JuD’s new ‘Cyber Team’ a far cry from conservatism of old
ISLAMABAD: At first glance, with their longish, untrimmed beards and shalwars hitched up to their ankles, members of the Jamaatud Dawa (JuD) cyber-team look a little out of place as they adeptly juggle their cameras, laptops, and smart phones.
The young men, who now occupy a prominent place at JuD rallies and events as they film, stream and live tweet happenings, are also well versed in English and Urdu and both languages are used by the team to mark JuD’s presence in cyber space.
“Social media has permeated people’s lives and is being used for psychological warfare against Pakistan, as well as by organisations such as Daesh, for recruitment in the country,” said Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, chief of JuD, “It is our responsibility to counter threats of sectarianism and the negative portrayal of Islam, even by Muslim groups.”
While all the mainstream political parties, including those who take pride in their social media outreach, do not move beyond an English language website, JuD’s web presence is bilingual, where it discusses issues such as whether or not JuD is banned in Pakistan.
Called the Cyber Team, it is comprised mostly of volunteers who are also active on social media networks.
This is possible because JuD has a skilled team of IT technicians, camerapersons and editors that “have a presence in more than 45 cities and towns of the country,” a senior member of the Cyber Team said.
For instance, the head of the production team, Hafs Abdullah, is a student from Islamabad, studying software engineering at the well-reputed IT school, Comsats.
“I receive nothing from Jamaat except for basic travel expenses,” said Abdullah.
He has been working with the Cyber Team for two years and is responsible for short movies and video clips related to the activities of JuD.
“At the same time, we are active in countering anti-Pakistan elements,” which he describes as the “supporters of TTP, Daesh or even those who want to make Pakistan a secular country or forget the Kashmir issue.”
The head of the pre-production team, Walid Zaman, is also a BS Honours student at a public sector institution in Faisalabad.
He is also a volunteer with the Cyber Team. Zaman is a visualiser, photographer, cameraman – he directs his team to get photographs and footage.
Interestingly, the social media team of JuD – spread all over the country – strictly follows party discipline.
“We have regular meetings with the teams and there is two-way communication at all levels – we keep monitoring the posts and the activities of the team members to make sure that no one says anything personal or derogatory,” said Abdul Rehman Salar, the head of the Cyber Team.
With ‘Connect for the Glory of Islam’ as their slogan, the Cyber Team appears to be a well-entrenched part of the organisation.
The social media team is divided into two sections according to the tasks assigned to them: activism and production.
“There are ten people each in the production and the pre-production teams – some even use their own equipment,” Mr Salar said, adding “Meanwhile, activism teams are present in 45 cities of the country; their main role is to be active on the social media, giving feedback and promoting the view point of the central command of the party.”
Incidentally, the Facebook and Twitter links on JuD’s website have been suspended by their operators.
“The Indians complain and get our accounts suspended, but the advantage of social media is that we can create another account the next day,” claims Mr Salar.
His team also operates the Twitter account of JuD chief Hafiz Saeed, as well as and one in Arabic. But these accounts have not been suspended – the team feels that this is because the “Indians want to hear from Hafiz Mohammad Saeed’s account.”
“At this account, there are numerous queries from the Indian media and we regularly respond to all their misconceptions,” Mr Salar added.
Oddly enough, the Cyber Team also handles film-making and photography, activities that are not in sync with the basic ideology of JuD, which had been vocally against people owning television sets. Many of the old sympathisers of the party are known to have thrown TV sets out of their homes in 1980s and the 1990s.
And until a few years ago, taking photos or filming Hafiz Saeed or the organisation’s rallies was not allowed; the JuD and its volunteers and guards would confiscate journalists’ cameras at the time of their rallies.
But those days are long gone.
“We realise that there are religious injunctions against photography – prior to 9/11, television was mostly for entertainment but now it has turned into a key tool for information and propaganda,” Salar explained when asked about this.
According to him, the senior clergy understood the need for photographs and videos at the present.
Interestingly, the young head of the team saw Daesh as a threat as he brought up again and again the latter’s use of videos and Twitter to recruit, adding that little was being done to counter this “negative ideology”.
This is why the activism teams not only manage the JuD’s Facebook and Twitter accounts but also monitor the activities of “those involved in spreading sectarianism, anti-Pakistan sentiments or supporting groups like Daesh.”
However, the Cyber Team also recruits by “approaching the pro-Pakistan elements on social media” as well as by holding workshops and seminars at various places including mosques.
For instance, Hafs Abdullah says he was approached through a Direct Message on Twitter; senior members of the Cyber Team observed that he used to post tweets that were anti-TTP and decided to get in touch.
Most of the members were already well-versed with modern IT tools, including the smart phones, but undergo internal training, which includes technical skills as well as ideological knowledge.
Though JuD adheres to the Ahle Hadith school of thought, the Cyber Team has volunteers from all sects, the team claims.
“Our focus is Pakistan and Islam and we have volunteers who are practicing Deobandi, Barelvi and Shia,” Hafs Abdullah said.
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