Radicalisation: the counter-narrative and identifying the tipping point Contents


9.The report in June 2015 from David Anderson QC, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, stated that terrorism-related arrests were up by35% compared to 2010. He noted that the number of UK citizens who had travelled to Syria and undertaken terrorist training since 2012 was higher than had been seen in other conflict areas of the 21st century, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, East Africa and Yemen. The number of UK-linked individuals who had been involved in or exposed to terrorist training and fighting was also higher than it had been at any point since the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

10.The report also concluded that the volume and accessibility of extremist propaganda had increased:

UK-based extremists are able to talk directly to Daesh/ISIL fighters and their wives in web forums and on social media. The key risk is that this propaganda is able to inspire individuals to undertake attacks without ever travelling to Syria or Iraq. Through these media outputs, Daesh has driven the increase in unsophisticated attack methodology seen in recent months in Australia, France and Canada.14

The Government estimates that over 800 UK-linked people have travelled to take part in the conflict in Syria and Iraq, and around half of those have returned to the UK.15

Factors contributing to radicalisation

11.Witnesses agreed that there does not appear to be any clear template for the factors which might lead to radicalisation. David Anderson described to us two possible contributory factors—grievances and ideals. The sources of grievances varied extensively but could include poor family relationships, bullying at school or within social groupings, and the UK’s foreign policy. David Anderson explained that, once this negative viewpoint had set in, in some people radical ideology then “battens on to the grievance and makes sense of the grievance and that makes sense of the person’s life”.16

12.Some other factors we have identified that may contribute to radicalisation include an element of brainwashing, and involvement in gang violence and low-level crime. Perceived grievances about UK foreign policy seem to relate particularly to matters involving Islamic countries. There may also be an issue for some young people around identity, and an inability for parents to pass on their views about the traditional practice of religion, or to enable their children to challenge beliefs, particularly where parents lack the necessary English-language skills.

13.A number of witnesses expressed doubt about the extent to which a feeling of alienation from mainstream UK society was a factor. Dr Saffron Karlsen of the University of Bristol pointed out in her written evidence that “empirical evidence does not support rootlessness and internal cultural conflict among the Muslim population in Britain as factors of radicalisation”. Her research found that over 90% of Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani Muslims living here think of themselves as British—a higher proportion than in other ethnic groups. Over 80% believed that it was possible to maintain both British and other cultural/religious identities effectively. She concluded therefore that counter-extremism strategies based on assumptions of a lack of integration could risk reducing cooperation within these communities. 17

14.Zulfiqar Karim, Senior Vice President of the Bradford Council for Mosques, agreed that there was not a problem with Muslim communities in the UK feeling British and showing allegiance to this country. He told us however that there had been a “vacuum in leadership” within these communities over the years.18 The community organisation Inspire (which states that it is independent of government) took a different view. Co-director Kalsoom Bashir described to us a generation brought up post-9/11 who were “defined by the media” and “viewed through the lens of counter-terrorism”. This group had listened to “hardening interpretations of religion”, to stories about how the Government wanted to stop Muslims from practising their religion, and to views that living in the UK was a temporary measure. This led them to feel that they had to “choose between being British and being Muslim”, in addition to the normal issues that teenagers have to deal with. This could then make it very attractive to some young people when an individual or organisation tells them that they can offer something much better.19

15.Other community organisations like Maslaha agreed; its director Raheel Mohammed said there is a whole matrix of different factors and different influences which vary from case to case.20 Saleha Jaffer, director of Families Against Stress and Trauma (FAST), pointed to a breakdown in inter-generational communication, telling us that older people were increasingly unable to pass values on to the younger generation, at the same time as young adolescents wanting to imitate what they saw in the media and become “heroes”.21

