Here is an article I have with Ross Frenett on HuffPo arguing for the need to invest resources in films, campaigns and digital activities to push back on the messages that violent extremists use to attract young people to travel to Syria to fight. 

Today’s report by the UK Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee warns of the alarming number of westerners traveling to Syria to fight and calls for stronger efforts to counter the recruitment narratives of extremists. As Committee Chairman, Keith Vaz, warned “without the Government helping peer-led projects to tackle this problem, many more may be lost to radicalisation.”

Also launched today is a report we have written for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, (ISD) in which we outline the nature of the problem and what must be done to stem the tide of western citizens willing to become so-called ‘foreign fighters’ in countries, such as Syria, Mali and Somalia. Drawing on research conducted by ISD on the effectiveness of counter-narratives, our own database of suspected foreign fighters, and interviews with members of the Against Violent Extremism who have travelled and fought in previous conflicts, the report offers a concrete roadmap for success in pushing back on the kinds of extremist messages that draw people to places such as Syria to fight.

We define three distinct messengers that need to be countered:

Violent extremist groups: The formal propaganda wings of the armed movements engage with potential supporters, produce propaganda and provide justification for their actions.

Their supporters: There are many associated groups and networks that use their websites, forums and social media accounts to support and encourage the actions of groups that employ foreign fighters, celebrate martyrs and produce large quantities of propaganda. These are, in most cases, more influential than the violent extremist groups; a recent ICSR report found that two of the most influential supporters and cheerleaders for the Syrian Jihad were not even based in Syria, but were in fact western supporters with a strong social media presence.

Individual foreign fighters: Some foreign fighters tweet from the frontline, sharing their experiences; everything from accounts of their daily routines, to reflections on life on the frontline. The most famous example is the late Omar Hammami, an American Jihadist killed in Somalia. Others, such as Abu Fulan al-Muhajir, tweet their experiences from Syria in English.

Just as there is no single profile of violent extremists, there is no one discernible ‘type’ of foreign fighter. From ignorant novices who view the trips as a rite of passage, die-hard militants looking for combat and martyrdom, and individuals who go for humanitarian reasons but get drawn into conflict, individuals become foreign fighters for a range of reasons: boredom; intergenerational tensions; the search for greater meaning in life; perceived adventure; attempts to impress the local community or the opposite sex; a desire for increased credibility; to belong or gain peer acceptance; revenge; or misguided conflict experience expectations.

In response, counter-messages or counter-narratives need to mirror these motivating factors. Based on the types of propaganda that are being used to convince young people to travel, we identify five main areas of counter-messaging:

You are being duped – don’t be taken in by their propaganda: the idea of betrayal is an especially strong and compelling one for young people. This message could focus on how potential recruits are being misled by propaganda for example, images of dead children taken from other places and presented as happening in the theatre of conflict or stories about al-Shabaab’s extensive use of the forced recruitment of children.

We are not all in this together – there are as many divisions as bonds between different Islamic factions. As noted above, the idea of camaraderie and unity is one stressed very often by those groups that utilise foreign fighters. Highlighting the vicious infighting between and within groups could go a long way towards countering this message. This could consist of examples of foreign fighters finding themselves under fire from other Islamic groups rather than the ‘enemy’, or even examples of foreign fighters who were betrayed and murdered in the conflict zone by the very groups they traveled to join. The most famous and powerful example of this is the American foreign fighter, Omar Hammam, who even live tweeted one attempt on his life.

This is not an Islamic struggle – you do not have a ‘duty’ to fight. This could include messages about why fighting is not justified within Islam, why it is not a ‘just war’, and therefore bringing into question the Islamic duty to fight.

You are useless and you’ll get in the way – do something more constructive instead: This message could be unpacked in a number of ways: local fighters explaining that foreign fighters will be a liability on the frontline, and may not be allowed to fight anyway; citizens explaining that their need to protect foreigners will put them in danger; refugees on the indulgence of foreigners wanting to have adventure when there are women and children starving in refugee camps. This message could also give very clear ‘calls to action’: collect money, raise awareness, work for political dialogue, lobby your political representatives, etc.

Conditions on the frontline are terrible – it is not the adventure you are expecting. This message could focus on the reality of poor conditions in these conflict zones, including testimonies from returned foreign fighters, and accounts from journalists or locals on the ground. It could include a ‘call to action’ linked to the adventure motivation, such as volunteering in other Islamic/Muslim majority countries or regions.

