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They exist in plain sight, just one search and one click away from any of Pakistan’s 25 million Facebook users.
An investigation carried out by Dawn across the month of April 2017 has revealed that 41 of Pakistan’s 64 banned outfits are present on Facebook in the form of hundreds of pages, groups and individual user profiles.
Their network, both interconnected and public, is a mix of Sunni and Shia sectarian or terror outfits, global terror organisations operating in Pakistan, and separatists in Balochistan and Sindh.
For the purpose of this investigation, the names of all banned outfits – including acronyms and small variations in spelling – were searched on Facebook to find pages, groups, and user profiles that publicly ‘liked’ a banned outfit.
The biggest outfits on the social network, in order of size, are Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) with 200 pages and groups, Jeay Sindh Muttahida Mahaz (JSMM) with 160, Sipah-i-Sahaba (SSP) with 148, Baloch Student Organisation Azad (BSO-A) with 54 and Sipah-e-Muhammad with 45.
Other banned outfits which exist on Facebook at a smaller scale include Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Tehreek-e-Taliban Swat, Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, Jamat-ul-Ahrar, 313 Brigade, multiple Shia outfits and a host of Baloch separatist organisations.
An examination of some user profiles linked to these banned outfits indicates open support of sectarian and extremist ideology. A few of these profiles have also publicly ‘liked’ pages and groups related to weapons use and training.
While some of the Facebook pages and groups claim to be ‘official’ representatives of the outfits, others appear to be managed by members and supporters in ideological agreement.
The content shared on their forums is varied. Although there are occasional posts in the form of text or status updates, the more common updates feature photos, videos and memes shared to explain and elaborate on the outfit’s ideology; provide updates on recent or ongoing events and on-ground activity; and encourage private contact and recruitment of motivated Facebook users.
In general, the Facebook updates are in Urdu or Roman Urdu rather than English, suggesting the content is primarily for local consumption. A very small number are in Sindhi or Balochi, also indicating a niche target audience.
Invariably, most of the Facebook pages and groups glorify existing leaders or those killed in the past while some banned outfits also campaign for the release of their activists or leaders.
In their Facebook updates, all banned outfits place blame on the state, or, in the case of outfits focused on Kashmir, on India. In rare cases, pages and groups linked to these banned outfits share graphic content depicting acts of violence — including photos and videos of bodies.
The more organised outfits appear to have ‘official’ media cells sharing press releases and religious sermons or political speeches as both audio and video. Such pages and groups also share links from websites, blogs or Twitter accounts that appear to be run by members of these outfits. The content in general includes anti-state propaganda or hate speech directed at religious minorities and other members of society.
Of the pages, groups and users investigated for the purpose of this story, a majority appeared to be based in larger urban centers such as Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta. Those users that had publicly listed the educational institutions they had attended are mostly based in large, government-run universities, particularly in Sindh and Balochistan.
Many banned outfits have pages and groups with their names followed by district names, inviting users to join based on locality e.g. in the case of Baloch separatists, divisions include Gwadar, Kharan, Mastung, Panjgur etc.
Others, such as sectarian outfits, are organised down to localities e.g. North Nazimabad in Karachi, or even by-election constituency e.g. NA-68. Furthermore, others are organised using terms such as ‘student wing’ or ‘youth wing’.
At all times, members and supporters of these banned outfits operating on Facebook have the option to shift communication from public to private.
Any user linked to, or interested in a proscribed organisation can befriend and chat with like-minded users, message those operating the pages and groups or click the provided links to websites and blogs. To establish contact off Facebook, all they would need to do is use the publicly listed email addresses or local phone numbers provided by some outfits.
The findings of this investigation are just the tip of the iceberg however, as a far larger number of pages and groups could exist without publicly using the name of the banned organisation in order to operate in secret. Unlike the profiles examined, most Facebook users would also not leave their list of pages and groups public – unless they feel they can use the social network with impunity.
Delete, block or hand over information to authorities — these are Facebook’s primary responses in the event that the social network is used for terror or criminal activity.
