(This story was originally published in The Pakistan Daily)
If you’re covering Af-Pak, chances are you’ve stumbled across FJ’s work at some point in time. Before I’d spoken to him, I used to wonder, how does this security analyst have so much information?
The Pakistan Daily reached out to Farhan Jeffery known as FJ or Natsecjeff on Twitter for an in depth conversation about the Taliban Takeover of Afghanistan, Pakistan’s role in the conflict, the use of open source intelligence, fake news and how he successfully trolled various Indian news channels to show video game clip as news.
Hamza Azhar Salam: FJ, you’re considered one of the top security analysts in Pakistan with a deep focus on the Af-Pak region ever since the Fall of Kabul but tell us, were you always interested in counter-terrorism and analysis or did something in particular spark your interest?
FJ: Somewhere around 2013-14, I went for an 8-month course which was my first educational experience in counter-terrorism and counter-extremism. I frequently speak about International Relations and foreign policy but after a while, I did a lot of research on counter-terrorism, I had a few research papers published. My good friend, Noor, you might know him, we started this think thank in the UK, ITCT in 2017/18.
I’ve always been deeply interested in topics related to defence especially counter-terrorism, counter extremism since I have a religious background as well. I studied in an Islamic school, that’s another reason why I had some intellectual support in counter-extremism, although personally I’m not a very religious person but I’m interested in studying organised religions.
Hamza Azhar Salam: You use a lot of open-source intelligence in your work. For those of us who don’t know much about OSINT, can you briefly explain what it is and what sources do you usually use for the content you share?
FJ: I started OSINT work on multiple websites including social media like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and then Telegram came along. I soon realised that you could reach things via OSINT which would be difficult or expensive otherwise. I think OSINT is very helpful for states, in fact, there are several states which have an OSINT desk in their armies. Even states have realised that they can achieve a lot through OSINT.
(OSINT is a methodology of collecting information from publically available sources.)
The sources and tools you can use can be decided based on your objective. For example, if you want to infiltrate a militant or an extremist group to gather information, to see what they’re talking about amongst themselves, you have different applications like Telegram, RocketChat, Threema, you’ve got several applications that are used by a variety of extremist groups, not just in South Asia.
You can try to find the groups which are being used by the organisation and try to infiltrate. It’s not easy to enter their groups since some chats are public but the ones which have the important information can only be joined via invitation.
If you’re trying to catch a criminal, there are many OSINT tools, including databases of several countries which are accessible. You can track an individual with a small amount of information. If you have a picture of someone, you can check where this picture has been uploaded. You can also conduct a reverse image search to know where the image came from and when was it uploaded for the first time. It can also be conducted on video.
Even journalists and police use OSINT now, as do private organisations, like me, I’m a private individual and I use OSINT to gather information on militant groups worldwide.
There are several free applications you can use for OSINT.
If you want to track air traffic control information, you can, there is so much publicly information out there, you just need to know how to reach these things. This is a very vast field and there are multiple tools but the main thing is knowing your objective, once you have that, you can figure out what tools you need.
Hamza Azhar Salam: What’s your background, educational and professional?
FJ: I have an educational background in International Relations. I give lectures on this subject to university students studying IR as well. I also work with ITCT, a UK based think thank.
I switched from IR according to my own interests, now 90% of my work is based on counter-extremism and counter terrorism.
Hamza Azhar Salam: You were picked up by security forces recently before getting released. Sharing as many details as you are comfortable with, can you tell us what are the red lines for analysts and journalists which result in such actions by the Pakistani state? Which topics are considered overly sensitive? Do you have any advice for outspoken journalists/analysts?
FJ: I wasn’t exactly picked up, that’s not entirely true. It was just a misunderstanding. You know how there’s so much incompetence in Pakistani institutions. The military is better than civilian institutions in terms of competence but overall, there’s incompetence in our institutions.
Many people spread rumours without speaking with me, most of the rumours are false. I clarified later on on my Twitter and in my podcast.
The main rumour was that I was picked up by ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence). ISI has no reason to pick me up. ISI does not have the legal authority to pick up Pakistani citizens just like that. The only way they can intervene if they have solid proof that the person they are abducting is a foreign intelligence operative. That’s the only way they can form a legal case because they can be summoned by a court.
This whole thing that the ISI picks up people is wrong, they had nothing to do with my case. This is a common misconception in Pakistan but primarily outside Pakistan.
I was entering Pakistan quite a long time, the military had nothing to do with my detention. I can’t tell you everything about the detention but I can tell you that it was a civilian agency. The misunderstanding had nothing to do with me or my work.
