UK tries covert communication against ISIS
London - Alongside its publicly acknowledged counter-propaganda efforts, the British government has been pursuing a “covert” multimillion-dollar propaganda campaign to prevent young British Muslims from falling into the clutches of the Islamic State (ISIS). The question being asked is why is the government doing this secretly, rather than openly?
British media recently exposed the secretive Home Office unit known as the Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), which has been seeking to bring about an “attitudinal and behavioural change” among young British Muslims, part of a wider counter-radicalisation programme known as Prevent.
It is this programme, which links non-violent extremism and terrorism, that has drawn criticism and raised Muslim suspicions about the government’s intentions.
Prevent fuelled fears of government spying on Muslims in schools and hospitals (where the programme is mandatory) and children being taken away from their parents and placed into care. As a result, government attempts to combat ISIS propaganda are generally viewed by Muslims with distrust. RICU’s exposure has compounded that.
RICU outsources much of its work to London communication company Breakthrough Media Network, which is active online and on social media. Breakthrough has led 13 national campaigns, producing 950 physical and online products that had been accessed more than 1 million times.
Breakthrough specialises in working with Muslim civil society organisations that reportedly had no idea about the company’s government connection. Ultimately, it is a question of credibility.
For many analysts, it is simple: A clandestine anti-ISIS propaganda has a much more significant chance of reaching young at-risk Muslims than explicit government attempts.
“Marginalised communities that feel indifferent or hostile to their respective governments, let alone supporters and potential sympathisers of [ISIS leader] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, will never, ever be swayed by a foreign state telling them on social media that the Islamic State’s caliphate is not Islamic or that it is killing more Muslims than anyone else,” researcher Charlie Winter said.
In an article titled Why ISIS Propaganda Works published in the Atlantic magazine, Winter outlined the problems governments face in countering ISIS propaganda, not least trying to ensure that their messaging is able to “resonate with the right people”.
He acknowledged that official responses to ISIS propaganda have often been problematic, based on the group’s innovative and skilled use of social media, and identified a general lack of understanding from mainstream media outlets towards government-led campaigns, preferring sensationalism over more rational reporting.
“It’s an uncomfortable truth that, no matter how well-intentioned they are, government’s ideational responses to jihadism have been marked by memorable slip-ups and controversies. The media are always quick to report on things done wrong and tend to stay clear of assessing successes,” wrote Winter, who is a research associate with Georgia State University’s Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative.
The British government understands that the internet is a weapon that is being used by ISIS and other groups against it. It also understands that it, too, can wield this weapon and that it can most effectively wield it from a distance.
“If you think about what the internet does for terrorists, it gives them a myriad of ways to communicate covertly. It gives them a platform to fundraise, to radicalise, to spread propaganda. It gives them the means to plan, to command and control, to spread lethal ideas, to exhort violence,” former director of Government Communications Headquarters Sir Iain Lobban said at the first open Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament hearing on November 7th, 2014.
“We have had some successes in this area, in terms of turning that [the internet] against them. I think those are best-kept secret,” he added.
But now RICU and Breakthrough Media Network have been exposed and the government’s plans laid bare amid fears that local grass-roots Muslim organisations will disavow their former affiliation with both. The Home Office issued a statement acknowledging and expressing pride in RICU’s work.
“We are proud of the support RICU has provided to organisations working on the frontlines to challenge the warped ideology of groups such as ISIS, and to protect communities,” the statement said. “This work can involve sensitive issues, vulnerable communities and hard-to-reach audiences and it has been important to build relationships out of the media glare.
“We respect the bravery of individuals and organisations who choose to speak out against violence and extremism and it is right that we support and protect them.”
Local Muslim groups, which share the same goal as the government, namely to guide vulnerable young Muslims away from extremism and terrorism, face a difficult choice. As for the government, it is only doing what is strategically necessary.
“Governments still have an integral role to play in the communications battle with ISIS but they must shift their primary information activities away from direct communications, to flexibly supporting and trusting local actors to deliver messages on their behalf — a model reminiscent of that currently employed by ISIS,” Winter said.