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The religious extremism we should really worry about is online

Radical groups on the web pose a much greater threat than any 'Trojan Horse'

For the first time in a while, everyone seems to agree that we need to tackle non-violent extremism. This week Parliament reached rare consensus on its importance, something that came on the back of the Ofsted investigation into 21 Birmingham schools over the “Trojan Horse” allegations.

Certainly, we have much to be optimistic about. However, there is one area vulnerable to extremist content that is not receiving anywhere near enough attention: the internet.

We cannot hope to effectively counter extremism if we just focus on schools, universities and prisons: we need to take this online as well.

Governments and the media have, in recent years, begun targeting the online and social media usage by Islamist extremist groups across the Middle East and Africa.

And boy, do they use social media: in the last month alone, Boko Haram in Nigeria has released video after video justifying the recent kidnapping of over 200 schoolgirls; the social media accounts of ISIS fighters have unapologetically glorified graphic images of conflict while promoting martyrdom; and al-Shabaab, the group responsible for the Westgate Mall attacks in Kenya, have been tweeting .

The British and French governments have taken a strong stance against “extremist content” online when addressing their approach to tackling extremism.

A key finding of our latest report is that the vast majority, if not all, of radicalised individuals come into contact with extremist ideology through offline interactions before reaching online extremist content.

Chance explorations on search engines do not “accidentally” lead users to extremist websites. This challenges the popular discourse about so-called “lone wolf” actors becoming radicalised solely through the internet.

The first point of contact for radicalisation is almost always a personal one. Prisons and universities, for example, tend to be easily and regularly infiltrated by radical groups, who use them as forums to propagate their ideas.

It is after the first point of contact in places like these that an individual, questioning themselves and the world around them, finds themselves with a launching point from which to go online and become further submerged in extremism.

The internet cannot and must not be blamed as the source of radicalisation. However, once you know where to look, the internet provides an immeasurably large platform for content consumption and interaction with like-minded individuals.

It can often be a slippery slope, with one video of Western soldiers committing war crimes leading to the next, forming a self-created echo-chamber into which very few alternative narratives can penetrate.

These are easily formed because as most Islamist extremist material consists of wholly legal educational videos, they are not eligible for censorship in a democratic environment. The fact that they woefully distort the Islamic scripture and the scholarship that surrounds it matters not.

We need to make a distinction between “terrorist material” and “extremist content”. While the former has clear legal definitions and comprehensive legislation, the latter is a grey area, open to interpretation and firmly in the realm of ideas.

At Quilliam, we don’t refute the government’s right to protect citizens against unambiguously illegal content like that which incites violence, disseminates hate speech or openly supports a terrorist organisation.

However, we need to recognise two things. Firstly, that extremist content often simply does not break the law; and secondly, that negative measures, such as censorship, filtering or blocking, will never solve the problem of radicalisation.

Quillam's latest report, Jihad Trending: A Comprehensive Analysis of Online Extremism and How to Counter It, is available to read online now.