Although the company has acknowledged working with Pakistan in multiple cases, due to a lack of real transparency the nature of the cases is unknown, as is the process by which the requests and exchange of information is made. It is entirely possible that these requests are related to politics, blasphemy, sexual harassment etc. rather than on investigating banned outfits.
Details of Pakistan’s requests to Facebook provided in its ‘Government Requests Reports’ from 2013 to 2016 show a sharp upward trend from 2015 onwards, reaching a high of 1,002 requests in July-December, 2016. The percentage to which Facebook complied with the requests to some extent has been between 64% to 68% since 2015.
As stated in its policies, Facebook “may access, preserve and share your information in response to a legal request (like a search warrant, court order or subpoena) if we have a good faith belief that the law requires us to do so.”
It also does not allow any organisations engaged in terrorist activity, or organised criminal activity to have a presence on Facebook.
More controversially, the company also removes user accounts and content “that expresses support for groups that are involved in the violent or criminal behavior mentioned above. Supporting or praising leaders of those same organisations, or condoning their violent activities, is not allowed.”
This specific policy led to many user accounts being blocked or deleted in 2016 for criticising India following the killing of Kashmir’s young ‘freedom fighter’ Burhan Wani and the resulting violent protests and crackdown by India’s security forces.
The Kashmir conflict is just one example of the quagmire Facebook faces as it tries to govern 1.9 billion users. Preventing the social network from being misused by militants and terrorists spread across all the continents, and also distinguishing those outfits from legitimate freedom movements is a task that Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg has admitted to being beyond the company’s capacity.
In a note shared on Facebook, Zuckerberg said, “In the last year, the complexity of the issues we've seen has outstripped our existing processes for governing the community...We've seen this in misclassifying hate speech in political debates in both directions — taking down accounts and content that should be left up and leaving up content that was hateful and should be taken down. Both the number of issues and their cultural importance has increased recently.”
Formerly known as the SSP, the ASWJ was banned 10 years after its predecessor, on February 15, 2012. They are known to spread anti-Shia sentiment across Pakistan, and often attack minority groups.
Despite the ban, the organisation remains active in spreading hatred and violence. They engage in local politics by holding rallies and gatherings, amassing a following in an attempt to legitimise the group.
Founded in 2000 by Shafi Burfat, the JSMM is a separatist group fighting for the seperation of Sindh from Pakistan. Proscribed on March 15, 2013 for alleged ties to Indian intelligence’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the JSMM is thought to have been involved in sabotage through the offshoot militant faction Sindhudesh Liberation Army.
Due to lack of incidents and reported activity after being proscribed, the organisation is believed to have refocused their efforts on recruiting students for protests.
Founded in September of 1985, SSP is acknowledged as one of the largest and oldest anti-Shia militant factions. They have targeted Shia mosques and leaders in the past.
Having changed their name twice after they were banned for terrorist activities in January of 2002, the faction is presently known and operates as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat.
Additional research by Amar Ayaz | Illustrations by Reem Khurshid
Click the next tab below to see the complete list of banned outfits openly thriving on Facebook.
The list below contains all banned outfits on Facebook aside from the big three - ASWJ, JSMM, SSP - that are available in the main story in the first tab above
Arranged in order of size of online presence
Baloch Student Organisation Azad (BSO-A)
Founded by Allah Nazar Baloch in 2002, the organisation is known to indoctrinate the youth of Balochistan in a struggle for an independent Balochistan.
Proscribed on March 15, 2013 on the basis of spreading anti-state sentiment through strikes and processions, they remain active online and in student communities in Balochistan.
Sipah-e-Muhammad Pakistan (SMP)
Although reports vary, it is believed that Maulana Mureed Abbas Yazdani founded SMP in 1993. Formed as a Shia outfit to counter the militancy of Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan, their primary objective is to retaliate against aggressions from SSP and LeJ.
Proscribed on August 14, 2001 along with LeJ for suspected involvement in terrorist activities, the SMP is alleged to have carried out attacks against the leadership of banned Sunni extremist factions. Their operations were reported to have ceased after a rift amidst the leadership.
