UK tries covert communication against ISIS

Sunday 15/05/2016
Head of the Coalition Communication Cell at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office Dan Chugg, attends the “Global Coalition Against ISIS communication working group” conference in Kuwait City, on April 25th.

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.