LeT expanding its Social Media presence
27 September 2012
The extensive use of social media tools like Facebook and Twitter by banned terrorist group Jamat-ud Dawa (JuD) during the ongoing protests over the anti-Prophet film shows the terrorist group's growing capability in adopting modern communication tools to project and promote its ideology. It is also a significant indication of the group's rising ambitions of becoming a global voice for the Muslim community.
The terrorist group is relatively new to the social media - it began its Facebook and Twitter accounts sometime in May this year, about a year after it re-launched its website which was blocked following the Mumbai 2008 attacks. It has a dedicated YouTube channel by a user, jamatdawakhi. Although the website has since run into problems - the group terms it as a technical one -- the Twitter and Facebook accounts have attracted better attention in Pakistan. The group's Twitter account has 2932 followers and Facebook details show 5992 people talking about it and 4277 'Total Likes'. The Facebook is accessed mostly in Lahore, Punjab, and is popular in the age group of 18-24 years.
These are not alarming figures, but these are early days of the terrorist group's experiment with social media. The group has had mixed success with its website published in Persian, Urdu and English. The website promoted its ideology, made its publications available online and, before December 2001, projected its jihadi activities in Kashmir and other parts of India.
After the first round of bans on the group's activities in December 2001, the group pulled out its jihadi articles and speeches and began projecting itself as a social welfare and charity organisations. This change reflected Hafiz Saeed's ploy to mislead the international community by disassociating himself from Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and renaming Markaz-ud Dawa as Jamaat-ud Dawa (JuD) which remains the group's name despite several other rounds of bans. Markaz was set up in Kunar province of Afghanistan in the last days of the Afghan Jihad and was largely inspired by Dr Abdullah Azzam, a radical Palestinian ideologue who conceptualized both Hamas and al Qaida. Azzam was a teacher to Osama bin Laden during the latter's university days.
The terrorist group used the website not only for promotion but also to attract funds and recruits to its cause. Frequent posts on the website called for donations and contributions to the cause of jihad in Kashmir and in India. These posts not only gave details of bank accounts but also contact numbers of relevant persons at LeT's headquarters at Muridke, near Lahore. There is substantial evidence to show that the website generated substantial funding from the US, UK, Europe and Gulf countries.
The website was also used as a recruitment platform for foreign recruits. Several foreigners travelled to LeT camps after visiting the website and contacting LeT members responsible for external operations. This unit was headed by Sajid Mir, one of the prime accused in the Mumbai attacks. The website was run by the group's department of information and propaganda which interacted with the media as well as promoted the group and its activities.
The re-launched website has, however, run into some glitches but the terrorist group has another proxy web presence in the form of http://www.difaepakistan.com/index.php, a website of Difa-e-Pakistan, an umbrella organisation of 40-odd extremist and terrorist groups in Pakistan, headed by Hafiz Saeed. In fact, the home page opens with an Open Letter to Parliamentarians by Prof. Hafiz Saeed. The website makes no bones about its vision--'' "We envisage defending Pakistan, the only ideological nation carved in the name of Islam with our wealth and Lives. Pakistan stands as the beacon of unity of Ummah, on "La Ilaha Ilallah" (There is no God but ALLAH), the bedrock of our faith". A quick look at the contents of the site establishes it as JuD's mirror website. Difa-e-Pakistan also has its own Facebook and Twitter accounts.
It is the group's adoption of social media networks to promote jihad or violence which needs to be examined and closely monitored. The Facebook page gives a detailed explanation of the group's principle mission objective--''Knowledge is the pre-requisite for Practice, which prepares an individual to spread the message of Islam called 'Da'wah' which if attacked or is threatened should be defended and protected by the 'Ibadah' and Obligation of 'Jihad' this is precisely what can define our way today, and for the generations of Muslims to come''.
