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Lashkar-e-Cyber of Hafiz Saeed

Munish Sharma is Consultant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • March 21, 2016

    Social media has completely transformed the traditional means and ways of media communication. Social media applications such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or WhatsApp are now extensively used by individuals, governments and private organisations to disseminate information and engage in discussions over online platforms. Increasingly, terrorist organisations too are taking to social media, with some quite adept at using these applications even getting into product development, as part of their wider communication strategy.

    The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or Daesh, particularly stands apart in effectively utilising social media platforms for communication. Following up with ISIS, several terrorist outfits such as al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad have begun experimenting with this new media. Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD), the charity arm of the banned Pakistan-based terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT)1, recently even held a two-day conference on social media in Lahore on December 26-27, 2015. The conference marked the formal launch of its cyber initiative in the form of a 24x7 cyber cell, and also a new website named nazariapakistan.com.

    The conference was organised by the JuD Cyber Team, with around 30-40 participants. In his address on “Jihad, Terrorism, ISIS & Impact of Social Media”, chief of JuD Hafiz Muhammad Saeed pressed on the growing importance of social media in disseminating ideology and countering propaganda. Admitting that their organisation is a late entrant in this field, he upheld Daesh as an example worth following on usage of social media to propagate its cause.2 Launching the website nazariapakistan.com on the occasion, he called upon the gathering to further strengthen the Kashmiri separatist movement and also take it to the other parts of India through social media.3

    “Jamaat-ud-Dawah is not using social media to promote its party or any person but to only promote the word of the God and working for the defense of the Ideology of Pakistan.”4
    - Abdul Rehman Salar, Head of JuD Cyber Team

    To further quote the objectives of the conference actively posted by the JuD cyber team on their twitter: “counter propaganda and counter operations need to be waged with trained and eloquent professionals with knowledge” and “social media has become a battlefield of ideas and ideologies; counter/propaganda.”5

    A series of lectures highlighting the impact of social media and its potential role in spreading the ideology were held during the conference. Although its handle @JamatDawah has been suspended, the outfit has managed a modest presence on twitter with a different handle @JuDFeeds with some 23.8K tweets and 251 followers. While twitter is used for outreach, the media eye of JuD http://jamatdawa.webs.com/ hosts a repository of articles, audio, video and e-library on key figures such as Hafiz Saeed, Abdul Rehman Makki and Abdul Gufar Almadni. Support for the separatist movement in the Kashmir valley is also publicised online through its recently launched website nazariapakistan.com.

    Having realised the strategic importance of social media, LeT now seeks to raise awareness about the imperatives of social media among its cadres. Though the social media conference was held by JuD, a front for the banned LeT, it is very much part of its ongoing effort to help aggregate the separatist movement in Kashmir through modern communication tools.6 In fact, LeT has time and again demonstrated its fascination with modern technology.

    The November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks had left the Indian establishment perplexed with the kind of technology LeT attackers were equipped with, which included Global Positioning System (GPS) hand-held devices, satellite phones, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone service7 to communicate with their planners back in Pakistan, and also satellite imagery of the targets.

    User to Developer

    Interestingly, LeT has been quite innovative too with communication tools. Ibotel, an application developed by LeT four years back, is a customised VoIP8 application running on cellular communication system, using data services such as 2G or 3G.9 As a security measure, the communication over Ibotel is restricted to few individuals and encrypted as well.

    Perhaps, the recent snooping operation on Indian soldiers through legitimate looking smart phone apps such as SmeshApp might have originated from one such source.10 The SmeshApp was available on Google Play Store, just like WhatsApp. Once installed on smart phones, with military personnel as prime targets, it could access photos, location, messaging data, e-mail, browsing data, etc.11 Although this espionage operation was a state-sponsored move, the possibility of tapping the technology expertise available with terror outfits like LeT cannot be ruled out.

    Apparently, integrating social media with outreach communication and self-developed android apps gives LeT the necessary leverage to use existing mobile telephony infrastructure. It marks a clear departure for LeT and its associates, from mere technology users to product developers. Given the penetration of smart phones across the country and ease of usability, terror outfits such as LeT pose a potent security threat with their sustained support to the separatist groups in Kashmir and their past record in carrying out large scale terror attacks in India.12

    On top of it, encrypted messaging apps with the names of SureSpot or Telegram or the possibilities of home brewed apps13 have made it extremely difficult to track down the encrypted communication. As terrorist outfits turn their eye towards the underbelly of social media, the amalgamation of messaging apps, social media platforms and snooping apps must have turned many heads in the establishment; if not, then, the sooner the better.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India

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