The problem of foreign fighters is not new; it goes back to the Spanish civil war and beyond. But the advent of social media opens up multiple new possibilities for direct communication to encourage ever more numbers of young people to respond to a so-called ‘call of duty’.

Social media can also be a tool for good; with concerted efforts and smart campaigns, we too can reach these young people and give them the knowledge to ask the right questions about whether travelling to Syria to fight is the right thing to do. For now, the violent extremists are winning the war of ideas online. It’s time for the counter-messengers to raise their game.

 

 

 

I’m pleased to be chairing an event in London organised by the Forgiveness Project on 28 April where the focus will be on how former extremists can use their own experiences to help tackle violent extremism.

Sharing their own personal journeys of moving away from extremism will be Tony McAleer, a former white supremacist and former organiser of the White Aryan Resistance in Canada and Hadiya Masieh, a former Islamic extremist who was recruited by Hizb ut-Tahrir radicals, until the 7/7 bombings changed her perspective.

I’m a passionate believer that the stories of former extremists are a credible counter-message to extremist propaganda and I’m working to create a global resource of testimonies through my work at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and via the AVE network we run there.

More information about the event and tickets are available here.

Here’s a piece I’ve got on HuffPo this morning, setting out 5 messages for Ed Miliband on foreign policy. It draws on a chapter I wrote for a new Fabian Society collection, One Nation in the World, that was launched on Monday in Parliament. The wonderful Kirsty McNeill has written a response to the collection.

5 Messages for Ed Miliband on Foreign Policy

When Prime Minister Miliband walks into Downing Street on 8 May 2015, he will inherit a foreign and security policy machine that needs fixing. The country can’t afford to support its ambitions for world leadership; new alliances are needed with the private sector; investment is needed in systems capacity – especially technological and linguistic – and the Labour Prime Minister will need to rebuild the trust of a public rocked by Snowden’s revelations about how the machinery of foreign and security policy really works.

Here are five messages for Prime Minister Miliband and his foreign policy team.

Labour needs a streamlined foreign policy

Austerity Britain can no longer afford to support its grand ambitions; the Foreign Office (FCO) budget is set to half as a proportion of departmental spending and the Ministry of Defence is facing cuts larger than any other department. Given these constraints, it makes sense to do less but better, focusing on a much smaller number of strategic priorities. The FCO should think in terms of campaigning rather than diplomacy, taking on a small number of touchstone foreign policy campaigning issues with a clear objective, measureable aims, a roadmap for success, smart communications strategy, and high-level leadership. The Foreign Secretary’s campaign to end sexual violence against women in conflict areas is a great example of this approach in practice, and will have ripple effects to broader work on gender, conflict and development.

Labour needs to rethink multilateralism

Let’s be honest; our international institutions do not work. And while reform efforts continue, a Labour government needs a new way of getting things done. It should look to convene small action-oriented networks of countries looking for solutions around specific problems. The Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, created in 2009, is an example of what these flexible can-do networks can achieve – the results have been staggering.

Labour should also prioritise investment in regional bodies to deliver local solutions because these efforts tend to be more effective, build resilience and are sustainable. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has turned a lost cause into a beacon of hope – this is the kind of thing we need in Mali instead of French boots on the ground. Three-quarters of Al Qaeda leaders are now in Africa.

Labour needs to bring the private sector into foreign policy making

Discussions within foreign policy tend to read like a cartographical roll call of who’s hot and who’s not. But power is not just shifting from West to East; it is seeping away from government, meaning that foreign policy solutions are found in boardrooms rather than embassies. For example, while Cathy Ashton deserves credit for mediating a landmark nuclear agreement with Iran, for years the EU failed to enforce its own sanctions. 18 months before this agreement was reached, a tiny NGO – United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI) – successfully lobbied SWIFT to discontinue its services to EU-sanctioned Iranian financial institutions, including Iran’s Central Bank. What brought Iran to the table? Careful diplomacy or economic isolation achieved by a tiny but focused and determined advocacy group? Similarly, Google’s new uProxy product that allows ordinary citizens to allow campaigners under repressive regimes to use their internet connections as safe, anonymous proxy servers, could have a much larger impact on political reform in countries like Iran and China than careful, steady diplomacy.

