The Online Radicalisation Myth

Following the tragic murder of Sir David Amess MP, the UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel, used his death to call for an end to anonymity on social media. She said:

I want us to look at everything and there is work taking place already […] I spend too much time with communities who have been under attack, who’ve had all sorts of postings put online, and it’s a struggle to get those postings taken down. We want to make some big changes on that.

The police had already stated that the crime was being investigated as a terrorist incident. They reported a potential motive of Islamist extremism. Patel suggested that the suspect’s online anonymity contributed towards the radicalisation process that led him allegedly to commit the crime.

However, it appears that the suspect, Ali Harbi Ali, was not “anonymous” at all. According to mainstream media reports, he had been referred to the UK Government’s PREVENT programme many years ago.

The idea that law enforcement and intelligence agencies are incapable of monitoring online activity is laughable. As far back as 2013, it was revealed that GCHQ was monitoring all Internet activity. GCHQ was also privy to the data hoovered up by the US National Security Agency (NSA) PRISM Program.

Yet this essential falsehood—that people can supposedly easily hide their online activity—is simply accepted without challenge by those who advocate government control of the Internet. It seems that nearly every act of violence, or any instance of face-to-face abuse, is blamed upon social media in some way.

The mainstream media are eager to make the same suggestion. Within days of the murder of Sir David Amess, the tabloids reported that the suspect was radicalised by watching YouTube videos.

These claims, from unnamed associates of the accused, allege that the otherwise “normal” young man was radicalised by watching terrorist related material online: in particular, the proselytising of Islamist extremist cleric Anjem Choudary.

Apparently, accessing the ramblings of Choudary, or other questionable clerics, leads to radicalisation. This has been classified by the UK Government as a form of online harm.

The Government has proposed the Online Safety Act (currently undergoing the “scrutiny” of a cross-party committee) to tackle this alleged problem. It states:

Terrorist groups use the internet to spread propaganda designed to radicalise vulnerable people, and distribute material designed to aid or abet terrorist attacks.

Politicians from both sides of the House of Commons agree with this statement.

The leader of the Labour Party and serving member of the Trilateral Commission, Sir Keir Starrmer, seemingly blamed the murder on the encrypted communications application, Telegram. He advocated a crackdown on Internet service providers (ISPs), claiming that this particular app “facilitated a subculture that cheerleads for terrorists”. Starmer’s comments were either propaganda, designed to bolster calls to regulate the Internet, or ignorant.

There does seem to be a tiny minority of people who cheerlead for terrorist groups online. However, there is no evidence that if they use Telegram, they must be doing this. Telegram no more facilitates this unpleasant rhetoric than any other space, physical or virtual, where people are able to communicate.

Nor is Telegram’s alleged end-to-end encryption any kind of impediment to the intelligence agencies or law enforcement. Telegram uses its own bespoke encryption protocol called MTProto 2.0, that some view as “bizarre”, and that can be bypassed to de-anonymise the participants in an encrypted chat.

What most people don’t realise, though, is that no matter how bizarre Telegram’s encryption may be, it is off by default, is hard to switch on and use for one-to-one chats, and cannot be switched on at all for group chats, where most of the claimed “radicalisation” takes place.

Patel and Starmer are among those who are therefore advocating legislation to tackle a security issue that simply does not exist.

The political class is unified in the assertion that an online environment of “hate” is tolerated by social media and Internet service providers and that this leads to “real-world” consequences. The implication by Patel was that this form of online harm led to the murder of a politician.

It is important to be very clear about this allegation. The claim is that people who are vulnerable to radicalisation can be driven to acts of extreme violence (terrorism) because they watch YouTube videos or because they chat with other extremists in Internet chat rooms. Consequently, the Government is insisting that it must have the authority to police the Internet in order to keep us safe.

There are a number of fundamental problems with this assertion.

There is No Evidence that Radicalisation Occurs Online

The PREVENT strategy acknowledges that the radicalisation process isn’t simply a matter of watching videos or being influenced by other extremists:

We judge that radicalisation is driven by an ideology which sanctions the use of violence; by propagandists for that ideology here and overseas; and by personal vulnerabilities and specific local factors which, for a range of reasons, make that ideology seem both attractive and compelling […] Radicalisation is usually a process, not an event […]
We will conduct research and collaborate with other countries to continuously improve our understanding of radicalisation. This is vital to ensure the effectiveness of these programmes.

