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WhatsApp to Telegram, Pakistan-backed militant groups pushing Taliban agenda in Kashmir

The DFRLab reviewed multiple J&K insurgent-related WhatsApp group chats and Telegram channels as they responded to the culmination of a ‘20-year revolution.’

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Pakistan-backed militant groups in the disputed Indian border state of Jammu and Kashmir have taken to messaging apps to post images, videos, and written messages celebrating the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan from the US-backed Afghan National Government.

A geopolitical flashpoint between New Delhi and Islamabad in South Asia, Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has been a focus of three conventional armed conflicts between the nuclear-armed neighbors, all while an enduring separatist insurgency has raged in the background. Local Islamabad-backed proxy militant groups and Indian security services in the valley have come into direct conflict a number of times, with heightened periods of conflict between 2000–2001 and 2015–2018, respectively. Additionally, localized attacks by militants occur on a regular basis. Most recently, militants killed a policeman in Srinagar on September 12, 2021.

Given the integral role digital propaganda plays in disseminating extremist messages by the groups on various major social media platforms to keep the local insurgency alive, the celebratory narratives pushed by local insurgent groups in J&K will likely exacerbate local security experts’ fears that recent developments in Afghanistan may provide an impetus for another escalation.

The DFRLab reviewed multiple J&K insurgent-related WhatsApp group chats, as well as Telegram channels and dedicated chat groups, as they responded to the culmination of a “20-year revolution.” One message, posted by a sympathizer of Islamabad-backed The Resistance Front, relished the prospect of collaborating with Taliban fighters to wage war against the Indian state.

On the other hand, recent developments in Afghanistan have also sparked dissension among members of Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, an al-Qaeda affiliate, and the Islamic State-affiliated Wilayat Hind regarding the propriety of local insurgent groups collaborating with Pakistan and the new Taliban regime. The debates taking place between sympathizers of both groups in the extremist chats reveal how the ideological rivalry between al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Islamic State, which has seen the groups frequently target one another in Afghanistan, extend to their sympathizers in the Indian subcontinent.


Also read: Afghanistan is the new epicentre for extended India–Pakistan rivalry, after Kashmir


Kabul to Kashmir

In addition to historically maintaining diplomatic distance from the Taliban, New Delhi has consistently supported the Taliban’s domestic and ideological rivals in Afghanistan, helping ensure there is little love lost between the Indian establishment and the new Taliban regime.

Moreover, the Taliban’s proximity to the security establishment in Pakistan, in particular the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, presents another significant strategic challenge for policymakers in New Delhi; many of them believe that, if past serves as prologue, Islamabad could once again facilitate the infiltration of battle-hardened Taliban fighters into the J&K valley, a policy that the country adopted during the height of the insurgency in Kashmir in the early 1990’s.

While any foreign export of Taliban fighters across the region would likely occur only after the militant group has stabilized control over its own borders, the Taliban’s ideological and operational linkages with established Islamabad-backed proxy militant groups operating in the valley, including Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaesh-e-Mohammed, and al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, also raises the likelihood of the new Taliban-led regime allowing these groups to use Afghanistan as a base from which to organize and mount attacks in Kashmir. If any of those groups were to establish an operating presence in Afghanistan, the Taliban would be in defiance of the peace agreement it signed with the United States in February 2020 around the withdrawal of the latter’s forces.

Since August 5, 2019, the state has been subjected to a pervasive physical and digital lockdown following a decision by the Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, to unilaterally abrogate Article 370, a constitutional amendment governing J&K’s autonomy and administration. The increased troop deployment following the abrogation, the upgraded security infrastructure along the Indian border in north Kashmir, and a ceasefire signed between India’s and Pakistan’s military forces along the 350-kilometer Line of Control (LOC) border on February 25, 2021 have all contributed toward a sharp decrease in cross-border infiltration.

Despite these restrictions, incidents of violence involving security forces and local insurgents in the state continue unabated. Official data published by Indian media network News18 revealed that between January and November 2020, 191 militants, including 20 foreign fighters, were killed in counterterrorism operations while 145 new local recruits joined the militant groups over the same period.

Similarly, open-source data collated by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, an independent Indian think tank, highlighted how in the two years since the abrogation of Article 370, the valley has witnessed 237 incidents of violence leading to the deaths of 65 civilians, 80 security servicemen, and 365 insurgents.

Given the incessant levels of violence, some security experts in India fear the introduction of Taliban fighters, or at the very least caches of US-weaponry captured by the militant group in Afghanistan, both of which could significantly enhance the manpower and operational capabilities of local proxy militant groups.


Also read: Pakistan-backed separatist Khalistani groups gaining ground in US, report says


Tracking the assault

The use of social media platforms has grown to be an integral part of the operation strategy pursued by local insurgent groups in J&K. The dissemination of online propaganda via these platforms has helped the groups keep the insurgency alive amidst the stringent physical security measures implemented in the valley following the abrogation of Article 370 and, later, the implementation of strict COVID-19 related restrictions.

