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I’m quoted in this excellent Radio Four documentary on the use of social media by violent extremist groups, such as ISIS.

For too long, the big technology companies have thrown tiny bits of money at the problem as a cover for inactivity and apathy. Experience shows that when they are faced with deep pockets (copyright infringement) or public anger (indecent child images) they manage to get things done.

I’ve written about this at length in this report, too, co-authored by Tanya Silverman.

Less talk, more action. Our young people deserve better from us.

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A report on the Today Programme this morning spoke to young women in Luton thinking about travelling to Syria. So, are there more women travelling? What will they do when they get there? And is there anything that can be done to prevent them leaving? How does this challenge relate to the wider goals of prevention in relation to foreign fighters in Syria?

The war in Syria

It is now over three years since violence erupted in Syria. The statistics of the casualties are heart breaking. Over 146,000 people have lost their lives – someone dies every 10 minutes. The number of displaced children has more than tripled in the last year from 920,000 to 3 million – every 2 minutes, eight children in Syria are forced to flee their homes, raising concerns for this lost generation that struggles to find food, access to health care or psychological support and is going without schooling. Every minute, 3 Syrians become refugees abroad; 2.5 million have sought refuge outside the country, 1.5 million doing so in the last year alone.

These statistics are not just cold numbers; the growth of social media means that images and videos showing the horror of events on the ground are reaching bedrooms, living rooms and offices across the west. They are affecting us all, breaking our hearts on a daily basis as we see the lives of ordinary families being torn apart. A recent campaign video from Save the Children reminded us of what it would be like to have those horrors closer to home.

Syria as a radicalizing force

It is therefore not surprising that many of us are radicalized by what we see. I, for one, am left angry and heart broken, and wondering what I can do to help. We are frustrated that – yet again – our politicians and institutions are late to the table and full of grand gestures and platitudes rather than workable solutions. While the United Nations commissioned papers and the members of the Permanent Security Council wrangled over the wordings of resolutions, the people of Syria starve, face abuse, live in fear of death, and are forced to flee their homes.

The rise in western ‘foreign fighters’

Growing numbers of westerners are turning their anger into action. They are motivated by a range of things and do not necessarily go to Syria with the express aim of fighting on the side of terrorist groups, such as ISIS or al Nusra. A number of reasons emerge from those who have travelled; a desire to alleviate suffering; a duty to fight to assist Muslims who are oppressed; a desire for action and adventure; engagement in sectarian conflict; and underlying identity issues at home that leave them marginalized and powerless.

According to the ICSR, Western Europeans now represent almost one-fifth (18 per cent) of the so-called ‘foreign fighter’ population in Syria, with most recruits coming from France, the UK, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.

A recent report by the Soufan Group stated that, on average, 6 per cent of foreign fighters from EU countries are converts, many are second or third generation immigrants and very few have prior connection with Syria.

The current mobilization is more significant than for every other instance of foreign fighter mobilization since the Afghanistant war in the 1980s. Although conflicts like Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan went on for much longer, none of those conflicts mobilised as many foreigners as Syria in the same period of time. Indeed, for a number of smaller countries – Denmark and Belgium, for example – the number of residents that have gone to fight in Syria may already exceed the combined total for all previous conflicts.

Women travelling to Syria

There have been growing concerns about the number of women travelling to Syria. Most recently, Zahra and Salma Halane, 16 year old twin girls from Manchester, who are believed to have travelled to Syria.

This appears to be part of a growing and significant trend; almost one-fifth (18 per cent) of those travelling to Syria from the EU are women and the ICSR says that it is monitoring 40 women who have travelled to Syria, including at least 8 who are British.

Most accounts of these women place them as supporting and facilitating the actions of male fighters, whether as wives and mothers – for instance many travel with their husbands, maintaining the home, delivering first aid, or as women wishing to conduct ‘sexual jihad’ of which there have been sporadic reports.

