based Digital Rights Foundation shows that more than 40% women complained of cyber harassment.[6]  These cases have more psychological consequences than physical ones. However, in one case of harassment, the girl was so disturbed that she committed suicide.[7]

Thus it is important for policy makers and security circles to be wary of the elephant in the room and take measures to enhance country’s cyber security capabilities.  Sadly, our cyber security preparedness is ranked even below Iran and Vietnam[8]. A welcome step in this direction is the enactment of 2016 Pakistan Electronic Crimes act that deals with some of the heinous cybercrimes. Recently, the Interior Minister has also held meetings with Facebook Vice President to clamp down on hate material over Facebook.  However, the government should take these efforts to the next stage and focus on raising awareness about cybercrimes. The awareness would achieve two objectives: Firstly, people need to know about cybercrimes so that they do not end up in trouble for committing mischievous acts.  Without informing the public, it is a fair chance that people would be committing cybercrimes without knowing of its consequences. Secondly, awareness at the level of judiciary is extremely important as they would be faced with this daunting task to award proportionate punishments to cyber criminals.  In this regard, judicial academies across four provinces should incorporate courses around cybercrimes while training the future judges.

 

References:

[1] http://www.cnbc.com/2017/02/07/cybercrime-costs-the-global-economy-450-billion-ceo.html

[2] https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevemorgan/2016/01/17/cyber-crime-costs-projected-to-reach-2-trillion-by-2019/#c423bdd3a913

[3] http://www.cnbc.com/2017/02/07/cybercrime-costs-the-global-economy-450-billion-ceo.html

[4] https://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2017/05/19/fia-ccw-decides-179-cyber-crime-cases-in-four-years/

[5] https://www.dawn.com/news/1335561

[6] https://www.geo.tv/latest/143464-40-of-women-face-harassment-on-internet-says-pakistans-first-online-violence-study

[7] https://www.geo.tv/latest/126488-Text-message-led-police-to-suspect-in-Sindh-University-students-death

[8] https://www.dawn.com/news/1325849/software-industry-in-denial-about-cybersecurity

Karachi Jail Break: A reality Check

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Karachi Central Jail (Courtesy: Samaa TV)

By Talal Raza. The Writer is a Political Researcher

While nation is convinced that the much trumpeted counter terror National Action Plan (being laid out in the aftermath of 2014 APS Peshawar attack) is achieving all its objectives, the recent escape of two hardcore terrorists from Karachi Central Jail gives us a reality check and point towards the extent to which terror sympathizers and criminal elements have deeply penetrated into the state machinery.

On June 14, two terrorists belonging to Lashkhar e Jhangvi escaped from Karachi Central jail. It is believed that they were provided with cutters from outside and also helped by their jail inmates. It was also learned that the terrorists were taken to nearby judicial complex apparently for case hearing despite that judges were present that day. The terrorists spent some time in Judicial complex to shave off their beards before finally using the central gate of the jail to escape on two motorbikes waiting outside the prison. The whole scenario reflects the depth of the planning and the number of people involved in the escape of two people. Immediately after the news, 15 prison officials including jail superintendent were taken into custody for their gross negligence.[1] However, the escape of terrorists is just the tip of the iceberg as terrorists and criminals had easy access to all sorts of equipment including 3.5 million Pak rupees (approximately US$ 33000) cash, 102 mobile phones, anti-mobile jammers, 45 knives and 102 gas cylinders. All these items were recovered as a result of Rangers operation later on.  Definitely, these luxuries were afforded thanks to the generosity afforded by prison staff to the cold blooded terrorists.

This is not the first time that terrorists, who continue to target us, have conveniently escaped prison. In 2012, more than 400 prisoners including terrorists escaped as a result of prison break.[2] In 2013, despite prior intelligence terrorists made a mockery of our security forces, attacked jail from three fronts and got away with the release of their fellow militants.[3] Later investigations revealed that prison officials offered no resistance to terrorists and allowed them to do their job. In the aftermath of all such incidents, inquiries are held, officials are arrested and countless measures are proposed but yet again, terrorists continue to seep through the prison walls.