16.Konika Dhar, sister of the radical extremist Siddhartha Dhar also known as Abu Rumaysah, told us she was uncertain when he started to become radicalised and that she was not aware of a specific trigger, rather it was a “long transition period”. She said that she found it hard to accept that it was her brother who was involved in committing the acts he was accused of because “he is my brother and as far as I am concerned I grew up with a different person”. When challenged about the statements she had made about wanting him to return home, she explained: “I don’t want to give up on him [ … ] I said I wanted him to come home because I am determined to have him return home as the person that I remember”. She acknowledged that she might have to accept that that this could not happen “but I feel I have not reached that point yet”.22

17.Radicalisation in prisons is also a significant issue. In September 2015, the Government asked Ian Acheson, a former prison governor, to conduct an independent review into Islamist extremism in prisons and probation. Mr Acheson’s report has not yet been published but he recently gave evidence to our colleagues on the Justice Committee. He said he had found that there was no “coherent strategy to deal with the emerging threat” of Islamist extremism in prisons, and that there was “far too much complacency” and “very poor understanding of the risk”. He identified inadequate training of prison staff, which meant they were not sufficiently confident to confront extremist ideology, and that the recruitment, training and supervision of prison imams was “seriously deficient”. He was also concerned about finding several examples of religious extremist literature in prison chaplaincies.23

18.There is no evidence that shows a single path or one single event which draws a young person to the scourge of extremism: every case is different. Identifying people at risk of being radicalised and then attracted to extremist behaviour is very challenging. It also makes the task of countering extreme views complex and difficult. If the Government adopts a broad-brush approach, which fails to take account of the complexities, and of the gaps in existing knowledge and understanding of the factors contributing to radicalisation, that would be counter-productive and fuel the attraction of the extremist narrative rather than dampening it.

19.The Government must take a much more sophisticated approach both to identifying the factors which instigate radicalisation and in the measures it takes to tackle this. We recommend the Government work with a cross-section of academic institutions in the UK that work on radicalisation, to marshal existing intelligence and research and develop a more effective understanding of the factors leading to extremism. This should include speaking to the families of known extremists to draw on their experiences. Without such a solid foundation, the strategies in the proposed new Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill are likely to approach the issues and entire communities in an unfocussed manner, and therefore ultimately to be ineffective.

Role of technology and response of social media companies

20.Guidance issued by the National Counter Terrorism Security Office states that the internet has “transformed the way that terrorist organisations can influence and radicalise people”. It says that it has enabled groups such as Daesh to “reach a larger global audience, with broader and dynamic messages” which means that “vulnerable people can easily be exposed to extremist materials that are readily accessible online, and radicalised by extremist views”.24

21.Baroness Shields, the Minister for Internet Safety and Security, has described Daesh and other groups as operating a “dispersed network of accounts” which means that they are capable of reconfiguring their internet content in response to sites being suspended. She said that the way in which they operated on the internet, which she termed as “swarm casting”, allows radical sympathizers “to rapidly and automatically respond and reorganise their communications to ensure a near persistent presence of their messages on social media platforms”.25 Baroness Shields noted that the younger generation are “more technologically literate than their parents and teachers” and are particularly susceptible to online influences because they are “almost constantly connected to the digital world”. She stated that the extremists who influence them are from this same social media-connected peer group, and offer a “powerful, straightforward and simple” narrative: “join us and claim your place in history”.26

22.The media has reported on the methods that Daesh online recruiters use to assist potential foreign fighters to join them, including helping them to plan their travel, connecting them with “people who will take them to a safe house”, and then arranging for them to be “driven to a border crossing and smuggled into Syria”, where Daesh fighters would be “waiting to pick them up”. In February 2015, Daesh published a 50-page “how-to guide” for aspiring jihadis and potential recruits, circulated online in English, advising them how best to reach Syria, what to pack, and how to deal with Turkish border security. The manual advises potential recruits on gender-specific travel options, the packing of vital belongings, and suitable clothing. 27

23.The press has also described the way in which Daesh has moved away from the model used by earlier terrorist groups, of directly managing the planning of attacks carried out on their organisation’s behalf and the training of terrorists to commit the atrocities. Instead, Daesh has called on its supporters to act without seeking prior approval for attacks. Its broad internet reach means that anyone can simply announce their allegiance to the group on social media and carry out an attack in its name. A Daesh spokesperson has been quoted as saying “the smallest action you can do in the heart of their land is dearer to us than the largest action by us, and more effective and more damaging to them.”28 The recent horrific incident in Nice, which resulted in the deaths of 84 people, including children, shows the danger of “lone wolves” or fixated individuals acting in the name of terrorist organisations (although no immediate connection to Daesh was established by the French authorities in relation to the perpetrator of these killings).

