online counter terrorism strategies and their effectiveness
Counter terrorism initiatives need to respond to the digital element of extremist operations. In a July 2017 speech, Home Secretary Amber Rudd noted almost every plot that is uncovered has a digital element to it and attacks carried out in 2017 highlight the internet’s use as a platform for terrorists. Law enforcement is poorly equipped to counteract the online activity of extremists. Reactive policing is unable to prevent terrorists reaching their desired audience; the online enemy is fast and ruthless.
The UK Government launched their counter terrorism strategy ‘CONTEST’ in 2003. It aims to reduce the risk to the UK and its overseas interests from terrorism, ensuring people can go about their lives freely and with confidence. It has evolved greatly over the years, in line with lessons learnt, public and political scrutiny and the developing threat. The CONTEST strategy is broken into the four P’s: Pursue, Protect, Prepare and Prevent.
The Prevent element of CONTEST is the most proactive online counter-terrorism effort, seeking to get upstream in stopping individuals becoming terrorists or supporting it. Prevent’s focus is on working with vulnerable people, for whom the internet provides an environment for radicalisation.
Terrorist groups have recognised the power of the internet for recruitment and radicalisation. In a national survey by the National Counter Terrorism Policing HQ, statistics revealed a large number of 11-24 year olds primarily source information from Google and social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, platforms also occupied by terrorists. Consequently, there is a young and easily influenced audience accessible to online extremists.
Current effort is focused on the removal of extremist material. On an average week the UK Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU) removes 1,000 pieces of extremist content that breach anti-terrorism legislation. Eight hundred of these relate to Syria or Iraq and replicated across multiple social media platforms. Removal is achieved by working with social media organisations. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence commented in 2009 that focussing on removing extremist content alone would be expensive and ineffective. Interestingly, eight years on the strategy has not changed and is still a primary tactic in combatting online extremist content, despite its effectiveness being difficult to quantify.
The public have been encouraged to aid the work of the CTIRU through the ‘Stop Terrorism and extremists’ Online Presence’ (STOP) campaign. Police and collaborating agencies host on their websites a figurative, and in this case literal, big red STOP button. After clicking, web users see a short and anonymous form, where they input the details of the content they have seen. This relies on members of the public visiting policing websites of their own accord.
A recent 2017 report by the National Police Chief’s Council found that awareness of the STOP campaign was lower than any other campaign the CTIRU has conducted at just 5%. Additionally, 83% of those questioned recognised the public should take an active role in combating terrorism, but many were unsure what constitutes as ‘suspicious online behaviour’ or how to identify it. It also showed that despite 32% of 18-32 year olds witnessing extremist content online, they did not think to report it. This highlights that whilst a campaign involving the public in counter terrorism would be well received; there must be improved awareness and reporting methods need to be integrated into normal use of the internet.
Another barrier to public reporting of extremist material is individuals fearing repercussions from friends, family or community members. The same 2017 report found that teens in particular worry about the impact on a friendship if they were to assist police efforts. Muslim and BAME participants experienced these barriers more strongly, stressing concerns around anonymity and fear of unfair treatment by police (of themselves or the accused).
Prevent faces a number of challenges; primarily due to public reporting, the CTIRU has removed 280,000 pieces of terrorist content since 2010. However, is there a risk that haphazard community involvement inadvertently causes discrimination and division? The positioning of CCTV cameras in a discriminatory manner as part of Prevent efforts is a cited example. A representative from the United Nations (UN) commented on the issue; “By dividing, stigmatising and alienating segments of the population, Prevent could end up promoting extremism, rather than countering it”.
Prevent has also faced criticism of accountability; funding has ended up in the hands of community projects whose aims and values do not necessarily support Prevent principles, highlighting the complexities of supporting counter terrorism initiatives.
Other nations have taken a different approach. ‘Think Again, Turn Away’ was the United States response to extremist messaging, run by the Centre for Strategic Counterterrorism and launched in 2013. Perhaps the most visible attempt to counter online extremism; US diplomats actively trolled extremists; arguing with pro-Daesh accounts and producing videos portraying Daesh-conquered territory negatively.
The State Department were praised for their recognition of social media as an important recruitment and radicalisation tool, but were heavily criticised for much of the work ‘Think Again, Turn Away’ carried out. The Twitter account was regularly dragged into ‘spats’; it gave recognition to particular extremist individuals and provided a stage for them to voice their views. The initiative was also hard to evaluate in terms of any success, a previous State Advisor commenting on it being “impossible to know if the State succeeded or failed in its task”.
Whilst evidence suggests neither the ‘STOP’ campaign nor the ‘Think Again, Turn Away’ initiative realised their goals, successes have been realised in initiatives that engage the community in a sensitive manner. Part of the UK’s Prevent strategy introduced the ‘Channel’ scheme; a community intervention where vulnerable youths are mentored by various agencies, diverting them away from terrorism and towards constructive avenues in life. A July 2015 academic study found the majority of young people engaged positively with the Channel scheme.
Similarly, ‘Exit’ is a US counter-extremism organisation directed by a former neo-Nazi and a former jihadist. Exactly the opposite of the ‘Twitter fights’ the U.S government engaged in; Exit acknowledges the strife their mentees face and directs their discontent away from violence, often finding a community connection they can relate to.
The success of these initiatives indicates that small mentor programs have a role to play in countering online extremism. Positive engagement with communities can prove valuable; if replicated online, it may be possible to reverse the negative connotations of online counter- terrorism efforts. Law enforcement and local authorities must focus on measurable and effective strategies to break down barriers that are driving the vulnerable towards extremism.Back to Blog