15 YEARS OF GLOBAL DISINFORMATION PROJECT SERVING INDIAN INTERESTS
A third-party report exposes India’s global campaign to mislead the world and malign Pakistan. Hilal English has collected excerpts from this 89-page report that have been reproduced below.
• A 15 year-long operation running since 2005
• 10+ UN Human Rights Council accredited NGOs, mostly resurrected
• The resurrection of Prof. Louis B. Sohn, a prominent figure in human rights, deceased in 2006
• Several identity thefts, including the name of Martin Schulz, former president of the European Parliament or the photo of James Purnell, a former UK Government minister
• 750+ fake media outlets, covering 119 countries
• 550+ domain names registered
Overall, according to our open-source investigation, the information operation led by the Srivastava Group began in 2005 and is still ongoing.
The operation’s mission is to discredit nations in conflict with India in Asia, in particular Pakistan but also to a lesser extent China. Its long-term objectives are:
• Internally, to reinforce pro-Indian and anti-Pakistan (and anti-Chinese) feelings in India.
• Internationally, to consolidate the power and improve the perception of India, to damage the reputation of other countries and ultimately benefit from more support from International Institutions such as the EU and the UN.
To do so, the information operation consists in:
• The support to minority and human rights NGOs e.g., Baloch rights associations
• The use of Members of the European Parliament to create a mirage of institutional support from the European Institutions to these minority groups, in favour of Indian interests and against Pakistan (and China)
• An active presence in Geneva and the United Nations’ Human Rights Council by:
o organising side-events and demonstrations in support of minority rights,
o impersonating extinguished UN accredited NGOs or using the speaking slots of various inactive NGOs at the Council to give a voice to these minorities at the UN.
• The creation of fake media in Brussels, Geneva and across the world or the use of existing obscure media networks – present in at least in 95 countries - to multiply online negative iterations about countries in conflict with India, in particular Pakistan.
EOPM is described in our first investigation. This organization was created by the Srivastava group and was mainly in charge of organizing demonstrations and events about Pakistani minorities. It worked closely with another Srivastava NGO – Pakistani Women Human Rights Organization119.
The African Regional Agricultural Credit Association (or African Rural and Agricultural Credit Association) is also an interesting case and seems to be tied to the same ecosystem of NGOs – undermining Pakistan repeatedly and using a similar pool of students. While there seems to be a real AFRACA active in Africa73, the speeches given in Geneva by the alleged representatives of the NGO74 seem to be totally disconnected with the original mission of the association which is to “foster cooperation among government and financial institutions in the field of rural and agricultural credit and banking”.75 Interestingly, we also see Pakistan minorities speaking on behalf of AFRACA, and notably Mehran Marri (Mehran Baluch)76, who also served as the President of Baluchistan House, an organization created by Ankit Srivastava.
Overall, there are at least 10 accredited-NGOs that we can directly attribute to the Srivastava Group:
1. The International Institute of Non-Aligned Studies - IINS (transparent ties)
2. The Indian Council of Education - ICE (transparent ties)
3. The Commission to Study the Organization of Peace - CSOP (hidden ties)
4. The International Club for Peace Research – ICPR (hidden ties)
5. The World Environment and Resources Council - WERC (hidden ties)
6. United Schools International - USI (hidden ties)
7. International Association for Democracy in Africa (IADA) (hidden ties)
8. Pan African Union for Science and Technology (PAUFST) (hidden ties)
9. Canners International Permanent Committee (CIPC) (hidden ties)
10. Center for Environmental and Management Studies (CEMS) (hidden ties)
The address provided by the Commission to Study the Organization of Peace to the UN11 does not exist12. The same address of the CSOP is mentioned in a report13 by the Alliance to Renew Co-operation among Humankind (ARCHumankind), an organization founded by former MEP Paulo Casaca.14 We believe this adress also includes a reference to Geneva’s “Route de Ferney”, where the famous Geneva Press Club15 was located and where Indian Chronicles later displayed “Free Baluchistan” posters16.
The domain name csopus.com was hosted on the same IP address as several other websites owned by the Srivastava group, and was registered using the [email protected] email address and another fake physical address – 113, Forest Hills, New York17.
A domain name for the NGO (paufst.com) was registered on January 20, 2016, on the same day as the registration of other accredited NGOs domain names, and it is hosted on the IP address with several other Srivastava-owned websites. The name of Professor Edward S. Ayensu was hijacked to register the domain name even if he is not part of the organization anymore60. We can confidently assume that this organisation had become inactive and was resurrected by Indian Chronicles.