This appears to be an attempt to explain the multiple factors which are thought to contribute towards radicalisation. PREVENT strategists admit that further research is needed to understand this process.

There are a known range of factors which appear to contribute to a person's “vulnerability” to radicalisation. Personal characteristics and experiences, political, ideological and theological perspectives, exposure to propaganda, and a sense of disenfranchisement all combine to create the influences that may push someone towards terrorism.

Yet the PREVENT strategy also claims:

The internet has transformed the extent to which terrorist organisations and their sympathisers can radicalise people in this country and overseas.

Given this admission that further research is required to understand radicalisation, where does the certainty of this statement come from? If the assertion is true, then surely domestic terrorism should have increased in the Internet age? As we explored in the UK Column article Hate Creep, this is not actually the case. This groundless belief appears, therefore, to be politically motivated.

Nor is there any academic basis for the perspective assumed in the PREVENT strategy. The 2011 PREVENT review stated:

Since the last Prevent strategy, academic, intelligence and other Government work has illuminated the drivers of radicalisation, the characteristics of people who have been radicalised and who have joined terrorist groups, and the specific pathways to support for, and participation in, terrorist acts.

There is no citation of the illuminating work which allows the political architects of PREVENT to understand with such clarity the radicalisation process and the pathways to terrorism. The first cited reference is to a Home Office study which states:

The empirical evidence base on what factors make an individual more vulnerable to […] violent extremism is weak. Even less is known about why certain individuals resort to violence.

The second reference to another Home Office study, which attempted to apply lessons learned from interviews with former street gang members, cult members and others, and which concluded:

The assessment found that the available evidence base provides limited basis for policy development […] there is little evidence to inform assessments of the transferability of lessons from street gangs, religious cults and right-wing groups to terrorist groups.

This doesn’t seem very illuminating, either. In fact, despite PREVENT authors' claims of recondite knowledge, it has subsequently emerged that there is next to no empirical understanding of the “radicalisation process”.

In 2016, the UN Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson issued a report which noted that there was no reliable research that clearly defined how the so-called radicalisation process occurred. The myriad theories about the antecedents to terrorism that were swirling around the think tanks were neither science- nor evidence-based.

Emmerson wrote:

Many programmes directed at radicalisation [are] based on a simplistic understanding of the process as a fixed trajectory to violent extremism with identifiable markers along the way […] there is no authoritative statistical data on the pathways towards individual radicalisation.

In 2018, a team of researchers at Deakin University in Australia conducted a meta-analysis of the available literature on radicalisation. Having reviewed all the research and data they could find, the team wrote:

Factors such as the consumption of propaganda, narratives or political grievances do not operate by themselves but rather have effect within specific social settings […] the lack of rigorous methods in the field also leaves unanswered the questions about the causal relations between the factors […]
There is no definitive answer to the question whether the adoption of an extreme ideology precedes engagement in violence.

Again, the data strongly suggests that levels of terrorism have reduced remarkably during the Internet era.

Perhaps increased global access to information has had a positive impact on terrorist radicalisation by diminishing the credence lent to radicalising narratives. The data seems to suggest that distinct possibility. Unfortunately, there are no studies exploring this question.

What is certain is that Priti Patel’s, Sir Keir Starmer’s and the mainstream media's suggestion that a man was murdered because the alleged killer used social media anonymously was based upon absolutely nothing. We should all be clear: there is no evidence that radicalisation occurs online.

Why are Some Terrorists Promoted and Others Not?

Ali Harbi Ali was presumably referred to the PREVENT programme in the first place because he had been identified as someone “vulnerable” to radicalisation. Established in 2010, the PREVENT strategy has been strongly focused upon reducing vulnerable people’s exposure to Islamist extremism and, in particular, to al-Qaeda:

All terrorist groups need to radicalise and recruit people to their cause […] Al Qa’ida and many of the groups associated with it are ambitious. They aspire to radicalise and recruit people in large numbers, in this country and elsewhere, to be part of an international network with an international agenda […]
Al Qa’ida and related groups pose the greatest current threat to people in this country […] Most of our Prevent work has been directed to controlling their activities.