There is less evidence of them performing a combative role, although there are various images circulating online of just that. And we must assume that – now or at some point in the future – it is inevitable that some will perform this function, as women have in other similar conflicts around the world. This is a truth that challenges, not just our age old gender stereotypes, but in particular society’s view of Muslim women as submissive and subservient to men within their homes and communities, something that is rarely a reality for Muslims living in the west.

Prevention is better than cure

Today’s report hears from women who dismiss the role of community leaders in influencing their opinions. These are women who are active media consumers and take their cues from a variety of sources, as we all do these days; most news content is now shared and accessed via social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. And research from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) showed that Muslim media consumption habits are similar to non-Muslims, dispelling the myth of segregated consumption patterns.

This means that there is an opportunity to compete to reach young men and women angry about what they see happening in Syria before they make the decision to travel. There have been a handful of attempts to do this. A recent police campaign focused on informing those wishing to travel of the legal implications of doing so, the practical challenges of doing so safely, and offered alternatives for those wanting to make a difference. But the women featured in Today’s piece had not heard of the campaign, highlighting the challenge of getting your message to the right ears and ensuring they hear it. This does not mean we should see the campaign as a failure and give up; rather we should amplify and scale up.

There is also an urgent need to compete with violent extremists for the attention of our young people. Extensive social media analysis conducted by my team at ISD reveals that there is almost no counter-narrative activity occurring online. There is no shortage of talk at expensive international conferences about the need for counter-narratives, but there is very little action. Governments are on safe and familiar ground funding meetings, but struggle to get effective counter-messaging campaigns signed off by risk-averse Ministers.

There are notable exceptions. For example, Abdullah-X has been developed by a London-based community worker committed to pushing back on violent extremist messaging, one of whose most successful videos focuses on considerations for Muslims thinking about travelling to Syria. This 2-minute animation was watched by over 6,000 people in a 6-week pilot campaign, in which ISD was involved in its role as co-chair of the European Commission’s working group on Internet radicalization. At the time of writing, it had been seen over 10,000 times. The next installment is out this week.

Frustrated by the lack of action, my team at ISD has turned itself into a counter-narrative innovation hub, creating content, working with partners to disseminate it to the right audiences, and using social media analytics to understand what works so these lessons can be applied by us and our community-based partners. The Autumn will see ISD launch a major counter-narrative campaign in Canada based on short films telling the stories of individuals touched by violent extremism, and similar campaigns will follow in the UK, Germany and Hungary in 2015. We are also talent spotting creative messengers who will dock into our technology platform to benefit from the campaigns and analytics experience we have built up.

As it currently stands, extremists have won the war of content and ideas online; they are organized, professional and prolific. In contrast, we are patchy, amateurish and unsystematic. If we want those thinking of travelling to Syria to come across a range of competing views, we need to do something about this. And fast. As the young women told the BBC reporter, they do not listen to community leaders.

What to do with the people returning from Syria?

We have still not seen individuals return from Syria in large numbers, and there has only been one documented case of a returnee committing an attack in Europe; a French lone actor who attacked a Jewish centre in Belgium, killing three.

Studies of previous conflicts show that most western jihadists prefer foreign fighting, but a minority do return to commit attacks at home in the west, approximately one in nine. This is a small proportion of all foreign fighters, but means that being a foreign fighter is a high risk factor for becoming a domestic fighter. The presence of foreign fighters also increases the effectiveness of those attacks; the presence of a veteran increases by a factor of roughly 1.5 the probability that a plot will come to execution and it doubles the likelihood that the plot will kill people.

Even when those returning have not fought, there is the risk that the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will make them vulnerable to radicalization once they return home.

Law enforcement is an essential tool for those returning who have broken the law. It is right that they are arrested and brought to justice, where they have joined terrorist groups to fight or been involved in the facilitation of those networks and their activities. But used too bluntly, the law will act play into the hands of extremists and will also drive a wedge between the police and communities at a time at which that relationship is critical as an early warning and prevention mechanism to prevent young people from travelling to Syria.