The International Club for Peace Research (ICPR) had a consultative status with ECOSOC until 201226 and spoke regularly about human rights in Pakistan at the UN Human Rights Council, and during side events and organized demonstrations in Geneva and New-York27. At the UNHRC, the organisation was represented either by Geneva-based students or by Pakistan minorities representatives28, and most of the interventions are pro- Indian and anti-Pakistan.
Using the United Nations’ search portal, we could also confirm that the World Environment and Resources Council (WERC) uses the same phone number at the UN as the one used to register the icpr-eu.com domain name, thus also tying ICPR to Ankit Srivastava. At the UNHRC, the organisation was represented either by Geneva-based students or by Pakistan minorities representatives, and most of the interventions are pro- Indian and anti-Pakistan. In 2016, Senge Sering of the Institute for Gilgit Baltistan Studies - the organizer of the 2011 event that “Louis B. Shon” is supposed to have attended – spoke at the UNHRC on behalf of WERC33. Interestingly, we also identified that the Editor of “New Age Islam” Sultan Shahin spoke at the UNHRC both for the ICPR in 201134 and for the WERC in 201435. The WERC also organized side events at the UN on “Peace and Security”36 and “Human Rights in Pakistan”37.
This European NGO, resurrected and misappropriated by Indian Chronicles, was also used to advance a specific agenda about the core theme of WERC - namely “environment”. At the UNHRC in 2018, the Word Sindhi Congress, speaking on behalf of WERC, opposed the construction of a dam in Pakistan. This was covered by ANI both in an article38 and on Twitter39.
The domain name of the organisation’s website (cipcngo.com) was registered on January 20, 2016, on the same day as the registration of other accredited NGOs domain names, and it is hosted on the IP address with several other Srivastava-owned websites. Thus, this organisation had ceased to exist and was resurrected by Indian Chronicles.
We can safely confirm that the activities of United Schools International at the United Nations are organised by the Srivastava Group. This is particularly interesting as USI often delivered speeches undermining Pakistan and gave a regular platform to – among others – a think-tank named EFSAS (European Foundation for South Asian Studies)
Interestingly, ANI and the network of fake local media outlets disseminating ANI’s articles presents the Center for Environmental and Management Studies as a “UK-based rights group”51 headed by Amjad Ayub Mirza52, who is defined as an “activist from PoK” (Pakistan-occupied Kashmir). Amjad Ayub Mirza presents himself as the Executive Director of the NGO53 and as a Consultant for the “Jammu Kashmir Peace and Development Institute.” He is also featured in many articles of the ANI News agency54.
The core theme of the original NGO – environment - was hijacked by Indian Chronicles to undermine Pakistan. Here is a solid example: "Under CPEC our rivers are being diverted for hydropower projects and these projects are causing water shortages. The projects would forever destroy the ecology of our region. Scores of young men from Gilgit-Baltistan are serving 70-90 years of imprisonment for protesting against the plunder of our national resources"55
Overall, there were several hundreds of pro-Indian interventions at the UN Human Rights Council connected to these dubious NGOs. A large number of organisations (NGOs, think-tanks, political parties…) were given the floor via these accredited-NGOs: Baloch Voice Association, European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS), the World Sindh Congress, the United Kashmir People's National Party (UKPNP), Jammu Kashmir Peace and Development Institute, Baloch People's Congress, World Baloch Women's Forum, Gilgit Baltistan Studies, Baloch Human Rights Council (BHRC), Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), Baloch Students Organisation, Baloch People's Congress, Baloch Republican Party, Baloch Voice Foundation, Jammu Kashmir National Awami Party …
In May 2020, we noticed the emergence of a new European Union Belgium-based media outlet named EU Chronicle124. Interestingly, EU Chronicle had been present on the same IP address 184.108.40.206 hosting NGOs and other websites attributed to the Srivastava group
Some Indian media outlets, which re-use content from ANI News Agency, become a de facto regular amplifier from the fake European media outlet EU Chronicle. For example, BW Business World, which was a magazine previously owned by the ABP Group (owner of the Telegraph India), reproduced at least 8 articles from ANI that were based on some EU Chronicle articles186. Likewise, the Indian on-demand video service ZEE5, which has 2.1M followers on Facebook, published 9 news reports from ANI on its main website which originated primarily from EU Chronicle187.
Slowly but surely, we also have started to see ANI versions of some of EU Chronicle’s op-eds and articles being reproduced by major Indian media outlets.
