EU should be more careful its funding doesn’t spread online radicalisation

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A screenshot from the rap music video entitled 'A New World'.

EU-funded videos used for an anti-radicalisation campaign could in fact be considered as recruitment tools such as Islamic State, warns Eli Hadzhieva.

Eli Hadzhieva is Founder and Director of Dialogue for Europe.

In mid-December 2017, the European Commission presented plans to strengthen the EU’s information systems for security, border and migration management, to permit member states to share more data on border security issues and visa and fingerprint data in order to prevent future terror attacks.

This comes at time when there is broad agreement among law-enforcement officials and terrorism experts that Internet propaganda promoting violent extremism has been one of the main drivers behind the 38 terror attacks the EU has witnessed since August 2015, resulting in more than 200 deaths.

Last month, the third Ministerial EU Internet Forum stressed the need to step up efforts to detect terrorist propaganda and to ensure its effective removal. The Forum, which was launched in December 2015, brings together the Internet industry, Home Affairs Ministries and other intergovernmental stakeholders, with the objective of stopping the misuse of the Internet by international terrorist groups.

As a result, a database of known terrorist content was created, which has gathered over 40,000 terrorist videos and images over the past few months. In 2015, Europol established a referral mechanism which has resulted in Internet companies removing 42,000 individual online items promoting terrorism.

It is commendable that the Commission is taking the issue of radicalisation seriously by increasing its counterterrorism/radicalisation prevention measures. However, recent written questions by parliamentarians regarding the prevention of radicalisation within the framework of the EU SAFFRON (Semantic Analysis against Foreign Fighters Recruitment Online Networks) Programme, have raised doubts about the effectiveness of the EU’s initiatives.

MEPs have pointed out that videos used for the YouTube campaign, #heartofdarkness, which is co-funded by the EU’s Internal Security Fund (ISF) could in fact “… be considered as a recruitment tool for groups such as ISIS”.

Those who watch the short spot videos which appear on the website, whose aim is to prevent radicalisation among youth, are likely to be confused or misled about basic concepts related to extremism and its root-causes, while finding no significant information on how to stop it. Even the campaign’s name, taken from Joseph Conrad’s dystopian novella, is open to misinterpretation, as it could be perceived as a call for adventure rather than being a radicalisation prevention tool.

The site could actually be interpreted as justifying radicalisation, using the “victimhood” narrative by showcasing the “terrible life” of  Syrian and other refugees in Europe, praising the heroism of foreign fighters, showing violent and graphic images of terror attacks and benign images of foreign fighters carrying ISIS flags, as well as recurring images of suffering children in Iraq and Syria, a tool often used by extremists to incite anger during the recruitment process.

It is quite shocking to watch the rap music video entitled ‘A New World’, which sounds like a eulogy to terrorists, chanting: “In the name of a right God, I will have my revenge. Terrify a world that doesn’t respect me”.

One of the videos named “Media War” refers to the normalisation of violence and shows a youngster playing a violent video game, where he sees an Isis pop-up message on screen: “Stop playing. Come and fight with us – that is your REAL mission!” and is, presumably, recruited.

Another video entitled “Take a Stand” calls for action because “… to do nothing is not acceptable” and shows an EU citizen burning his passport to join the ranks of ISIS fighters.

The website contains a video on jihad, which depicts the Muslim Brotherhood as ‘pacifist’, distancing itself from the overtly violent teachings of Sayyid Qutb. The video, however, fails to underline the link between the founding ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood and violent extremism, thus minimising the organisation’s role in the radicalisation process. Furthermore, there is no reference to the founder of the Brotherhood, Hassan Al Bana, who made violent jihad a cornerstone of the organisation, with the ultimate goal of creating a Caliphate.

In many of the videos, one can read the words: “Once you choose violence, there is no going back.” One can only wonder how this message can be interpreted. Should violence be offered as a choice to young people? Could “no going back” be misinterpreted as a good thing as extremists claim that theirs is the ‘right way’?

It is unclear why the EU has decided to co-fund this project which not only promotes confusing ideas about radicalisation but, it can be argued, effectively encourages it. Rather than contributing to the justification of terrorist acts by fuelling feelings of frustration, discrimination and anger, EU-funded projects need to focus on the integration of European youth by increasing their sense of belonging, understanding better their needs and providing alternatives to violence and ensuring family, peer and community support. If not, the EU’s anti-radicalisation efforts risk becoming all talk.