Pakistan’s upbeat claims notwithstanding, terrorism in that country remains very much alive both as a disruptive force and as an ideological narrative. This is evident from the way numerous terror outfits are still able to operate on social media, if not on the ground.
The very existence of these banned outfits flies in the face of a conspicuous absence of a coherent and wide-ranging anti-terror strategy.
According to a recent report by the Dawn newspaper, at least 41 of the 64 banned terror and sectarian outfits in Pakistan are accessible, without any hindrance, to the 25 million users of social media, particularly Facebook.
The report says this presence is a mix of “Sunni and Shia sectarian or terror outfits, global terror organizations operating in Pakistan, and separatists in Baluchistan and Sindh”.
While categorization of the separatists as terrorists seems erroneous and signifies a problem in the popular discourse on terrorism, such labeling has gained a lot of currency because of attacks by Baluch separatists against people of other ethnic origins, Sindhi and Punjabi, living in Baluchistan, where they are engaged in manual labour.
A very problematic finding of this report is that most of these groups appear to be based in urban areas, posting radical material online in local languages, particularly targeting audiences that both understand and communicate in those languages.
The notorious Sipah-e-Sahaba (Soldiers of the Companions of Prophet Muhammad), now known as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (Party of the Sunnis), has by far the largest online presence, spread over 200 pages and 29 groups.
Other banned terror outfits such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Hizbut Tahrir, Tehrik-e-Jafria Pakistan, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Jamat Ul Ahrar, Lashkar-e-Taiba and a number of others not only remain active but also have carved out ample digital space for themselves to spread their messages.
This is happening despite the government trying to shrink this space. Data show that between 2013 and 2016, Pakistan’s requests to Facebook for access to data have seen a sharp increase, reaching the highest point of 1,002 requests between July and December last year.
However, this has obviously not been enough to reclaim effectively the digital space these outfits have captured. It is certainly not enough to develop a counter-narrative in Pakistan, where religious, social and political behavior and tendencies work in complicated and sometimes identical manners, which requires much more effort on the part of the state to counter.
The reality of the freedom these terror groups enjoy flies in the face of a number of provisions laid down in the now-defunct National Action Plan. For instance, whereas the NAP provided for “concrete measures against promotion of terrorism through [the] Internet and social media”, and that “defunct outfits will not be allowed to operate under any other name”, the Dawn report’s findings suggest a clear and marked failure on the part of the government and Pakistan’s security establishment, which continue to rely on a reduced number of attacks in the country to measure their success against terrorism.
While terrorism might have reduced, the spread of radical ideas remains an active phenomenon. Hence the question: Can this presence be enough to achieve the upbeat target Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called for during his visit to a seminary in Lahore in March to enlist religious scholars’ help in the fight on terror, “undoing the extremist narrative of religion”?
Information available on the website of Pakistan’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting does not enlist any action whatsoever taken under the NAP, especially targeting the online spread of religious radicalism.
What it does enlist include, among other things: registration of cases of hate speech, arrest of hardcore activists (although a number of social activists were also abducted recently, sparking outrage in Pakistan), the return of Afghan refugees, SIM card verification, curbing terror financing, and sealing of Islamic seminaries involved in fanning extremism.
However, these are only half-measures, or even less than that. Prominent religious-political leaders continue to provide support both directly and indirectly to terror outfits and to ideas that help build radical narratives, which continues to be a flaw in the state’s otherwise “successful” war on terror.
The most recent manifestation of this was when Maulana Samiul Haq, who heads his own faction of the Jamiat Ulama Islam, and is known as the “father of the Taliban” because of his seminary in Akora Khattak from where a number of prominent Taliban, including Mullah Omar, emerged, expressed his reservations over a fatwa (religious ruling) issued by some 31 prominent scholars from all Muslim schools of thought against terrorism, declaring suicide bombers, as “traitors”.
His stance, as reported in the Pakistani media, was premised on an assumption that the rulers of the Muslim world were puppets of the West and could not therefore declare jihad against their masters. This is a perverse argument that has never lost currency among the ultra-right and has been used to advocate armed struggle against the state, using religious cover. One should also not forget that this seminary recently received 300 million rupees (US$2.86 million) as part of a “counter-extremism” award by the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
It is quite obvious that government edicts have not achieved and cannot achieve much in the face of jihadist groups who have access to such pervasive and easily accessible media of communication as Facebook.
While Pakistan certainly has much to do to win the fight against a menace that has deep roots, and as long as this fight remains devoid of a structured counter-narrative and coherent strategy that openly targets the very ideology of terrorism and radicalism, mere claims about a reduced number of attacks can only show that Pakistan’s self-proclaimed success is short-term, if not delusional.