It’s Internet Safety Day today and I can’t stress just how important it is for parents to be aware of what their kids are looking at online. All teenagers crave their personal space and so we have to approach this with tact and diplomacy. But there are well-recognised warning signs when your son or daughter is being groomed online by extremists or worse, terrorists.
This isn’t about parents smothering their children with too much attention or feeling excluded from their children’s lives. It’s about the reality of groups like Daesh and Al Qaeda targeting teens with some pretty horrific material. Recent output from these groups in English and other languages has included guides to carrying out bomb attacks, knifings and kidnappings.
Alongside the text are diagrams going into explicit detail of where to plunge the knife or how to send a letter bomb. All of this presented as if committing a terror act was the most natural thing in the world. One can only imagine the impact this could have on an impressionable or highly disturbed mind. In fact, one doesn’t have to imagine it – a string of recent atrocities should have made the risk crystal clear to all of us.
As Daesh faces defeat for its so-called “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, it’s gone into hyper-drive on social media, urging anybody to carry out brutal attacks in its name. This shows us what’s particularly dangerous about our new digital world – that terror groups can not only spread their message, but also remotely direct and guide individuals to perpetrate murder – sometimes on a massive scale as we saw in Nice and Orlando.
So how does online radicalisation happen? Recent court trials have evidenced in detail how young people are sucked into social media support networks, where they are given a sense of being and a globalised terrorist identity. They are often contacted via Twitter then drawn into the darker corners of the web, encrypted spaces where conversations are harder to monitor. There is no single route to being radicalised online but there are some very well worn paths.
Frighteningly, we’ve seen teenagers engaged in direct conversations with a charismatic Daesh killer in Syria or Iraq who will give them easy answers to life’s problems. Their young targets are presented with a binary choice between the world of disbelief and that of Daesh with its twisted and corrupt version of Islam. This has proven very seductive to some young men and women because they don’t hear alternative and corrective viewpoints. Instead of turning to parents, teachers and faith leaders for guidance, they listen to their Daesh handler online or the rants of extremist hate preachers on YouTube.
The internet should be about spreading wisdom, but instead it has disseminated fake news and totalitarian ideologies. It has risked polarising young people with the toxic combination of both Far Right and Islamic terrorist material. Both of these forms of extremism relish an end to compromise and reasoned debate. The vicious slanging matches and supremacist insults on social media are their natural form of debate. Neo-fascists and Islamic terrorists are not interested in using the online space to educate and inform, to them it’s about forming battle lines and hardening attitudes. We simply can’t let that happen.
For those of us who still believe in truth and honesty, these can seem like grim times. But this is why Web Guardians© runs such valued sessions, so we can come together to defend those we love from lies and hate-filled violence. In our school playgrounds and university coffee bars, there are people being deceived by online demagogues or watching indescribably brutal executions and slaughter circulated by the Daesh PR machine.
We’ve endured this situation for a long time but also learned how to contain it and push back against the hatemongers. On this Internet Safety Day, let’s commit once more to protecting our families and neighbourhoods from poisonous views. We all cherish free speech and democracy. But we need to recognise those who are using the power of social media to wreck lives and set us against each other.
For more information and to know what you can do – come and attend one of our Web Guardians© sessions.
“Britain first, Britain will always be first” and “I am a political activist,” are the words which burst forth from Thomas Mair’s mouth as he stabbed Labour MP Jo Cox; a humanitarian, campaigner and mother of two children, to death in the street in Birstall, West Yorkshire.
These words make unequivocally clear what was initially under debate when the story first emerged in the midst of a referendum campaign fraught with emotive political mud-slinging, fallacious information and rampant racism: that Thomas Mair was a political actor, and his act of murder was underpinned by far-right ideology. It is this week, as the case comes to trial, that the significance of these words has finally been registered.
The fact that the political impetus which prompted this attack was initially under question is an indicator of both the mainstream media’s determination to adhere to a narrative that political terrorism can only be committed by minority groups, particularly Muslims, and its utter failure to register the political forces at play beyond the elite metropolitan epicentre.
I’ll start with the first point – the perpetuation of the narrative that terrorism is a ‘Muslim’ problem. The initial discourse surrounding Jo Cox’s murder, that Thomas Mair was a ‘loner,’ with a ‘history of mental illness,’ utterly erases the existence of far-right nationalist ideology which, like any form of extremism, can be utilised to justify acts of murder as serving a ‘higher’ social purpose.
