Security Minister James Brokenshire: Countering violent extremism through communications

James Brokenshire spoke to the Global Counter Terrorism Forum (GCTF) today (27 June)

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon James Brokenshire MP

Good morning. I am delighted to join you at this conference on countering violent extremism through communications.

I would like to extend a warm welcome to you all, particularly as I know many of you have travelled a long way.

The GCTF was founded with the aim of bringing together people from countries affected by terrorism from around the world.

There is no doubt it is by working together that we can best equip ourselves to defeat terrorism.

I sincerely hope that today provides you with an opportunity to gain knowledge and insight to help you do just that.

The threat is truly international

As we are aware, the threat from terrorism is diverse.

The faces of terrorism and extremism are many.

The forms they take are multiple: it can be Al Qaeda inspired, Far Right, nationalist, separatist or any other number of permutations.

But there is no doubt terrorism is a truly international scourge. In 2011, the latest year for which figures are available, over 10,000 terrorist attacks occurred in some 70 countries, killing over 12,500 people and injuring almost 45,000.

We are in an age of easy travel, with strong links between diaspora communities in numerous parts of the world, and as technology opens up new frontiers in the ways in which we can communicate and interact – as well as providing us with many opportunities – it also provides extremists with an international platform to extend their reach and influence.

Repeatedly we see how extremists use the online space to spread their message of hate and violence, and increasingly how self radicalisation and extremist material plays a part in producing radicalised mindsets.

Tackling the extremist proposition

There can be no starker reminder of the urgency of our work than the dreadful events that occurred on a British street in Woolwich only five weeks ago.

The savage, cold-blooded killing of a British soldier in broad daylight was an appalling, repulsive attack.

It was followed shortly after by an assault on a French soldier in Paris.

While earlier in April the Boston Marathon was callously and dramatically bombed leaving three people dead and many more injured.

I believe these three separate events demonstrate a concerning trend in the evolving threat that we in the UK now face.

That is the lone individual and small self-starting groups answering the call to individual action and carrying out dynamic, headline grabbing acts.

These acts show just how important it is that we do all we can to combat radicalisation.

Repeatedly, in the fight against terrorism, the Prime Minister has said we must get to the root cause of the problem and tackle the extremism from which it springs.

We must therefore not only thwart those who plot and plan to carry out such acts, but we must demonstrate that the extremist proposition that supports them is wrong.

Those who seek to justify and glorify terrorist acts, do so with twisted, perverted ideologies.

They want to recruit people to their way of thinking: to see the world in divided, simplistic terms, and project a version of reality which splits everyone into ‘them’ and ‘us’.

This version of the world they promote to vulnerable audiences on a daily basis – vulnerable perhaps for a range of reasons.

This must stop. We have to do all we can to understand the process of radicalisation and challenge those processes every step of the way.

Our challenge

Now this conference is about sharing best practice. So let me share some of the work that we are very proud of in the UK.

We have a counter radicalisation strategy which aims to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.

Through this we are disrupting extremists who wish to spread hate-filled propaganda, supporting sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalisation, and helping vulnerable people to turn away from extremism and potentially violence.

In many of these areas we are already making progress.

For example our programme to support vulnerable people at risk of being drawn into terrorist activity has had 2,500 referrals since it first started in 2007, and has offered support to 500 people.

But today, I want to focus on the work we are doing to tackle the ideology that forms a part of the terrorist threat we face.

First we are working to stem the flow of extremist propaganda into this country.

Where possible the Home Secretary stops people who preach hate and intolerance from coming to Britain to exploit our freedoms – whether their views are AQ-related or Far Right.

And at local level we are working to ensure extremist speakers are denied the use of public platforms, and supporting community projects which work with those who may be vulnerable to radicalisation.

We are also taking steps to tackle extremist and terrorist material online.

This is an area where I take a keen personal interest, and am determined that terrorists and extremists will not have free reign and go uncontested.

Where material clearly breaches terrorist legislation, a dedicated unit can take swift action to remove it from the internet.

This unit has already taken down over 6000 pieces of online terrorist content and is examining further items every day.

But we are also urgently looking at material which is not illegal, but which is harmful and damaging in nature.

In this context, I welcome Facebook’s position around taking down beheading videos flagged by the public as well as those that show violence against women.

But more must be done. In the aftermath of Woolwich the British Prime Minister has set up the Extremism Taskforce to consider how collectively across Government we can work to address extremism and radicalisation.

I have just come from the latest Extremism Taskforce meeting with the Prime Minister at No.10, and I am left in no doubt about the seriousness with which this Government is seizing this opportunity to examine the practical steps it can take, including ways to challenge ideology.

