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Virtual Battlegrounds: Understanding the Online Campaign of Baloch Separatist Groups in Pakistan

Virtual Battlegrounds: Understanding the Online Campaign of Baloch Separatist Groups in Pakistan
2nd April 2024 Sajid Aziz
In Insights

Background

Heavy breathing fills the audio as the head-mounted camera captures a gun, apparently an M203 Under-Barrel Grenade Launcher, its focus fixed on a distant security outpost. As the camera moves, a couple of other fighters with their heads and faces wrapped in chadors can be seen as they slowly climb up a rugged mountain. The fighter aims and launches a grenade attack upon the target. The explosion reverberates through the air, followed by a background song in Brahvi, one of the two main languages Baloch people speak. Various angles capture the impact of the attack, including a drone shot. As the grenade hits the target and a plume of dust and smoke rises in the sky, one of the fighters cries for victory. The video ends with a militant planting the flag of an independent Balochistan on the debris of the bombed-out security outpost. 

This was a trailer video released last year by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), one of the separatist militant organisations fighting for an independent Balochistan – Pakistan’s largest but least populated province. Grievances in Balochistan have emanated from a lack of political rights, the exploitation of its rich mineral and energy resources, and perceived inequities in development initiatives, such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).      

This Insight contends that the escalation of the separatist insurgency in Balochistan has been accompanied by an increased utilisation of cyberspace, facilitated by widespread internet and phone access. This has complicated counterterrorism efforts for governmental authorities and technology firms, necessitating greater cooperation to address this evolving threat.

The Evolution of Baloch Insurgency

Gwadar, the hub of the CPEC, has become a microcosm of the strained relationship between ethnic Baloch people and the state of Pakistan. The state has seen the development of the port city as central to its vision of economic transformation, a source of nation-building, a hub for regional connectivity, and thrusting Balochistan into a new era of development and modernity.       For local communities, Gwadar has become a “site of anxiety and fear”. As Pakistan and China celebrated the first decade of the CPEC last year, Balochistan experienced one of the most violent years in terms of terrorist attacks. These political incongruities have fostered divisions and distrust, with the state expanding its security footprints and surveillance in the region and the Baloch separatist groups increasing the intensity of militant attacks.

Balochistan is currently going through its fifth insurgency, traced back to the assassination of the Baloch political and tribal leader, Nawab Akbar Bugti, in a military operation in 2006. However, unlike the previous waves of insurgencies that called for greater autonomy, the current phase is rooted in outright secession. Past insurgencies typically lasted for a few years, but this has lasted nearly two decades, and if current trends are any indication, they are gaining strength.

The ambush and hit-and-run capabilities of separatist groups in Balochistan are significantly effective. A combination of surprise, improved training and cooperation, and the use of heavy and modern weapons have increased the intensity of violent attacks against security forces. The heavy death toll and the nature of some of the recent attacks testify to this assertion. The separatist groups have also introduced a new policy of fedayeen Attacks (self-sacrificing attacks). Unlike ambush and hit-and-run militant action, in fedayeen attacks, militants hit a target intending to cause maximum damage and attempt to hold hostages, accepting their death at the end of the attack/operation. Another important phenomenon of separatist insurgency in Balochistan has been the steady use of suicide bombing.

Internet Accessibility and Terrorist Groups

Easy accessibility of the internet and cell phones has made communications in Pakistan easier than ever. DataReportal reports over 110 million internet users in Pakistan, constituting more than 45% of the population. The use of social media has witnessed a substantial increase, with 70 million active users. In addition, nearly 180 million people have access to cellular mobile phones. 

Previously active on mainstream platforms such as Facebook, militant groups in Pakistan have shifted to encrypted platforms like Telegram due to increased restrictions. Hakkal Media channel on Telegram has become a primary medium for the BLA to disseminate propaganda, share videos, and claim responsibility for attacks. These materials are then shared on mainstream platforms like X (formerly Twitter), WhatsApp groups, TikTok, and Instagram reels. They are also uploaded on other platforms, such as the Internet Archive.

Most of their content is uploaded in abridged forms on mainstream platforms, with links directing users to their private channels and pages. The Telegram platform, comprising public channels, private chats, and direct messaging, has been used by Baloch separatists through its Hakkal channel, which allows them to share content with their followers all at once. This channel has become a hub for sharing claims of responsibility, glorification of fighters, and other updates.

