Kashmir Conflict: Militancy in the Digital Age

 By Shreyanka Chandel
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Jammu and Kashmir have been a source of conflict between India and Pakistan for more than 70 years. The volatile security situation in the region is a manifestation of Pakistan’s proxy war in India, combined with the unsettled political, social, and economic issues of the state. Historically, Pakistan’s external influence on Kashmir has been one of the major factors for the persistence of the conflict. But in recent years, with the advancement in technology and enhancement of globalisation, the conflict has extended to other equally important dimensions which have dramatically changed the security dynamics in the Valley. These include the use of technology in terrorism; structures of terrorist financing; transnational linkages with external and/or non-state actors; in addition to the internal political instability.

Innovations in computing and telecommunications over the past decade- like rising use of smartphones, access to the internet, social media, encrypted networks, and servers, etc –  have proved to be a “double-edged weapon”.  Such platforms are increasingly used by terrorist groups (like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed in Jammu and Kashmir) and militants as well. These developments significantly impacted the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, with more people being connected online, but at the same time, having easier access to terrorist and militant propaganda. Therefore, making them more vulnerable targets.

Internet and modern technology are misused by terrorist groups for purposes such as – propaganda (including recruitment, radicalisation, and incitement to terrorism); financing; training; planning  and  execution of attacks.

Social media is used to publish militant content, aimed at reaching a large population and to garner support from Kashmiri youth. Platforms such as WhatsApp, YouTube, Telegram are used to spread misinformation through targeted videos and pictures —  including sharing memes, videos of training, dying declarations of militants, and other extremist content on WhatsApp groups. Lashkar-e-Taiba promotes its ideology and propaganda through its cyber cell, launched in 2015, and Hizbul Mujahideen’s social media campaign includes sharing anti-India and anti-Indian security forces material through WhatsApp groups and rap music videos on YouTube. In fact, social media now drives the recruitment of local militants.

Terror groups have started using the internet as a training ground for militants, by providing training materials in the form of online manuals, information, videos — with detailed instructions covering bomb-making, undercover operations, identity forging, etc. Internet-based technology also provides terror groups with secure channels of communication to plan, coordinate, and execute attacks. Moreover, modern methods of fund transfers also facilitate the easier acquisition of funds and resources from across the border.

With regard to restricting the use of the internet and social media for the above purposes, the response capacities of security agencies are limited. For example, the use of international mobile numbers, WhatsApp’s encryption policies, and other privacy regulations makes it difficult for the security agencies to trace the mobile numbers engaged in the misinformation campaigns.

There is also a need to review India’s counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency strategies for Jammu and Kashmir in light of the changing technological dimensions. The state still views successes in conventional terms such as killing/surrender of militants, but for the local population, these serve as signs of the defeat of the state. Social media — through sharing of videos of large funeral processions, gun salutes for killed militants — glorifies militancy, and militant deaths inspire more locals to join the call for Jihad, making the efforts of security forces futile. As stated by Khalid Shah, ‘Guns cannot kill clicks, constructs and imaginative heroism, as social media activity and the narrative of the gun goes unchallenged. The jihad now plays out in virtual space

The Indian state needs to craft a more comprehensive conflict resolution strategy, which also addresses the political objective of peaceful psychological integration of the Kashmiri population with the rest of India, in addition to continued counter-terrorism operations.

Internet shutdowns have been used as a tool to prevent potentially violent activities and security threats, and immobilise terror outfits. The move may have led to a decline in recruitments as the militant groups have not been able to push their propaganda as effectively. However, it is not a hidden fact that the internet shutdown is not a sustainable option for the future. While internet shutdowns act as a successful short term solution, the policy is not sustainable for preventing violence in the long run— as people find alternate means of communication.  For instance, after the elimination of Burhan Wani in 2016, large scale violent protests broke out and Wani’s funeral was attended by thousands, despite the implementation of an internet shutdown. Therefore, deeper academic research is required to ascertain the effectiveness of internet shutdowns as a means of containing national security threats. In the long term, a communication lockdown would have larger economic, psychological, and political ramifications that must be considered.

To successfully tackle challenges posed in the cyber domain, a targeted policy that follows technological solutions to security questions would be beneficial.

Cybersecurity agencies are already involved in media surveillance and monitoring content on the internet. Further, it is important to develop strict legislation that strikes a balance between powers of the state to monitor internet activity for the sake of national security, while also maintaining constitutional rights and privacy of citizens’ data. The government, security agencies, data protection experts and civil society organisations should work together to develop a framework defining the government’s legitimate rights to access information, and clearly defining extremist/terrorist content without infringing on civil liberties.

There is also a  necessity for the government to maintain a full-time digital team based in Jammu and Kashmir that takes into consideration the suggestions of security officials on the ground that are tackling the threat, in a constitutional manner. Further, Social media platforms can set up local micro research units in Srinagar in association with Indian research or educational institutions, to better understand the misuse of the digital space in the region.

More responses to the current web-based challenges include creating a counter-narrative online, to delegitimise and reduce the digital expansion of terrorist and extremist ideologies. Currently, the state has no policy to counter extremist propaganda online, other than reporting the content to social media platforms who then take it down. According to security officials as well, it is crucial to create online counter-narratives with the assistance of trained digital experts, who can effectively manage and create powerful videos and other content, to dissuade vulnerable individuals from being attracted to militant groups. Such counter-messaging efforts have been undertaken in West Asia as well, to counter the rising online presence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, under the ‘ISIS Defectors Interviews Project’.

A program for youth and student engagement may prove to be beneficial as a means of addressing issues of de-radicalisation and rehabilitation. It is very important to start counseling sessions for the youth, so as to prevent them from going the wrong direction. Generating employment opportunities in the region, would is likely to have a positive impact on the population. Additionally, it is equally important to understand the role played by factors such as identity, grievances, and despair in the process of radicalisation of individuals and tackle the causes of violent extremism.

References:

  1. Combating Terrorism: Evolving Asian Perspectives – Shruti Pandalai, Institute for Defence

Studies and Analyses, Pentagon Press LLP, 2019

  1. Demystifying Kashmir – Navnita Chadha Behera, Brookings Institution Press, 2006
  2. Ideological Shift, Public Support and Social Media: The ‘New’ in Kashmir’s New

Militancy – Khalid Shah, Observer Research Foundation, 2020

  1. The use of the Internet for terrorist purposes – United Nations Office on Drugs and

Crime, United Nations, 2012

  1. The Conflict in Jammu and Kashmir and the Convergence of Technology and Terrorism –

Kabir Taneja and Kriti M Shah, (Global Research Network on Terrorism and Technology:

Paper No. 11) Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, Observer

Research Foundation, 2019