Kashmiri Jihadis and Pakistani Military Intimately Linked on Facebook

On February 14, along India’s Highway 44 in the country’s northernmost reaches, a car filled to the brim with RDX and aluminum nitrate rammed into a convoy of national police, detonated, and killed 40 onboard. The accounts we monitor in Kashmir came alive. Dozens changed their profile picture to Adil Ahmad Dar, the suicide bomber whose media mugshot had him standing before the flag of Jaish-e Mohammed (JeM). Despite Islamabad’s ban on the group, scholars and Indian officials accuse Pakistan’s military and intelligence services of creating and cultivating the group.

Whatever the official relationship, our research on the Facebook accounts of supporters of JeM and other Kashmiri jihadis shows persistent and widespread social support from the rank-and-file of the Pakistani military. The accounts of supporters were likelier to have members of the military as friends and likelier to have likes, comments, and reshares come from military members than were the accounts of ordinary Pakistanis.

On the right, the Jaish-e Mohammed and Pakistani flags side by side. On the left, Facebook suggests 9 friends, 8 of whom have shared JeM propaganda.

On February 27, 2019, the day after Indian Air Force began strikes against JeM inside Pakistan, we surveyed the Facebook connections between members of the Pakistani military and supporters of JeM and sister groups Lashkar-e Taiba (LeT), perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai attack, and Ansar Ghazwa-e Hind (GeH), and al-Qaeda affiliate. We qualify an account as a supporter of a group if they share multiple pieces of official propaganda. Implicit Pakistani military refers to accounts with images of themselves in armed forces uniform. Explicit is the subset of those accounts that state their occupation as a member of the armed forces. To get a sense of what level of interactions to expect, we also sampled a random set of non-military Pakistanis. We looked at what share of friends were Pakistani military for supporters of each group and the control, and what share of engagements with their content came from Pakistani military members. The results are below:

Our research suggests strong online connections between rank-and-file jihadis and members of the Pakistani military. Jihadis of Kashmir are likelier than average Pakistanis to have connections with the Pakistani military, and military friends of the jihadis engage with the jihadis more frequently than military friends of average Pakistanis. The survey found no officers ranked higher than lieutenant among the friends of jihadis and therefore indications of official support.

As tensions flare between the nuclear-armed rivals, the catalyzer of the crisis finds sanctuary and succor on Facebook. For supporters of jihadis in Kashmir, Facebook finds an audience in the thousands including deep into Pakistan’s security services. To those whose coolness is now most needed to stop escalation, Facebook is providing a constant stream of terrorist propaganda. After the key role Facebook subsidiary WhatsApp had in mob violence last year in India, the tech giant must stop its role in radicalization. The cost of failure is careening towards the catastrophic.