On October 14th, the Times of India (13.2M followers on Twitter) shared the ANI version of MEP Fluvio Martusciello’s EU Chronicle op-ed titled “Hold Pakistan accountable for the ongoing turmoil in Kashmir”.
The same op-ed from MEP Fulvio Martusciello, adapted by ANI from the original text published by EU Chronicle, was also spread by the Economic Times
Some of the footage including in videos tweeted by EU Chronicle were very similar to those we could find on videos for “4News Agency”, a Geneva-based organization that we connected to the Srivastava group during our last investigation.
If this is normal to see news reports from an established press agency such as ANI being recirculated by some Indian media outlets, we also discovered that the rewritten EU Chronicle op-ed from MEPs Dominique Bilde was also republished on hundreds of strange media outlets all over the world, which have multiple similarities (design, content…).
We do not think these regular “typos” are always a mistake. They can be used as a tactic to sow confusion and cover the tracks of the agent. This needs to be put in parallel with what we have shown at the beginning of this report with the infamous use of the name “Louis Shon” as a way to impersonate “Louis Sohn”.
Our main hypothesis is that most of the original content is written by freelance journalists who are using pseudonyms. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that we found several job offers for “freelance journalists” positions on some Indian job search websites.
Fake persona: Hiding traces with multiples names and email addresses
One main characteristic of this information operation is the use of multiple email addresses and names to register domain names and hide traces.
One name can be linked to multiple email addresses. For instance, we have seen that Raul McKenzie’s name has been associated to many different emails and organisations over years.
In the meantime, some specific emails were also associated to multiple people. For instance, in domain name registrations, [email protected] can be linked to the following names since 2015:
• Louis Shon
• Mario Silva
• Raul McKenzie
• Rahul Malhotra
• Martin Rutowicz
• Riyaz Malik
• Riyaz Khan
• Rahim Jaffer
• Ahmed Ilyasi
• Massouda Jalal
Following our investigations, for some of these characters such as Charles Forceps, Riccardo Caprio or Raul McKenzie, we could not find any evidence of their physical existence.
In the margin of our investigation, we also discovered another potential fake persona: the self-proclaimed UK based investigation journalist James Duglous Crickton. We were not able to find any traces of his existence online except for his op-eds covering South Asian issues. One of his claims on Pakistan have been covered by India and Pakistani media289, even if there is no strong evidence of this person existing, raising concerns of information manipulation. James Duglous Crickton also mistyped his own middle name online290 and seemed to have written one article for the fake media outlet EP Today291, raising questions over the involvement of this avatar in Indian Chronicles.
b-From “Louis Shon” To “Louis Sohn”: a shocking resurrection
The registrant of the csopus.com domain name is Louis Shon, a name we, at first, could not find any online traces about. However, we had noticed a repeated tendency in our network to invert letters in people’s names (as exemplified further in this report).
“Louis Shon” refers to “Louis Sohn” or “Louis B. Sohn”, a former Chairman of the Commission to Study the Organization of Peace21. Louis Sohn is considered to be a “Grandfather of International Human Rights Law in the United States”22 and this report is dedicated to him.
It should be noted that “Louis Shon” aka Louis Sohn is listed as a participant for the CSOP at the UNHRC in 2007, which he could not have attended as he had passed away in 200623. Similarly, “Dr. Louis B. Shon” is also listed as a participant to an event named “An Evening with MEP Jürgen Creutzmann, Chairperson of Friends of Gilgit-Baltistan in the European Parliament” organised by the Institute for Gilgit Baltistan Studies in July 2011 in Washington DC24.
The extensive use of interns to represent dubious organisations both in United Nations and in Brussels is another modus operandi that we have identified. For instance, we have observed that most interns employed by Indian Chronicles’ organisations in Geneva were doing studies in universities based in Geneva. In Brussels, interns working for dubious organisations such as EP Today or WESTT had mostly the same cursus (Master in International Human Rights from Kent University).
Our hypothesis is that actors linked to EU Chronicles used interns to speak in the United Nations as a way to cover their tracks and make an attribution to India more difficult. These interns were manipulated to serve as one of the many public faces of this massive information operation.
A significant part of the Indian Chronicle operation is based on creating a smoke screen of organisations, with often only an online presence, which can cross-reference each other. By regularly mentioning each other’s without disclosing their links, these organisations try to gain legitimacy and to build an artificial ecosystem which is credible only if the network is big enough to justify its own existence.
The purpose of all this content is to showcase, amplify or distort support from MEPs - and more generally of the EU - to the positions or narratives of the Indian state, and to support the related advocacy in Brussels.
