Fighting over Kashmir: India and Pakistan clash again

In the last couple of weeks we have seen some worrying developments in the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, a region of the Indian sub-continent that has been the subject of territorial claims and military clashes since both countries attained independence from Great Britain in 1947. The first war over it broke out just two months later, and armed conflicts have periodically occurred ever since.

This latest incident began on 14 February, when a suicide bomber targeted a bus carrying Indian security forces in Kashmir, killing more than 40 personnel. The Pakistan-based terror group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, claimed responsibility for the attack the following day.

India’s government was then accused of attempting to link the attack with the government of Pakistan, an allegation that has been strongly denied. Debates continue as to whether the Pakistani state can in any way be held responsible for the actions of a terrorist group based in the country.

Some days after the initial suicide attack, nine people, including four Indian soldiers and a policeman, were killed in the India-controlled part of Kashmir. And then on 26 February India’s air force targeted a Jaish-e-Mohammed training base at Balakot in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, claiming to have killed a large number of terrorists; Pakistan denied that there had been any casualties.

The following day Pakistan launched a series of air strikes and two Indian jets were shot down, with one pilot landing in Pakistani territory and being taken into custody. He was finally released at the end of the week, in a move described as a peace gesture by Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan.

While this has hopefully served to de-escalate the crisis, the situation remains critical because both India and Pakistan are nuclear-armed countries, with the capability to launch devasting attacks on each other.

Predictably, various conspiracy theories are currently circulating. Some people are claiming that the original suicide attack was actually a false flag operation ordered by India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, as part of a well-planned attempt to win the votes of hardline Hindu extremists: federal elections are due to take place in May, and the recent events have apparently led to a surge in support for him.

Modi leads the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won the last election in 2014 with a handsome majority. Since then, however, its popularity has declined, with criticisms centring on its failure to deal adequately with social and economic problems in India; unemployment is a particularly sensitive issue. The party suffered defeats in five state elections in 2018. Modi has been accused of fostering an extremist Hindu narrative in his efforts to retain power: according to this interpretation, India is a Hindu country and Muslims should have moved to Pakistan in 1947. The suicide attack therefore helps the BJP to garner votes, as an increase in nationalist rhetoric can only be of benefit to the party.

In the cyber sphere we have so far only picked up a couple of attacks linked to the recent events, with #OpKashmir – a long-running operation which resurfaces periodically – being tagged. Only CyberJusticeTeam has been active. These hacktivists claimed to have hacked and leaked data from the Indian military, and they also took responsibility for a DDoS attack against the BJP, announcing that they had managed to take the party’s website offline.

The lack of interest is perhaps somewhat surprising: Indian and Pakistani hackers have long been adversaries engaged in tit-for-tat attacks against businesses, government and politicians, citing any variety of reasons for the actions, whether political, social or religious.

For example, a group called TeamKeralaCyberWarriors, which has links with the Anonymous collective, was seen attacking websites in Pakistan with the KCW ransomware in 2018. The group was assessed as likely to be based in India and politically motivated. It protests against government injustice and corruption, aims to protect Indian cyber space, and demands justice for all Indian citizens, particularly children.

Pakistani hackers have frequently attacked Indian websites, often over the Kashmir dispute, as well as to level various accusations at the Indian government.

Both groups have engaged in organised hacking and defacement campaigns over the years.

The Indian and Pakistani governments also possess serious cyber espionage capabilities, with their security teams continuing to develop new malware for various campaigns aimed at gathering intelligence.

One other aspect which is always worth consideration does not involve hacking or technical skills, but rather focuses on social networking sites, which are used to disseminate propaganda. An incident last year involving WhatsApp showed the dangers of fake news, when mobs killed around 24 innocent people following unsubstantiated rumours about child kidnappers.

The clashes which took place between India and Pakistan over the last couple of weeks have also led to some wild stories and allegations appearing on Twitter and other social media sites, sometimes accompanied by the hashtag #FreeKashmir. These could serve to inflame tensions once again.

While the threat of an escalation in the Kashmir conflict appears to have been averted for now, this is by no means certain. Companies operating in the region are therefore advised to ensure both their physical and cyber security practices are fully up to date and carefully maintained.