Why Britain’s Prevent Strategy isn’t working: A new approach to radicalization in the age of information

Why Britain’s Prevent Strategy isn’t working: A new approach to radicalization in the age of information

In the ‘Information Age’ of today, the internet has been deployed highly effectively by ISIS for the publication of propaganda, communication and radicalization. Platforms such as Twitter and Instagram have all been utilized effectively by political extremists to establish a global ‘online’ presence, and for recruitment and radicalization.

Why do people become radicalized? And how can the government tackle radicalization without fostering it?

Perhaps beyond the screen, it is important to tackle and target these grass-root foundations. It is suggested that those who feel isolated from external society, frustrated by alienation and discrimination, seek radicalization. It is perceived to permit religious expression, a sense of purpose and liberation.

The Tony Blair Foundation Report, ‘Inside the Jihadi Mind’, lists three crucial elements when discussing radicalization: ideology, mindset and policy. It is important to emphasise that each radicalised subject is an individual. No case is the same and there is no universal or generalized process of radicalization. One must examine what made this individual seek to join an extremist group.

It is also important to understand the social and political context surrounding that individual. ISIS is fundamentally a social movement, one that believes itself to be offering solutions to those who feel aggrieved. Is there a pattern to be found in the mindsets and disciplines of those drawn to Jihad in the Middle-East? In a similar way, one must look at the social environment fostered within Britain that would drive a citizen, with no prior combat experience, to wishing to join the extremist group. While the process of radicalization is not universal, patterns could perhaps be sought within the intrinsic element of mindset.

Finally, the most important element is that of policy. Politics and radicalization are intricately linked. You must first be politicized before you can be radicalized. Societies need to politicize the youth and encourage their voices to be heard online, not stifled by government policy or fearful of discrimination and censorship.  

What the Prevent Strategy gets wrong

The Prevent Strategy, first introduced after the 2005 London Bombings, has been, thus far, the UK government’s ‘soft’ approach to tackling radicalization. It aimed to tackle ‘vulnerable’ Muslim individuals from being radicalised, where it encouraged local communities to confront these problems head-on.

This strategy emphasised the targeting of all Muslims and only Muslims, ignoring the right-wing extremism groups who rely on group discrimination that this Prevent Strategy serves to foster. It perceived the entire Muslim Community within London as a ‘suspect community’, imagining them as the ‘Other’, in much the same way as the English government regarded the Irish in the Troubles during the 1970s.

Such a strategy has served to alienate the Muslim communities, rendering them less willing to co-operate on information sharing and the shared consensus that counter-terrorism legislation targets them all. This creation of the ‘Other’ also fuels anti-Muslim extremism. Instead, the focus must be on eradicating ISIS as a ‘common’ enemy without focusing solely upon  ethnicity. From the various ethnicities that flee to join ISIS, it is clear that they are an inclusive community. Counter-radicalization narratives must be similarly inclusive.

There is no ‘prototype’ or certain Jihadi, and policy change needs to reflect this. This reflects one of the most interesting aspects of radicalization. Every individual has different socio-political paradigms driving them towards radicalization. Yet, once the process of radicalization is complete, they join a homogenous network, with common objectives and common outcomes sought.

These networks rely on inclusion within their identity structures, where it isn’t stipulated who can be part of the group. It would be a mistake to regard the ISIS network as monolithic. It is compiled of several different schemas and sub-communities.  An individual enters the process of radicalization and leaves as a member of a collective, where the same language is spoken and all are unified in battle against the same enemy, regardless of ethnic background.

The echo chamber

In discussing cyber-related policy and radicalization, one has to take note of both the inherent importance of the individual and the collective. Why can’t online counter-narratives follow a similar process? The advantages of the internet lies in its ability to manipulate identity, both individually and collectively. All those with access to social media accounts such as Twitter and Facebook are free to express their own individual identity. Such access also permits a creation of a community, where these shared identities can merge and unify to push agendas and belief systems. It is a powerful platform and one that needs to be more readily accessed, on counter-radicalization, by all demographics.

However, it is important to recognize radicalization, to quote an ICSR report, as a “real world phenomenon that cannot be dealt with simply by ‘pulling the plug’”. Democratic governments face an online battle of sorts, where individual rights to freedom of speech must be respected, balanced against a civil society requiring protection from extremist ideas and violence.

Ideas that aim to undermine this democracy must be combated. This is why counter-narratives must be ‘anchored’ in civil society, where online communities must be empowered to regulate and online extremism must be undermined through education. The internet provides a communication tool, a relatively ‘risk-free’ process for those disillusioned by society to interact with like-minded people. As described again by the ICSR, the internet “creates a new social environment in which otherwise unacceptable views and behaviour are normalized, a virtual ‘echo chamber’ in which the most extreme ideas receive the most encouraging”.

One only has to view the execution of Moaz al-Kasabeh, the Jordanian Pilot, symbolically burnt alive in a cage, dramatically emphasized as revenge against all those ‘eyes in the sky’ who had released missiles on buildings, or ‘burning cages’ in Syria. This video, released online on January 3rd 2015, aptly demonstrates this ‘echo chamber’, where the very violence of the execution itself effectively announced ISIS’ presence into the Western popular consciousness. Counter-narratives have to assert the danger of this online ‘echo chamber’, where such extremities need to be tempered online.  

To gain some insight into how to render such narratives more popular, one can learn from ISIS’ online profile itself. When so-called ‘Jihadi brides’ are first radicalized, it is because they are seeing Instagram photos of swimming pools and welcoming houses in Syria, ISIS fighters with nice watches and consuming western products such as Nutella. Despite the photos representing a foreign war-zone, they are effective in choosing the right products and ideas to appeal to those at a localized level across the world.