Digital Frontiers 

A marked surge in militancy in Balochistan has been accompanied by a sophisticated and intensified cyberspace campaign employed by separatist groups for propaganda and recruitment purposes. The dissemination and proliferation of pre-recorded videos featuring suicide bombers, ground battles, tributes to fallen fighters with slick editing and sombre background music, and infographics detailing monthly and yearly militant attacks demonstrate a new level of technological proficiency by separatist groups in Balochistan.

A video paying tribute to Shari Baloch, the first female suicide bomber of the Baloch insurgent movement who targeted a bus carrying Chinese teachers in Karachi in 2022, has been shared widely on Telegram and WhatsApp. It begins with a masked BLA commander issuing a warning to China against the exploitation of Balochistan’s resources and to leave the province or “face resistance from every Baloch son and daughter.” Standing behind him are the armed fighters of the Majeed Brigade, the elite unit of BLA, clad in militant uniforms, their faces concealed. The scene then transitions to Shari Baloch, adorned in traditional Balochi attire, recording her final message before the suicide attack, with the flag of an independent Balochistan behind her. In her message, she articulates her motivation and grievances driving her actions, citing alleged state brutality and exploitation, and urges Baloch women to participate in the armed resistance alongside their male counterparts. She hopes her actions will inspire other Baloch women to follow in her footsteps. The video employs different languages depending on the target audience and the intended message; the BLA commander speaks in English, with China being the intended target, and Shari Baloch speaks in Balochi to inspire fellow Baloch. 

Separatist groups have also utilised digital platforms to give real-time updates regarding their ongoing attacks, particularly during their fedayeen operations. Through various mediums such as videos, audio messages, and textual updates, these groups and their supporters/sympathisers fill the information void in the digital space due to the silence of both mainstream media and the government. They provide the public with accounts of operation progress, casualty figures, and the involvement of their fighters. This fleeting digital dominance poses a significant vulnerability for the state, whose initial response typically swings between complete indifference and weak attempts to refute militant claims. This pattern was observed in two distinct fedayeen attacks, one occurring in 2022 when the BLA attacked paramilitary bases in two cities simultaneously and held them for 72 hours before the militants were neutralised. Another occurred in January 2024 during a large-scale militant attack near Quetta, the capital of Balochistan. In addition, they publish extensive tributes honouring their fallen fighters, including collages of images and brief biographies commemorating the fighters who have been killed. They also release infographics providing details of monthly and yearly attacks along with pictures and statistics.

These developments are significant, given the demographic landscape of Balochistan, where a significant majority of the population is young and relies heavily on digital media for information, particularly on geopolitical matters. The accessibility of these videos, infographics, and audio in the digital realm amplifies the impact of the cyberspace campaign of the separatist groups. 

Recommendations

The rising embrace of technology by separatist militant groups in Balochistan poses significant challenges for both tech companies and the Pakistani state in countering terrorism and extremism. Militant groups increasingly rely on end-to-end encrypted applications to communicate, making it hard for tech companies to curb their influence without compromising user data privacy. Moreover, militants have largely relied on local languages to communicate and disseminate their propaganda. 

To address this, there is an urgent need for tech companies to identify extremist and terrorist content on social media platforms, particularly in languages like Urdu, Brahvi and Balochi, which separatist groups predominantly use. Hiring more content moderators who are fluent and well-versed in these languages could help in this effort and help in better and more nuanced research into militant propaganda.

A greater public-private dialogue and collaboration is necessary to address how terrorists and extremists instrumentalise the internet and social media for their activities and how to counter them effectively. An inclusive and holistic approach can help technology companies and the government of Pakistan develop better strategies to tackle these challenges without violating people’s rights and data privacy.

However, a balance should be maintained between preventing militant groups from exploiting social media and safeguarding against authoritarian tendencies in the garb of national security. Pakistan has been criticised for its internet restrictions and shutdowns, making it one of the worst countries in terms of internet freedom. The frequent closure of the internet in Pakistan compounds the challenges of vulnerable and marginalised people in Pakistan, with social media platforms like X being one of the primary channels for expressing grievances and waging struggles. Any legislation or policy restricting these platforms could undermine people’s rights in the long term. It is also important that any legislation that curbs internet freedom and allows the state to misuse its powers to suppress journalists, target activists, and stifle dissent against state institutions should be opposed. 

Sajid Aziz is an independent researcher whose work revolves around security and foreign policy issues. He has previously worked as a Consultant at the Strategic Policy Planning Cell (SPPC), an Islamabad-based research think tank.