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Theresa May offers a gig-economy approach to counter-terrorism

Regulating the internet won't work. Investing in public services might.

Gilbert Ramsay
6 June 2017
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Is Theresa May proposing a 'gig economy' approach to counter terrorism? Image - Deliveroo

In her response to the recent attack in Westminster, Theresa May has called for action to end online “safe spaces” which “breed” extremists. It’s a line which is starting to sound like that most iconic of vintage media: the broken record. The idea that the Internet needs to be increasingly regulated – once only expressed by authoritarian right-wingers – has become increasingly mainstream on both sides of the political spectrum. But it’s naïve for two important reasons.

First, these ‘safe spaces’ don’t actually exist. Serious extremists are well aware that they are being constantly monitored, tracked and infiltrated. The following blog post from an ISIS supporter (one of countless screeds by Islamist and other extremists on the same subject) offers a neat snapshot of how the Internet looks to an extremist.

The intelligence agencies specifically monitor the internet with the intention of dismantling anti-colonial narratives and attacking those who postulate them. Whether Muslim, radical socialist, anarchist, or anti-government activist, they want you. They want to know what you send, when you send it, to whom you send it to, why, and how to use it against you. They monitor your social media. Even if you never use your real name, post a picture, or leave any hints, they can track your IP address, know your identity, and jail you for a few online posts. They search for keywords such as “kafir” in order to find specific individuals. These agencies are notorious for even harassing youth around the ages of fourteen to sixteen for their beliefs and rather reckless online posting.

 

The need to avoid these agencies is exaggerated in those living in Western countries, from Finland to the West coast of the United States. Here, kafir intelligence agencies are particularly interested in entrapping young Muslims. Sometimes, they will pretend to be sincere brothers or sisters and invite Muslims to marriage or hijrah, sometimes both, and when they coerce them, they jail them for trying to join terrorist organizations. It is clear these are amongst the foulest of Allah’s creation. They want to find ikhwan who discuss these things because they know the true Islamic narrative is dangerous to their flamboyant way of life, wherein they hoard wealth from the poor and slaughter the weak. The United States government, the government of the United Kingdom, France, and elsewhere, want to jail you. They want you to suffer. And they aren’t playing games.

Extremism continues to survive not because it is simply allowed to flourish, but because it adapts. The very tactics of ‘leaderless’ terrorism (‘leaderless resistance’ for extreme right wingers, and the copycat tactic of ‘leaderless jihad’ subsequently developed by the thinkers such as Abu Mus’ab al-Suri and Yusuf al-'Uyayri) exist precisely because of the impossibility of developing secure networks on a larger scale. Jihadi forums set up to distribute Al Qaeda propaganda content were infiltrated (and in at least one case run) by intelligence agencies. Their members were well aware they weren’t safe. When they started being shut down, they migrated to social media, messenger app channels or any one of a plethora of other media, hiding in plain sight.

Extremism also continues because even the most apparently obvious cases of extremism aren’t so obvious when you actually look at them. Some jihadi content is unmistakably extremist of course – it’s self-consciously designed to look that way by culturally sophisticated authors out to provoke as much as to proselytise. (The easiest and most reliable way to get hold of such material online is often from websites set up for counter-terrorist purposes in order to study and understand it). But a lot of the time, extreme ideologues express themselves primarily in terms of real Qur’an quotations, authentic sayings of the prophet and genuinely venerated classical Islamic scholars. Anders Breivik, the Utoya Island shooter, issued a manifesto shortly before his attacks which he openly admitted was largely copied and pasted from materials which nobody would have thought of censoring beforehand. In the introduction, he encourages any potential followers to feel free to edit the manifesto to remain within the limits of future law. The are-they-or-aren’t-they-real-Nazi alt right have made an art form of ambiguity. Even the Tories themselves, we now learn, have entered the fake news game, spreading deliberately misleading attack ads on Facebook which, it is alleged, would be illegal were they to be shown on mainstream T.V. On the other hand, legitimate content put up by, for example, avowedly non-violent pro-Palestinian activists is routinely blocked or taken down by Facebook moderators. Who moderates the moderators?

The Internet handles more than a zettabyte or infinitely recombinable bits of data every day, competing for the finite attention of a mere three or so billion human users. In the big picture, extremism online is nothing more than a series of patterns – logically necessary ends of a distribution curve – to which we attach narrative and meaning. We can’t make it go away, because once we have eliminated it, we (and the extremists) will simply adjust our baselines.

Terrorism is terrifying. This is a cliché if not quite a tautology (formal definitions of the phenomenon actually disagree as to how central the production of ‘terror’ is to the meaning of the phenomenon). But it isn’t a cliché if terrorists have claimed the life or limbs of your sister, brother, spouse or friend. And yet the uncanny horror of seeing people’s loved ones killed by people whose ultimate motivation seems to both invite endless analysis and resist it at the same time is not just part of the nature of terrorism: it is part of the strategy of terrorism. Terrorists want people talking about them – not just angry people in pubs or tabloid newspaper columnists, but also diffident academics writing pieces in openDemocracy.

But for all this, the good news is that things aren’t nearly as bad as they were once expected to be. After the bombings in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005, which were widely (and, we now know, inaccurately) believed to be the work of wholly independent ‘self starters’, there was a widespread expectation among serious strategic thinkers that countless acts of small-scale homegrown terrorism would become so widespread as a pose a comparable threat to Al Qaeda as it was when it carried out 9/11, one capable of bringing the West to its knees. More recently, as ISIS has faced elimination on the ground, it has been predicted that, with levels of funding and manpower easily eclipsing anything Al Qaeda ever possessed, it would be able to morph into a global terror threat of unprecedented severity.

Thank God, the reality so far falls well short of this. Leaderless terrorism has been a damp squib compared to what its architects hoped for and what counterterrorism analysts once feared. The deliberate tactic of trying to incite random sympathisers online was meant to trade off quality for unpredictability and quantity. In the event, attackers have seldom been off the authorities’ radar, and while of course many plots are thwarted, the overall volume has been nothing like the epidemic that was once feared. Yes, ISIS has given added momentum and glamour to the brands of both jihadist and far right ‘counter-jihadist’ extremists. But the very fact that ISIS has largely had to rely on this tactic speaks to the efficiency with which it has been contained. 

Terrorism of course has a notable online dimension – ‘terrorists use the Internet just like everybody else’. It is appropriate for social networks to enforce community standards, and for intelligence services to monitor and infiltrate violent plots where it is clearly proportionate to do so. But ever more constrictive attempts to regulate the Internet are the wrong answer to a question which can barely even be formulated properly.

What Theresa May offers is a gig economy approach to security

There are big holes in what Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party have to say about security policy, to be sure. But what Theresa May offers is a gig economy approach to security: fancy surveillance equipment, small numbers of more heavily armed police, and drab office buildings full of under-paid, overworked content moderators. (None of whom, incidentally, come free of charge). In the end, terrorism doesn’t happen on Facebook, it happens on the streets. Trying to rebuild public services, including the police, isn’t a magic answer. But it might not be a bad place to start looking for an alternative approach.

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