New strategies for countering radicalization

For online counter-narratives to be effective, they must also appeal to this ‘familiar’ and localized level. Despite ISIS being a global movement, their dominant discourse relies on targeting specific groups, those with local grievances and local priorities. Counter-narratives, and British policy, needs to focus more closely on the influence that individuals can have on their own social circles, not just in the physical space but the ‘online’ space.

Rather than focusing on the acts of violence, a world far-removed and ‘foreign’ to the average British teenager, policies must focus on their manipulation of ‘honourable’ morals such as freedom and bravery. Social media and counter-narratives should serve to encourage discussion behind these values and the ideas that ISIS propagates, rather than solely focusing on the violence that the group enacts. While this is effective to a degree, it serves to place the group within a ‘military’ sphere, a problem for the government and army, rather than for civil society to engage in.

As quoted in ‘Inside the Jihadi Mind’, “the jihadis’ greatest tool is their simplistic and clear framework for Islamic values and principles, where the more they are forced to defend their interpretation of Islamic values, the harder it will be to maintain that simplicity”.  Thus, counter-narratives should aim to expose the weaknesses, to offer alternative and more widely established answers based on Islamic values.

Public accounts of those who have fought abroad and experienced the ‘Jihadi reality’ needs to be emphasized on social media, to appeal not just to young men but to all demographics including families and women. In addition, it is important to recognize that the Jihadi online presence cannot be simply ‘silenced’. If their accounts are deleted, it only serves to fuel their argument of ‘censorship’, silencing by the ‘non-believers’, encouraging the Manichean binary of ‘us’ v. ‘them’.

This online process of radicalisation and the spread of Jihadi propaganda cannot simply be removed by internet providers. It is here to stay in the information age. As such, the best way of combating this is to utilize these platforms in a similar way, to encourage the spread of effective counter-narratives and to offer all those who feel isolated a voice, “to promote credible religious sharable material that rebuts the Jihadi message”, where “counter-narratives and attempts to tackle extremism are bound to fail if they do not work from the ideology”. For a counter-narrative to be successful online, it must attack the Jihadi ideologies. Highly-produced and community-based creative content can help in undermining these ideologies.

In relation to demographics, these online campaigns have to appeal to all. Previously, men were regarded as being more vulnerable to politicization and thus radicalisation but the all-inclusive nature of social media has transformed these statistics.

This has also been acknowledged in the growing number of female fighters and suicide bombers, most notably with Hasna Aitboulahcen, the female suicide bomber involved in the Paris Attacks of 2015. In addition, the age-groups that are being radicalized, for example, the three girls from Bethnal Green who fled to Syria in 2015, are in a unique position. These younger generations have never known a pre-9/11 world.  For these girls, and their entire generation, they have never known a time when they haven’t had to defend their Muslim identity. The post 9/11 world placed such identity at the forefront, where it was to be defended and regarded as suspicious by others.

Furthermore, it is no longer just a brotherhood of politicized men, they are now joined by a sisterhood of politicized women. Indeed, some of the radicalized women were allegedly swayed by romanticized images of ISIS posted on social media channels, with photos uploaded on Instagram of young and handsome ‘Jihadi poster boys’. Social media has allowed these subjects to take on a ‘celebrity’ persona.

Online counter-narratives need to be much more positive, to give the upcoming generations a positive message to rally around. Unfortunately, in the 21st century, acts of violence and executions serve to travel faster by word-of-mouth and online than stories of positivity. Stories of those who resisted radicalization, who wish to take a stand against such violence, not just as ‘rebelling’ Muslims but British citizens, needs to be popularized and encouraged.

In addition, a humanistic approach needs to be emphasized. All too often, in the process of warfare, the enemy is dehumanized as the ‘other’ and this extends into the general populous. However, counter-radicalisation narratives on social media cannot become another extension of foreign policy and war. We need to start re-humanizing the enemy, emphasizing the ‘human’ elements within those who become radicalized, rather than disregarding them as amoral ‘lunatics’. To undermine them in this way also undermines their clear instrumental rationale, their advanced financing, training and organizational ability.

As nations continue to fight ISIS militarily, reports are suggesting that ISIS’ online presence is fading, both in quality and quantity. Regardless, campaigns such as #openyoureyes” run by the Quilliam Foundation should not be unique but increasingly more widely established.

At a policy level, away from the screen, the gradual qualification and re-drawing of discriminatory legislation such as the Prevent strategy is also a step forward. These counter-narratives should not only come from within the Muslim communities but from British citizens, primarily the youth, taking a stand on social media outlets. Funding should be offered by the British Government to not just establish creative counter-narratives but effective counter-narratives. The advantages that an online presence can offer needs to be recognized. Exposure should not only focus on those active within the ‘echo chamber’.

Online providers such as Facebook and Twitter, rather than simply censoring extremist accounts, need to take greater responsibility for what their tools offer and offer greater coverage to the positives of the internet, where it can offer both an individual and a community voice. For these counter-narratives to work, they need to present and active within a greater number of online ‘consciousnesses’.

With government funding and a reduction of discriminatory legislation, the internet could be used as a tool to give a positive voice to all communities within British Society, where counter-radicalisation narratives could be rendered far more effective. There must be an increase in art, poetry, short films, stories and ‘witness’ interviews aiming to undermine Jihadi ideology and give both the ostracized ‘vulnerable’ youth and the general British populous a voice on this matter. Through social media platforms, there is a powerful outlet waiting for the politicized younger generations. It just needs to be more effectively utilized.  

Categories: International, Security

About Author

Alex Harris

Alex Harris is a Political Risk Analyst at GRI and currently works part-time in the Royal United Services Institute. He is studying for his MSc in International Relations, having completed his BA in History at King's College London. Alex is focusing specifically upon themes of terrorism, surveillance, cyber-security and privacy.