Of course, it is likely that Thomas Mair did suffer from significant mental health problems, and in many ways he is a pitiable figure who was radicalised by ideologies of hate and fear of the other. This is no different from many perpetrators of Islamic terrorism, many of whom have had a history of mental illness (Mohamed Lahouaiyej Bouhlel, the man behind last year’s Nice attacks, and Michael Adebowale, one of the murderers of soldier Lee Rigby are two such examples). Yet in the reportage of the latter two events, the role of Islamic extremism was foregrounded from the beginning. By contrast, in the crucial first stories which covered Jo Cox’s murder, Thomas Mair was described as “quiet, polite and reserved” and “not a violent man.” Through this display of compassion and understanding towards white violent extremists, whilst their Muslim counterparts are portrayed as monsters, the media further entrenches cultural stereotypes in the Western world that terrorism is a uniquely ‘Islamic’ problem, othering Islamic culture as inherently dangerous. By offloading the very real issue at play – that extremist narratives are increasingly gaining traction – as a ‘foreign’ culture’s problem, the media fails to recognise the grave threat which is posed by far-right and white nationalist movements, which in turn prevents serious, concerted efforts to challenge and prevent their rise in power.
The second issue, that the media’s temperature check on what’s going on in British society is skewed due to its proverbial eyes being turned inwards towards social life in the capital, is one which I registered immediately, reading the breaking news story in an office in central London as a northerner in exile. The fact that Jo Cox hailed from a socially deprived, post-industrial town in West Yorkshire meant that she was undoubtedly aware of the profound impact that the xenophobic, anti-immigrant messages have had amongst communities which have been economically starved by neoliberalism and the decline of manufacturing. Groups such as the EDL, the BNP and Britain First, far too often dismissed scathingly as objects of ridicule by commentators based in the capital, have made huge gains in these areas. Educated, economically privileged and London-centric groups which dominate the media and politics fail to recognise the terrible ramifications of their casual scapegoating of immigrants to explain the punishing effects of an austerity programme which has ripped apart communities in the regional north. It happened with Brexit, and the horrifying wave of hate crimes which followed, and it happened here – with Jo Cox’s tragic murder. This rhetoric is not simply political theatre; it panders to and strengthens the far right.
Aside from the terrible fact that Jo Cox’s family and friends have been deprived forever of someone they love, there is profound tragedy to be found in the fact that Jo Cox probably understood more than many of her fellow MPs in Westminster the social forces at play in post-industrial towns like Birstall which have bestowed ideologies of hate and extremism with the power they seek. If we want to remember Jo, and the messages of hope and love she articulated throughout her life, then we must take the threat of the far right seriously. This begins by taking preventative steps.
At JAN Trust, we work with mothers and in schools to educate, inform and prevent extremism – whether this is from far-right movements or from Islamic extremism. We acknowledge and understand the danger of extremist language wherever it appears, and in whatever shape it assumes, and we work hard to prevent it from taking hold – so that we might prevent future tragedies.
Here at JAN Trust, we had a very busy start to 2016 travelling across the UK to deliver our innovative and highly acclaimed Web Guardians© programme.
We began working on the issue of online radicalisation and extremism after being approached by mothers who had concerns about their children. We found little research had been done on online radicalisation and extremism and so in 2006 we began conducting our own research into this area. This culminated in a report titled ‘Internet Extremism: Working Towards a Community Solution’ published in 2012 and the creation Web Guardians© a programme targeted at Muslim mothers. The programme educates and equips women and mothers with the ability and essential skills to tackle online radicalisation. Our programme has received praise not only from former Prime Minister David Cameron and both current and former members of government but most importantly from the women and mothers with and for whom the programme was developed. Web Guardians© is successful because of our technical expertise and cultural knowledge.
This week we would like to introduce you to one of our programme participants, Fatma a 39-year-old mother of two, who is originally from Somalia. When asked why she was participating in the programme, Fatma replied, ‘I have two children, a boy and a girl … Since I have two children who constantly use the Internet and ask me questions [about] whether things are appropriate, I want to know how to answer them.” Although Fatma’s husband is an IT technician, she wanted to learn herself and not from him.
We were delighted to receive an e-mail from Fatma during the course which read:
“I would like to thank you and everyone at Jan Trust for the amazing work you do to educate our communities about the benefits and dangers of new age technologies.”
“I have thoroughly enjoyed the Web Guardians© course and plan to implement what I learned into my daily work and family life.”
At the end of the programme, Fatma spoke about her motivation to participate in the programme and what she would be taking away from it. She felt very strongly about other mothers having the opportunity to attend the programme saying that “I want other mothers to be made aware by you, not just about how to protect themselves and their children, but also how to reach out to others in their community.”
A fortnight ago, JAN Trust caught up with Fatma to see how she was getting on. She said,
“I am always talking about the programme with my friends. I’ve told them about what I learnt and now they can protect their children.”
To find out more about Web Guardians©, take a look at our website: http://webguardians.org/
or give us a call on: 0208 889 9433. If you’re an organisation that is interested in partnering with us, please fill in our partnership form.