Efforts to combat radicalisation in our institutions should go hand-in-hand with strategies to fight it in virtual spaces, writes counter-extremism expert David Ibsen.
By David Ibsen
The battle against terrorism in Europe is fought in schools, prisons, homes, and communities across the continent. It is being fought online and in real life by governments, companies, and civil society groups. The battle is for the hearts and minds of the most vulnerable members of society.
At the heart of this battle is radicalisation. Terrorism is only able to perpetuate through groups attracting new recruits to their cause. By preying on the alienated and vulnerable, both in person and online, terrorist groups can keep increasing their numbers and keep the threat of terrorism alive. Preventing this radicalisation from taking place, and rehabilitating those who have been targeted, are absolutely essential if we are to tackle the terrorist threat not just in Europe – but worldwide.
Combatting radicalisation within state-run institutions, in particular schools and prisons, must be a central pillar of this fight. The two institutions have, for different reasons, large populations who are potentially vulnerable to the spread of extremist ideologies. We not only need a strategy to protect these children in schools, to prevent them from being victimised and brainwashed by radicals in their communities. But we also need trainings for teachers to make sure they know how to deal with young girls and boys who might have been exposed to extremist ideologies. The European Commission’s eLearning Programme, eTwinning, allows teachers’ from around the world to exchange best practices. The expansion of the network, with 64,000 projects in 13 years and half a million registrations last year, shows the educators desire to learn from each other and share their experience.
In prisons, likewise, young men are targeted by recruiters for Daesh and other terrorist groups. In the absence of other options for inmates, this vulnerable prison population is a fertile breeding ground for extremist ideology. The well-being of prisoners and their development are vital for rehabilitation. Ensuring this involves meeting basic needs and vocational training to enable them to see a future for themselves. We need more investment in rehabilitating prisoners, and for providing them with options for their release so they are not instead sent into the hands of terrorist organisations.
Efforts to combat radicalisation in our institutions must go hand-in-hand with strategies to fight it in virtual spaces. Since the launch of the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) in 2014, we have seen that online extremism is a problem that needs to be tackled by big tech companies and governments alike. In the fight against terrorism, policymakers must not forget the role Internet companies must play. Many attacks, including the Manchester Arena bombing, have been carried out by individuals without direct links to terrorist organisations but who have been radicalised independently through online propaganda. The assailant Salman Abedi used a nail bomb which he had built by himself after watching a bomb making video that has been uploaded various times on different platforms in the last two years.
We need tech companies to step up to their responsibility and implement the technology they have already developed to screen the content they are hosting. With Facebook being critically discussed in the media at the moment, we have become aware of the way big tech companies use our data to make money. Almost unnoticed by the public’s eye, extremists have taken Facebook as an example and launched a new Islamic State Social Networking Site for the “advocates of the Mujahideen”. The site went live earlier this month and was available in Arabic, English, and French. Islamic State supporters shared pictures and post calling on their fellow brothers to attack Western countries. Dangerous and hateful propaganda cannot be allowed on the Internet and the example demonstrates how far we still need to go in combatting radicalisation online.
Regulators should clamp down on the reckless behaviour of tech companies who allow terrorist content to propagate on their own platforms. Companies, such as YouTube, take no serious responsibility for the content they are hosting on their sites. Even after repeated reassurance and pledges to tackle illegal content by social media giants, harmful content can still be found on their platforms. YouTube’s Head of Counter Terrorism clearly demonstrated in front of the UK Home Affairs Committee that Big Tech is not taking its responsibility seriously. We should all agree about one thing: what is illegal in real life should be illegal online.
Combatting radicalisation must form the backbone of Europe’s counter-terrorism strategy. This must be done both online and off, and must be supported by robust tools which ensure the support of all actors involved. Additionally, we shouldn’t forget how important de-radicalisation is. We cannot afford to leave those behind that already felt alienated before and therefore turned to dangerous extremist groups. By stepping up this fight to protect Europe’s most vulnerable, we can create safer societies for everyone.
_David Ibsen serves as Executive Director for the Counter Extremism Project (CEP), a not-for-profit, non-partisan, international policy organization formed to combat the growing threat from extremist ideologies.
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