• In Geneva, content produced by NGOs at the UNHRC. This content is made of interventions of at UNHRC by resurrected or appropriated accredited NGOs, as well as in the side-event sponsored by these NGOs. This content also includes seminars, press conferences and demonstrations by NGOs/think-tanks either created and owned by Indian Chronicles or by NGOs/think-tanks that fit the narrative.
Here the aim is to show a general support from the civil society to pro-Indian narratives at the United Nations, and to support the related advocacy agendas at the UNHRC.
Put together, Indian Chronicle’s content aims at demonstrating a global support for Indian narratives at civil society, political and even institutional level. It is used internally to project the image of a strong India on the international scene. Internationally, the content is used to advocate for pro-Indian interests, including, amongst others, anti-Pakistan resolutions and decisions.
Continuing our investigation, we now have the evidence that the domain names of both the Baluchistan House (baluchistanhouse.com87) and the South-Asia Democratic Forum88 (sadf.eu) were registered by the Srivastava group. These two organisations have been very active in Geneva side-events, and the Baluchistan House is famous for the display of Free Baluchistan posters across Geneva, which led to much controversy89.
We counted at least ten events: Demonstrations in front of the UN Broken Chair in Geneva, demonstration outside the UN in New York95, event in Capitol Hill in Washington DC96 or in front of “Pakistan Embassy” in Ottawa97. The Balochistan House also organised conferences and events hosted in the European Parliament in Brussels98 and Strasbourg99 with the help of MEPs connected to Indian Chronicles, such as MEP Czarnecki, MEP Martuciello and former MEP Paolo Casaca (now head of the SADF think-tank). These events usually criticize Pakistan foreign policy, China’s foreign policy or both.
Madi Sharma, the founder of WESTT, also regularly appeared in our investigation. She was part of the controversial trip to the Maldives involving MEPs that her organisation organized. WESTT was also the organisation that, together with Srivastava’s IINS, was behind the MEPs’ visit to Jammu and Kashmir in October 2019, which was largely covered by the press111 . Madi is also an official EU correspondent for the New Delhi Times, Srivastava Group’s newspaper. India Today newspaper investigated WESTT after the MEPs' trip to Kashmir and found that no NGO was known at the address in the UK that WESTT was advertising on its website112.
SADF was also the organisation that co-sponsored, among other trips106, the controversial unofficial trip to the Maldives107 . It is also this organisation that paid for MEP Thierry Mariani’s trip to Geneva108 to attend a press conference about Jammu Kashmir. This press conference was covered by Srivastava Group’s 4NewsAgency and Times Of Geneva109.
This ICIRC was set up in Belgium in 2009 by Pramila and Ankit Srivastava at Square de Meeus 37, the address of EP Today and the Srivastava Group in Brussels115. ICIRC is the parent organization of the International Imam Organization116, another organization created by Ankit Srivastava in 2011 and still active today, defining itself as “a platform for Muslims who are involved in the preachings of Quran”117.
Active role in setting up a structure to lobby international institutions
In parallel to the network of zombie organisations, Indian Chronicles also set up or contributed to the creation of a list of organisations that could enter the traditional influence ecosystem of international institutions. These organisations such as think tanks (SADF, WESTT), NGOs (European organisations of Pakistan minorities, Pakistani Women) or informal groups of MEPs (South Asia Peace Forum, Friends of Gilgit Baltistan) were used to gain access to elected representative of the EU.
Through this access, Indian Chronicle was able to influence policy-makers to move towards positions more favourable to Indian interests.
Campaign has succeeded to reach European Parliament agenda:
• Written and oral questions were asked by MEPs on the specific points covered by the Information Operation;
• Official reactions from institutions and governments to what was presented as “EU delegation” visits in India or in the Maldives.
Demonstrations have also taken place in Geneva and other cities and the Information Operation has created content that helped to fuel the hostility of the Indian population towards Pakistan and China.
Therefore, following Ben Nimmo’s breakout scale, we would qualify Indian Chronicles as a category 6 operation, the highest grade of this scale.
However, during our investigation, we found several elements that suggest the possible involvement of other stakeholders:
• The obscure Srivastava-owned company Aglaya and its potential ties with Indian intelligence services;
• ANI’s ambiguous relationship with the Indian State;
• The threats against a speaker at the UN by a member of the Srivastava group and the alleged interrogation of the supposed victim by Indian security services.
Ankit Srivastava: one of the leaders of the information operation?
