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Online Trolling as a strategy for terrorists

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It is not new that the presence of terrorist groups in cyberspace has increased every year. Almost every terrorist group has its own niche on the Internet, which provides endless opportunities in terms of mobilization, radicalization, the dissemination of radical ideas, training, the gathering of useful information, financing, etc. Nonetheless, the Islamic State’s approach to the use of the Internet has become revolutionary and versatile compared to the online activities of other terrorist groups.

ISIS’s unprecedented reliance on social networks transformed this organization into not only the most dangerous entity, but the new jihadist global movement and brand. Its propagandist apparatus, which consists of numerous ISIS media teams, targets a particular language group of the population. As a result, under this brand name, many militants and passive supporters, who refrain from moving to ISIS held territories, have gathered around the world. Producing plenty of video, audio, and text materials on a daily basis, ISIS’s activists act as very inventive and skillful players, trying to avoid traps and barriers on social networks; thus, their skills outpace the traditionally oriented approach of security agencies.

Recently, ISIS online propagandists have adopted and implemented “online trolling” to win hearts and minds, which takes advantage of online anonymity. In fact, anonymity has a high correlation with accountability, eroding the latter. Trolling allows the infliction of a wide range of harm from posting controversial content to harassment of users. ISIS online activists have dedicated several telegram accounts to serve the following tasks: 1). organize collective reporting actions on particular public accounts on telegram, which belong to ideological competitors; 2). encourage and channel collective “comments” attacks on particular articles of media outlets in order to disrupt debates by advancing shocking ideas.

The administrators of the telegram groups create a set of rules in order to make attacks more effective. Every trolling action is conducted at a particular time, and the administrators announce daily the exact time for the next collective attack, for example, 4 pm at Mosul time. To be visible to each other, a participant of a trolling attack is advised to write the hashtag “#Islamicstate” before or after a post. This inner visibility is crucial in terms of the fulfilment of another important rule. Participants have to “like”   and/or respond to each other’s posts in order to push their comments to the top.

Conducting trolling campaigns, ISIS activists target articles in accordance to several criteria. First of all, an article has to cover ISIS related or Muslim community issues. Secondly, all articles have to be written in English. Thirdly, Facebook serves as a platform for the attacks: ISIS propagandists target media outlet Facebook accounts. As a preparatory measure, the administrators have instructed group members about how to outwit Facebook policy and establish a personal Facebook account without providing a phone number.

So far, there are several media outlets which underwent these attacks: CNN, Russia Today (RT), Al Jazeera (English), Daily Mail, and Dr Zakir Naik’s Official Fan Page.

Table: “Online Trolling attacks from May 3rd to June 6,2016”

Media outlet Number of attacks
RT 5
Daily Mail 1
Dr Zakir Naik’s Official Fan Page 4
Al Jazeera (English) 10
Mufti Ismail Menk 1
Dr. Bilal Philips 1
CNN 1
Zee News 1
FRANCE 24 English 1
Total: 25

According to the analysis of operations conducted between May 3, 2016 and June 6, 2016, the overwhelming majority of attacks (40%) targeted Al Jazeera’s (English) Public Facebook page, while 20% of trolling campaigns were conducted against the Russia Today Facebook Page. CNN attracted ISIS’s sympathizers only once on May 20th, 2016, after publication of the article “What does Trump want in a VP? His top execs take a guess”. The frequency of attacks on Facebook pages is not very high, approximately, one trolling action per day. Given the fact that it is just the first experience of trolling activities in the foreseeable future, we have to expect a rise in the number of these attacks and their brazenness.

The number of comments under each targeted articles ranges from one to fifteen. Undoubtedly, to invigorate regular group members, administrators of the telegram groups participate in these attacks. However, it is hard to determine who takes a leading role in trolling attacks: administrators or group members. Some ISIS trolls make comments, whereas others limit their participation by pushing “like”. An article posted on the Zee News Portal on May 21st, 2016, received only one comment, marked by the ISIS hangtag and six likes. Needless to say, not all people who liked this pro-ISIS post belong to the telegram group. Some articles, which administrators picked for collective attacks, failed to attract members’ interest. For example, issued on May 25th, an article which depictured the security of Euro 2016 on the news channel “France 24” did not evoke enthusiasm among group members, who refrained from commenting anything whatsoever.

