By Talal Raza
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. 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. 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. 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.
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”