In its report published following an inquiry that has lasted 12 months and included visits to Glasgow, Bradford and Europol’s headquarters in The Hague, the Home Affairs Committee has stated that social media giants like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the use of their sites to promote terrorism and killings. The Committee suggests that these social networks have become “the vehicle of choice in spreading propaganda and the recruiting platforms for terrorism”.
In response, the Committee recommends that the Metropolitan Police Service’s Counter-Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU) should be upgraded to become 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 then able to instantly share any sensitive information with other security agencies. Representatives of all the relevant agencies should be co-located within the CTIRU.
It’s estimated that 800 UK-linked fighters have travelled to Syria and Iraq since the conflicts began there. 50% of these foreign fighters are thought to have returned to the UK. Terrorism-related arrests in the UK were 35% higher in 2015 than in 2010.
Home Affairs Committee’s findings
*Cyber war (ie the use of the Internet to promote radicalisation and terrorism) is one of the greatest threats that countries including the UK now face. The vital function that the Metropolitan Police Service’s CTIRU performs 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 crucial work in trying to protect the public from fanatics and criminals.
*Although between mid-2015 and February 2016 it’s a fact Twitter had suspended over 125,000 accounts globally that were linked to terrorists, while Google removed over 14 million videos globally in 2014 related to all kinds of abuses, these moves are in reality a drop in the ocean. “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,” states the Home Affairs Committee. These companies have teams of only a few hundred employees to monitor networks of billions of accounts. Twitter doesn’t even proactively report extremist content to law enforcement agencies. If they continue to fail to tackle this issue and allow their platforms to become the ‘Wild West’ of the Internet, it will erode their reputations.
Prevent and Government strategy
*The concerns about Prevent among the communities most affected by it must be addressed. The Prevent strategy has to be reviewed to produce a new and different inclusive approach that’s much more transparent, and it should be renamed Engage to attempt to remove its already ‘toxic’ associations in the Muslim community. Allaying these concerns and building trust will require full and wide engagement with all sections of that community, including at the grassroots level and not just with groups already in agreement with the Government.
*The Government must be more transparent about what it’s doing on the Prevent strategy. There’s a lack of sufficient and appropriate training for institutions required to implement the strategy. An independent panel should reassess the Prevent training being provided to education sector and other professionals. This independent body should be asked to report on the advantages and disadvantages of placing the Prevent duty on a statutory basis and the range of institutions which are subject to the duty.
*The UK has the brightest and the best creative industries talent in the world, including in the video games arena. This talent should be used to ensure that every sophisticated piece of extremist propaganda is countered by even more sophisticated anti-radicalism material. The Government must facilitate regular meetings of the leaders of the UK’s Muslim communities. These steps can contribute towards an effective counter-narrative.
Communities and families
*The support made available to families of individuals who travel abroad to join terrorist organisations is lamentable. There needs to be an easily accessible advice and counselling service, particularly for parents, but also for other family members and friends who wish to raise concerns and ask for help when worried about their loved ones being radicalised. As a minimum, the Government must change the name of the ‘Anti-Terrorist Helpline’ which can be seen as too stigmatising and makes people apprehensive about expressing their worries. Had the existing measures been different, the schoolgirls who left Bethnal Green for Syria may have been saved.
*The communities themselves must take on a leadership role. It’s these communities that stand to lose the most when atrocities occur. Organisations like the Muslim Council of Britain could do more to expose and remove those who preach or advocate race hate and intolerance, and particularly those who draw young people into extremism. Such large community organisations must also show more effective leadership in supporting families concerned about their loved ones.
*The media has a responsibility to avoid contributing towards negative views of particular groups in society through unbalanced, unsubstantiated and sensationalist reporting. Less than 0.5% of UK journalists are Muslim compared to almost 5% of the national population. News editors are not taking sufficient care in their handling of these stories, while some continue to prioritise sensationalism over facts. They should stop using the term ‘so-called Islamic State’ and instead refer to ‘Daesh’. They shouldn’t identify terrorists as ‘Muslims’, but as terrorists and followers of Daesh.
