London conference calls for challenging organisations using Islam for their political goals

LONDON, 31st July, 2016 (WAM) - Governments, religious leaders, the media and researchers all have a strong responsibility to cooperate and support efforts to further peaceful understandings of religion over the understandings being driven by violent extremists, experts told a conference organised by TRENDS Research & Advisory at King’s College in London, UK on the issue of Daesh influence and the impact in relation to Europe.

The event was organised with TRENDS partner, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College, and brought together over 200 experts from government, research, policy, and private business.

Recent events in Europe have demonstrated clearly that the extremist views of Daesh are having a direct influence in Europe and that the support for extremism in Europe contributes to instability around the world. Daesh has been able to directly support attacks on European targets and provide influence to individuals to use extreme violence. Daesh and other extremist organisations are also responsible for fuelling extreme views that they claim are based on religion but are only about furthering political violence.

Speaking before the event, Dr. Ahmed Al Hamli, the President of TRENDS, stated "We need to challenge organisations who attempt to use Islam for their political goals, religion cannot be exploited in the pursuit of violence."

Furthermore, as the event discussed at length, governments and media organisation need to work harder to find more effective ways to discourage the dissemination of extremist views.

The event opened with a panel of experts who established the framework for discussing the complex issues faced. Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, a former USA State Department official who directed USA efforts at counterterrorism communications, explained that there has been progress in the military fight against Daesh but much less progress has been made in directing hearts and minds away from extremist ideologies. This was a constant theme throughout the event and the country based experts backed this up with evidence from various European states where security measures appear to be effective in preventing actual violent attacks, but much less effective in changing the mind set of extremists.

Shiraz Maher, Deputy Director of ICSR and author of the recent book Salafi-Jihadism; said: The History of an Idea, provided valuable insights from his research where he explained that many extremists are not knowledgeable about religion or the beliefs they supposedly support. But then Daesh has used this situation to encourage potential followers they only need to be willing to support the violent extremist cause, not understand it.

The first session established a key theme for the event – the need to give greater attention to what is motivating individuals to believe in extremist ideologies, how these ideologies compel individuals to act in support of extremism, and how the ideology motivates people to engage in violence. Daesh and other extremist groups are advocating the establishment of the Caliphate through any means, and this ideology relies on the particular understanding they are giving to Islam. But as the session discussed, and subsequent commentators made clear, extremist groups are exploiting religion for their political agendas and use of violence.

We have to be aware that the use of religion for political agendas, in particular the call for the Caliphate, gives the extremist group a claim of legitimacy which will have a strong impact on young people, in particular in Europe and the Middle East, which draws these people to violence. Richard Barrett, Senior Adviser to the Soufan Group and former member of the British Security Services (MI5) and former head of the UN Monitoring Team for Al-Qaeda provided the keynote address. Barrett discussed how the threat and impact of Daesh is global, we tend to look mainly at matters in Europe but there is extremist violence being carried out globally. He explained how Daesh pursues operations globally as their situation in Iraq and Syria comes under greater threat. He also drew upon his extensive experience in this area to caution against governments over reacting to the real or perceived threats from extremism. He stressed that European states should focus more on creating a stronger sense of resilience in the face of extremist threats as this works to counter the threat and prevent further support.

The event heard from a number of country specific experts who examined the situation in relation to the UK, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Denmark. These experts analysed the varying approaches taken by governments and identified areas for further cooperation and improvement. Dr Lorenzo Vidino, Director of the Program on Extremism at the George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security, provided a telling example from Italy where government is putting sufficient resources into counter-extremism but that these a focussed on a hard approach to punish suspects; less resource is going into prevention activities, which is ultimately more important. However, he warned that effective practices for countering extremism cannot be a single model, each country and society will have socially and culturally constructed differences that require more nuanced approaches.

The experts discussed how many young people in Europe face significant marginalisation in society and have few prospects for productive future, making their susceptibility to extremist very high. Equally, young people are seeing glamour in being a terrorist, and many of these individuals have no religious background or knowledge. The country experts made clear that each society is facing diverse challenges in addressing the lure of extremism. A number of the experts made clear that the lure of extremism occurs in both person to person contacts and through online platforms. Even though much evidence shows that individuals are being recruited into extremism through direct contact, the emotional impact of the online community is substantial and cannot be underestimated.

The final session of the event explored what governments and business can do to support efforts to help prevent or minimise the spread of extremist ideologies through the media. Brian Fishman, Policy Adviser at Facebook, Christiane Hohn, Principal Adviser to the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, and Charlie Winter, a global expert on Daesh’s propaganda efforts, addressed what needs to be done in this area. Winter explained that Daesh is putting significant effort into creating a "virtual Caliphate" and that Daesh views the online/media operations as important as actual violence. He explained how the extremist organisations directly use online and media sources to demonstrate their so-called successes, to establish their position as a "brand" or product, and to intimidate others into believing their ideology.

Fishman discussed how Facebook is taking these matters very seriously and is working to develop more sophisticated technologies allowing it to prevent the spread of extremist views. They been successful in preventing a large number of individuals from spreading their violent ideas, but given the size and scale of Facebook, this is a challenging area. He also discussed how the pictures and stories used by extremists can also be used by counter narrative supporters making the challenge even more difficult. Hohn set out that from a governmental perspective they would like to see the companies providing online platforms to engage in more sophisticated monitoring of their use to remove or prevent extremist views being aired. She explained governments are willing to work with media in this area, and also recognised the problems in mutual legal assistance between countries for ensuring acts of extremism through online sources and social media can be effectively prosecuted. Winter made clear that many media outlets are irresponsible in the ways in which they present extremist related stories and in many ways contribute to what the extremists desire. Fishman further explained that while Facebook is a major organisation that dedicates substantial resources to countering extremism, there are many more, smaller online and social media platforms that do not have this resource, but are also widely used.

The event overall demonstrated the influence of Daesh and extremist ideology globally, as well as the challenges faced. The experts made clear that greater attention needs to be given to understanding why individuals are influenced by extremist ideas, how these ideas are spread throughout our societies, and why an individual would undertake violent acts in support of these ideologies. There is no easy or clear answer to any of this, even though substantial evidence of good practice does appear to exist. But as the extremist organisations continue to adapt and evolve to the changing global environment in which they operate, governments and societies need to adapt as well. The key challenge will be addressing the root ideas and understandings that are leading individuals into violence; challenging the ideology of violence being used by the extremists. This is a matter where governments, religious leaders, the media and researchers all have a strong responsibility to cooperate and support efforts to further peaceful understandings of religion over the understandings being driven by violent extremists.