The news that two LGBT activists had been murdered in cold blood in Dhaka was shocking enough.
What was somehow even more horrifying a few days later was seeing a Facebook page hailing the six men with machetes who hacked them to death as heroes.
That page, Salauddiner Ghora (“the horses of Salauddin”), named after the legendary warrior who fought against the Crusaders, has been taken down as of this morning. But until even last night, it was proudly broadcasting its message of vitriolic hate. Its cover photo was Ansar ul Islam’s claim that its “brave” mujaheddin had hacked to death “pioneers of the secret homosexual cult” in Bangladesh.
The page was public. Anyone could access it. It was also a hyperactive page, posting updates every few hours. Perhaps the fact that it was largely in Bengali allowed it to escape the vigilance of Facebook.
One of the few English messages on it read, “Should we not ‘Congratulate’ the six lions of ummah who killed the animals (homos) in the blessed attack on Dhaka? Say! Congratulations Brothers!”
The last time I checked,192 people had “liked” that status. People had posted thumbs up signs. Someone had gushed that a “tidal wave of congratulations was flowing on social media”. These were not secret admirers of a murderous group. These were people whose profile pictures showed them with their young children, people whose cover photos had them hanging out happily with friends in t-shirts and jeans. They did not look like recruitment photos for Islamic State. But these are people not shy about disclosing their identity or their delight in the brutal murders of Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tanoy.
The page obsessively tracked every news item about the killings, posted pictures of their bodies covered with white cloth. Under one of those photographs someone wrote “Tight”. Someone else posted a gif of a happy dancing cow. Others joked that a bulge under the sheet made one of the dead men looked pregnant. I did not notice a single comment that said that while they opposed homosexuality, such a display of glee at the murder of two unarmed men was even distasteful. Probably no one dared, not on a page that openly warned:
“You have seen it and by Allah!
You are not safe in your own homes!
You are not safe in your offices!
You are not safe on the roads!
You are not safe anywhere in the world if you are within those types of people who are targeted by #AQIS mujahideen.”
The government in Bangladesh seems mostly preoccupied trying to prove there is no Al Qaeda or Islamic State in Bangladesh. Bangladesh home minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal called the murders of a university teacher in Rajshahi, a city professor and a retired prison guard “isolated” incidents. Maruf Hossain Sardar, spokesperson for the Dhaka police, said groups like Islamic State and al Qaida have no operational base in Bangladesh.
This is cold comfort to the families of those hacked to death, to know that their loved ones were possibly killed by homegrown Made-in-Bangladesh operators as opposed to multinational terror corporations. As an editorial in Dhaka Tribune spelled it out,
“Whether you support LGBT rights or you do not, the one thing that we must all agree on is that there can never be any justification for murder, and that those who are guilty of such savage slaughter are enemies of the state and of everything that is decent in humanity.”
Last night before it was taken down, Salauddiner Ghora was broadcasting the name of the next target – an elderly professor. His picture was posted with a crosshairs photoshopped on it. The message alongside asked who would be the brave soldier to take down this “unIslamic” man. Blogger Avijit Roy had been mowed down with a five-inch deep cut. Xulhaz Mannan had been murdered with a “#6-Inch_Kope” (cut), “a great record”. Was there anyone who could deliver seven inches for this professor, stab him so that his white hair turned red? Next to it was his phone number and his address. Dial Facebook for Murder, anyone?
We have known for a long time that the same social media that we use to share pictures of kittens and funny quizzes can also be used to unleash the dogs of war. “Instances of misuse of Twitter, Facebook, email, blogs and Whatsapp to spread hate campaign in the country have come to the notice of the government from time to time,” minister of state for home Haribhai Parthibhai Chaudhary said in reply to a written question in 2015. When Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched to death in Dadri, the mob that came for him had been fired up by three photos of meat and bones, circulated via Whatsapp as proof of cow slaughter.
The 2013 Muzaffarpur riots were fanned by a Whatsapp video of two boys being beaten. By the time authorities figured out the videos were old and probably filmed in Afghanistan or Pakistan, they had long served their deadly purpose. “We did not imagine so many people would have access to the net on their mobile phones and WhatsApp,” a police offer admitted to Indian Express after Muzaffarpur.
But those videos were, in a sense, fake. Old videos were presented out of context to stoke tensions; rumours were peddled as fact to instigate violence. They took advantage of technology to get a mob’s blood boiling before the authorities could clamp down.
Salauddiner Ghora is chillingly different. It was not using the cloak of social media just to spread fake videos and rumours. There was nothing secret about its purpose. It was openly serving as a hub for a murderous campaign, cheerleading for the killers, acting as a megaphone for Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, and singling out new victims. It was using Facebook as a hit list, as an organizing platform for cold-blooded murder.
Salauddiner Ghora might be an extreme example, but it’s not the only one. In mid-April a right-wing media organization named Voice of Bangladesh created a now-deleted public event page on Facebook named “ Pohela Boishakhe Ramdhanu Ronger Shomokamider Dekhle Jutopeta Kore Pulishe Din (Beat up any rainbow-flag bearing homosexuals you see on Bengali new year’s day and turn them over to the police).” Activists complained Facebook was slow in responding to their complaints about it.
Social media sites like Facebook want to conquer the world. It is the first social network to surpass one billion registered user accounts. But with that power comes responsibility. There is petition on Change.org demanding that Facebook ensure it “feedback channels are equipped to deal with complaints about hate speech in languages other than English”.
Governments can derive the wrong lesson from this and use it as an excuse to clamp down on social media, to shut down Facebook and Whatsapp. Instead the real solution is to make social media safer for everyone, to be ever-vigilant about the ways it can be abused. Instead of expending its energy in claiming Islamic State or Al Qaeda had not opened offices in Bangladesh, the government is hopefully investigating who was behind Salauddiner Ghora, which was hiding in plain sight on Facebook.
If you go to the Salauddiner Ghora page today, it shows an innocuous message of a link not found. But that should offer no solace to the government. Out of sight is not out of mind. The page is gone but what about those who gathered on it? Those horsemen of the apocalypse are not broken unlike the link to their page. They are real and they are hunting for the next victim.