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 terrorism outfits, global terrorism 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.

Activity of 41 organisations banned by government is accessible to every user on the social network

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-e-Sahaba (SSP) with 148, Balochistan Students Organisation Azaad (BSO-A) with 54 and Sipah-i-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, Shia outfits and a host of Baloch separatist organisations.

A closer look at activity

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 were in Urdu or Roman Urdu rather than English, suggesting the content was primarily for local consumption. A very small number were in Sindhi or Balochi, also indicating a niche target audience.

Open spread of ideology

Invariably, most of the Facebook pages and groups glorify existing leaders or those killed while some banned outfits also campaign for the release of their activists or leaders.

In their Facebook updates, all banned outfits put the 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.

Local footprint

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.

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 were organised using terms such as ‘student wing’ or ‘youth wing’.

Tip of the iceberg

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 of the 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.

A longer version of this article, including a full list of outfits and research methodology can be read on Dawn.com

Published in Dawn, May 30th, 2017

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