Accused of fighting American troops alongside Osama Bin Laden, Masood Azhar formed JeM in 2000 after being released from an Indian prison in return for hostages of an Indian Airline plane. Notorious for attacks in India-held Kashmir (IHK), the militant outfit’s stated objective is to unite IHK with Pakistan. However, it also has close links with LeJ, and its members have carried out attacks against the minority communities.
Breaking into two factions, the militant organisation is still believed to be active in the region, despite being banned on January 14, 2002 for sending non-Kashmiris into IHK causing unrest in Kashmir and hampering diplomacy between Pakistan and India. They are known for an attack on the Indian parliament in 2001, Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and two assassination attempts on former president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf.
As a result of the failure of Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistani politics circa 1993, Naeem Siddiqui founded Tehreek-e-Islami in 1994 with a view to impose Shariah law and turn Pakistan into an Islamic state.
Even though the outfit was banned in January of 2002, along with several other militant organisations for anti-state sentiments, it continues to operate today.
Since its formation in 1990 by the controversial Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, LeT has been credited with carrying out several attacks on Indian soil. At the time of their conception they aided Afghanistan in their fight against the Soviets.
Infamous for the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, LeT’s interests lie in liberating Occupied Kashmir from India and enforcing strict Salafi and Ahle-Hadith interpretations of Islam across the Indian subcontinent. Despite international attention and having been banned by the Pakistani state on January 14, 2002 for spreading terror locally and internationally, there is evidence that the outfit remains operational.
Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF)
Founded in 1964 in Syria, the BLF is one of the oldest, active militant factions stemming out of Balochistan. Taking up arms against the Shah of Iran during the Iranian Revolution, they quickly turned their focus towards inciting an insurgency against the Pakistani state, demanding independence for Balochistan.
Along with other Baloch nationalist groups, they were banned in September 2010 for targeting state machinery. The proscription did little to deter their interests, highlighted by their largest known attack against the army affiliated Frontier Works Organisation, killing 20 labourers, on April 11, 2015, working on a government funded dam.
Founded in 1996, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi was formed as a radical offshoot of Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan, primarily aimed at targeting Shias. With the dreaded militant, Riaz Basra, as its founding leader, LeJ was named after SSP’s founding leader, Haq Nawaz Jhangvi. It’s also the first militant group to have publicly accepted responsibility for the killing members of Shia community, other religious minorities, and Iranian diplomats. Following Basra’s death in an encounter, LeJ split into more than one faction, but all factions continue to attack Shia communities, and remain active across the country. Of late it has become quite active in Balochistan.
Operating across the globe, the religio-political organisation is particularly active in Western countries. Founded in 1953, in Jerusalem, their stated objective is to unify the Muslim world as an Islamic state, and enforcing Shariah law.
Launching a Pakistani presence in late 2000, their activities increased after 9/11 with the opening of a publishing house. Their literature largely focuses on instigating internal rebellion within the armed forces.
Supported by extremist factions such as SSP, their aim to recreate the caliphate in Central Asia was dealt a setback when former President Pervez Musharraf banned the organisation on November 20, 2003.
Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA)
With the aim to start an armed insurgency for the separation of Balochistan, the BLA was formed in 2000 and remains active till this day. Some analysts believe that the faction is a resurgence of the Independent Balochistan Movement of 1973 to 1977.
They have carried out sporadic attacks against non-natives and authorities in Balochistan, including one on a a paramilitary camp in Kohlu while then president Pervez Musharraf was visiting in December of 2005. Four months later, in April 2006, the government banned the BLA for attacks on state machinery and spreading anti-state sentiments in Balochistan.
Banned on December 30, 2016, the little-known militant outfit was proscribed by the Pakistani government for recruiting and smuggling militants to ISIS held territories to take part in the civil war in Iraq and Syria.
Founded in 2004, the militant organisation is predominantly active in the Khyber Agency of Pakistan, despite being banned on June 30, 2008 for creating unrest in the northern regions.
On March 17, 2016 the faction took responsibility for an attack on a bus full of government employees en route to the Peshawar secretariat. They are notorious for fighting rival terrorist groups in the area.
