Friday, August 28, 2015

efforts in UK to counter ISIS in cyberspace

New British initiatives aim to counter ISIS on social media
by Susannah Tarbush

 Arabic version  was published in Al-Hayat daily newspaper 20 August 

 a still from Not Another Brother

One of the main tools used by ISIS in spreading and attracting followers has been its skilful use of YouTube, Twitter and other social media and internet sites to get its messages across and persuade Muslims from around the world to join it.

The ISIS videos that have gained most attention worldwide are those portraying its most gruesome killings and tortures. These are partly intended to strike fear into the enemies of ISIS. But at the same time ISIS uses social media to try attract young Muslims to join it as fighters, brides and members of its self-proclaimed “Islamic State”.

ISIS-related propaganda on social media has been blamed as a major factor in fact that an estimated 700 young British Muslims left Britain for ISIS-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq. Around half of them have returned, and the government fears they pose a security risk. Around 50 young Britons have been killed fighting in Syria or Iraq. While it was largely young men who went out at first, young Muslim women soon started to follow, and more recently entire extended British Muslim families have gone to areas under the control of ISIS.

Only a tiny proportion of British Muslims - who number around 2.7 million, nearly 5 per cent of the total UK population – have gone out to join ISIS, but it is thought a number of others have at least some sympathy with it. The terror threat in Britain was raised to “severe” a year ago because of the threat from ISIS, and it has been at this level ever since. Now, in recent weeks, anti-ISIS videos have started appearing on YouTube and other social media, with the aim of countering the ISIS message to young Britons. One of these new initiatives is Open Your Eyes which has a website at 

The Open Your Eyes initiative began when three young Yazidi women, who had suffered horrific sexual abuse at the hands of ISIS, visited the UK with the help of the government to address the media, politicians, and children at two schools, to tell them about their ordeal. The young Yazidis joined forces with a Birmingham-based activist Upstanding Neighbourhoods, to launch the Open Your Eyes campaign with support from the charity AMAR Foundation.

On its Twitter account Open Your Eyes says: “ISIS is lying to you. Open your eyes to the real story. We are working with young people, activists, bloggers and filmmakers to raise our voices against ISIS.” One of its Tweets says “Open Your Eyes needs your contributions – send in your video messages to take a stand against ISIS.” In one of its videos a young girl in a black headscarf named Krya speaks to the camera about British girls going out to join ISIS. In another Sabah, a Sunni who escaped ISIS in Iraq tells his story. Another video shows 18-year old schoolboy Surfaraz speaking up “because I don’t want anyone to be brainwashed by lies.”

A separate initiative to produce video material against ISIS is “Not Another Brother”, a campaign which aims to show the true human cost of radicalisation. As part of this campaign a short anti-ISIS film with this title has been circulating recently on YouTube, Twitter and other social media. The words accompanying it on YouTube say: “ISIL are radicalising our brothers to fight in Syria. They are tearing families apart. Enough is enough. Sharing this film will show ISIL that their extremist views have no place in our community. No family should lose another loved one to such hatred.”

The film shows a young British Muslim man, supposedly a fighter for ISIS in Syria, reading a letter from his older brother whose voiceover is in a strong London accent. There are the sounds of bombardments and explosions, and the young fighter’s wounds are dripping blood. In the letter his older brother apologises to for statements he had made that seem to have radicalised his younger brother and led to his deciding to go Syria to “become a hero”. At the end of the film words flash on screen: “Don’t let your words turn our brothers into weapons.” The film is meant to show how ideas can influence someone to become violent.

The “Not Another Brother” video campaign was launched by the Quilliam Foundation, the controversial counter-radicalisation think tank set up in 2007 by two former British Islamist extremists, Maajid Nawaz and Ed Husain who had both previously belonged to Hizb ut-Tahrir. “The video was developed in partnership with an agency named Verbalisation and its team of psychologists, military experts and linguists. It was financed by crowd-funding from 150 donors from 10 countries". Quilliam claims the it “can counter the influence of ISIL, and more broadly challenge the extremist narratives and ideologies that threaten us all.”

Reactions to the “Not Another Brother” film, on for example Twitter, reveal deep splits among Muslims. Some praised it, but others claim the Quilliam Foundation has no credibility at all within British Muslim communities. Critics see it as being too close to the government and as having too much influence on Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.

These new anti-ISIS video campaigns have emerged alongside Cameron’s increasingly tough stance on ISIS, at home and abroad. In a speech on extremism he gave at a school in Birmingham on 20 July Cameron’s outlined his new five-year “Counter-Extremism Strategy”. His speech attacked the “poisonous ideology” that is hostile to British values. Quilliam co-founder Maajid Nawaz trumpeted the fact that he had had an important role in the drafting of the speech.

“We have to confront a tragic truth that there are people born and raised in this country who don’t really identify with Britain – and who feel little or no attachment to other people here,” Cameron said. He laid down his comprehensive strategy to try and tackle Islamist extremism and the “poisonous ideology” that lies behind it. He attacked non-violent extremism, saying: “You don’t have to support violence to subscribe to certain intolerant ideas which create a climate in which extremists can flourish.”

