Going global: the UK government’s ‘CVE’ agenda, counter-radicalisation and covert propaganda
Revelations of UK covert propaganda operation to counter extremism reveals dangers of secretive state-sponsored 'civil society' initiatives. A healthy democracy depends on civil society groups staying independent of government and corporations, or otherwise open about their relationship.
We have been investigating the government Research and Information Communications Unit (RICU), the PR agency Breakthrough Media and the many 'grassroots' campaigns they worked with for almost a year with varying degrees of complicity. We have only published a small amount of the information we amassed and expect the Guardian and other journalists to reveal more in the coming days.
In this article we show how those orchestrating the campaigns have global ambitions – and despite the abject lack of debate – how the UK’s "industrial scale propaganda" programme is already being held up as best practice by the EU and UN.
The story so far
Over the past five years, the Home Office and a secretive government department called RICU, the Research, Information and Communications Unit, has been cultivating a network of ‘grassroots’ Muslim voices to promote ‘counter-narratives’ that combat the appeal of an ill-defined ‘extremism’ among Britain’s Muslim youth. Parliament has not been informed of these activities and the policy has been kept from public scrutiny by draconian secrecy legislation and the veil of ‘national security’.
Working with specialist PR agencies and new media companies to target young people who fit the profile of ‘vulnerable young Muslim’, RICU’s interventions represent the first concerted foray into cyberspace by the British state with the aim of covertly engineering the thoughts of its citizens. In practice this means the chosen ‘grassroots’ organisations and ‘counter-narratives’ receive financial and technical support from the government for the production of their multimedia campaigns (videos, websites, podcasts, blogs etc).
These state-sponsored ‘counter-narratives’ are in turn promoted to specific groups of internet users, chosen on the basis of their demographics, the websites they visit, the social media accounts they ‘follow’, and the search terms they use.
It has now been revealed that the following ‘grassroots’ campaigns have received some kind of support from the Home Office, RICU or Breakthrough Media: My 2012 Dream, Return to Somalia, Help for Syria, Faith on the Frontline, Families matter, Imams online, Not another brother, Ummah Sonic,The fightback starts here, Open Your Eyes: Isis Lies, The truth about Isis, and Making a Stand. At issue is not what these initiatives stand for, or even that they are government supported, but that they are presented as independent, community-based campaigns.
While the government has defended RICU’s programme as some kind of ‘necessary evil’, we should not be duped. When democratic governments start using community groups and NGOs to disseminate government propaganda and hoodwink the public into believing they are authentic ‘grassroots’ campaigns, it damages everyone in civil society. Democracy requires clear lines between the security state and the police on the one hand, and civil society, public and social services on the other.
Breakthrough Media – an official secret no more
Breakthrough Media is the government’s go-to creative media agency for its “counter-narratives”. It specializes in “emotionally driven films, campaigns and other communications products” and its clients include government and intergovernmental agencies (UK, US, European Union, African Union, United Nations) and various NGOs. It has offices in London, Nairobi and Mogadishu and employs 100 people across Europe and East Africa.
Some of Breakthrough’s work for the UK government has been protected by the Official Secrets Act – an extraordinary use of national security legislation to conceal the activities of a government-contracted PR company.
Breakthrough was founded by Managing Director Robert Elliot, and originally called “Camden Creative”, which was incorporated in 2008. Camden Creative operated as a drama and documentaries production company that delivered a ten-part reality drama series for Channel 5 and a one-off documentary about the Mayor of Mogadishu for Al Jazeera English. The name of the company was changed to “Breakthrough Media” on 27 November 2012. Breakthrough’s CEO is Scott Brown, appointed on 17 August 2012. Brown was formerly an account director at M&C Saatchi and Deputy Chief of Staff at Bell Pottinger (the UK’s biggest PR company) in Nairobi.
Breakthrough has earned £11.8m from the UK government since 2012. Lest there be any doubt about the commitment of the UK government to this cause, it has just asked PR companies to pitch for a further £60 million.