Peoples' Aman Committee (Lyari)
Banned on October 10, 2011 the Peoples' Aman Committee (PAC) is a militant outfit hailing from Lyari, Karachi. Founded in 2008 by the infamous Lyari gangster Rehman Dakait, PAC allegedly had ties to the Pakistan People’s Party. Mostly known for drug trafficking and extortion, the organisation was disbanded in March of 2011, seven months before their official proscription.
Even though defunct, it is believed their on-ground operation still functions in certain areas.
United Baloch Army (UBA)
Like other separatist groups, Mehran Marri founded the UBA in 2000 under the objective to liberate Balochistan from Pakistan, after a rift in the leadership of the BLA. Operating as a splinter group from the BLA, their tactics and attacks have often been criticised by other separatist groups for needlessly targeting innocent civilians.
The outfit was proscribed on March 15, 2013 for sporadic attacks on civilians and security forces. They claimed responsibility for an attack on two buses in the Mastung district, killing 22 unarmed Pakhtuns on May 29, 2015.
Founded in 2009 by Javed Mengal, brother of former Chief Minister of Balochistan Akhtar Mengal, the group didn’t come to the forefront till 2012 after claiming responsibility for attacks in Karachi, Lahore and Quetta.
Even though the attacks took place two years after their proscription in September 2010, they have remained relatively inactive in their fight for an independent Baloch state.
Considered Al Qaeda’s military arm in Pakistan, the organisation consists of fighters from various Jihadi groups such as LeT, LeJ and JeM, attempting to establish an Islamic state. Believed to have formed in 2008, the group has conducted high profile attacks and assassination attempts that predate their establishment.
They claimed an unsuccessful assassination attempt on former president Pervez Musharraf in 2003 and associated with an attack on the Karachi naval base in 2011. On March 15, 2013 the outfit was banned for carrying out terrorist activities in Pakistan. They are believed to still operate in Pakistan and conflict zones such as Syria.
Balochistan Republican Army (BRA)
Proscribed on September 8, 2010 for aiding Baloch separatists, the outfit’s main objective is to achieve independence for the province of Balochistan from Pakistan.
Comprising of members from the Bugti tribe and young student activists, the group was founded in 2006, a result of growing resentment towards the Pakistani government’s increasing control over Baloch resources.
The faction remains active till this day, presumably under the leadership of Brahamdagh Bugti, grandson of Akbar Bugti. They are known for attacks on foreign workers and security personnel in the province, the largest of which was in April of 2011 on the military-run Frontier Works Organisation camp, killing 11 and wounding two.
Millat-e-Islamia Pakistan (Ex SSP)
SSP changed their name to Millat-e-Islamia Pakistan after the outfit was banned in 2002. The renamed outfit itself got banned a year later on November 15, 2003 for continuing the operations of SSP.
Muslim Students Organization (MSO) Gilgit
Proscribed on April 24, 2012 for creating conflict in Baltistan, the MSO is allegedly still active in Gilgit, Baltistan, owing to evidence of a criminal case registered against four of its members.
Tehreek-e-Taliban Swat (TTS)
A militant division of TTP operating primarily in the Swat district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, TTS was banned on March 15, 2013 for aiding TTP in their objectives by spreading terror.
Tehrik-e-Jafria Pakistan (TJP)
Originally known as Tehreek Nifaz Fiqah-e-Jafria (TNFJ), the organisation was forced to change its name to TJP following a split in the organization. Reports vary as to when they were founded, but it is believed that the faction was a byproduct of the Iranian revolution, to safeguard the social, religious and political rights of Shias in Pakistan.
While it is unclear as to whether TJP has orchestrated, or were complicit in any terrorist activities, they were banned in January of 2002, along with other militant outfits.
Founded in 2004 by Afghan Sufi Pir Saif-ur-Rehman, under a Sunni Barelwi ideology, the militant organisation based in North-West of Pakistan currently operates in the Khyber tribal region. Their primary goal is to counter the anti- Sufi, Deobandi version of Islam being spread by Lashkar-i-Islam.