Government must invest in targeted and practical interventions to support those returning who have not broken the law and do not pose an immediate threat, and so will not find themselves within the criminal justice system or under surveillance by the intelligence agencies. These individuals – more likely to be women or those involved in humanitarian relief who are vulnerable to PTSD – need a range of social and therapeutic services to deal with the psychological impacts of their experiences, which might otherwise leave them vulnerable to radicalization and recruitment. Germany’s Hayat programme is an example of how this can be delivered.

Conclusion

The challenge of foreign fighters is of course not new, but the scale and speed of recruitment into Syria is causing concern in countries across Europe. That there appear to be growing numbers of women joining should not be surprising. Less is known about what the women are doing when they arrive, with much focus to date on their role as supporters and facilitators. But we can only assume that they will make their way to the frontline, as they have in many previous conflict zones.

There have been limited attempts to date to prevent young people from leaving. There are notable exceptions, such as those outlined in this article, but we are very much on the back foot and need to act quickly and decisively if we are to stand any chance of making up lost ground. Government agencies need to build bridges with communities and communicate more often and more loudly on the dangers of travel and alternative responses. We also need to get serious about competing for the attention of young people online. As it stands now, the extremists have won the wars of content and ideas online. We need to stop talking and start doing in the realm of counter-narratives so that young people hear from competing views before they make up their minds.

Finally, we need to start planning now for what happens when people start to return from Syria. The numbers far outweigh what we have seen in previous conflicts, which means there is a very real danger of overwhelming our existing services. There is simply not the manpower to arrest our way out of the problem, and putting all returnees under surveillance would bring our intelligence agencies to their knees. We therefore need a range of alternative community-based solutions for those who pose the least risk, both to ensure they do not go on to be a security threat to society, but also to help them return to some semblance of normal life and become functioning members of society here in the UK.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Abderrozak Benarabe is also known as Big A. He’s a gangster from Denmark who turned his back on a life of crime after his brother’s cancer diagnosis, turning to Islam and then, eventually, jihad in Syria.

European Jihadi follows Big A from the streets of Copenhagen to Syria and back again. Directed by Nagieb Khaja, it shows how adventure is the motive for some who find themselves on the frontline.

Following his Syrian commanders around wearing a grey t-shirt, khaki shorts and pumps, he looks more like a tourist that wandered into a war zone by mistake than a battle-ready combatant. He is a man out of place and out of his depth; no longer the big gangster fish in a criminal pond.

When he first arrives, the battalion does not have enough guns to go around and he complains, saying that he will tell the commander he’ll go home if he doesn’t see any action. After a number of men are killed in a shoot out, he finally gets his gun, and a smile creeps over his face as he takes it. In contrast, the faces of his Syrian companions are blank, a visible sense of emptiness hanging behind their eyes. These are men tired of the fighting. Some not even men.

After four days of fighting and bragging about his wealth back home, the commander tells Big A that he will be more useful back home in Denmark raising money than in Idlib fighting. He is furious.

Big A returns to Copenhagen, raises €67,000, and drives a mini bus full of medical and military supplies back to Syria. He is quite the big man showing off the night vision goggles and bullet proof vests he has smuggled over the Turkish border.

During his time in Copenhagen, Big A met up with his estranged daughter who asked why he was going to Syria. Surely, she asked, there were people closer to home that could benefit more from his help if he really wanted to put right his past misdemeanours. It’s not the same, he told her.

Cut to footage of Big A on a Danish beach. His version of reality was that he had to come home to sort out a turf war threatening his patch in Copenhagen. But this films paints a picture of a man in search of adventure for whom Syria was little more than a combat theme park; sulking until he got a gun; furious when asked to contribute off the battle field rather than on it; and whose commitment to the cause evaporated as soon as his status and revenue at home were at risk.

There are many theories about why Europeans are travelling to Syria. As ISIS declares itself a caliphate now known as IS and its leader speaks of furthering the Muslim cause, it is worth remembering that not all those who find themselves on the frontline have this kind of focus. Many will be young men and women, bored of life in Europe, in search of adventure. And like Big A, many could be dissuaded given the right deterrents and disincentives.