Labour needs to put technology at the centre of its foreign policy making

Foreign policy can draw on a multitude of new technology tools to make it more effective – but it doesn’t. It could use large-scale sentiment analysis of social media big data to gauge the mood on the street. It could use social media platforms as a route to direct communication and engagement with foreign publics. And it could even crowd source policy making by enabling citizens to analyse data, as exemplified by the work of Brown Moses, who managed to join the dots quicker and more effectively on weapons in Syria than diplomats and analysts within government with access to highly classified information.

Labour needs to win back public trust in foreign policy

Perhaps the most important foreign policy ally for the next Labour government will be the British public. What Iraq started, Snowden finished, reinforcing the feeling that things aren’t working, that the ‘system’ has as much interest in self-preservation as public duty, and that elected politicians are not up to the job of reform. Labour should launch a public national enquiry into the impact of new technologies, the Internet and social media on foreign and security policy, addressing the full range of ethical challenges, governance issues, access to information, and opportunities for improving effectiveness and impact. It should be led by someone independent of the establishment who will not shy away from holding the foreign policy community to account.

The previous Labour government’s approach to foreign policy was the source of considerable public mistrust and dissatisfaction of the party. The scale of the challenge means that foreign policy is something that the next Labour government ignores at its peril.

Today I spent the morning with a group of security directors from some of Canada’s largest companies, talking about how corporate security has changed during the 15 years that I have been following it.

I talked about the four key changes that have occurred and how they have helped to bring security out of the boiler room and into the boardroom.

philosophical shift
Fifteen years ago, corporate security directors talked about the frustration of being seen as little more than the ‘man on the gate’. Both literally and metaphorically, they were shut out of the real business of their organisations.

This was largely of their own doing; most were trying to apply the logic and practices of their old organisations (mostly police and military – where hierarchies and command and control are how things get done) to complex, fast-paced and flat global matrix structures. They also limited themselves to being ‘boots on the ground’ because they focused on detailed operational delivery rather than strategic vision and oversight. Old habits died hard.

A decade and a half later, and things couldn’t be more different. The corporate security functions of the large multi-nationals are led by individuals – still the majority are men – who understand that they need to be business enablers rather than corporate cops.  They are proactive at interfacing with the business, rather than waiting for problems to come to them. They focus on persuasion and influence rather than change management through orders. And they are now much more strategic than operational, delegating a higher proportion of the delivery to local business units.

structural integration
Fine words are not enough to realise this 21st century vision of corporate security. So much rests on structural integration to lock the function into the key decision making parts of the company and give it the face time with the business that helps it to gain traction when it matters. The majority of corporate security directors now report directly into the executive committee. They have standard policies and practices that are mandated by the company. And they put in place smart reporting lines and relationships to embed themselves into the horizontal complexity of global multi-nationals with multiple business units and regional hubs. Fifteen years ago, corporate security departments were marginal players. Today, they are increasingly at the heart of business critical processes.

changing corporate security workload
One of the most stark shifts has been in the nature of the work of the corporate security department. A decade and a half ago, their time was spent on investigations, man guarding contracts and organising the travel and protection of the company’s top team. Many corporate security directors proudly talked about their close relationship with the chief exec, but in reality this was almost no different that which he or she enjoyed with their driver or chef.

Today, corporate security functions spend much more of their time on strategy, vision, leadership and oversight, and less on operational delivery. There is also much more focus on new areas of business risk, such as information security, due diligence, risk analysis and business continuity. Of course physical security is still important, but if the central team provides clear policies and procurement rules on man-guarding, for instance, this is just as effectively managed and acquired by local business units.

One of the most important trends within corporate security departments is the growth of in-house intelligence and analysis units. These small teams focus on regional, geo-political and threat specific analysis, tightly tailored to business needs, which can help to inform future decision making and insert corporate security into new business development processes. It is this change that will have the most profound impact on corporate security in the years ahead – it is this that will truly make it a business enabler.

people
Ultimately, any process, practice, procedure or strategy is delivered by people. While the majority of those within corporate security departments still come from a traditional security background (police, military, government, intelligence), they are leaving their old careers earlier, they are more diverse, and there are – slowly but surely – more women entering the function. If corporate security departments are there to serve diverse, multi-cultural and complex organisations, they must do a better job of reflecting them. And they must also do all they can to avoid group think.