Horizon PR was incorporated in March 2015 and is part of the M&C Saatchi Group, the international PR and advertising group formed by Maurice and Charles Saatchi after they were ousted from their original firm, Saatchi and Saatchi. Horizon has five directors: Robert Elliot and Scott Brown of Breakthrough Media, and Andrew Blackstone, Molly Aldridge and Marcus Peffers from the M&C Saatchi group. Blackstone and Aldridge are senior executives at M&C Saatchi, while Peffers was a senior account director who founded the company's World Services division in 2011 to bring the "experience and creative capabilities” of the agency to “help tackle complex behavioural and social issues in fragile states and developing markets”. M&C Saatchi's World Services works with a range of national and international governments, IGOs, INGOs and foundations and is among the group's most successful divisions. Feffers has also worked at a senior advisory level with successive UK governments, including HMT, the FCO, the Home Office, HMRC and Number 10, and oversaw M&C Saatchi’s campaign to keep Scotland in the Union on behalf of the three main UK political parties.
Horizon provides PR solutions to “ethnic, social and faith based issues” to clients including “non-government and civil-society groups who want to improve and increase the impact and scale of their activity and better reach audiences at a local, regional, national and international level”. This is achieved through “creative news generation, traditional and social media campaigns and targeted events”. In launching Horizon, Breakthrough and the Saatchis are clearly betting on a big future in communicating government messages on sensitive issues such as “terrorism” and “extremism”.
Hand-in-hand: censorship and propaganda
The lengths of the UK’s covert propaganda programme appear even more extraordinary in the context of the government’s mass censorship of the internet – something which can only be achieved with the cooperation of internet service providers and social media companies.
Since the Edward Snowden revelations, and having realized that working hand-in-glove with the “Five Eyes” global surveillance system was not good for their reputation or business prospects, Silicon Valley appears to have enjoyed a much less comfortable relationship with western governments. Some of its biggest names have taken formal positions that distance themselves from government surveillance, and introduced corresponding procedures designed to reassure and protect their users.
But Silicon Valley has been unable to extricate itself from the broader 'war on terror' and ad hoc public-private partnerships have emerged to address demands from law enforcement and intelligence agencies to block “terrorist propaganda”. In the UK, this process has essentially replicated the model developed to combat the proliferation of child pornography on the internet.
As with child porn, states have passed laws banning the production and dissemination of terrorist propaganda, providing grounds for the state to request companies to close accounts or block websites (so-called “notice and take-down” requests) said to contravene national law. In the absence of obvious legal breaches, the censors argue that the content breaches the provider’s terms of service.
The UK has pioneered the censorship of “terrorist” content, having established the world’s first Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (CITRU) in 2010, modelled on the Child Exploitation and Online Protection agency. CITRU is the central contact point for police and intelligence officers seeking to block web pages or close social media accounts, and refers their requests to service providers, search engines and content platforms. By December 2015, CITRUclaimed to have taken down “more than 120,000 pieces of unlawful terrorist-related content online” since 2010, with one-third removed in 2015.
In practice, content hosted outside the UK (as most “terrorist propaganda” is) is not actually “taken down” – access is instead blocked by British ISPs (and can therefore be easily circumvented). Nor do these figures include independent action by social media companies. In February 2016, Twitter announced that it had shut down more than 125,000 ISIS related accounts.
Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the EU launched a Europe-wide blocking system modelled on CITRU. The EU Counter-terrorism Internet Referral Unitbegan operating in July 2015 and is housed at Europol.
You would instinctively think that “terrorist propaganda” means the horrific videos of ISIS beheadings and such like, yet violent material is said to make up just 2% of what is blocked. Regardless, the level of censorship of terrorists and extremists has now reached levels that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. But this is only one side of the story.
Silicon Valley and counter-narratives
Having played ball with content take-down, the Silicon Valley behemoths have also increasingly embraced the “counter-narrative” agenda – an agenda they are of course uniquely placed to implement. In February 2015, a “White House Summit To Counter Violent Extremism” gathered foreign leaders, United Nations officials, and “a broad range of international representatives and members of civil society”.