One particular interest of mine is the importance of ensuring that our counter radicalisation strategy sits alongside other key areas of public sector work.

To do that, the way we communicate about this strategy is vital.

We need to encourage key groups of people to see the benefit of a preventative approach: both for the individuals involved, but also for communities and society as a whole.

I think it’s important that we articulate our counter radicalisation strategy within the context of safeguarding.

In the UK, safeguarding is the term we use when we talk about measures intended to keep individuals safe and protected from harm.

This has particular relevance when encouraging frontline professionals to adopt strategies alongside other preventative initiatives aimed at protecting people from harms such as drugs, gang culture and gun and knife crime.

And a testament to this approach is that to date we have trained thousands of front line workers to recognise vulnerability to radicalisation in sectors such as health and education.

In a similar vein, I am keen to ensure that the Government’s work to support troubled families is aligned to our work to support vulnerable individuals at risk of being drawn into terrorist activity.

This is particularly important given what we know about the role of the family and its influence in deterring people from crime.

Young science

But what about the task of building our understanding of how communications can play a part in countering violent extremism.

This is a young science, relatively new, and the least developed of the communication sciences, but we have an obligation to get on with it.

We must do more to understand the emotional and psychological vulnerabilities behind radicalisation, and the opportunities to intervene.

We need to ask what are the points along the journey towards radicalisation where communications can be effective?

We need to understand more about the appeal of organisations such as Al Qaeda.

We need to ask ourselves is it a brand? But also, to what extent is it a belief system?

And what are the communications devices that break down brands and belief systems?

We should also remember that just as we must maximise our capacity to challenge extremists online, we must keep up with changing habits and the powerful, emotional call to action – to jihad – overseas.

Today one country that concerns us hugely in this regard is Syria.

Approximately 70 to 100 individuals connected with the UK are thought to have travelled to Syria to fight.

The dangers are not just the obvious ones of death and injury on the battlefield, but that individuals, through this experience, and through their association with potentially hardline groups over there, become ever more radicalised and return to the UK with mindsets more radical and more willing to engage in violence and seek other theatres of war.

For us it is not just those that are travelling to fight that are of concern.

But people who may begin setting out for humanitarian reasons, who are perhaps acting on impulses to help, who once there find themselves in situations which draw them ever further down a pathway towards combat and the risk of radicalisation.

This Government, working with its partners, recognises the sense of duty and responsibility that community members have to help the people of Syria and support the humanitarian effort, but the need to encourage people to donate safely and to check Charity Commission advice.

But aside from Syria, more generally we must remember too that the extremist proposition not only contributes to creating individual mindsets prepared to carry out violent acts, but can create an environment around them which legitimises their views and reinforces simplistic, binary ways of viewing the world.

Therefore we must develop communication interventions that are effective in wider groups where such ideology is being adopted, as well as for those already undertaking the radicalising journey.

The communications challenge

The communications challenge requires us to be smart, imaginative, questioning, willing to challenge ourselves about what we think we know and what we think the evidence means.

But most of all, we must begin to turn our understanding and knowledge into practical, tangible outcomes.

I think we have assembled in this room some of the best, most experienced people in this field who can help us answer our questions.

I also want to ensure that today’s discussions do not end here, but are continued and developed.

The UK is dedicated to supporting the good work of the GCTF, and we need to make sure we continue sharing knowledge and best practice on today’s conversations at a government level in order to deliver on our GCTF commitments.

The GCTF has already made great progress.

In December last year, Hedayah, the world’s first international centre dedicated to countering violent extremism was inaugurated in Abu Dhabi.

This significant achievement will provide capacity building opportunities in counter radicalisation for many member GCTF countries.

The GCTF’s International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law, when it opens in Tunis in 2014, will also allow legal practitioners to make great strides in delivering benchmark standards for criminal justice.

Moreover, the GCTF provides countries with the opportunity to develop relationships within its diverse membership.

Elsewhere, the UK along with others is contributing to the Radicalisation Awareness Network established by the European Commission.

One of this network’s workstreams is considering ways to undermine extremist narratives on the internet and social media, including exploring examples of good practice and practical challenges that can be solved through partnership between the private sector, community organisations and others.

It is vital that we build upon these achievements, and the good work that is being done to counter radicalisation through communications and more widely.

We must maintain momentum, and ensure we take our work forward and deliver solid outcomes.

The UK is proud to be hosting this conference. I wish you all the best for the day, and hope it proves most insightful and productive.

Published 27 June 2013