The misunderstanding went back around 5-6 years which had nothing to do with me.
There was no involvement of police or military or paramilitary. They requested me to come along with them, they didn’t use any force. Force was not used against me throughout the incident.
Many people asked me why I didn’t speak to the media but why should I speak with them when I was not harmed either physically or mentally so there was no point.
The matter was resolved in a few hours. That was the end of it.
In the end, they apologised to me and I also forgave them. It was a stupid misunderstanding and considering how they respected me, I am willing to forgive.
In the end, we were all laughing about it.
Hamza, you’ve also asked for advice for outspoken journalists and analysts.
One thing you need to understand that nothing is more powerful than the state.
I also think you shouldn’t mix journalism with activism. Some journalists are doing activism while being a journalist is something I don’t understand. Be what you are, and don’t ever try to be a martyr.
If you get hurt sometime, the people who initially sympathise with you may not stand by you forever. Don’t think that you’ll get popular by doing controversial stories.
You are basically putting yourself and your loved ones in unnecessary harm. Try to understand realities.
Pakistan is trying to follow the China Model. In the coming times, China’s allies like Pakistan will become stricter in terms of media freedom.
The situation will get worse in terms of free speech.
Also, journalists need to understand that the Pakistani establishment does tolerate criticism. They listen to constructive criticism.
With us, as counter-terrorism experts, we have good relations with establishments of Pakistan, UK, USA, we even had good terms with the Ghani regime.
The Pakistani establishment is open to advice but some people who were bloggers first and then became journalists criticise the military and things get sour.
I know a lot of people who engage in constructive criticism and they are entertained by the established. But if a person is engaging in ideological criticism, or if a person who think that the basis of the establishment is wrong, that won’t be accepted.
Establishments exist in every country.
The people who try to be extra brave either get martyred or flee. They should have achievable goals considering ground realities.
About the topics considered sensitive, Baluchistan is considered a sensitive topic that should be reported carefully.
Hamza Azhar Salam: You’ve reported on many details of The Taliban since the Fall of Kabul but do you think The Taliban and its caretaker government will be able to govern Afghanistan appropriately?
FJ: Hamza, people forget that the Taliban hasn’t come to power for the first time, they’re called Taliban 2.0 because they’ve ruled Afghanistan before. You can’t say that about any other Islamist militant group.
In 20 years of occupation, the intelligence agencies of several countries like USA, Turkey and various countries have been operating openly in Afghanistan.
To govern, you need stability, even if you have experts. We’ve witnessed this during PPP’s previous regime.
The Taliban will need to understand that the intelligence networks spread in Afghanistan for 20 years, the NGO funding, the recruitments of informants, many things still aren’t known and will be activated from time to time.
Such tactics may try to cause instability in Afghanistan which will make it harder for the Taliban to govern in Afghanistan.
While rumours of Mullah Baradar’s death are untrue, there are some divisions in the Taliban.
The US has claimed that the Haqqanis are more radical and a bigger problem than the mainstream leadership. But the fact is Hamza, the Haqqanis are proving to be way more pragmatic than classic Taliban ideologues like Mullah Baradar.
There is a tussle between the Haqqanis and the ideologues.
We were told that Haqqanis were more radical, but their actions have shown pragmatism.
Khalil Haqqani, the new Refugees Minister was criticised by the lower-mid tier Taliban because he called Ahmad Shah Massoud a martyr.
At this time, its complicated to predict, what was told to the world was wrong to a certain extent, especially pertaining to the Haqqani network. This is something we should follow up on in the coming days.
Hamza Azhar Salam: You recently shared a video from a video game alleging it to be proof of Pakistani forces in Panjshir. India media later ran that video and fell for your joke. Did you imagine that the video would have so much impact?
FJ: That footage was initially shared by an Afghan news site on their Facebook. Pro Massoud and NRF accounts were sharing it. It was nighttime in South Asia, till that time the video was only being shared in Dari and it wasn’t picked up much till that time.
So I saw this and I knew that Indian media was running fake news against Pakistan already related to Panjshir. I knew it was fake because our OSINT community used satellite imagery to ascertain facts but we found no Pakistani involvement in Panjshir.
When no one found any Pakistani involvement, I saw that video and decided to do a prank on Indian media.
Quite frankly, I speculated that many people will fall for this because I knew that many people outside Pakistani will believe anything no matter how absurd or outrageous is claimed about ISI.
The myth around ISI works in favour of Pakistan as deterrence. Indian outlets contributed to the myth around ISI which has benefitted it as an agency, speaking purely in professional teams.