In the last few days, a number of high level security meetings took place to discuss the prison break. Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah suspended DIG Prisons in a recent meeting. The incident also came under discussion during Sindh Apex Committee meeting chaired by Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. However, the government response should go beyond suspensions, arrests and inquiries on a limited scale to take care of the big elephant in the room. Firstly, the scope of the investigation into prison management should be expanded. The fact that such a huge amount of money, drugs and mobile phones were recovered form only one prison, warrants that a full fledged operation be launched in prisons across Pakistan to recover contraband. Secondly, an investigation into the alleged sympathies of  prison staff should be carried out. Are they assisting the terrorists/criminals for ideological reasons or inmates manage to bribe the staff? Without addressing this issue to the core, it would be meaningless to keep heinous criminals and terrorists in jail if they are able to easily communicate with peers and plan criminal activities from inside prison.

References:

[1] http://geo.tv/latest/148056-prison-break-suspects-were-supplied-tools-from-jail-workshop-sources

[2] https://tribune.com.pk/story/365064/prison-break-militants-attack-bannu-jail-over-900-inmates-freed/

[3] https://www.dawn.com/news/1130992

Social media activist: A bigger threat to Pakistan?

By Talal Raza

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Courtesy: https://www.dreamgrow.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/social-media-activism-1.jpg

According to World Press Freedom Index by Reporters with Borders, the press freedom rankings in Pakistan improved in 2017 and moved up the ladder from 147 in 2016 to 139 out of 180 countries.

Although, the media freedom may have improved, the recent onslaught against social media activists/journalists is a point of concern.  In August 2016, the government opted for cyber-crime law that digital rights activists believed provided enough room to the government to abuse it to punish political dissent. At that time, the government downplayed the rights concerns. Instead, Minister of IT Anusha Rehman even accused civil society of perpetuating foreign agenda.

Later in January 2017, the dangerous game began after five bloggers mysteriously went missing. Soon after their abduction, an organized campaign allegedly by pro-establishment social media groups began that accused them of committing blasphemy. The bloggers were released after three weeks.  Although, the debate at that point should have been why and who abducted them illegally; nobody seemed to be interested in digging deep into it.  Some meager voices tried to point out the involvement of some elements within state institutions about the arrest of the bloggers for their anti-establishment rant over online media rather than blasphemy. However, our political parties for the most part chose to remain silent.

Fast forward to May 2017, the Nawaz-military deal to settle Dawn leaks issue didn’t go down well with opposition parties who always tacitly hoped and believed that army would undertake an adventurous coup to dethrone Nawaz.  In the midst of this shock and confusion, when social media activists began to criticize and some even mocked the military establishment for displaying “weakness”, it infuriated the men in uniform. Soon the government swung into action and a sustained campaign of harassment of vocal social media critics began. Although no arrest was made, FIA summoned dozens of social media activists to inquire about their online activists and allegedly anti army rhetoric. In the aftermath of this, opposition parties especially PTI criticized the government and offered legal aid to the affected.

All this only points towards the dangerous trend within Pakistan where political dissent in online media is being rashly suppressed under different pretexts at times to protect religion and sometimes to safeguard the sanctity of the institutions. As some people rightly pointed out, at least the government should clarify the contours of state’s “sanctity” and also what would and would not come under “threat” to national security. Ironically, this clarity would never be brought as ambiguity conveniently allows government to punish anyone for either committing “blasphemy” or demeaning our “sacrosanct” institutions.

Furthermore, this repression is most likely to increase in the coming days. Even if government doesn’t end up punishing people for humiliating the so-called sanctity of institutions, the fear of getting arrested by the government has successfully scared off vocal critics to exercise self-censorship or face gallows.  The need of the hour is that social media activists shun this air of harassment and continue to hold government accountable for their misadventures. In the meanwhile, if the government wishes critics to believe that It was genuinely cracking down on people for “demeaning” institutions or perpetuating foreign agenda, they should make the process more transparent to allow us to assess to what extent the government action was justified.

Are we complacent in normalizing violence under the pretext of Blasphemy?

