When Naureen Laghari began following Islamist pages on Facebook, she had little idea that she was joining a web of cyber radicalization.
Earlier this year, a group of online recruiters from the Islamic State (IS) reached out to the unsuspecting medical student. It took just a few months to convince Laghari to join their ultra-radical organization responsible for terrorist attacks around the world.
She reportedly even traveled to Syria after eloping with an IS operative in February. Pakistani security forces arrested her in an April raid that killed her IS handler in the eastern city of Lahore. Ali Tariq, the handler, had also married her two months earlier. In a confessional video issued by the Pakistani military, Laghari said she was groomed to carry out a suicide attack after being recruited online.
“Nobody kidnapped me. I came to Lahore out of my free will,” she said. “I was supposed to carry out a suicide attack on a Christian church over Easter.”
Her ordeal raised concerns about how hard-line militants, many of whom have claimed credit for terrorist attacks, exploit cyberspace for recruitment and propaganda despite harsh cybercrime laws. Last year, Islamabad adopted the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, which aims to prevent extremist organizations from abusing the Internet.
An investigation by Radio Mashaal, however, reveals that 37 of 65 banned militant organizations in Pakistan still thrive on social media. These groups use more than 400 social media accounts for propaganda and recruitment.
Activists say that Pakistani youth, a majority of the country’s estimated 200 million people, as particularly vulnerable. They also make up a majority of the 18 percent of Pakistanis able to access the Internet, according to a 2016 International Telecommunication Union report.
“Extremist groups are more tech-savvy than us. They use the Internet very effectively for raising funds and radicalizing youth,” said Nigaht Dad, head of the Digital Rights Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that helps people deal with online abuse.
Radio Mashaal’s reporting shows that Facebook and Twitter are the most favored social media platforms for extremists. Other commonly used websites are YouTube, DailyMotion, Internet Archive, and JustPaste.it.
But before their materials end up on these platforms, militants use free end-to-end encryption-enabled instant-messaging services to distribute content.
A member of the outlawed Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) told Radio Mashaal on the condition of anonymity that first they receive videos, audios, pictures, and text materials from on-the-ground fighters through emails, WhatsApp, Viber, and Telegram. From there, the content is shared online by dozens of members and sympathizers.
Pakistani officials are attempting to shut down the militant dark web. Since the beginning of 2017, the Interior Ministry has blocked 45 websites and 65 Facebook pages that “encouraged violence, spreading sectarian hate, and misusing Islam.” Facebook’s country report shows Islamabad also requested information about 1,431 suspected accounts last year.
But none of this has stopped militant groups from flourishing on the Internet.
Senator Shahi Sayed heads the Telecommunication Committee in the Senate, or upper house of the Pakistani Parliament. He says Islamabad’s approach is flawed because the authorities only go after accounts and websites that criticize state policies.
“We have asked the government to stop misusing the cybercrime law,” Sayed said. “They use this law to [mostly] silence critics and opposition. This law should be used to curtail extremist [and] banned organizations.”
Pakistan security agencies faced criticism from activists and rights watchdogs when several bloggers were arrested for criticizing the military’s policies in January.
Ihsan Ghani, national coordinator for the National Counterterrorism Authority Pakistan (NACTA), says Islamabad has turned a page in its struggle against violent militant organizations.
“We go after every group. But I believe we need to come up with a strategy that could counter extremists’ narrative,” he told Radio Mashaal. “Blocking the Internet is less effective than providing alternative narratives for our youth. We should expose how the militant groups wrongly interpret Islamic teachings.”
Islamabad, however, is far from going after all militant groups. NACTA’s list of banned militant organizations does not include Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and its alleged offshoot Falah-e Insanyat. Instead they are supposed to be under watch. According to the United Nations, JuD is a front for the Lashkar-e Taiba terror group. In 2012, U.S. authorities placed a $10 million bounty on the group’s leader, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed. He is the alleged mastermind of the 2008 attack in India commercial capital, Mumbai, which killed 166 people.
While Saeed remains under house arrest, his followers recently launched a new political party. Last week, Milli Muslim League President Saifullah Khalid vowed to turn Pakistan into "a real Islamic and welfare state" and demanded Saeed’s immediate release.
In addition to India’s relentless outcry over Pakistan’s support for Islamist militants, Afghan and Western officials have long accused Islamabad of aiding and sheltering the Afghan Taliban. They often highlight how, since 2004, Pakistani military offensives have effectively eliminated most TTP strongholds along its western border with Afghanistan but have failed to go after the Afghan Taliban, particularly its military arm, the Haqqani network.
Such counterterrorism failures overshadow Pakistan’s national counterterrorism plan. Framed in late 2014, the National Action Plan recommends an overarching crackdown on extremist groups, particularly propaganda operations.
Hassan Askari, a Pakistani security affairs expert, says the Pakistani military cannot go after all the militant groups at once.
“Pakistan has many security challenges. Security forces are forced to choose their targets carefully. They cannot open new fronts they cannot handle,” he said.
But former Pakistani military officer Brigadier Saad Mohammad Khan disagrees.
He says Pakistan needs to undertake a broad sweep of armed groups and abandon its current approach, which entails selectively moving against militant leaders under pressure from Washington or its neighbors. This is what prompted Islamabad to put Hafiz Saeed under house arrest, Khan cites as an example.
“You cannot stop extremists from going online when they are active on the ground,” he said.