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Friday, January 18, 2008 

Tackling extremism and radicalisation online.

You know that there's been a step-change in priorities in academic circles when organisations like the wordy mouthful that is the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence are being set-up and then holding two-day conferences that attract the home secretary. Alongside such alumni as Peter Bergen, former head of MI6 Richard Dearlove and everyone's favourite security correspondent, Frank Gardner, Jacqui Smith yesterday made her first speech on terrorism, focusing mainly on the threat from the internet and how to tackle it.

Of course, it would help greatly if any media organisation or indeed the ICSR had made available Smith's speech in full, but that seems to be beyond their capabilities. Perhaps it's deliberate: we don't want the nasty jihadis to be getting full wind of the government's plans, do we? Joking aside, it's impossible to comment thoroughly on exactly what she outlined when we have to make do with relatively short reports in the newspapers. Going by them, there's plenty of reasons to be concerned about this latest ploy at blocking out unpleasantness on the internet.

The most acute immediate problem with the rhetoric and reasoning coming from Smith is that she and the government seems to think that the ways in which child pornography is tackled is an appropriate model. As Frank Fisher sets out on CiF, this is an incredibly arbitrary way of going about it - the Internet Watch Foundation provides the sites to be blocked, and they are then blocked by the ISPs. No debate, no review, just a complete cutting off. Mostly, this does seem to work but there have been problems; in one case, the anonymous image posting board 4chan, which occasionally gets flooded with child pornography by trolls was blocked, but only seemingly by certain ISPs. Such blanket censorship with no genuine recourse is the kind imposed by totalitarian states, not supposed democracies.

Even more naive and also insulting is taking the internet predator model from those who surf chatrooms and social networking sites for prey and applying it to the online world of cyber-jihadism. That there are supposed "terror svengalis who work to seduce young people" is utter nonsense. The case of "Irhabi007" provides the reality: a Moroccan who arrived here with his father in 2001, he was radicalised not by someone "grooming" him but through his own research, as well as by images of atrocities committed in Iraq, such as the infamous video from a US bomber of a missile being dropped into a crowd of fleeing civilians in Fallujah, with the pilots laughing as it exploded. Newsnight then had the temerity to claim that the circumstances surrounding it had never been comprehensively established. Not every young person "radicalised" is going to go to the extremes that Younes Tsouli did, helping to distribute jihadist video releases and then to spreading presentations and videos on how to prepare bombs and attacks, mainly because now with sites such as Rapidshare, Megaupload and FileFlyer you don't need to hack other websites or use public FTPs to get the material around, but it does provide the example that as well as those willing to launch attacks there is an underbelly online that provides support to those thinking about doing so.

One of the other problems is just whether the material being distributed is actually illegal or not. Beheadings and murder which are sometimes depicted would fall foul of the Obscene Publications Act, but what about the numerous mortar attacks and IED videos which the various insurgent groups in Iraq for instance release? Most don't show anyone dying or being killed, but they are designed to provide succour to online supporters, and are also helpful propaganda showing the failure of coalition forces. Banning such material might make the government sleep slightly easier, but how they would manage it when as outlined above the distribution networks are now so autonomous and use other public download sites to do so? It's true that those that monitor online jihadis regularly report the material and get it removed, except from those sites that provide complete freedom of speech and expression, but is it even necessary? In any case, if the publicly available jihadist forums are blocked, those currently using them will just move to private, more secure sites, as the remnants of Al-Muhajiroun are now rumoured to have done.

Then there's the possibility that the very attempt to ban, censor and block could be counter-productive on more than one point. There's currently a burgeoning online movement dedicated to monitoring such sites which would fall on its face just at the moment when Smith herself admits that the government itself cannot be relied upon to do everything. (The main problem with the movement described here is its ideological background, which I may well expand upon in due course.) Moreover, as always when you ban something, you make it infinitely more attractive as well as shoving it into the undergrowth. Those who are already going to search out extremist ideas and think for themselves will find this material whether it's outlawed or not, and while it continues to be posted on sites like YouTube and LiveLeak, where the government most certainly can't restrict it but where it does get criticised, there's very little they can realistically do.

It's taken a while, but the government does thankfully seem to have finally realised that the way to tackle extremist Islam is not through force and condemnation, but through argument and tackling prejudice at the base source. Those who are seen as heroes or as admirable, as Justin writes, are often the most laughable and easy to mock figures. How for instance can anyone take Sayyid Qutb seriously when you know that he took a woman coming onto him in the United States as either a challenge from God or as being sent to corrupt him by the CIA? Battling Salafism, with its sentimental romanticism about an age of Islam that never really existed, ought to be based on modernism. Making clear that the takfiri ideology doesn't discriminate between any sort of Muslim and "kafir" is vital, as is that those with these views are not practising Islam but a perversion of it that Muhammad would certainly not recognise. All this could have been already achieved and helped significantly if we hadn't involved ourselves in the cowboy operation in Iraq, but it's too late to change that now. Nor will the imposition of 42 days without charge for "terrorist suspects", the hypocrisy of Smith's statement that victory will not be assumed through authoritarianism all too rank.

Again, as Fisher writes, if any of this is to go ahead there needs to be at the very least an established legal framework and footing for these measures, with full oversight and all the information surrounding it being placed in the public domain. That this government's record doesn't in the slightest inspire confidence that this will be forthcoming only amplifies the reasons for why this ought to be resisted until then.

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