Tackling online extremism

24.In the UK, the public can report online content they suspect may be of a violent, extremist or terrorist nature direct to a specialist police unit hosted by the Metropolitan Police, the Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU). Examples of the illegal terrorist or extremist content placed on internet sites, chat rooms or other web-based forums which the Unit aims to combat include videos of violence with messages of ‘glorification’ or praise for terrorists, and postings inciting people to commit acts of terrorism or violence. Specialist officers assess the information and, where appropriate, investigate the website or work with partners to remove it.29

25.We visited CTIRU in March 2016 to see its operation for ourselves. Between its inception in February 2010 and the start of 2016, the CTIRU has secured the removal of more than 120,000 pieces of terrorist-related content. This includes action to suspend the accounts of those propagating terrorist or extremist views and taking down of websites promoting this type of content. Removal requests average 1,000 a week, of which around 100 items per day contain Syria-related content.30

26.The UK also supports the work of European organisations involved in countering online extremism. The UK seconds staff to the EU Internet Referral Unit (EU IRU) which was established in July 2015. In its first 16 weeks, it made over 500 referrals, of which 90% were successfully removed.31 In January 2016, Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, announced the launch of the European Counter Terrorism Centre, an “enhanced central information hub” to increase information sharing and operational coordination. We visited Europol in February 2016 and saw the excellent work being done by the Centre to remove graphic and hatred-filled content from the internet.32

27.Previous Home Affairs Committees have long been proponents of international cooperation in this area. In their 2014 report on counter-terrorism, our predecessor Committee recommended that the Government work with Interpol and with other countries to create an international platform to support terrorist investigations. This would enable cross-checking of records, intelligence-sharing and the capacity to conduct transnational investigations across all Interpol member countries.33

28.The use of the internet to promote radicalisation and terrorism is one of the greatest threats that countries including the UK face. We commend the work being carried out on a daily basis by security officials and the police to counter online extremism. The vital function which the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU) provides in combating online extremism has been invaluable to date but needs to be enhanced, extended and much better resourced to meet the scale of the ongoing threat. Its funding, equipment and operation should reflect the urgency and importance of its vital function in trying to protect the public from fanatics and criminals.

29.We need to win the cyber-war with terrorist and extremist organisations. We recommend that CTIRU is upgraded into a high-tech, state-of-the-art round-the-clock central Operational Hub which locates the perils early, moves quickly to block them and is able to instantly share the sensitive information with other security agencies. It is odd that when taking down dangerous and illicit material the CTIRU needs to waste time trying to establish contact with organisations outside the unit. Representatives of all the relevant agencies, including the Home Office, MI5 and major technology companies, should be co-located within CTIRU. This will enable greater cooperation, better information-sharing and more effective monitoring of and action against online extremist propaganda. We have also made recommendations about the role of internet companies in this respect. We further recommend that the security services address the lack of Arabic-speaking staff, and staff with Urdu, Kashmiri and Punjabi language skills.

30.EU organisations, such as Europol, are a vital resource for the UK in combating terrorism and extremism, and the UK makes a considerable contribution to European cooperation on these activities. We commend the leadership shown by Rob Wainwright as the British Director of Europol. It is imperative that the Government negotiates an ongoing effective relationship with these organisations, including continued access to and contribution to information-sharing, in the forthcoming discussions on the UK’s exit from the EU. The USA already has a high status in Europol, despite being outside the EU. The UK should aim to emulate this position on leaving the EU. Our predecessor Committee has previously said that platforms should be created with Interpol to deal more effectively with cross-border issues, particularly terrorism which is a key cross-border challenge. Freedom of movement works just as well for terrorists as it does for law-abiding citizens, which the measures in place to tackle it need to fully recognise. The UK’s exit from the EU makes our relationship with Interpol even more vital.