In general, comments express admiration towards the Islamic State and its ideology. The content of comments may vary depending on the topic of the article, however their gist remains the same. In comments, ISIS trolls try to instill the fear and helplessness of any counterterrorist effort, predicting the expansion and intensification of jihad on non-Muslim countries. Calling for Muslim consolidation all over the world, they underline the exceptional mission of ISIS, which is forced to battle crusaders alone. Western states – the UK, the US, Israel, and Russia are repeatedly presented as   the main reason for issues within Muslim society. Some attackers even observe a connection between the contemporary open- door- immigration policies in the European Union and the attempt to prevent natural disasters in European states; the presence of Muslims in non-Muslim states helps to cure these infidels’ societies. Also, ISIS trolls underline the need of physical elimination of apostates, crusaders, and Jews.

To conclude, this trolling initiative has vast potential due to the malicious character of its content, easy Internet access, and the effortless nature of trolling actions, which do not demand full devotion and considerable time spending. Pro-ISIS commenting under online news articles has a collective character. While it helps consolidate ISIS’s online passive sympathizers on behalf of the Islamic State and maintains a sense of solidarity, these trolling actions help ISIS to reach and influence new audiences and extend the Islamic State’s online presence dramatically.

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Terrorism

Political Scientist: Taliban Rule will lead to terrorism activation in Pakistan

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image source: India Today

The strengthening of terrorist activity in the northwest of Pakistan and the country as a whole is linked with reinforcing the Taliban’s power in Afghanistan. Since they have established absolute power in Afghanistan, implicitly or not, they support the Pakistani Taliban. Although these are different organizations, they definitely have a common genesis, ties and contacts, but they deny this. However, we understand that the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban are at least allies. This is how a political scientist, Ph.D., associate professor Georgi Asatryan commented on the latest developments around the situation in Afghanistan and the activity of the Taliban.

“There was another explosion in Peshawar; unfortunately, this can be predicted to occur again. Now we witness a particular conflict between the Pakistani and Afghan authorities represented by the Taliban. Pakistan, represented by the Minister of Defense and other high-ranking officials, blames the Afghan authorities for these attacks, arguing that the Taliban Kabul is supporting the Pakistani Taliban, and the Taliban, in turn, deny this. Therefore, this conflict between the two South Asian countries will boost and worsen”, said political scientist Georgi Asatryan.

The administration of the Pakistani Taliban has announced that it is lost the armistice. It happened in November. The Pakistani Taliban announced that they were withdrawing from the armistice with Pakistan and called on their supporters to launch attacks on targets in Pakistan. It should be mentioned that the situation will worsen and destabilize as long as the Taliban run in Afghanistan and supports its Pakistani allies.

To a certain extent, we witness how the method of the Pakistani military to support the Afghan Taliban leads to harmful and dangerous outcomes for them. The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan would be impossible, or quite complicated, without the total assistance, consultations and, to a certain extent, the participation of the Pakistani military. Now we see a growth of terrorist networks in the region. The policy of strategic depth leads to troubles and threats for Pakistan itself.

The country’s ruling parties received a warning from Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that “concrete actions” aimed at their leadership would be carried out in reaction to the statement of war against them. In this statement, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari were named in the TPP message. In addition, the statement contains a warning to the religious political parties of Pakistan. They are urged not to participate in activities directed against the TPP. “TTP’s policy does not include targeting your parties, but we ask you to avoid engaging in any activity against us,” it says. The TPP danger came two days after the National Security Committee of Pakistan announced its decision to combat organizations related to violence and terrorism.

According to Al Jazeera, Pakistan is confronting an attack again. Analysts express that as the country enters into an election year, the leadership of Pakistan should develop a strategy to counter the threat to internal security. At least nine attacks occurred in the southwestern province of Balochistan last Sunday, killing six employees of security services. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), known as the Pakistani Taliban due to its close ideology to the Afghan Taliban, has claimed responsibility for these attacks.