PREVENT is a strategy of the UK Government. Young people are supposedly brought into the programme to stop Islamist extremist groups “radicalising” them. Therefore, one might expect that the UK Government might have done something to limit the chances of these “vulnerable” young people being exposed to the kind of terrorist material which, it claims, presents such a threat to them. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

The suspect in the murder of Sir David Amess didn’t need to deploy any technological subterfuge to listen to the words of Anjem Choudary. He could simply watch him on broadcast television.

Choudary was the co-founder of Al Muhajiroun and, until his arrest in 2016, he openly ran a recruitment operation, sending young British Muslims to training camps and then on to war zones. For nearly two decades, he made regular appearances on mainstream British television. For example, following the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013, the BBC invited Choudary to speak on its flagship current affairs programme, Newsnight.

Whether or not the views of people like Choudary should be aired is a matter for debate. He was always careful not to cross the line of directly inciting violence or other criminal acts during his many television appearances. It is reasonable to argue that, provided that speech is lawful, all ideas should be openly discussed. Censoring them makes challenging them impossible.

Nonetheless, there is no necessity for individuals allegedly vulnerable to radicalisation to skulk around in the recesses of the dark web to hear the words of people like Choudary. For the mainstream media to claim, therefore, that terror suspects have been radicalised by him lacks both credibility and self-awareness.

The Counter-Terrorism Internet Referral Unit

The UK Government's Counter-Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU) was set up in 2010 to remove “unlawful terrorist material” from the Internet. It makes requests to social media and hosting companies to take down material deemed to be “unlawful”.

The group Jabhat Fateh al Sham (JFS) was formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front or Jabhat al-Nusra (alias al-Qaeda in Syria, or al-Qaeda in the Levant). It subsequently merged with Ansar al-Din Front, Jaysh al-Sunna, Liwa al-Haqq, and the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement to form Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), or 'Levant Liberation Front'.

HTS' objective is to create an Islamic state in the Levant. According to the UK Government’s listing of proscribed terrorist groups:

The government laid Orders, in July 2013, December 2016 and May 2017, which provided that the “al-Nusrah Front (ANF)”, “Jabhat al-Nusrah li-ahl al Sham”, “Jabhat Fatah al-Sham” and “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” should be treated as alternative names for the organisation which is already proscribed under the name Al Qa’ida.

This is, then, officially defined as the same group that is claimed to be responsible for 9/11. It is the same terrorist organisation that the PREVENT Strategy has dedicated “most of its work” to combating.

In 2016, BBC Newsnight interviewed al-Qaeda’s Director of Foreign Media Relations, Mostafa Mahamed, about the ambitions of al-Qaeda, giving him ample airtime to explain how al-Qaeda was leading the fight against the elected Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. The BBC said that JFS had formerly split from al-Qaeda, though obviously the UK Government does not share that appraisal.

As of late 2021, that interview is still available to watch on YouTube. Alternatively, you could watch a JFS promotional video, or perhaps spend less than a minute searching YouTube to find the slew of online material on that platform promoting proscribed Islamist terrorist groups.

You could watch Channel 4’s in-depth 2016 report extolling the heroics of the Nour al-Din al-Zenki terrorists. This is the group that publicly beheaded a twelve-year-old boy. In fact, Channel 4 promoted those directly responsible for the horror, referring to their “famous victory”.

When it was pointed out that these people decapitate children, the BBC leapt to their defence, pointing out that the child was probably a combatant. The BBC didn’t ask its terrorist comrade, Mostafa Mahamed, whether he was against murdering children in principle.

It is strange that these promotional videos for proscribed terrorist groups don’t contravene YouTube’s (actually Google’s) community guidelines:

Content intended to praise, promote, or aid violent criminal organizations is not allowed on YouTube.

Independent news organisations, including the UK Column, leading physicians like Dr Peter McCulloch, and scientists like Professor Mike Yeadon have all had videos removed, or have been barred from YouTube, for claimed violation of the guidelines around Covid content. Yet videos praising al-Qaeda (HTS) remain up for all to see.

Such videos have been available online for years and have been shared liberally by mainstream media outlets such as Al-Jazeera, Channel 4, the BBC, AP, France24 and many others. This all seems rather odd, because in 2018, CTIRU Commander Clarke Jarrett said:

It’s vital that if the public see something online they think could be terrorist-related, that they ACT and flag it up to us. Our Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU) has specialist officers who not only take action to get content removed, but also increasingly, are in a position to look at those behind online content — which is leading to more and more investigations.