By Talal Raza

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Courtesy: “Justice for Mashal Khan” Facebook page

On April 13, 2017, a mob of students at Abdul Wali Khan University killed a 23-year old journalism student named Mashal Khan on charges of committing blasphemy. The mob also critically injured another fellow student for following Mashal. The news spread like a wildfire across the country. A flurry of debates started online as to what might have been the exact nature of “blasphemy” the student might have committed. Soon, a number of social media posts associated with the account of Mashal Khan began circulating over social media. Also, social media videos showing the mob killing and beating to death Mashal within the premises of the university also surfaced. The brutality with which his lifeless body was tortured sparked a flurry of debates as to how come a mob was able to be an accuser, jury and executioner at the same time within a span of a few minutes. As the investigations opened up, more teachers and students affiliated with Mashal Khan pointed out that it was actually his criticism of the university policies that didn’t go down well with certain quarters that they decided to make a case against him and incited students to violence. The initial investigations also found no evidence of blasphemy in the call record and social media account of Mashal and that the alleged blasphemous posts circulating on social media were found to be from fake accounts. As it became clear that allegations were false, major political parties, stakeholders and civil society came out in favor of Mashal Khan.  The Parliament of Pakistan passed a resolution condemning Mashal’s murder and called for amendments in the blasphemy law to deter those who took law into their own hands under the pretext of punishing wrongly accused “blasphemers”. Till the writing of this report, it has been learned that around 27 suspects have been arrested and a Joint Investigation team comprising of police officials are investigating the matter and present their findings in front of Supreme Court. [1]

While the calls for bringing to justice the murderers of Mashal were made by all circles, another incident took place in which a man was killed by three sisters for committing blasphemy 13 years ago. It came about that the man had committed blasphemy in 2004 and a case was also registered against him but he fled abroad. After he returned Pakistan a few days ago, he got a pre-arrest bail. Till now, it has been learned that the sisters have been arrested and a case against them have been registered.[2]

Intellectuals do not view these incidents in isolation. In fact, they believe that the aforementioned killings are an outcome of systematic campaign against the progressive voices that began in January when four bloggers were allegedly abducted by some mysterious “unknown” actors and were later accused of committing blasphemy among “patriotic” social media circles. Although, the bloggers were set free, the focus remained on whether they actually committed blasphemy or not. The calls for further investigating the case and find out who had picked them up illegally were silenced. The attention eventually focused on how social media was another platform for “blasphemers” to disrespect Islam. Afterwards, an Islamabad High Court Judge threatened to order closure of entire social media if the blasphemous content was not removed. It was followed by FIA’s announcement for opening investigation against the NGOs for supporting, promoting and funding blasphemous content over social media. Throughout this process, it seems as if the state has somewhat been complacent in romanticizing the idea that anybody can be accused of blasphemy, be picked up and tortured by anyone. Thus, it is no surprise that in aforementioned instances of blasphemy, the perpetrators also believed that they could kill their fellow student on charges of blasphemy without following upon the law and order.

In the midst of this, there have been calls from certain quarters including civil society and parliament for amending the blasphemy laws to prevent people from its misuse. However, I believe that such amendments, if at all undertaken, would least likely to prevent aforementioned acts as they had nothing to do with the implementation of blasphemy law in the first place. Rather, they were classic examples of mob vigilante where the mob became the prosecutor, jury and executioner irrespective of whatever was written in the law. In fact, in Mashal Khan’s case, videos showed that the mob meted out its version of justice in front of hapless police personnel.

To address this heads on, the short term measure involves giving exemplary punishments to those involved in taking law into their own hands irrespective of the fact whether a person committed any blasphemy or not. In the long run, we need a systematic transition from the violent ideals towards more humane and empathetic ideals. Our society is badly in need of heroes that could inspire them for their empathy not for gore and bloodshed.

[1] https://www.samaa.tv/pakistan/2017/04/mashal-khan-murdered-after-plot-and-plan/

[2] https://www.dawn.com/news/1328114

Countering Terrorism through National Narrative

By Aamina Khan

Note: The writer is an MPhil from National Defence University, Pakistan in Peace and Conflict Studies.

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The onset of 2017 has brought a fresh wave of terrorism in Pakistan. Until March 2017, around 35 terrorist attacks have been recorded in which approximately 200 people died including civilians and security personals. On February 17, 2017, the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalander comes under a deadliest blast in which around 100 people died. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group claimed responsibility for the blast via its Amaq propaganda website. This terrorist attack raised many eyebrows because presence of ISIS or its affiliated terrorist organizations in Pakistan is indeed a terrifying threat for already vulnerable state of Pakistan.

After this heinous blast, Pakistan army has announced to launch operation Radd ul fasad (elimination of discord) to deal with the terrorists. Previously, Pakistan Army has launched operation Zarb e Azb in 2014 in tribal areas and this operation is considered as a successful operation as it helped to bring peace in the country. Unfortunately the period of peace couldn’t stay longer and Pakistan once again comes under the dark clouds of terrorism which is not only a bad omen for long term peace and stability nonetheless, an indicator of the presence of certain loopholes which are required to be investigated.

