Snapchat Case Study: Pakistani Tank Column

In late February, tensions between India and Pakistan escalated over a suicide bombing in Kashmir that killed over 40 Indian paramilitary troops. After an Indian aircraft was shot down near the Line of Control that divides the Indian- and Pakistani-administered sides of Kashmir, both countries responded by sending troops, weapons, and equipment to their respective sides of the border. To get to the border on the Pakistani side, materiel had to pass through Pakistan’s densely populated, relatively wealthy Punjab province. Fortunately for open source investigations, Snapchat users who like to publicly document their lives are found in just these sorts of densely populated, wealthy regions.

Snapchat’s importance in open source investigations (especially ones with a breaking news component) is showcased in the numerous appearances of weaponry on Snapchat maps near the India-Pakistan border. As one example, let’s track a tank column that traveled through the Pakistani border town of Sialkot on Wednesday, February 27.

As evidence, we have four videos posted to Snapchat’s public Snap Map between 4:40pm local time and dusk on February 27.

The first video, linked here, shows at least two tanks making a right hand turn amid moderate traffic. Based on the video’s onscreen timestamps, it was shot at 4:40pm somewhere in the vicinity of Sialkot, Pakistan.

The first step to tracking the tanks in the video is to find out which direction they were traveling in. Thanks to Suncalc, we can figure out approximately which way the shadows in the video were pointing, and then compare that direction to the tanks’ direction of travel.

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On February 27 at 4:40pm in Sialkot, the sun was roughly southwest of the city, which means the shadows should be pointing roughly northeast. Since the tanks crossed roughly perpendicular to the shadows, that means the tanks should be heading generally south.

Now let’s geolocate this video based on a couple key moments:

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This video was taken here:

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Next up is a video posted to Snap Map in the vicinity of Sialkot at 4:59pm, based on the video’s on-screen timestamp.

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This video was taken here, with the tanks driving north:

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Following this video, a third clip was posted to Sialkot’s Snap Map (ostensibly after 4:59pm but not certainly because the video doesn’t have a time stamp or any other way to verify when it was posted).

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This video was taken here, with the tanks again driving north.

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Last but not least, a fourth clip was posted to Snap Map, showing another tank slightly further down the road.

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This video was taken here, with the tanks (unsurprisingly) driving north.

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With all these geolocations finished, let’s use Google Earth to put it all together:

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Now with the possible paths of the tanks overlaid:

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We can’t definitively establish which path the tanks took because there are no more videos of the tanks between the first and second sighting. However, it seems like the tanks headed south (away from the Indian border) before turning north again, where they were spotted at sightings 2, 3, and 4. Were they parading for the residents of Sialkot prior to heading off to a possible war? Was sighting 1 simply a fluke? Were there two columns of tanks, one heading south and one heading north? If so, why didn’t we see more videos of tanks heading south, while we saw three additional videos of the northbound column? My guess is that it was simply a brief parade to stir up the public and ensure maximum visibility and publicity for Pakistan’s military. But I could certainly be wrong!

While we saw no further videos of the northbound tanks, we can speculate where they went. Zooming out from sighting 4, the road the tanks were on forks into a left and right branch. The right branch continues on for several miles until it reaches the only bridge that lies in Pakistani territory over the Tawi River. From there, the road approaches a salient that reaches deep into Indian-administered Kashmir. The tanks could have been aiming for this salient as part of preparations to cut off Indian-administered Kashmir from the rest of India in case of a war between the two countries.

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From the left fork, the path is less clear (there are quite a few more possible turnoffs), but the road crosses a long bridge over the Chenab river before passing through several villages on either side of the southern border between Pakistan and Pakistani-administered Kashmir. Finally, the road peters out in a dense network of military positions built along the Line of Control, which divides Pakistani- and Indian-administered Kashmir.

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Although we can’t be sure which route the tanks ended up following, both possible roads lead directly to positions that would be strategically important if a war ever broke out between India and Pakistan. Regardless of any other conclusions, the Snap Map videos certainly show the Pakistani tanks heading north toward the India-Pakistan border.

The videos posted to Snap Map on February 27th offer investigators and policymakers valuable, real-time insight into the quantity, speed, and direction of military equipment heading to the border. Prior to war actually breaking out, these videos also give diplomats and officials working toward peace the public evidence necessary to dissuade belligerent populations from clamoring for war. Hopefully, this Snap Map example can be replicated and expanded upon in further open source investigations.