Here is an article I have with Ross Frenett on HuffPo arguing for the need to invest resources in films, campaigns and digital activities to push back on the messages that violent extremists use to attract young people to travel to Syria to fight. 

Today’s report by the UK Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee warns of the alarming number of westerners traveling to Syria to fight and calls for stronger efforts to counter the recruitment narratives of extremists. As Committee Chairman, Keith Vaz, warned “without the Government helping peer-led projects to tackle this problem, many more may be lost to radicalisation.”

Also launched today is a report we have written for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, (ISD) in which we outline the nature of the problem and what must be done to stem the tide of western citizens willing to become so-called ‘foreign fighters’ in countries, such as Syria, Mali and Somalia. Drawing on research conducted by ISD on the effectiveness of counter-narratives, our own database of suspected foreign fighters, and interviews with members of the Against Violent Extremism who have travelled and fought in previous conflicts, the report offers a concrete roadmap for success in pushing back on the kinds of extremist messages that draw people to places such as Syria to fight.

We define three distinct messengers that need to be countered:

Violent extremist groups: The formal propaganda wings of the armed movements engage with potential supporters, produce propaganda and provide justification for their actions.

Their supporters: There are many associated groups and networks that use their websites, forums and social media accounts to support and encourage the actions of groups that employ foreign fighters, celebrate martyrs and produce large quantities of propaganda. These are, in most cases, more influential than the violent extremist groups; a recent ICSR report found that two of the most influential supporters and cheerleaders for the Syrian Jihad were not even based in Syria, but were in fact western supporters with a strong social media presence.

Individual foreign fighters: Some foreign fighters tweet from the frontline, sharing their experiences; everything from accounts of their daily routines, to reflections on life on the frontline. The most famous example is the late Omar Hammami, an American Jihadist killed in Somalia. Others, such as Abu Fulan al-Muhajir, tweet their experiences from Syria in English.

Just as there is no single profile of violent extremists, there is no one discernible ‘type’ of foreign fighter. From ignorant novices who view the trips as a rite of passage, die-hard militants looking for combat and martyrdom, and individuals who go for humanitarian reasons but get drawn into conflict, individuals become foreign fighters for a range of reasons: boredom; intergenerational tensions; the search for greater meaning in life; perceived adventure; attempts to impress the local community or the opposite sex; a desire for increased credibility; to belong or gain peer acceptance; revenge; or misguided conflict experience expectations.

In response, counter-messages or counter-narratives need to mirror these motivating factors. Based on the types of propaganda that are being used to convince young people to travel, we identify five main areas of counter-messaging:

You are being duped – don’t be taken in by their propaganda: the idea of betrayal is an especially strong and compelling one for young people. This message could focus on how potential recruits are being misled by propaganda for example, images of dead children taken from other places and presented as happening in the theatre of conflict or stories about al-Shabaab’s extensive use of the forced recruitment of children.

We are not all in this together – there are as many divisions as bonds between different Islamic factions. As noted above, the idea of camaraderie and unity is one stressed very often by those groups that utilise foreign fighters. Highlighting the vicious infighting between and within groups could go a long way towards countering this message. This could consist of examples of foreign fighters finding themselves under fire from other Islamic groups rather than the ‘enemy’, or even examples of foreign fighters who were betrayed and murdered in the conflict zone by the very groups they traveled to join. The most famous and powerful example of this is the American foreign fighter, Omar Hammam, who even live tweeted one attempt on his life.

This is not an Islamic struggle – you do not have a ‘duty’ to fight. This could include messages about why fighting is not justified within Islam, why it is not a ‘just war’, and therefore bringing into question the Islamic duty to fight.