Banned by Pakistan in June of 2008, the outfit focuses its efforts on fighting other extremist factions, most recently embroiled in battles with TTP across the North of Pakistan.
Al Haramain Foundation
Under the guise of a charity, the foundation is known to have provided financial and material assistance to Al-Qaeda and other notorious terrorist groups. Founded in Karachi circa 1988, with headquarters reportedly shifting to Riyadh, the foundation was disbanded on January 26, 2004 by the United Nations Security Council and eight years later by Pakistan, on March 6, 2012 for aiding and abetting terrorist groups.
From North America to Africa and the Middle East, the organisation established community service centers in an attempt to accomplish their objective of spreading a strict Wahabi version of Islam. During this time they funded groups such as the Chechen Mujahideen, under the pretense of humanitarian aid, for terrorist activities.
In 1993, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen reunited with Harakat-ul-Jihad Islami, after an initial split in 1991, under the name of Jamiat-ul-Ansar to turn their attention towards Kashmir. Their stated goal is to unite IHK with Pakistan, but also works closely with a number of sectarian outfits.
Having advocated for the use of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons against India and hampering diplomatic efforts, the outfit was banned on November 20, 2003. Listed as one of the militant groups involved in the abduction and murder of Daniel Pearl, they remain active despite proscription.
Tanzeem Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat, Gilgit
The faction was banned in June of 2012, two months after the supporters of the faction clashed with members of the Imamia Students Organisation.
Tanzeem Naujawana-i-Ahle Sunnat (TNA), Gilgit
Proscribed on October 10, 2011, TNA is among several banned groups from Gilgit.
Shia Tulaba Action Committee, Gilgit
The Gilgit-based Shia organisation was banned on October 10, 2011.
Pages and groups: 1
Founded by Osama Bin Laden in August of 1988, Al Qaeda has wreaked havoc across the globe through violent and infamous attacks. They perpetrated the attacks on September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Centre in New York. In Pakistan, they were also held responsible for the attack on the Marriot hotel in Islamabad on September 20, 2008.
Aiming to destroy Israel and rid the Muslim world of Western influence, the terrorist organisation hopes to create an Islamic caliphate that adheres to strict Wahabi interpretations of Shariah law. Despite banning the extremist outfit on March 17, 2003 for terror activities, Al Qaeda continues to operate locally as Al-Qaeda in the Subcontinent or AQIS, and internationally.
Balochistan United Army
The organisation was banned on August 4, 2012.
Amar bil Maroof Wa Nahi Anil Munkir (Haji Namdaar Group)
An alternate name for Haji Namdaar group, and founded by Haji Namdaar himself, they are known to facilitate attacks in Peshawar by providing shelter to local and foreign militants. The outfit was banned in March of 2013 for enabling and assisting terrorist activities.
Balochistan Liberation United Front (BLUF)
The BLUF largely came to the forefront after kidnapping John Solecki, a UNHCR worker, from Quetta in February of 2009. Even though they released him two months later without their demands of the release of Baloch nationalist prisoners, they claimed responsibility for the target killing of the Balochistan education minister.
They were subsequently proscribed on September 8, 2010. Conducting several attacks since proscription, they reportedly remain active till this day, fighting for independence from the Pakistani state.
Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)
Formed on December 13, 2007, the TTP is the largest and most violent terrorist group in Pakistan. They remain active despite being banned on August 25, 2008 for their involvement in several terrorist attacks.
With the aim to impose Shariah law, fight NATO in Afghanistan and regularly targeting the Pakistani Army and state, they have perpetrated attacks on a mass scale. The most brutal of these attacks was on the Army Public School, when seven armed men killed 144 people, 132 of whom were children.
Despite army operations targeting the TTP and its other terrorist factions, they remain active till this day.
Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)
IMU was formed in 1998 to overthrow the president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, and to create an Islamic state under Shariah law. Having established bases in Northern Afghanistan and Tajikistan to carry out attacks, after the American operations in Afghanistan many fighters fled to the Northern areas of Pakistan.