Cameron insisted that “the root cause of the threat we face is the Islamist ideology itself” and dismissed the impact on young Muslims of British and Western foreign policy, or the poverty, deprivation and discrimination suffered by some British Muslims, which he referred to as “perceived grievances” rather than genuine ones. 

Cameron has been taking an increasingly hard line towards British Muslims since he first became prime minister after the May 2010 general election. In 2011 he gave a key speech in Munich, condemning “non-violent” extremism as well as violent extremism.

David Cameron

In 2011 Cameron and his Home Secretary Theresa May relaunched the “Preventing Violent Extremism” agenda, known for short as Prevent, introduced by the Labour government after the 9/11 attacks in the US. The new policy stressed the dangers of non-violent extremism.

In June this year he gave a speech in the Slovakian capital Bratislava in which he urged British Muslims to do more to counter Islamist extremism. He upset many British Muslims when he accused some British Muslims of “quietly condoning” Islamic State ideology.

In order to try and deal with the terror threat in Britain, and the problem of young fighters going out to, and returning from, Syria and Iraq the Counterterrorism and Security Bill 2015 was introduced and has now became law. For example, from 1 July staff at schools, universities, the health service, councils, the police and prisons have had a legal duty to report people they think are vulnerable to radicalisation so that steps can be taken to try to prevent them becoming extremists.

Cameron said in his 20 July speech that the government will “use people who really understand the true nature of what life is like under ISIL to communicate to young and vulnerable people the brutal reality of the ideology.” In addition, the government will “empower the UK’s Syrian, Iraqi and Kurdish communities, so they can have platforms from which to speak out against the carnage ISIL is conducting in their countries.”

Cameron also urged internet companies to go further “in helping us identify potential terrorists online.” The internet companies have shown through their clamping down on child abuse images that “they can step up when there is a moral imperative to act. And now it’s time for them to do the same to protect their users from the scourge of radicalisation”.

Lord Ahmad

Minister for Countering Extremism Lord Ahmad reinforces Cameron's message
The Conservative politician Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon was appointed as the Minister for Countering Extremism after the May 2015 general election. This is a position that was newly created at the Home Office after the election, reflecting the seriousness of the threat from extremism and terrorism facing Britain today.

Al-Hayat asked about Lord Ahmed about uncertainty and confusion over how “extremism” is to be defined. Lord Ahmed replied “I don’t think there is a confusion. I think it is at times a bit disingenuous for people to say they don’t understand.” He added that the government has been very clear over the definition of extremism as being “the vocal or active opposition to the values that we share, and those values include democracy, the rule of law, the mutual respect of people for all faiths, and cultures and practices. After the tragic death of Lee Rigby we added calls for attacks on our armed forces.” (British soldier Lee Rigby was murdered on 22 May 2013 in a London street on by two Nigerian male converts to Islam who ran him over in a car and tried to cut his head off).

Al-Hayat asked Lord Ahmad whether David Cameron’s new five-year Counter-Extremism Strategy will lead to yet more new legislation, given that this year has already seen the coming into law of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015.

Lord Ahmad said that in the autumn the government will introduce a bill on the new Counter Extremism Strategy which will include orders which will prevent particular individuals “from being provided with a platform where they can again launch a tirade of abuse and perverse narrative which seek to divide our country and our society.” The bill will also include orders banning particular organisations which do not at present meet the current criteria for being proscribed, but which “vent not just a negative ideology but a very perverse ideology which calls for attacks on other communities and minorities.”

Al-Hayat pointed out that Britain has already had around a decade of efforts to prevent violent-extremism, later widened to include non-violent extremism. Does David Cameron’s new five-year Counter-Extremism Strategy have a better chance of reducing the threat from extremism than these previous attempts?

Lord Ahmad stressed that whereas previously, governments had looked at extremism through the prism of violent extremism, now it is “looking at extremism in all its ugly guises” before it becomes violent, so as “to prevent the seeds being sown in the minds of the young.” Groups such as ISIL, Al-Qaeda and in Nigeria Boko Haram are using YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and so on “as a means of attracting and influencing younger minds, they’re being effective in some part because many youngsters use those very mediums. So what we have to do is to ensure we tackle this evolving threat, this poisonous narrative.”

Lord Ahmed said that through its new Counter-Extremism Strategy the government will look at the behavioural aspects of people to ensure it can identify extremism “before it becomes violent, before we see the tragedy of terrorism gripping us.” To meet the challenge, there must be a counter-narrative against for example “those that hijack the religion that I myself follow, Islam, using the internet.” Therefore, “we need to work with our communities to ensure that we can get a very positive counter-narrative, accentuating the positive features of Islam - using the very same scriptures that the extremists use in an erroneous fashion - to say No, the faith is quite different, the faith tells you the true Islam - the faith followed by over a billion people across the world, both here in the UK and globally –is a religion of peace which promotes mutual respect for other faiths and humanity in general.”

Lord Ahmad stressed that “the government cannot work alone, in a vacuum. It’s for a community effort, for the whole country, the police, the communities, the youth leaders, our faith groups to come together face up to the extremists’ narrative. “And there will be a Them and Us: there’s the Us, a nation united by the fact that we have to face up to a tyranny and those who seek to divide us, and there is Them - a despicable poisonous narrative.” 


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