You are useless and you’ll get in the way – do something more constructive instead: This message could be unpacked in a number of ways: local fighters explaining that foreign fighters will be a liability on the frontline, and may not be allowed to fight anyway; citizens explaining that their need to protect foreigners will put them in danger; refugees on the indulgence of foreigners wanting to have adventure when there are women and children starving in refugee camps. This message could also give very clear ‘calls to action’: collect money, raise awareness, work for political dialogue, lobby your political representatives, etc.

Conditions on the frontline are terrible – it is not the adventure you are expecting. This message could focus on the reality of poor conditions in these conflict zones, including testimonies from returned foreign fighters, and accounts from journalists or locals on the ground. It could include a ‘call to action’ linked to the adventure motivation, such as volunteering in other Islamic/Muslim majority countries or regions.

The problem of foreign fighters is not new; it goes back to the Spanish civil war and beyond. But the advent of social media opens up multiple new possibilities for direct communication to encourage ever more numbers of young people to respond to a so-called ‘call of duty’.

Social media can also be a tool for good; with concerted efforts and smart campaigns, we too can reach these young people and give them the knowledge to ask the right questions about whether travelling to Syria to fight is the right thing to do. For now, the violent extremists are winning the war of ideas online. It’s time for the counter-messengers to raise their game.

 

 

 

I’m pleased to be chairing an event in London organised by the Forgiveness Project on 28 April where the focus will be on how former extremists can use their own experiences to help tackle violent extremism.

Sharing their own personal journeys of moving away from extremism will be Tony McAleer, a former white supremacist and former organiser of the White Aryan Resistance in Canada and Hadiya Masieh, a former Islamic extremist who was recruited by Hizb ut-Tahrir radicals, until the 7/7 bombings changed her perspective.

I’m a passionate believer that the stories of former extremists are a credible counter-message to extremist propaganda and I’m working to create a global resource of testimonies through my work at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and via the AVE network we run there.

More information about the event and tickets are available here.

Here’s a piece I’ve got on HuffPo this morning, setting out 5 messages for Ed Miliband on foreign policy. It draws on a chapter I wrote for a new Fabian Society collection, One Nation in the World, that was launched on Monday in Parliament. The wonderful Kirsty McNeill has written a response to the collection.

5 Messages for Ed Miliband on Foreign Policy

When Prime Minister Miliband walks into Downing Street on 8 May 2015, he will inherit a foreign and security policy machine that needs fixing. The country can’t afford to support its ambitions for world leadership; new alliances are needed with the private sector; investment is needed in systems capacity – especially technological and linguistic – and the Labour Prime Minister will need to rebuild the trust of a public rocked by Snowden’s revelations about how the machinery of foreign and security policy really works.

Here are five messages for Prime Minister Miliband and his foreign policy team.

Labour needs a streamlined foreign policy

Austerity Britain can no longer afford to support its grand ambitions; the Foreign Office (FCO) budget is set to half as a proportion of departmental spending and the Ministry of Defence is facing cuts larger than any other department. Given these constraints, it makes sense to do less but better, focusing on a much smaller number of strategic priorities. The FCO should think in terms of campaigning rather than diplomacy, taking on a small number of touchstone foreign policy campaigning issues with a clear objective, measureable aims, a roadmap for success, smart communications strategy, and high-level leadership. The Foreign Secretary’s campaign to end sexual violence against women in conflict areas is a great example of this approach in practice, and will have ripple effects to broader work on gender, conflict and development.

Labour needs to rethink multilateralism

Let’s be honest; our international institutions do not work. And while reform efforts continue, a Labour government needs a new way of getting things done. It should look to convene small action-oriented networks of countries looking for solutions around specific problems. The Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, created in 2009, is an example of what these flexible can-do networks can achieve – the results have been staggering.

Labour should also prioritise investment in regional bodies to deliver local solutions because these efforts tend to be more effective, build resilience and are sustainable. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has turned a lost cause into a beacon of hope – this is the kind of thing we need in Mali instead of French boots on the ground. Three-quarters of Al Qaeda leaders are now in Africa.