Subsequently, the IMU started targeting Pakistani forces in collaboration with the TTP, the most infamous being the attack on a prison in Bannu in April 2012 that resulted in the freeing of 400 prisoners. IMU was banned in March of 2013 after an attack on the Peshawar airport. Despite the ban, the outfit managed to carry out an assault on Karachi’s Jinnah airport.
TNSM was formed in 1992 with the intention of enforcing Shariah law and hoping to transform Pakistan into a Wahabi-based Islamic state. They remain active despite being banned on January 14, 2002 for spreading terror in Pakistan and aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan with their fight against American forces.
In February of 2009, TNSM militants seized control of much of Swat, prompting the government and army to respond with an operation using airstrikes and 30,000 troops in May, leading to a truce two months later.
Islamic Jihad Union (IJU)
Based in FATA, fighters from IMU splintered away from the group and formed the IJU to continue their efforts in establishing an Islamic state in Uzbekistan. Largely using Pakistan as a base for foreign attacks, the militant outfit aids local terrorist organisations, such as the TTP, in battling Pakistani security forces.
Despite the faction being proscribed on March 15, 2013 for assisting local terror outfits, they are alleged to have a presence in Northern Pakistan, attempting to recruit and train new fighters.
Banned on July 15, 2015, the global terrorist organisation continues to operate in Pakistan as evidenced by ongoing attacks. One of the deadliest attacks claimed in Pakistan was on a Sufi shrine in Sehwan, killing over 80 civilians.
Gaining prominence as a rebranded “ISIS/ISIL/Daish/IS” in April of 2013, the militant outfit was banned shortly after aiming to establish a ‘Khorasan Province’, a historical region including Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Jamat Ul Ahrar (JuA)
Voicing support for ISIS, JuA was banned on November 11, 2016 after a spate of attacks dating from 2014 to 2016, with one of the largest being an attack on a Christian community celebrating Easter in March of 2016, killing over 70.
Splintering from the TTP in August of 2014, JuA remains active despite proscription, evidenced by the outfit claiming responsibility for an attack in Parachinar on March 31, 2017, killing 24 and injuring 68.
Islami Tehreek Pakistan (Ex TJP)
Banned on November 15, 2003, the organisation previously went by the name of Tehreek-e-Jafria Pakistan, which was banned a year earlier.
Khuddam-ul-lslam (Ex JeM)
In November 2003 the Musharraf government banned the outfit, originally known as Jaish-e-Muhammad, which was proscribed in 2002.
To learn more about how this investigation was carried out, click the tab below.
Using Facebook search, the names of all banned outfits – including acronyms and small variations in spellings – were searched across April 2017 in three areas.
Pages and groups
Any page or group that included the name of the banned outfits was made a part of the investigation, with the exception of those pages or groups that were using the organisation name but were opposed to them e.g. “We hate Outfit Name”.
For international outfits, the addition of ‘Pakistan’ in the page/group name was a requirement to be counted e.g. “International Outfit Pakistan” would be included, while just “International Outfit” would be excluded. This limitation was necessary to ensure the investigation remained local.
Each page and group was analysed for number of likes or members; number of posts in April; type of content shared in the past; details provided in the ‘About’ section.
Facebook groups can be public, closed (members visible, content hidden) or secret, where the group cannot be searched and found on Facebook, and membership is only possible through knowing the administrators. As such, Dawn’s investigation was limited to public and closed groups. Secret groups and those pages and groups using other names to mask their affiliation or support to a proscribed organisation could be in far greater numbers than those reflected in this report.
Only users who had liked a banned outfit and made that information publicly accessible through search were included in the investigation. This necessary limitation left many Facebook users who had their privacy settings set to hide their likes out of the final count. The actual figures of users would be much higher, as indicated by the size of some pages and groups.
Another limitation was that some users that ‘liked’ a banned organisation may have done so from an interest in the group/topic outside of affiliation, support or ideological agreement. User profiles were analysed for any information publicly available including posts, likes, groups and details in the 'About' section.