The corporate security departments of 15 years ago thought their power and respect emanated from their expert knowledge. Today they realise that they need to talk and walk the language of business, be excellent communicators, and focus on building relationships. Boards do not want to know the minutia of a threat assessment and security process – they just want to know that the company’s problems are in hand. The corporate security directors that cry wolf are a dying and marginalised breed.

For more on corporate security, see The Business of Resilience.

 

Ed Miliband gave a speech today to the ippr where he outlined one plank of Labour’s new approach to immigration. He acknowledged the need to avoid two dangers in relation to immigration – wishing away the public’s concerns and making promises that can’t be kept.

The  main thrust of his speech focused on the ways in which immigration has impacted on the British economy. He acknowledged that it is also important to recognise its impact on access to resources (especially schools and housing) and the fabric of communities, but limited his comments to the economy.

In short, he argued that at the moment we don’t have an economy where everyone – from top to bottom – feels they are part of a shared project. And that some feel the benefits of globalisation and immigration, while others do not. The dividing line is characterised by class. Interesting to hear a Labour leader using the ‘c’ word again.

He outlined two key problems faced by ordinary people. First, labour standards are not being properly enforced so foreign workers can undercut wages. Second, the influx of low-cost, low-skill migrant labour is making many companies take a short-term, low-skill approach which is resulting in less training and development which brings down the value of work.

He calls for four things:

  • Genuinely effective controls on who comes in and out of the country
  • Enforcement of employment laws to ensure fair and minimum wages are observed and that those companies flouting the law are prosecuted and see their maximum fine at least double from £5,000 to £10,000
  • Recruitment agencies refusing to take British nationals onto their books need to be tackled
  • We need to build a more responsible form of capitalism, and institute an early warning system to identify those parts of the country experiencing rapid and profound change who need additional support

It is encouraging to see a political leader join up debates about immigration and the future of the economy. Too often, these discussions focus on issues of community cohesion and measures of ‘getting along’ as if the deeper structural factors of economy, jobs market, housing, and resources do not matter. Or indeed, that they are not important drivers of poor relations on the ground. Interesting also that Miliband brought the ‘c’ word back into politics. Perhaps this is the first sign of Jon Cruddas’ influence at play…

There is new research out by Dr Matthew Goodwin based on the leaked BNP membership list. Published in the journal Party Politics, it looks at the areas in England that contain larger clusters of BNP members.
To summarise some of its key findings (and heavily paraphrasing a summary by Matthew himself):
  • The local authorities that contain the highest number of members include Pendle, Burnley, Melton, Charnwood and Barnsley.
  • Key regional areas of ‘membership strength’ are Yorkshire, and the Midlands
  • Far right members tend to concentrate most heavily in areas that are urban, characterised by economic insecurity and where average education levels are low. Far right membership is particularly likely in areas where there are large numbers of residents employed in the manufacturing sector. For every one unit increase in wards of those who are employed in manufacturing, there is a 43% increase in membership (while controlling for other social and economic conditions). The results also suggest that long-term unemployment is not a key driver of far right membership, but rather it is citizens who are employed and in financial precarious positions that are the most susceptible to join far right groups
  • In terms of ethnic diversity, the findings confirm those of earlier studies: membership is correlated with the presence of large Muslim communities in the local area. This is consistent with findings on far right voting, and suggests that perceived threats from culturally distinct and economically deprived Muslim communities is an important factor to explaining support for the far right. However – and also consistent with work on far right voting – it finds that the presence of non-Muslim Asians has no significant impact on membership while membership is lower in areas where there are large numbers of Black British citizens. At broad level, this is further evidence that anti-Muslim prejudice has become a key driver of support for the far right, and that simply describing these groups as ‘anti-immigrant’ glosses a more nuanced picture.
  • Membership is significantly higher in local authorities where the BNP succeeded in winning a council seat, and has established local branches since 2000. While the BNP is now in decline, this suggests that where the far right is active and establishes a local presence its recruitment efforts are more successful
  • There is evidence of a ‘legacy effect’ – membership of the contemporary far right is significantly higher (17% higher) in local authorities where the old National Front (NF) was active in the 1970s, and while holding other social, economic and political factors constant. This would suggest that the modern far right has continued to draw on older networks of supporters within specific areas of the country, and that specific local areas in England are providing a context that is more favourable than others toward anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim campaigns. It might also suggest that areas where the far right is currently most active (for example the EDL), are likely to provide favourable conditions for the far right over coming decades.
This is a great piece of research and essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the far right in England.
Matthew also wrote a piece for ISD on the rise of the far right in Europe a few months ago, which can be downloaded from our website.