Labour needs to bring the private sector into foreign policy making

Discussions within foreign policy tend to read like a cartographical roll call of who’s hot and who’s not. But power is not just shifting from West to East; it is seeping away from government, meaning that foreign policy solutions are found in boardrooms rather than embassies. For example, while Cathy Ashton deserves credit for mediating a landmark nuclear agreement with Iran, for years the EU failed to enforce its own sanctions. 18 months before this agreement was reached, a tiny NGO – United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI) – successfully lobbied SWIFT to discontinue its services to EU-sanctioned Iranian financial institutions, including Iran’s Central Bank. What brought Iran to the table? Careful diplomacy or economic isolation achieved by a tiny but focused and determined advocacy group? Similarly, Google’s new uProxy product that allows ordinary citizens to allow campaigners under repressive regimes to use their internet connections as safe, anonymous proxy servers, could have a much larger impact on political reform in countries like Iran and China than careful, steady diplomacy.

Labour needs to put technology at the centre of its foreign policy making

Foreign policy can draw on a multitude of new technology tools to make it more effective – but it doesn’t. It could use large-scale sentiment analysis of social media big data to gauge the mood on the street. It could use social media platforms as a route to direct communication and engagement with foreign publics. And it could even crowd source policy making by enabling citizens to analyse data, as exemplified by the work of Brown Moses, who managed to join the dots quicker and more effectively on weapons in Syria than diplomats and analysts within government with access to highly classified information.

Labour needs to win back public trust in foreign policy

Perhaps the most important foreign policy ally for the next Labour government will be the British public. What Iraq started, Snowden finished, reinforcing the feeling that things aren’t working, that the ‘system’ has as much interest in self-preservation as public duty, and that elected politicians are not up to the job of reform. Labour should launch a public national enquiry into the impact of new technologies, the Internet and social media on foreign and security policy, addressing the full range of ethical challenges, governance issues, access to information, and opportunities for improving effectiveness and impact. It should be led by someone independent of the establishment who will not shy away from holding the foreign policy community to account.

The previous Labour government’s approach to foreign policy was the source of considerable public mistrust and dissatisfaction of the party. The scale of the challenge means that foreign policy is something that the next Labour government ignores at its peril.

The Institute for Strategic Dialogue launched a new report on Friday on the way Muslims are covered in the media in the UK and Germany. It was sparked by concerns that the growth of specialist media – especially that aimed specifically at Muslims – could lead towards the development of parallel media societies. It involved focus groups with journalists in both mainstream and specialist/Muslim media, focus groups with media consumers (Muslims and non-Muslims), and a survey of media consumers in the UK and Germany.

The key findings were:

  • There is no such thing as a parallel media society in terms of news and current affairs coverage. Both Muslims and Muslims still rely on a small number of mainstream media outlets for their news, and consumer roughly the same amount of current affairs from specialist outlets.
  • Muslims rarely consume media on the basis of their religion or as a religious community – but they do, like other groups, rely on it for languages, diaspora links, and special interests.
  • The Internet and social media are important for all groups, especially as a go to place to check media coverage from other sources.
  • All groups believe that coverage of Muslims in the media is negative and stereotyped, but especially in Germany and among Muslims. Consumers were easily able to recall negative news stories about Muslims, but not positive ones.
  • Journalists accepted that this negative portrayal was disproportionate to the balance of reality – but didn’t on the whole recognise that their own organisations were guilty of negative portrayal.
  • Media consumers also feel that Muslims are underrepresented in the media, both in front of and behind the camera.
  • There was broad agreement that the media – amongst other things – has an impact on community relations on the ground. It impacts on the perceptions of Muslims, relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, and sometimes real life events are affected.
  • There is a need for critical media consumption – and also critical media production. This was recognised by both consumers and producers alike.
  • But overall, most people felt that the media has the potential to have an enormously positive effect on community relations.

The research will be published along with a policy brief with detailed policy and practical recommendations in the next month or so. A further discussion event will be held in Germany in May. Get in touch if you would like more information about this project.

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