It projects itself as a homegrown outfit, but a seven-month-old Kashmiri terror group, The Resistance Front (TRF), carries all the telltale signs of Pakistan’s state sponsorship, findings of India Today’s Open-Source Intelligence Team suggest.
The OSINT probed terror propaganda by various organisations, statements by the Pakistan Prime Minister’s Office and by Major General Asif Ghafoor, the former chief of Pakistan’s Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR).
TRF LAUNCHES ONLINE DURING INTERNET BAN
On October 12, 2019, the TRF announced its arrival online via encrypted chat platform Telegram.
That was the time when the Internet was still banned in Jammu and Kashmir as part of restrictions that followed the abrogation of Article 370 in August last year.
Still, in clear signs that its real authors were operating across the border with unrestricted access to the Internet, this self-proclaimed Kashmiri group expanded its digital footprints through several Twitter accounts which were created in October.
The TRF’s Telegram and Twitter handles were later blocked after they caught the eyes of security agencies.
Sample the first message the TRF posted on Telegram on October 12, 2019, claiming responsibility for a grenade attack.
The group then consistently owned up terror assaults in the valley through its online propaganda. And when there were no attacks, it would issue threats to the Indian government and to pro-India civil-society members in Kashmir.
The TRF even sought to give political spins to violent militant activities.
THE SECOND ACTOR
India Today’s OSINT also zeroed in on another online group called the Al-Hind Brigade, which debuted around the same time with a similar propaganda outlook.
This group also claimed to be an indigenous Jihadi organisation from the Indian heartland, which even issued statements in poor Hindi.
In order to gain eyeballs, the Al-Hind Brigade claimed responsibility for acts it wasn’t responsible for.
After falsely claiming responsibility for the murder of a Hindu Samaj Party leader, Kamlesh Tiwari, it tried to foment communal violence after the Ayodhya verdict and issued brazen threats.
Both online groups popped up around the same time, had similar propaganda layout, often used same fonts and cross-posted each others’ content, the OSINT probe showed, indicating that the two outfits were operated by the same actors.
A compelling proof of a common hand behind them came soon.
Facing regular blocking on Telegram, both the TRF and Al-Hind turned to other platforms simultaneously to create a backup, with TamTam, an encrypted Russian messaging platform, being one of them.
ACTORS AND DIRECTORS
India Today’s digital forensic team then analysed a January 3 tweet of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan in which he circulated a fake video he claimed showed “Indian police’s pogrom against Muslims in UP”.
The Prime Minister’s office had to delete the tweet but not before he was called out for circulating an old video from Bangladesh he labelled as Indian.
Many people questioned the source of information that Khan circulated, which caused him international embarrassment.
When India Today’s OSINT scanned Al-Hind’s propaganda material from the same time, it found that the group had used the same fake content with the same wrong attribution hours before Khan tweeted from his official handle.
All this points to the TRF and the Al-Hind Brigade being operated by one common entity and that the Pakistan Prime Minister used their disinformation content.
Al-HIND’S HINDI ISSUES
The Al-Hind Brigade described itself as a Jihadi organisation from the Indian heartland. But the Hindi language it used in its material is offensively poor, suggesting a foreign origin.
Remember, the TRF used Urdu and English propaganda. So if the same people from across the border had to use Hindi, the results were obviously terrible.
Some years ago, another Pakistan-based terrorist organisation, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, also used Hindi propaganda on social media but their application of the language was flawless.
This in some sense rules out the possibility of usual suspects running the TRF and Al-Hind in Pakistan.
But a careful analysis of Al-Hind content throws some more insights.
An Al-Hind poster, for instance, used a blurred picture in the background.
When analysed, it turns out that the photo, barely visible in the terror pamphlet, is not from Kashmir.
India Today’s OSINT traced its origins to Turkey, where signboards read “Brothers Real Estate”, “Heating Cooling Industrial” in Turkish.
Turkey has a strong government-backed propaganda machinery which regularly amplifies Pakistan’s anti-India propaganda on a regular basis.
Last year, Turkish hackers targeted social-media accounts of Indian celebrities and posted pro-Pakistani messages on them. A Turkish state broadcaster has also been running anti-India propaganda for quite some time.
The Al-Hind poster was released in the second week of November 2019, barely weeks after the visit of Pakistan’s Asif Ghafoor to Turkey’s state-media outlets.
Then chief of the Pakistan army’s propaganda department, Ghafoor himself announced that he was in Turkey and meeting the leaders of the country’s state media around the same time.
Ghafoor’s visit was unusual because, as the head of PR wing, he goes on official foreign visits with his army chief but this time it was not an official trip with General Bajwa accompanying.
Social-media propaganda channels associated with the ISPR termed his visit a “special task”.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently slammed Pakistan for spreading the virus of terrorism through disinformation campaign.
“Even as the world fights Covid-19, some people are busy spreading some other deadly viruses such as terrorism, fake news and doctored videos to divide communities and countries,” Prime Minister Modi said at the summit of Non-Aligned Movement countries.
Indian intelligence have also maintained that the TRF is a shadow identity, invented to cover the old actors of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in the valley and to provide an indigenous identity to outsourced terrorism.
Evidence suggests that the TRF is most likely a rebranding attempt linked to the top of the Pakistani establishment.
Pakistan is under scrutiny of the Financial Action Task Force for its support to UN-designated terror outfits like the Lashkar-e-Taiyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. These Pakistan-based terror organizations have mostly avoided taking responsibility for attacks since the invention of the TRF.