Mr Ankit Srivastava is one of the central characters of the Indian Chronicles for his presence since the beginning the operation. He is the Vice-Chairman of the Srivastava Group260 and the editor in chief of the New Delhi Times, an Indian media claiming to be a reference in the Indian media landscape261.
In total, we could find more than 400 domain names (not all related to Indian Chronicle) bought through Mr Srivastava private email address or through email addresses belonging to his companies/organisations. In parallel to his business profile (he serves as CEO of many organisations linked to the Srivastava group), he has also been very active in the international and diplomatic scene. For instance, Mr Srivastava’s presence in Geneva dates back to 1999262, where he attended United Nations meetings, officially representing Srivastava’s think tanks such as the IINS and the Indian Council of Education. He is also the website owner of the organisations he represented in the United Nations.
Mr Ankit Srivastava also founded AN Consult, a consulting company, allegedly operating in Geneva and Brussels claiming experience in Public Affairs and “Special Operations263”.
Madi Sharma: “business broker” and tour operator286
Organisers and delegation members meet Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the MEPs' controversial 2019 Kashmir trip
Madi Sharma’s role in Indian Chronicles has already been extensively covered through our EP Today report. As a reminder, Ms Sharma has been instrumental in inviting MEPs and planning private visits depicted as official delegations, in India with a meeting with PM Narendra Modi (in partnership with IINS), or in Maldives287.
Ms Sharma was also a regular contributor to EP Today and the staff of her ONG WESTT also regularly wrote articles for the fake European Parliament media outlet. She was described in some articles as the EU correspondent for the New Delhi Times288, the obscure Indian magazine owned by the Srivastava Group.
a- The obscure company “Aglaya”
In 2016, VICE revealed the existence of a brochure distributed by a small New Delhi-based company called Aglaya during the ISS World Conference315 in 2014. According to this document, the Indian company offered hacking/spy tools but also information warfare services.
The Vice article indicated: “For eight to 12 weeks campaigns costing €2,500 per day, the company promised to "pollute" internet search results and social networks like Facebook and Twitter "to manipulate current events." For this service, which it labelled "Weaponized Information," Aglaya offered "infiltration," "ruse," and "sting" operations to "discredit a target" such as an "individual or company."316 Aglaya’s brochure also mentioned the ability to “hamper country level reputations”.
Aglaya is owned by Ankur Srivastava and is registered to the same address as the Srivastava Group in New Delhi317. In another article, Vice also highlighted how Aglaya described some of its services as “Cyber Nukes”318. If some of these claims are very likely exaggerated, leaked emails showed that Ankur Srivastava was in touch with the infamous Italian surveillance company “Hacking Team”319. In another article by Forbes on government surveillance, reporter Thomas Brewster states that “Srivastava told me he only sold to Indian intelligence agencies”320.
b- ANI’s ambiguous relationship with the India State
One of the central actors in our investigation is the ANI News agency, which is the main vector of amplification for the content produced by actors tied to the information operation. This raises multiple questions: Why is an international news agency re-using articles from obscure or fake media outlets (EP Today, EU Chronicle…), rewriting regularly content to support even more clearly some pro-Indian stances? Why is ANI regularly covering demonstrations organized by obscure NGOs in European cities? Are there ties between the Srivastava group and the ANI news agency?
For none of these questions, we will be able to give clear answers. Still, it seemed important for us to mention that the ANI News agency has had an ambiguous relationship with the Indian state for years. A long investigation321 from the Indian magazine The Caravan shows how a wedding brought the founding family of ANI (Prakash family) extremely close to Inna Ramamohan Ra, the former Principal Information Officer for four Indian Prime Ministers. According to the Caravan’s article, Rao had also spent four years with the Research and Analysis Wing (“R&AW- the main Indian external intelligence service”). This relationship has helped ANI to build for decades strong connections with the successive Indian governments.
We are alarmed to see the continuation of Indian Chronicles, which, despite our first report and wide press coverage, has pursued its 15-year long operation and even recently launched EU Chronicle, a fake EU outlet. This should serve as a call to action for decision-makers to put in place a relevant framework to sanction actors abusing international institutions. It is possible that the absence of messages from the institutions affected by Indian Chronicles provided the space and opportunity for the operation to reinvent itself and to continue doing “more of the same”.
Even without formal attribution, the length, sophistication and the range of this information operation should call the attention of international institutions on the actors that have been able to design and maintain an operation with that scale.
It is also our belief that the possibility for malicious actors to abuse search engines by reproducing the same content hundreds of times should also be challenged.
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