In this scenario when a new threat that is ISIS is emergent in Pakistan, the need of counter narrative to deal with the ideology of terrorism is indispensible. It is quite evident now that this war against terrorism can’t be win only on battle grounds rather a comprehensive strategy is essential at all levels.  In order of defeat terrorism, ideology of terrorism must be defeated. For this purpose, everyone has to play its due part including government, clergy, media, academia and civil society. Only a united and concrete effort of counter narrative can defeat terrorism entirely.

National Action Plan (NAP) was indeed a mile stone in this regard but regrettably NAP could not be able to give as fruitful results as it was expected due to manifold reasons. Hence more efforts are required to build national narrative and the core aim of this counter narrative must be to de radicalize the society at all levels. The eradication of factors that foster extremist thought and militancy/ terrorism should receive priority.

Countering Terror in Cyberspace

By Talal Raza

Courtesy: https://www.infosecinstitute.com/company

As the Pakistani government braces itself for “Rad-ul-Fasad” military operation to capitalize on the gains of Zarb e Azb and plug the loopholes in it, it is also the time to expand the scope of its counter terror strategy to fight against terrorism in cyberspace.

The fight against terrorism in cyberspace is equally important as the one being fought in the physical world.  Although no figures are available about the scope of the terrorist threat in cyberspace, there have been many instances where modern technology was used by terrorists to recruit and raise funds. For instance, in 2015, Bushra Bibi went to Syria along with her children to join Daesh.[1] It has been learned that she was in touch with members of Daesh in Syria over Telegram. Similarly, in 2016, a Daesh cell was busted in Lahore in Intelligence based operation. It was reported that one of the female members of the ring was inspired from the lectures she received through social media. She was also reportedly in touch with a Daesh commander over Facebook and Telegram.[2]  Moreover, in 2015, members of proscribed organization in Karachi used Facebook to collect hides during Eid-ulAzha, an important source to run the operations. Additionally, there are hundreds of websites and Facebook pages that sympathize or are directly run by the members of proscribed organizations including Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.[3]  Recently, it was reported that non-custom paid cars were being sold very openly using Facebook. These cars usually come from Afghanistan into Pakistan. There have been instances where the non-custom paid cars are used in terror activities. Thus, terrorists in Pakistan are not only using internet effectively to raise funds and share their propaganda material but also recruit and plan their activities.[4]

Meanwhile there is no doubt that Pakistan understands this emerging threat and has expressed its resolve to battle terror over the internet on numerous occasions as reflected in 2014 National Internal Security Policy and National Action Plan. It also incorporated terror related provisions in cybercrime bill and criminalized a number of actions including glorification of terror offence, cyber terrorism, hate speech et al. There have also been reports that terror social media accounts had been taken down. However, the strategy of blocking terror content in online spaces is a futile exercise in my opinion. It only wastes time and resources as the blocked pages reemerge on social media. Also, it also destroys important intelligence that could be processed to understand not only the mindset but also the next potential target of terrorists. In my opinion, counter terror operations in cyberspace should focus on building and popularizing the counter narrative against terrorists. Additionally, the special cyber units should be established under law enforcement and security agencies that are responsible for gathering and analyzing data retrieved from the websites and Facebook pages of terror organizations to see if the information could be used to identify the potential targets of terrorists or nab those who are running the websites.

Lastly, the fight against terror in cyberspace cannot be pursued in isolation given the nature of the medium that operates in a borderless terrain. In this regard, consultations should be held on transnational forums with other countries to discuss the best practices of counter terrorism that do not infringe upon digital rights.

Note: Talal Raza is a researcher. He recently pursued an independent research on “The Dilemma of Dealing with Terrorism in Cyberspace and Peoples’ Digital Rights: A Case Study of Pakistan”

References:

[1] http://spearheadresearch.org/index.php/warterror/islamic-republic-versus-islamic-state

[2] https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/166563-Over-a-dozen-Pakistanis-join-Daesh-in-Syria

[3] http://nation.com.pk/editors-picks/21-Sep-2015/banned-organisations-go-online-to-collect-hides

[4] http://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2017/02/11/social-websites-become-hub-of-smuggled-cars/