The DFRLab previously reported on proxy militant groups’ use of major digital communication platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram to magnify their attacks, attract new recruits, venerate members killed in security operations, and threaten violence against locals deemed to be “collaborators” with the security agencies. Some groups have begun to incorporate lesser-known encrypted messaging platforms such as Nandbox to diversify their online footprint and evade the scrutiny of security officials.

As part of this investigation, the DFRLab surveyed two encrypted WhatsApp chats and five Telegram chats operated by local insurgent groups and frequented by their sympathizers. The identity of these channels and chats have been kept anonymous to prevent amplifying extremist propaganda.

One of the earliest messages referencing the militant group was uploaded on an extremist chat on Telegram on February 26, 2021 from a new anonymous user account named “Heart Lover.” The account claimed to be a member of the Taliban and went on to assert that the “group had already established a presence in Kashmir and warned that a major battle against Hindustan (India) was about to begin soon.” The same anonymous account also went on to claim that the group would soon “reveal its presence” in the valley, suggesting that the group may intend to carry out a public attack as a means of potentially attracting local recruits; the account’s anonymity, however, does not allow for the corroboration of any such claim, as — among other things — its ostensible affiliation with the Taliban cannot be verified.

As successive provincial capitals in Afghanistan fell to Taliban forces through late July into August 2021, the extremist chat groups, whose content normally focused on local developments in Kashmir, began to intersperse their local coverage with messages, images, and videos tracking the assault. Some of these updates took the form of simple written news bulletins and informational graphics sourced from coverage of the conflict by international media outlets.

Other posts directly amplified pro-Taliban propaganda, consisting of images and videos of weapons and military vehicles captured by the militant group’s fighters from the Afghan forces. One such post uploaded to WhatsApp on August 8, 2021 shared Taliban propaganda videos that depicted the groups fighters hoisting the white Taliban flag in the northern city of Kunduz and displaying a fleet of captured Afghan police vehicles. The videos were produced by “AL EMARA” and “Mashal Afghan,” the official media wing of the Taliban and a pro-Taliban journalist, respectively.

Celebrating the fall of Kabul

On August 15, 2021, after the Taliban captured Kabul, users in the chats amplified multiple professionally edited images and graphics that used the likeness of and quotes by Taliban founder Mullah Omar to celebrate the militant group’s takeover of the country.

A post amplified in the chats the same day shared a viral video that allegedly showed a Taliban fighter weeping with joy on reaching the outskirts of Kabul. The video was amplified alongside a written caption in Urdu that extended “congratulations to the entire Muslim ummah [community]” over the collapse of the Afghan national government to the militant group.

In another exchange of messages amplified on Telegram on August 15, 2021, “Babar Azam,” an account possibly affiliated with local militant group The Resistance Front (TRF) — it frequently reposted official TRF content within minutes of it first appearing — boasted about the speed of the Taliban takeover of the country and opined that local sympathizers should “make more plans to tackle with [sic] these Indian dogs.” The same account also shared an official Taliban military propaganda photo glorifying the militant group’s Badri 313 special forces division. The graphic included a caption claiming that “Indians fear that very soon they will see them [Badri 313] in Jammu and Kashmir too.”

An ideological victory

The Taliban’s reconquest of Afghanistan serves as a source of tactical and ideological inspiration for local extremist groups in the region. While on one hand, the Afghan militant group’s strategy of countering a better equipped conventional military force through the perpetration of endless asymmetric conflict draws comparisons to the struggles faced by local insurgent groups in Kashmir facing India’s security services. On the other hand, the Taliban’s digital propaganda portraying its actions in Afghanistan as an indigenous struggle fought to rid the country of foreign invaders also aligns with the hostile narratives disseminated through the extremist WhatsApp groups and Telegram channels and chats operating in the valley, with Indian security forces often referred to as “invaders” or “occupying forces,” among other more colorful descriptors.

On August 16, a user account in a WhatsApp chat group shared a forwarded message that praised the Taliban for its capture of the Afghan capital, claiming it served as a valuable lesson for local supporters. “People had heard honor is in Jihad, but yesterday they also saw its practical implementation,” it stated.

A similar sentiment was also evident in a series of messages uploaded to a Telegram channel seemingly affiliated with Jaesh-e-Mohammed (JeM) — other official JeM channels have posted direct links to this channel, indicating some type of affiliation — on August 15 and August 24, respectively. The first message referenced the Taliban takeover of Kabul as a lesson for its adherents, writing, “Successful are those who persevere in all kinds of situations, persevere and continue their good deeds without worrying about the consequences.” The second message used developments in Afghanistan as a lesson for those in “jihadi groups and armies” who “always spread frustration, resentment and anxiety” in the movement, pointing instead toward the militant group as an example of how JeM must “[f]ight hard against [Allah’s] enemies and do not show your back and cowardice to the enemies of Allah.”

