News & Politics

The Challenge of Stopping Online Radicalization

For some young people, extremist groups offer the only credible vehicle for change.

Photo Credit: M-SUR/Shutterstock

Are we doing enough to stop radicalisation? Like many Muslims, I returned home from taraweeh prayers June 3 and was confronted with the images of yet another act of terror. This time it took place at a location I had been to a few days earlier.

Moments like this lead us to ask: Why do they do this and how do we stop them? The media go into overdrive, politicians issue statements and the terrorists’ supporters, I suppose, sit back and enjoy the chaos. On social media the good, the bad and the very ugly come out. Sometimes the incident unites but very often it is used to score points.

People rightly say that something needs to be done but what is that something? Questions are inevitably asked about how much other Muslims or the security services knew. Could this have been stopped on the night? Are we doing enough to stop this radicalisation in Britain’s mosques and online?

We already know that at least one of the killers was confronted by his community and reported to the authorities for his dangerously extreme views. Where and how did this happen? How much radicalisation happens in the average British mosque?

The groups involved are usually physically on the fringes of mainstream society. It is in the online world that instructions for engaging in jihadist madness are published and it is there that a recruit is more likely to be groomed.

When I say groomed I am not talking about an extremist with long-held radical views. Mostly, I am referring to someone who has gone on a very quick online journey from inquisitive and mildly opinionated to locked-in zealot. We have seen this often. Young, talented people drop everything after online flirtation with radicalism and set off to join the death cult of the Islamic State (ISIS).

So, if we are to engage online, how is this to be done? How does one reach the young Muslim who is clearly searching for something but has not signed up to the ideology of hate?

One approach I recently came across was a campaign aimed at people aged 15 to 25 in Morocco and the wider MENA region. This online campaign — called “Where do we start?” — was a reaction to a very particular demographic — disaffected young Arabs living in the aftermath of the “Arab spring” revolts of 2011.

During the uprisings, a generation of young people used non-violent protest to become agents of change but their governments’ failure to deliver concrete economic, social and political reforms deflated the youthful sense of optimism. For some, it began to seem as if the possibilities of all non-violent avenues of change had been exhausted.

In this environment, violent extremist organisations, ranging from ISIS to local groups, extended their operational and communications reach. For some young people, such groups offer the only credible vehicle for change and one in which they can take part. Such groups give the youth a sense of urgency and agency.

“Where do we start?” developed a campaign to offer those people an alternative. It is a positive, practical and meaningful way to enable young Arabs to help change their worlds, both on the micro and macro level. The campaign curated and amplified a network of activists across the MENA region, including Ahmed Naguib, founder of the Egyptian NGO Schools Without Walls, and Shyrine Ziadeh, founder of the Ramallah Ballet Centre.

The campaign helped the output from six online influencers reach 4 million users and achieve more than 1 million views on Facebook and YouTube. About 90% of those who saw the content were in the target age range.

Early results have been encouraging. For many, connecting with inspirational role models led them to create a network of like-minded young people. They were moved to share their thoughts and hopes of success in building civil society.

The networks have the potential to grow and spread further their message of positivity over hate.

At a time when many claim that the only voices chosen to represent young Muslims are negative, this was a clear example of the alternative narrative. Sometimes, countering Islamist extremism is not just about faith and scripture. The online influencer does not take away the need to challenge perversions of theology or for the authorities to monitor online grooming and hate. However, it does offer something concrete and hopeful to the young seeker, something that can divert him from the path of death and destruction.

This campaign may not have swayed the killers in Manchester and London, for they were too far gone with their hatred, but an extremist is not born that way. He embarks on a journey that could have many entry and exit points, many different twists and turns.

Some young people respond well to a simple message of hope, one that says violence is not the only way to change the world and that, most importantly, you are not alone.

Aaqil Ahmed, the former head of Religion and Ethics for the BBC, is a professor of media at Bolton University and a consultant in digital media, broadcasting and leadership.

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