In one of its objectives, jihad fi Sabilillah. the posting says, '' 'JUD' believes in the 'JIHAD' of Prophet Muhammad (Salallahu Alayhi Wassalam) as ordained in Quran and his Sunnah. 'JIHAD' was the protected 'Islam' and helped its message to reach beyond oppression and slavery that was imposed on the world and which physically threatened the existence of every Muslim and the state of Medina itself… Therefore, 'JUD' considers the struggle of Kashmiri, Palestinians, Afghani people as legitimate against occupational forces of India, Israel and NATO. ''.
There are several references to jihad in the postings along with pictures of weapons and other images denouncing India, US and Israel. On the YouTube, the group has several promotional videos as well as speeches of Hafiz Saeed.
These sites are being used to generate funds for the terrorist group. For instance, one of JuD's sister organisation, Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation (http://www.fif.org.pk/?page_id=505) openly seeks donations on its website. The Foundation office is located at 4 - Lake Road Chuburgi, Lahore, Pakistan (54000), the same as that of JuD where Hafiz Saeed and his son, Talha Saeed run a mosque and madrasa complex, Masjid al Qadsia. The foundation too has its independent Facebook and Twitter accounts.
The group has been, in the meantime, expanding its footprint in social media by projecting issues which strike a chord of sympathy and support not only from Pakistanis but Muslims across the world. For instance, the group took up the cause of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and posted doctored photographs of mutilated bodies to project repression of the Muslims. The group even posted a news item stating that it had dispatched a delegation to Bangladesh to get a first hand account.
The terrorist group's most recent cause was the anti-Prophet film. It used Facebook and Twitter to organise protest rallies across Punjab and Karachi and posted real-time images and audio of the rallies and speakers. This event showed the growing capability of the group to work the social media to its advantage-generating crowd, monitoring the progress of the rallies and projecting the group's leaders and their ideologies across the net.
Do these developments indicate an enhanced threat from LeT?
The following reasons might indicate a greater potential of threat to India and other countries:
1. Recruitment- The group will be able to attract new recruits to its fold without actually setting up a recruiting office as it used to do in the past. LeT used to run about 2500 madrasas and mosques in Pakistan, all of which doubled as recruitment centres. With social media tools, the group will be able to at least source a portion of its recruits through online recruitment, particularly when most of its followers on Facebook and Twitter are young. The social media will also enable the group to reactivate its recruitment activities in other parts of the world, more specifically in South Asia. A study done by Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies recently showed that indoctrination through published materials was one of the key reasons for many of the jihadis to join the terrorist groups.
2. Fund raising- The group has already started generating funds through these media sources. Although exact quantum of donations and contributions are difficult to come by, rough estimates, going by the past record, could run into a few millions. A substantial part of this funding is generated in the West as well as Gulf.
3. Networking- The social media tools will enable the terrorist group to establish new alliances and networks across the cyber world, sharing information as well as propaganda material quite freely. Such a network, based largely on common agenda of muslim repression and revenge, can facilitate recruitment, gathering of intelligence, setting up safe houses and planning of terror attacks.
4. Planning and executing attacks- The US-born Yemeni al Qaida leader, Anwar al-Awlaki, used online resources to recruit and indoctrinate foreigners to carry out terrorist attacks in the US. For instance, Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani U.S. citizen confessed to attempting to car bomb Times Square after being inspired Awlaki's online lectures. A US Department of Homeland Security 2010 study of terrorist groups use of Facebook concluded that the groups use the social media tool as a means to share operational and tactical information, as a gateway to extremist sites and other online extremist resources, as a propaganda tool and as an intelligence tool for remote reconnaissance.
5. Propaganda- These tools can be handy to disseminate propaganda to a wider audience. The group can upload misleading videos, reports and articles to generate anger and violence against specific entities or countries. For instance, LeT's anti-India and anti-US slogans and speeches have strengthened these feelings among the masses in Pakistan. An increasing number of jihadi groups are now using these social media tools to publish and preach extreme ideologies and actions. There is an increasing possibility various such groups coming together by sharing resources and links creating a universe of jihadist forums. A tweet from an Egyptian protester summed up the power of social media for such groups: ''We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world."
(Wilson John is a Senior Fellow with Observer Research Foundation)