In the latest Economist/Ipsos Mori Issues poll, just one per cent of those surveyed in the UK thought defence/foreign affairs/international terrorism was the most important issue facing Britain today, and only 6 per cent thought it was one of the important issues facing the country. This is the lowest level since just before 9/11; in 2000.

Contrast this with key moments over the last ten years when these issues have dominated. In 2002, defence / foreign affairs / international terrorism jumped to 7th place, with 3 per cent thinking it was the most important issue and 11 per cent feeling it was one of the most important ones, with the NHS/hospitals predictably in first place (with 42 per cent and 72 per cent). By 2006, it ranked 2nd (with 22 per cent and 38 per cent respectively), ahead of the NHS/hospitals which had dropped to 3rd place.

Today’s results are a reminder of how much the last decade has been an anomaly in terms of public interest in foreign policy and security matters. I can’t help wondering how quickly and by how much the UK national security budget will be cut after the London Olympic Games pass without incident…

My interest in security was sparked when I was at university and my beloved uncle Phil was kidnapped in Colombia. Suddenly, I was thrust into a world of private security companies and response consultants, and felt like an extra on a Hollywood movie set. It led me to ask a few basic questions: who had taken him? Why would they want him? How would we get him back? And, importantly, what could be done to help others who might suffer the same anguish as his family did for 7 long months?

I now dedicate part of my life to the final challenge – running a small charity called Hostage UK, which supports the families of hostages during a kidnap and the family and hostage post-release. We offer pastoral care, put the families in touch with others who have been through the same experience, provide them with any professional support they might need, and offer advice and guidance on how best they can cope with their experience.

When I am not running Hostage UK, I am Research and Policy Director at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. There, I oversee our work on extremism and counter-terrorism, where – amongst other things – we have recently launched the Against Violent Extremism Network (AVE) to bring together former extremists with the survivors of violent extremist attacks to work to counter radicalization and help reintegrate extremists looking to leave their movements.

I have been reflecting on where these two worlds collide, and it strikes me that there are lessons to be learned from the reintegration of hostages and former extremists back into their family environments. I am not seeking to make light of the experiences of hostages, or draw parallels between their suffering and the choices of extremists. But if we look at the specific challenge of reintegration, there are some parallels. Here are five lessons that those looking to reintegrate former extremists could learn from our work at Hostage UK.

First, both the hostage and the family experience extreme forms of trauma. Hostages always say that their family experiences more stress than they do, because they always have the luxury of knowing whether they are alive or dead. When the hostage is released, the family is often not in a position to support fully, because they are in need of support themselves.

Second, the hostage and the family go through different experiences, and this can mean that they feel estranged from one another when the hostage returns.

Third, while the hostage has been away, the family has inevitably moved on. It is so often the main breadwinner who has been taken, and in their absence their wife (it is usually a female partner at home) has assumed the position of head of household, taken on responsibility for finances, and usurped the hostage’s role within the family. This can make reintegration difficult, as the hostage will not be able simply to slot back in and might feel excluded. It is mainly for this reason that there can be higher than average incidences of divorce post-release.

Fourth, the hostage may have experienced things during their captivity that they do not wish to share with their families due to a sense of shame and an inability to communicate. This only increases the sense of division between them and their family members.

Fifth, there is so often a reluctance on the part of both the former hostage and their family to accept that they might need help and support.

Applying these lessons across former hostages and former extremists may not be entirely intuitive. But it is vital to acknowledge that extremism – like kidnapping – is a human crime with a human solution, of which families must be a part. It is vital that these lessons are learned.

For more information about Hostage UK, visit our website.

Last week I was helping to run an international conference in Copenhagen run by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue on de-radicalisation and disengagement. We were working with the Danish Ministry for Integration as part of the Danish Presidency of the EU.

Bringing together a mix of policy makers, politicians, practitioners and former extremists, we looked at best practice in helping extremists to exit from their movements and ways in which policy and mainstream services, such as prisons, probation and welfare services, can assist.

I wrote a paper for the conference setting out what we know about de-radicalisation and disengagement, latest thinking, and a series of examples of good practice.

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