What does CTIRU mean by “terrorist-related” if not promotional videos made by terrorist organisations? How much investigation is needed to “take down” BBC interviews with al-Qaeda spokesmen, and to prosecute those who made it?

Why aren’t the hundreds, if not thousands, of terrorist promos currently available via Google services deemed unlawful? Are only some terrorist groups unlawful while others are fine? Why are some terrorists promoted and others not?

It is All Politically-Motivated Propaganda

Following up on Patel’s comments, the usual mainstream media outlets further supported calls to restrict use of the Internet, alleging the problem of “bedroom radicals”. Unnamed intelligence sources reportedly said:

Counter-terror police and MI5 have been concerned for some time that once we emerged out of lockdown there would be more people out on the streets and more targets for the terrorists […]
Combined with the fact that lots of young people have been spending so much time online, it makes for a very worrying mix and there is a real concern about the possible rise of the bedroom radicals.

Despite there being no evidence for any of the above, we are here being told that someone thinks young people have been radicalised towards terrorism online while other domestic terrorists have presumably been socially-isolating, during lockdowns, due to a claimed lack of targets.

This idea that “lone wolves” are being “radicalised” online was also put forward by Britain's most senior police commander, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Speaking little more than a month before the murder of Sir David Amess, Cressida Dick said:

The threat of sophisticated terrorist cells being directed from overseas has been added to by that of the individuals carrying out rudimentary attacks with very little planning or warning. The current focus on encryption by many big tech companies is only serving to make our job to identify and stop these people even harder, if not impossible in some cases.

This echoed earlier comments by the head of MI5 (formally, the Security Service), the UK’s domestic intelligence agency. Speaking in May 2021, Ken McCallum blamed Facebook for giving terrorists a “free pass” with its proposed end-to-end encryption for messaging services. He said that the intelligence agencies required access to communications to stop terrorists making bombs, releasing martyrdom videos and radicalising others.

Yet not only do they already have access, the videos that he claims could radicalise young people in their bedrooms are not even considered “unlawful” by CTIRU. Additionally, the same content is openly being disseminated by Google, who are partners of the UK Government.

Speaking in September 2021, McCallum said that the US' (including the UK and other allies) troop withdrawal from Afghanistan had increased the terror threat:

There is no doubt that recent events in Afghanistan will have heartened and emboldened some of those extremists […] We need to be vigilant — both for the increase in inspired terrorism, which has become a real trend for us to deal with over the last five to ten years, alongside [sic] the potential regrowth of al-Qaeda-style directed plots that we saw more commonly some years ago.

McCallum was making no sense at all. If MI5 need to be vigilant, then surely a good place to start would be with the BBC or Channel 4? Those media organisations appear to have excellent lines of communication with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Why was he talking about the threat of Islamist groups radicalising people in their bedrooms, while CTIRU was apparently indifferent to the plethora of Islamist extremist videos hosted on YouTube?

If CTIRU, and presumably other UK intelligence agencies, are not concerned about videos from real terrorist groups, what is it that they want the public to “flag up”? 

So-called suspicious activity can apparently be reported to ACT, the UK Government’s Action Counters Terrorism initiative.

There is only one request issued by ACT, namely to report to counter-terrorism police information which could possibly be construed as relating to alleged radicalisation. This request is expressed in the vaguest of terms:

Have you noticed somebody promoting hateful ideas or extremist views?

Suddenly, we aren’t talking about anything we could objectively identify as terrorism or terrorist-related. This is probably just as well, because the UK Government and its agencies don’t appear to be too interested in tackling real terrorist content. Their focus must lie elsewhere.

Online Safety

Patel’s and Starmer’s comments are not evidently related to actual counter-terrorism. Rather, it appears they were little more than a claimed justification for proposed legislation. They were seemingly selling a spurious narrative to support the introduction of what is planned to become the Online Safety Act.

It isn’t known when the UK Government took possession of the Internet, or who they seized it from, but they have certainly assumed authority over it. But if the proposed Online Safety Act is not designed to reduce terrorism, what is it for?

The Online Safety Bill is focused upon the “prevention and handling of disinformation and misinformation online”. While there is no offered definition of either misinformation or disinformation in the Bill, a working definition is found in the Disinformation and Fake News Final Report issued by the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, chaired at the time by Damian Collins MP:

We have defined disinformation as the deliberate creation and sharing of false and/or manipulated information that is intended to deceive and mislead audiences, either for the purposes of causing harm, or for political, personal or financial gain. ‘Misinformation’ refers to the inadvertent sharing of false information.