The information we mostly get online is noise, it’s not neccrasrily based on facts.
However, frankly, I never imagined that mainstream Indian news channels would pick this up. I thought some journalists who usually share fake news would share but I never expected Indian news channels to run this as a fact but in the end, I had the last laugh.
Hamza Azhar Salam: There is a lot of unverifiable information coming in from AfPak, what fact-checking tools do you use to ensure the accuracy of information?
FJ: There is an Invid extension on chrome, there’s also an OSINT framework that I can share with you which can help track publically available data.
If you’re fact checking, be sure to use the same language as the data. For example, if you’ve found something in Dari or Pashto, don’t expect to find much information in English. Use the same language.
Also, I’d like to clarify that I don’t only rely on OSINT, I also use on the ground sources to ascertain facts.
I’ve developed a lot of sources in this region and I don’t mean to boasting but I am possibly the only analyst who had sources on all 3 sides in Afghanistan, with the Americans, with the Ghani regime and with the Taliban.
Now only one actor remains in Afghanistan, and we have local sources there.
Hamza Azhar Salam: How important do you think Pakistan will be for the Taliban led Afghanistan. Is Pakistan as influential with The Taliban as the international media paints it out to be?
FJ: There’s no doubt that Pakistan had an influence on the Taliban but please remember that the Taliban isn’t a monolithic entity. There are different people with different ideas, factions, tribes and ethnicities. So to claim that Pakistan has a hold on the Taliban is wrong.
But I’ll accept that Pakistani has an influence on certain people of the Taliban, including deep influence.
On some, the influence is stronger and with some, it is weaker. There are also Taliban leaders who display animosity against Pakistan in private gathering so this should also be considered.
Pakistan holds a lot of cards since the Taliban need international recognition and Pakistan being a nuclear country and a staunch ally of China can offer a lot to the Taliban led Afghanistan.
Taliban needs Pakistan, they don’t money from Pakistan which Pakistan doesn’t have a lot of but Pakistan can help in diplomatic spheres and military related matters.
The Taliban will make a new military and may get help from Pakistan and Pakistan may agree to help out but that depends on what the Americans and Chinese say about this.
Hamza Azhar Salam: There has been some high level intelligence activity in AfPak, with the MI6, CIA and ISI directors flying to Kabul and/or Islamabad and publicly sharing information about their meetings. Why do you think some people from the intelligence community are physically flocking to Kabul and Islamabad at this particular time?
FJ: Look Hamza, the situation in Afghanistan is such that the Taliban regime hasn’t been recognised by any country so far. The majority of embassies are closed in Kabul. So at this time, there is no other way but for intelligence agencies to come into the fray.
For some time, the great game of Afghanistan, intelligence agencies will play a major role. The dealings will continue in the shadows and the role of diplomats will be minimised.
A lot of intelligence agencies involved in Afghanistan are also focused on terrorism, including Pakistan, this is also one of the reasons why intelligence agencies have come forth to manage the Afghan quagmire, especially at a time when hardly any diplomats are present in Afghanistan.
Hamza Azhar Salam: The US intelligence community did not provide accurate estimates regarding the fall of Kabul just days before it happened. How difficult or easy do you think it was for analysts to predict the swiftness of the Taliban in taking over Kabul?
FJ: There were many factors at play in the fall of Kabul. A few weeks before the takeover, the Ghani regime requested India for air support.
The Ghani regime was willing to welcome Indian jets in Afghanistan. This was one of the reasons why the Taliban rushed towards Kabul.
Secondly, you have to understand Hamza is that when Ghani decided that he would leave, and he had decided long before 15 August, it was clarified with the Americans as well as Pakistanis that things are headed to a different direction.
If you go back a few weeks before the Fall of Kabul, Ata Noor fled after two or three days of fighting. Dostum stayed at the front line for about 2 weeks. He also fled.
Ismail Khan gave a good fight in Herat, the Taliban respect him which is why he was allowed to go to Iran.
According to our information, that these fighters had a deal that they would get a slice of power if they surrendered. However, they got screwed over. Whatever assurances they had, something somewhere went wrong.
After Northern Afghanistan was captured by the Taliban, people knew that Taliban would takeover Kabul, we also anticipated that it will take at least 2-3 weeks for the Taliban to take over Kabul.
Our friends in Washington, Brussels and London thought it would take a few months, but all of us were proven wrong.
It happened so swfitly, nobody had expected that.
The backdoor deals, the fall of Ghani regime, the fact that some Afghan commanders asked their men not to fight influenced the speed of the fall of Kabul.
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