Industry response to online radicalisation

31.Baroness Shields has stressed that the internet industry needs to match the efforts made by the Government to tackle online extremism, which have included bringing experts and civil society groups together to develop and run more effective campaigns.34 She called on technology companies to take the lead in ensuring that “positive, alternative voices” are heard on the internet and in helping community and civil society groups to “create, deliver and amplify alternative content that undercuts the Daesh and other extremist group proposition”. She also suggested that companies invest in improving technological solutions that “automate the identification and removal of dangerous extremist content”, and effectively combat the technological devices which support the propaganda software used by terrorists.35

32.The then Prime Minister, Rt Hon David Cameron MP, made clear last year his view that technology companies need to go further in helping identify potential terrorists online:

Many of their commercial models are built around monitoring platforms for personal data, packaging it up and selling it on to third parties. And when it comes to doing what’s right for their business, they are happy to engineer technologies to track our likes and dislikes. But when it comes to doing what’s right in the fight against terrorism, we too often hear that it’s all too difficult.36

He was hopeful that if Parliament was clear about what was required, and worked with the social media companies to achieve this, a huge improvement was possible.37

33.Mark Rowley QPM, Assistant Commissioner for Specialist Operations in the Metropolitan Police, and the national lead for counter-terrorism police operations, believed that some IT firms were deliberately “undermining” counter-terrorism investigations by refusing to hand over potential evidence or threatening to tip off suspects. He told us that experience of working with companies showed that their response was fragmented and cooperation levels varied.38

34.We took evidence from the major social media companies—Twitter, Facebook and Google—to explore their views on their obligations in relation to countering extremism. They all told us that they took their responsibility in this area very seriously and cooperated with security agencies as necessary. Facebook and Google confirmed that they proactively notified law enforcement agencies about terrorist material which was a threat to life, whereas Twitter said they did not proactively do this because “Twitter is public, that content is available, so often it has been seen already”.39

35.They stressed that, while there was no easy way to identify extremist content on the internet, they all had teams of staff who manually search for potentially extremist content online and then make assessments on taking it down and suspending accounts. Twitter said its team who did this work consisted of “more than a hundred” staff, whereas both Facebook and Google declined to provide a number.40 Twitter confirmed that between mid-2015 and February 2016, it had suspended over 125,000 accounts globally that were linked to terrorists,41 while Google told us it had removed over 14 million videos globally in 2014 (which related to all kinds of abuse).42 Google told us about YouTube’s “trusted flagger” programme which allows a group of frequent and approved users to report (or “flag”) content about which they have concerns, which then triggers a review by YouTube staff.43 YouTube has worked with both government agencies and non-governmental organisations to create a better understanding of the guidelines and offer additional flagging tools. They confirmed that the accuracy rate for their trusted flaggers was around 90%, making it easier to prioritise their flags. Facebook and Twitter said they did not have similar programmes though they did have arrangements with government agencies.44 We were also told that these companies had supported numerous community groups and non-government organisations with training to tackle online extremism, as part of their counter-radicalisation efforts.45

36.These companies, along with Microsoft, have also recently signed up to new EU rules on taking down illegal hate speech. The companies have agreed to meet several requirements including: clear processes to review illegal hate speech and clearly promote guidelines prohibiting promotion of violence and hateful conduct; reviewing the majority of valid hate speech notifications within 24 hours, and removing or disabling such content if necessary; improving the speed and effectiveness of communication between the EU state authorities and the IT companies through better awareness of correct procedures; providing regular training to staff on current societal developments; intensifying cooperation with other platforms and social media companies to share best practice; and continuing their work in supporting civil society counter-narratives and new initiatives. The rules are the first attempt to codify how major technology companies are required to deal with hate speech across the EU.46