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Countering Terrorism: 2023 and Beyond

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afghanistan terrorism
(file photo) UNAMA/Fraidoon Poya

Pakistan has carried three significant issues from 2022 into 2023. These include political instability, a dwindling economy and resurging terrorism. With respect to terrorism, Afghanistan has assumed centre stage. Following the withdrawal of US forces on 15 Aug 2021, there was initial jubilation in Pakistan over Taliban’s triumph. It stemmed from the perception that US military presence in the region and drone strikes were the leading sources of regional instability.

2022 ended for Pakistan with an upsurge in terrorist activities and accordingly the New Year started with a meeting of the National Security Committee (NSC). The press release following the meeting reiterated NSC’s resolve to ‘have zero tolerance for terrorism in Pakistan and reaffirmed its determination to take ‘on any and all entities that resort to violence.’ This is a welcome decision by the government and state organs.

Pakistan’s counterterrorism (CT) efforts gained momentum following the unprecedented Army Public School (APS) massacre of 2014. Some have compared it to Pakistan’s 9/11. The tragedy was relatable to all of Pakistan regardless of the so-called ethnic, regional or sectarian divides. The inhumane attacks brought the civil and military leadership together in assigning this scourge of terrorism the priority that it deserved. The most prominent outcome was a National Action Plan on countering terrorism that enjoyed broadest possible political support.

Subsequently, the united stance against terrorism enabled unprecedented successes in rooting out terrorism. However, it appears that the reduction in terrorist activities led to a sense of complacency which was further aided by growing political polarisation that had more to do with differences on domestic, economic and foreign policy issues. Unfortunately, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan occurred at a time when Pakistan was struggling with internal politics. Apparently, the eventual prevalence of Afghan Taliban against a super power that they had been resisting for two decades, emboldened the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to think that it could similarly attrite the Pakistani nation and its state organs.

TTP’s motivation seems to be misplaced for primarily three reasons. First and foremost, the Armed Forces and Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) of Pakistan are fighting this war to provide a safe and secure environment to the future generations of the country – including their own children; unlike the US and coalition forces that neither had a clear objective nor a consistent policy to follow. Second, much of Afghan Taliban’s acceptance at the domestic level was based on the fact that they were fighting a foreign occupant – which is not the case for TTP. Thirdly, the Afghan Taliban assumed power by virtue of force rather than the will of the public and that is why they struggle to gain legitimacy at home and abroad.

Pakistani political leadership might differ on the possible approaches to dealing with this issue, but there certainly is no appetite for letting the TTP and associated factions consolidate power to a degree that they are able to challenge state’s writ at a level comparable to yesteryears. However, display of a united front by the various ruling parties at the Centre and provinces will help demonstrate that there will be no tolerance for terrorist activities no matter which political party assumes power.

TTP’s threat against the leadership of two ruling parties is an attempt to exploit the current domestic political divide. Political mudslinging on this issue only helps the enemy’s cause. The ongoing struggle for power between the political parties should not enable TTP to consolidate power in the interim period. Otherwise, it will become a greater threat for the next government to deal with. During the previous election years, terrorist outfits were successful in targeting the leadership of various political parties during their election campaigns and arguably changing the election outcomes by terrorising the electorate. It is in shared interest of all the political parties to avoid a repeat of such a scenario.

While the politico-military leadership establishes a united front at home, it will be important to deny external actors the ability to exploit Pakistan’s internal situation. Pakistan has been at the receiving end of accusations even as it presents irrefutable evidence of external involvement in terrorist activities inside the country. As Pakistan continues to expose foreign involvement, it ought to simultaneously deny foreign actors fertile ground to exploit at home. Previously, the foreign threat was limited to the Eastern front but now it has expanded at an unprecedented level to the Western front where the Taliban government is either complicit or unable to check use of its territory to launch terrorist attacks against Pakistan.

2023 is likely going to be the year of General Elections in Pakistan. Whichever party assumes power, it is important that it looks at counterterrorism as a long-term operation that will require broader political support, less in-fighting and an ability to stay the course impervious of temporary gains and setbacks which will inevitably be a part of the process.

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A Rift Getting Deeper: TTP and IEA parting their ways?