Other recommendations made
*Government must take a much more sophisticated approach towards identifying the factors which instigate radicalisation and the measures designed to tackle them. This should include speaking to the families of known extremists to draw on their experiences. Without such a solid foundation, the strategies outlined in the proposed new Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill are likely to be ineffective.
*EU organisations such as Europol are a vital resource for the UK in combating terrorism and extremism. As such, the UK must aim to retain a central position in Europol post-Brexit.
*The Home Affairs Committee was “appalled” to hear from Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, the UK counter-terrorism police lead, about the apparent ease with which Siddhartha Dhar and others arrested for terrorism offences could breach bail conditions and flee the country, despite being asked to hand in their passports. The Government should ensure that the new legislation requires automatic notifications about individuals suspected of terrorism offences to be sent to Her Majesty’s Passport Office and the CTIRU, and that the handing-in of a passport is made a pre-condition of bail.
*There has been a great deal of counter-terrorism legislation over the past 12 years. It’s imperative that the new Countering Extremism and Safeguarding Bill doesn’t turn out to be another set of counter-terror measures that fails to achieve its objectives or, worse still, is actually counter-productive.
War for hearts and minds
Keith Vaz MP, chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, said: “We are engaged in a war for hearts and minds in the fight against terrorism. The modern front line is the Internet. Its forums, message boards and social media platforms are the lifeblood of Daesh and other terrorist groups for their recruitment and financing and the spread of ideology. Huge corporations like Google, Facebook and Twitter, with their billion dollar incomes, are consciously failing to tackle this threat and passing the buck by hiding behind their supranational legal status, despite knowing that their sites are being used by the instigators of terror. Even when someone such as Anjem Choudary is convicted, their videos and hateful speeches continue to influence people through these websites. The companies’ failure to tackle this threat has left some parts of the Internet ungoverned, unregulated and lawless.”
Vaz continued: “Britain’s security apparatus and its personnel are the best in the world. However, new threats are constantly emerging. The existing Metropolitan Police Service CTIRU should be expanded and upgraded into a state-of-the-art, round-the-clock hub designed to immediately shut down terrorist activity online. It must include operatives from the Home Office, the Security Services, the police, Internet companies and others. The Government must develop an effective counter-narrative to the slick and effective propaganda machine being run by Daesh. We should use the brightest talent of the world’s creative industries to counter terrorist propaganda with even more sophisticated anti-radicalising material. In the face of this new threat, we need a terrestrial star wars.”
In addition, Vaz explained: “The communities most affected by Prevent regard it as being toxic. Successive Governments have failed to heed repeated calls for a review of Prevent. Prevent needs to become a more transparent, stakeholder-led, inclusive strategy and be renamed Engage. It’s vital that this strategy fully involves the Muslim community in a new partnership. Organisations like the Muslim Council of Britain should see it as one of their primary duties to take a leading role in tackling extremism. These organisations can do so much more to expose, remove and isolate those who preach or advocate race hate and intolerance, and to protect their own vulnerable young people from being pulled towards extremism.”
By way of conclusion, the Home Affairs Committee chairman observed: “The support provided to the families whose loved ones have been sucked into extremism or reached the ‘tipping point’ is deeply disappointing. The ‘Anti-Terrorist Helpline’ is so obviously misnamed that it stigmatises those in need of support, or those with vital information to impart. The Government must change its name immediately. If accessible, trusted and immediate support was available to families and vulnerable young people, the tragedy of individuals leaving Britain for terrible consequences could be avoided. Exiting Britain to fight for Daesh is tantamount to taking the escalator to an early death. One-in-two people don’t return. The contrast between the failure to stop the departure of the Bethnal Green girls and the commendable success of the recovery of the young men from Brent is stark. It’s fair to state that identifying the tipping point remains the Holy Grail in our fight against radicalisation.”