37.Significant progress has been made in another online struggle—that of combating child sexual exploitation content—through a partnership approach between the Government, law enforcement and the technology industry. The Internet Watch Foundation uses its expertise to work with these partners to protect children and remove criminal content from the internet.47

38.The internet has a huge impact in contributing to individuals turning to extremism, hatred and murder. Social media companies are consciously failing to combat the use of their sites to promote terrorism and killings. Networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are the vehicle of choice in spreading propaganda and they have become the recruiting platforms for terrorism. They must accept that the hundreds of millions in revenues generated from billions of people using their products needs to be accompanied by a greater sense of responsibility and ownership for the impact that extremist material on their sites is having. There must be a zero tolerance approach to online extremism, including enticement to join extremist groups or commit attacks of terror and any glorification of such activities. Manuals for terrorists and extremists should be removed from the internet. It is therefore alarming that these companies have teams of only a few hundred employees to monitor networks of billions of accounts and that Twitter does not even proactively report extremist content to law enforcement agencies. These companies are hiding behind their supranational legal status to pass the parcel of responsibility and refusing to act responsibly in case they damage their brands. If they continue to fail to tackle this issue and allow their platforms to become the ‘Wild West’ of the internet, then it will erode their reputation as responsible operators.

39.The EU rules introduced in May are a first step towards the internet companies assuming more responsibility. The UK Government should now enforce its own measures to ensure that the large technology companies operating in this country are required to cooperate with CTIRU promptly and fully, by investigating sites and accounts propagating hate speech, and then either shutting them down immediately, or providing an explanation to CTIRU of why this has not been done. This activity would be facilitated by the companies co-locating staff within the upgraded CTIRU and we recommend that this be part of its enhanced operations. We do not see why the success of the Internet Watch Foundation cannot be replicated in the area of countering online extremism.

40.The Government must also require the companies to be transparent about their actions on online extremism; instead of the piecemeal approach we currently have, they should all publish quarterly statistics showing how many sites and accounts they have taken down and for what reason. Facebook and Twitter should implement a trusted flagger system similar to Google’s and all social media companies must be more willing to give such trusted status to smaller community organisations, thereby empowering them in the fight against extremism. In short, what cannot appear legally in the print or broadcast media, namely inciting hatred and terrorism, should not be allowed to appear on social media. This is all the more necessary when one takes into account Daesh’s view that inciting individuals to take action “in the heart” of countries is “more effective and damaging” to those countries than action taken by Daesh itself.

Role of media

41.The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) has highlighted the negative impact that misleading portrayals of Muslims in the media have had. It cited recent research which showed that media reporting about Muslim communities is contributing to an atmosphere of rising hostility toward Muslims in Britain. This includes articles that conflate Islam with criminality, and scaremongering and sensationalism about the threat presented by Muslims which risk weakening community cohesion.48 We heard from the young people in Bradford about how Islamophobia was a major factor in Muslim youth feeling detached from mainstream society.

42.In response to our request to newspapers to explain their approach to reporting extremism, The Times told us it takes its responsibility seriously, by “sifting fact from fiction through robust news reporting and publishing a range of voices to inform and generate public debate”.49 Our request followed the erroneous reporting on the front page of The Sun on 23 November 2015 that a recent survey on the views of British Muslims towards young Muslims who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria found “1 in 5 Muslims’ sympathy for jihadists”. It was reported that the Press watchdog the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) received “an unprecedented 3,000 complaints” about the article. The Sun published the IPSO adjudication in March 2016 that it had “failed to take appropriate care in its presentation of the poll results, and as a result the coverage was significantly misleading”.50

43.Farooq Aftab, National Spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Youth Association, told us he believed that the portrayal of Islam in the media was generally “sensational”.51 A study conducted on behalf of the Association found that one in three British adults agreed that Islam promotes violence in the UK, and 56% disagreed that Islam was compatible with British values. The Association has blamed the media for “linking any type of violence or crime by Muslims to Islam [which] has skewed public perception so that they believe Islam condones or encourages violence and extremism”.52