Sparking dissension between the groups

On August 26, 2021, The Wall Street Journal reported on a hidden war between the Taliban and the Islamic State affiliate (Islamic State-Khorasan or ISIS-K) in Afghanistan, which has seen the more nationalist-minded former group fight with the latter, whose aim is to incorporate parts of the country into a broader caliphate controlled from the Middle East. Further reportage from The Washington Post on August 29 highlighted how ISIS-K had announced “a new long war on the Taliban, the Afghan government, and ‘their US masters’” following Taliban’s peace agreement with the United States, signed in February 2020.

While most of the coverage of the Taliban’s capture of Afghanistan in the extremist chats reviewed by the DFRLab viewed the militant group’s success positively, its rapid advance in Afghanistan also sparked some dissension among local sympathizers of Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGH), an al-Qaeda affiliate in the region, and Islamic State Wilayat Hind (ISWH). From early July onwards, the latter began an online propaganda campaign targeting the Taliban and its supporters in Kashmir.

On July 6, another extremist Telegram chat, frequented by ISWH supporters, amplified a message from AGH targeting ISWH’s local supporters. The pro-AGH message labelled ISWH as a “Khawarij [renegade] organisation who harmed jihad all over the world for their own desires and martyred Mujahideen.” This quote compares members of ISWH with “renegades” who have turned away from the principals of Islam and instead use violence to carry out their personal ends. In this regard, the Islamic State’s use of violence to attack other militant organizations such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban — “martyring mujahideen” refers to attacks on fellow Muslims — is shown as proof of their “khawarij” nature.

The post on first view seems somewhat contradictory: an anti-ISWH comment posted to an ISWH-affiliated Telegram group. The follow up replies indicate, however, that the post was an example of the rhetorical attacks AGH supporters were leveling at ISWH and that the repost had the intended effect of inflaming anti-AGH sentiment among the channel’s viewers.

Conversely, on July 16, 2021, a series of messages uploaded to a Telegram channel affiliated with the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), another J&K-based militant group, amplified ISWH propaganda messages that targeted local AGH sympathizers for their support of the “imams of disbelief and apostasy,” a reference to the Taliban. The channel frequently amplifies — and is amplified by — official HM channels and messaging, indicating its possible affiliation. The administrator of the channel claimed that the ISWH campaign was because “they don’t want muslims to unite,” suggesting the existence of ideological disagreements between the group and other Islamabad-backed proxy groups in the valley.

Another ISWH propaganda message shared on the HM-affiliated Telegram group the same day targeted AGH and other proxy militant groups for working with nation-states. The message stated, “Today the AGH and other Pakistani Sahwaat [charity] organisations are working together except for the Islamic State [Waliyah Hind] because the Islamic State does not wage its jihad with the support of any tyrannical government.”

Reiterating the differences between the groups, the allegations contained in the message also add to a mounting body of evidence suggesting that, aside from the Islamic State affiliate, other insurgent groups in J&K are working together as a united front while receiving support from Islamabad.

The back-and-forth messages disseminated by the groups in the extremist channels reviewed by the DFRLab show how this battle between the Taliban-aligned groups and Islamic State-aligned groups has also translated to its supporters in Kashmir.


Also read: Afghanistan and Pakistan are in a strategic embrace that cannot have a happy ending


Between deeds and actions

As mentioned, in the US-Taliban peace deal signed on February 29, 2020, the Taliban pledged that the group would “not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qaeda” to “use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.” A tweet posted on May 18, 2021, by @SuhailShaheen1, an account belonging to one of the Taliban’s official spokespeople, responded to rumors of the group’s involvement in the Kashmir insurgency carried in the Indian media, clarifying that the “policy of the Islamic Emirate is clear that it does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.”

Despite such statements from the militant group, the DFRLab has found indications of how the Taliban leadership’s public pronouncements often diverge from actions of their fighters on the ground. Additionally, on August 17, 2021, two days after seizing Kabul, mainstream news outlet The Hindu reported on how several fighters affiliated with the Islamic State, JeM, and LeT had entered the capital with Taliban fighters and set up their own independently operating checkpoints in the city and surrounding villages, separate from the Taliban forces. Similarly, on August 27, the Times of India reported on how the leadership of JeM had met with Taliban leaders in Kandahar in mid-August to seek support for “India-centric” operations.

Taken together, such developments have fueled skepticism amongst local security analysts regarding the Taliban’s desire or ability to curtail the activity of transnational militant organizations in Afghanistan.


Also read: How killing of this Kashmiri Hindu leader led to exodus of Pandits from Valley


Conclusion

The Taliban’s reconquest of Afghanistan, and the group’s overt and logistical proximity to Islamabad, together represent significant developments that threaten to upend New Delhi’s strategic calculus in the region.

While the export of Taliban fighters into J&K remains unlikely until the aftermath of the militant group’s control of Afghanistan has settled, the celebratory narratives amplified by local sympathizers and the Afghan group’s links with established local proxy militant groups in the valley will likely constitute a direct challenge to India’s internal security environment over the medium-to-long term.

Ayushman Kaul is a Research Assistant, South Asia, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab. Views are personal.

The article originally appeared on medium.com

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