This is in keeping with vagaries of the ACT request to report “hateful ideas or extremist views”. It is entirely subjective, bears little relation to the established meaning of the term 'disinformation', and the question we must ask is who determines what constitutes “false” or “manipulated” information. What does causing harm mean?

Damian Collins is an “unpaid partner” of Infotagion LLP. Just because he is currently “unpaid” doesn’t mean he always will be. Infotagion unites Collins with global venture capitalists, Internet publishers and the management team of Iconic Labs, who state:

Our brands and team sit in the intersection between culture, tech and community, well positioned to adapt, advise and capitalise on emerging trends. Our unique position combined with our team of in-house specialists both, allow us to build our own brands and also help other brands solve business problems, and get fit for the digital age.

Describing their business model, Iconic Labs state:

Iconic Labs is a multi-divisional new media and technology business positioned to deliver best-in-class consultancy, products, marketing and distribution. It is a consumer-first business that utilises data & [sic] insights to exploit new trends and develop disruptive technologies with a focus on future generations. Our current focus is to expand our content platform, suite of digital brands, and technology products both organically and through acquisitions.

It seems that the former chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee, whose members have been instrumental in the design of the Bill, has a motive of “financial gain”, which readers will recall was decried above.

According to the Committee's own advice, this is a red flag for disinformation. Collins has now become Chairman of the Draft Online Safety Bill Joint Committee, an appointment perhaps hinting at the possibility that the whole charade is monumentally corrupt.

The BBC is among the mainstream media outlets cheerleading for the Bill and asking whether the proposed Act goes far enough. To be clear, then, this is an organisation—supposedly founded upon the the highest journalistic standards—which is calling for draconian censorship. Why would alleged journalists ever do that?

Without either evidence or investigation, the BBC has firmly attached to the murder of an MP the label of “online abuse”. The BBC insists, in the absence of any reason whatsoever, that claimed online abuse and terrorism are somehow linked. In accordance with the DCMS Committee's definition, this represents pure disinformation.

It appears that the BBC is deliberately manipulating information that is intended to deceive its audience. The motive is personal gain. The BBC wrote:

Following an outpouring of sadness after the murder of Conservative MP Sir David Amess, his colleagues from across the Commons have been raising concerns for their own safety. And one common thread has emerged — the amount of abuse politicians face online.

The crucial caveat missing from this statement is that there is not a scrap of evidence that the "one common thread" is in any way "common" to terrorist attacks. The BBC wants you to imagine that it is, because that benefits the BBC.

It appears the Online Safety Bill will give the Government control over information on the Internet. Government will vary the definition of what constitutes disinformation as best suits itself, and will work with its fellow global public-private partnership stakeholders in the “big tech” industry to censor whatever it wishes.

At the same time, the Online Safety Bill will protect “content of democratic importance”. This neologism is defined in the Bill itself as content which “is or appears to be specifically intended to contribute to democratic political debate in the United Kingdom”. The Bill states that social media companies and other Internet service providers will have:

A duty to operate a service using systems and processes designed to ensure that the importance of the free expression of content of democratic importance is taken into account when making decisions’ about whether to take action against content, such as restricting access to it, or against the individual behind it.

By definition, this means that Internet services will be required to take action against content the Government doesn’t like, and against the people who produce it.

Those mainstream media—such as the BBC—who appear to be among those who produce and distribute “terrorist-related” material will be considered to be of “democratic importance”. They will thus remain free to promote al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations that they favour.

Those in the so-called alternative media who are already banned from the biggest social media platforms will still be able to comment on political policy and other newsworthy subjects—but they won’t be able to reach an audience via the Internet. The BBC is among those who will gain a virtual monopoly on online information when the Bill is enacted. That is why it cheerleads for it.

The Online Safety Bill is the proposed legislative creation of Big Brother. It is designed to give government total information control of the Internet. Although it is a prospect deeply upsetting to contemplate, it does appear that some parliamentarians are willing to exploit the murder of one of their own colleagues to advance this overtly political agenda.

There is no reason to believe that these politicised comments, or the proposed legislation being advocated, will contribute anything to any realistic counter-terrorism effort. It is all politically-motivated propaganda.