44.The Counter Extremism Project, a not-for-profit international organisation that combats the threat from extremist ideology, argued in its written evidence that the “UK media and its partners have a responsibility to ensure that commentary and reporting on world events and domestic extremism do not perpetuate the perception amongst British Muslims that they are unwelcome in the UK”.53 Raheel Mohammed of Maslaha told us that, since 2001, a generation of young Muslims has grown up being portrayed in the media in a particular way. He noted that the mainstream media maintained that it was planning to employ Muslim journalists with knowledge of Islamic affairs but the situation has changed very little in this respect.54 The huge under-representation of Muslims in the media is borne out in research which showed that less than 0.5% of UK journalists are Muslim, compared to almost 5% of the national population. This lack of diversity is likely to be further magnified at more senior positions. 55

45.The media have a responsibility to avoid contributing to negative views of particular groups in society through unbalanced or unsubstantiated reporting. This is particularly important in relation to stories about extremism and terrorism involving people professing to be Muslims, and in reports about views held by Muslims, because of the impact it can have in creating hostility towards Muslim communities and alienating people from those communities, particularly young people. Islamophobia contributes to young Muslims feeling alienated from mainstream society, as we heard in Bradford and Glasgow, thereby potentially leading to them becoming more susceptible to radicalisation. It is not clear to us that all news editors are taking sufficient care in their handling of these stories and some continue to prioritise sensationalism over facts. They should refrain from using the term ‘so-called Islamic State’, and should instead refer to ‘Daesh’. We also recommend that they do not identify terrorists as Muslims, but as terrorists and followers of Daesh.

14 David Anderson Q.C., Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, A question of trust: Report of the Investigatory Powers Review, June 2015, pp 42–43

15 Rt Hon John Hayes MP, Minister of State for Security (CEX0049)

16 Q926

17 Dr Saffron Karlsen, University of Bristol (CEX0057) para 2

18 Q723

19 Q181

20 Q1104

21 Q1106

22 Qq833, 852, 871–2

23 Oral Evidence taken before the Justice Committee on 13 July 2016, HC 417, Q18

24 National Counter Terrorism Security Office, Guidance: Online radicalisation, 26 November 2015

25 Home Office speech, Beyond business: the responsibility of global players, 12 January 2016

28Lone-wolf attack illustrates Islamic State’s far reach”, The Wall Street Journal, 14 June 2016

29 National Police Chiefs Council, ‘The Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit,’ accessed 12 July 2016

30 Home Secretary (HSE0001)

31 Home Secretary (HSE0001)

32Europol’s European Counter Terrorism Centre”, Europol press release, 25 January 2016

33 Home Affairs Committee, Seventeenth Report of Session 2013–14, Counter-terrorism, HC 231, paras 86–87

34 Home Office speech, Beyond business: the responsibility of global players, 12 January 2016

35 Home Office speech, United action in tackling online extremism, 23 May 2016

36 Prime Minister speech, Extremism, 20 July 2015

37 HC Deb, 18 May 2016, col 31

39 Q1059

40 Qq 1025–1033

41 Twitter (CEX0051) and “Twitter deletes 125,000 ISIS accounts and expands anti-terror teams”, The Guardian, 5 February 2016

42 Q1007

43 YouTube Help, ‘The YouTube Trusted Flagger Programme’, accessed 19 July 2016

44 Qq1086–1089

45 Twitter (CEX0051), Google (CEX0052), Facebook (CEX0053)

46European Commission and IT companies announce code of conduct on illegal online hate speech”, European Commission press release, 31 May 2016

47 The Internet Watch Foundation, ‘About us’, accessed 12 July 2016

49 John Witherow, The Times (CEX0032)

51 Q586

53 Counter Extremism Project (CEX0003) para 4e

54 Qs1118 and 1126

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

2 August 2016