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Image source: hindustantimes.com

A few days ago, an alleged audio of Tahreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief, Noor Wali Mehsud has caught the attention of those who keep a close eye on terrorist groups operating in Pakistan, especially Tahreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Through this audio, Noor Wali has sent a message, to TTP fighters to pick up arms against the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) after its search operation in provinces along the Pak-Afghan border. Since the takeover of Kabul, some security analysts had predicted the possible collaboration of IEA with TTP. Still, the evolution of TTP strategies and its ideological shift from being a branch of IEA to being an opponent of IEA was observed. Only those who have kept a sharp eye on TTP activities know that TTP is now a threat to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

The reason behind the shift in TTP’s strategies:

 What compelled TTP to give such a big statement? This question comes to everyone’s mind, the below discussion is made in context to this question. The ideological standing of both TTP and IEA is far different. Afghan Taliban are ethnic nationals. They have only fought a war against foreign forces for Afghan territory and have never claimed any region beyond the borders of Afghanistan. However, TTP has long taken inspiration from Al-Qaeda, which has expansionist objectives and deadly takfiri ideology to create a falsified identity of believers and non-believers, only to legitimize its terror activities in the name of Islam. Hence, following the footprints of such a radical organization, there is a significant possibility that TTP will join hands with ISKP against IEA.

Question of natural and forced alliance:

Since the Kabul takeover, TTP has tried to align with IEA, thus, giving it the camouflage of a natural alliance. TTP’s leadership also manifested this narrative in its statements and activities. But the ideological drift and conflicting objectives show that TTP’s so-called alignment with IEA was one-sided and enforced. After the Kabul takeover, TTP tried its well to be a part of IEA but by rigid stance, IEA always cleared in their statement that TTP and IEA are two different groups, having different inspirations and goals.

Pakistan’s role that TTP in using Afghan soil:

Pakistan has been fighting TTP since 2003. In April 2022, Pakistan Air Force (PAF) struck the hideouts of Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan along the Durand Line. This strike highlighted that a group within IEA was keen on providing safe havens to TTP. Hence, diplomatic pressure was mounted on IEA to eradicate TTP from the strategic provinces of Kunar and Khost.

 Chance of Mutual tussle between TTP and IEA:

Is there another conflict going to happen in the region? Now, the battle is the same, but the opponents are different. The so-called narrative that claims IEA and TTP were on the same table is wrecking after TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud and IEA spoke’s person Zabiullah Mujahid’s statements.” They are not, as an organization, part of IEA, and we don’t share the same objectives,” Zabiullah Mujahid said in reaction to TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud’s claims of being a part of the IEA. Now, the TTP chief has alerted his fighters for war. It would create complexities in the region. IEA acted as a mediator between the government of Pakistan and TTP to make peace in the region.  Additionally, Zabiullah mujahid also mentioned that We advise TTP to focus on peace and stability in their country. This is very important so, they can prevent any chance for enemies to interfere in the region, and we request Pakistan to investigate their demands for the better of the region and Pakistan.

Mujahid added that the TTP was Pakistan’s internal matter “The IEA stance is that we do not interfere in other countries affairs. We do not interfere in Pakistan’s affairs.”  

After this emerging rift, would it be possible for IEA to counter TTP? IEA is struggling to stabilize the state after Kabul take over. Nowadays, Afghanistan’s security and economy are on the verge of chaos. It would not be able to engage in other conflicts nor do they have the power to do so. And if they engaged in battle with TTP, an alliance of ISKP and TTP can hurt Afghanistan. But if they counter them, there is a chance to get international sympathy and maybe recognition because it will endorse the Doha agreement, as Recognition has become a dire need in Afghanistan.

Conclusion:

In a nutshell, it won’t be inappropriate to assume that another war will break out, and it is likely more drastic than the last ones. Despite all the hurdles, it is an opportunity for IEA to gain global sympathy for its recognition and to legitimize its regime. If the IEA becomes successful in convincing the world by taking action against terrorist outfits and extremism in its ranks, it will not only pave the way for its recognition but also meet with the minutes of the DOHA Accord to not allow any violent non-state actor to operate within Afghan territory.

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