Since the rise of ISIL and the utter bafflement of the general public, and indeed the counter-terrorism commentariat, that it is able to "do social media" just as well as the rest of us, there has been a new flurry of buzzwords.
Apparently, terrorist A was a "lone wolf", radicalised by YouTube; Extremist B was a "jihobbyist", committed to disseminating ISIL propaganda on Twitter; To fight back, the West needs to find the perfect "counter-narrative" to stop the inevitable attraction of ISIL.
Here's the shocking thing: the internet has changed how we do things. We shop differently, we communicate differently, we radicalise and recruit for the Caliphate differently. It should not surprise us really, and we don't need groundbreaking solutions to challenge extremism in general or ISIL in particular.
The internet may have sped things up - inquisitive young teenagers don't have to turn up to a few Al Muhajiroun rallies before getting the requisite literature on who it is permissible to kill in a suicide bombing operation. Instead they can rely on "Sheikh Google". Sure, they can communicate online with others who say they are with ISIL with relative impunity, which makes things easier. From ISIL's point of view they don't need recruiters on the ground in the UK, they can just stick all those foreign fighters with invaluable language skills in an internet cafe in Raqqa. But for both of those instances, the impressionable would-be recruit has sought out further engagement following earlier messaging and, likely offline, radicalisation.
The biggest difference from a decade ago is that this Islamist messaging has become so commonplace that there is now a greater number, if not greater proportion, of young Britons seeking out information about prominent groups such as ISIL. Moreover, the Islamist narrative has become so normalized over the last two decades, that when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claimed to have established one (a Caliphate) to implement it (Sharia), it is hardly surprising that lots more young Britons are keen to make the leap from contemplation to action.
Granted, these two differences are made more prominent by the connectivity available online, but in essence this remains the same old problem: one of messaging. The ISIL brand is more attractive to these young Brits than TeamGB, the appeal of Islamism greater than that of our parliamentary democracy, and ISIL's sales and marketing team knows its target audience better than ours does.
So here's what we can do about it.
First off, we need to build a better sales and marketing team. I think we have the whole of UK civil society to draw on here - we're all touched by extremism in one way or another, and we all have the ability to do something about it. Parents, teachers and youth workers are all effective communicators with our target audience; counter-extremism practitioners, religious leaders and psychologists are all well-placed to understand the radicalisation process; governments, social media companies and the rest of the private sector all have the information, capacity and funds to improve its range and effectiveness. We must unite to engage our young people, more effectively than we are doing at the moment, and more effectively even than ISIL.
Secondly, we must work on the message. This means decreasing the perceived rewards and increasing the perceived costs of joining ISIL, and do the opposite for staying in the UK. Part of this is making the message varied to catch all drivers, and accessible, so for example think: "conditions are awful in Syria; ISIL are brutal to dissenters; you won't be respected as a foreigner; you'll miss your family; there's no Nandos and Call of Duty in the Caliphate; ISIL are perverting Islam so you won't go to heaven if you die there". Likewise, in Britain, let's promote positive examples of integration, religious freedom, and examples of our foreign policy making life better for Muslims around the world.
Next, let's make sure that we don't just focus on the violent manifestation of Islamism in its brand-du-jour, ISIL. Let's engage with young people earlier to promote human rights and the best of Britain before the Islamist narrative is normalised in the next generation too. As a civil society we can tackle all forms of extremism, not because they always lead to violence (because they don't) but because they help create the conditions for violence and because they clash with the two most important aspects of life in Britain: equality for all and freedom from discrimination.
Lastly, let's do this online too. We do everything else online and perhaps we can take a leaf out of the books of innovators at Amazon, Facebook and ISIL by understanding our target audience and using technology to achieve our goals. Here at Quilliam, we understand the need of all of this and have created an online counter-narrative film called #NotAnotherBrother.
This builds on our understanding of ISIL and how it operates, and is targeted at those vulnerable to radicalisation to try and protect them and prevent the destruction of families and communities. But it has a second aim too - to inspire the rest of civil society to make their own counter-narrative videos and join the fightback against all forms of extremism!Suggest a correction