Following the summit, the White House announced several new initiatives. First, the US government would organize “technology camps” alongside social media companies, which will “work with governments, civil society and religious leaders to develop digital content that discredits violent extremist narratives and amplifies positive alternatives”. Second, the US will partner with the United Arab Emirates to create a “digital communications hub that will counter ISIL’s propaganda and recruitment efforts, both directly and through engagement with civil society, community, and religious leaders”. In other words: the stratosphere that includes organisations RICU, CITRU, Breakthrough, ‘grassroots’.
While Facebook and Google were tight-lipped, a Twitter spokesman stated that they “support counterspeech efforts around the world and we plan to participate in this effort through third-party NGOs”. Twitter has also run a series of workshops for UK NGOs concerned with countering extremism to help them enhance their presence on social media.
Giving evidence to the House of Commons’ Home Affairs Select Committee in February 2016, Google announced that it was going one step further and“piloting two pilot programmes. One is to make sure that these types of videos [counter-narratives] are more discoverable on YouTube. The other one is to make sure when people put potentially damaging search terms into our search engine… they also find this counter-narrative”. It was later clarified that the programme took the form of “free Google AdWords” to enable NGOs to place “counter-radicalisation adverts against search queries of their choosing”.
To be clear about what this means in practice, imagine an internet user fitting the profile of ‘impressionable young Muslim’ (as defined by Prevent), searching Google for “Syria war” (or clicking on a Facebook link about it) and being referred to Breakthrough’s Open Your Eyes: Isis Lies campaign, among others. And as we know from the Snowden revelations, these searches will be logged and investigated by the intelligence services.
The symbolism of all of this cannot be understated. Removing one kind of 'propaganda' and promoting another at the request of governments – or via government-backed NGOs or contractors – is a far cry from the free speech-cum-great leveller Silicon Valley told us to believe in.
And as well-intentioned as their interventions may be, having embarked on this slippery slope, can or should we now expect the likes of Google to assist in re-directing would be white supremacists to #blacklivesmatter websites, or Europe’s growing army of neo-Nazis to #hopenothate?
Your answer to this question should help you think through the legitimacy of what has been revealed to address ‘radicalisation’ among Muslims.
Against Violent Extremism Network
The Against Violent Extremism (AVE) Network is a partnership between Google Ideas, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and Gen Next Foundation (GNF). GNF, which initially described itself as an “exclusive membership organization and platform for successful individuals” committed to social change through venture capital funding, “aspires to solve the greatest generational challenges of our time using a unique hybrid of private sector and non-profit business models – called a venture philanthropy model”. Its core areas are education, economic opportunity and global security.
AVE was hatched at the 2011 Google Ideas (now ‘Jigsaw’) Summit Against Violent Extremism and is managed by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. Itclaims to have brought together “hundreds of former extremists and survivors of violent extremism to fight back against online extremist messaging and recruitment”. In 2015, AVE claimed to have “over 2,000 members globally”, “over 60 counter-extremism projects” and “partnerships with global technology firms including Twitter and Facebook".
The counter-narratives projects incubated and assisted by AVE are believed to include myextremism.org, a juvenile platform for “extremists against extremism”, and Abdullah X, the former extremist turned ‘down with the kids’ cartoon ‘Jihobbyist’.
‘Abdullah-X’ – the counter-narratives’ poster boy
Abdullah-X says: “I am here to deliver awareness, develop and divert young Muslims from the path of relying solely on information that can take them on a journey towards extremism and hate. You will find me in content that is created to instil critical thinking and understanding in the minds of those who are often vulnerable to the messaging of extremist ideologies."
The ‘street-savvy’ looking cartoon character, complete with chains and corn-rows, is given a Muslim name with the suffix ‘X’, an obvious reference to Malcolm X, and a means of co-opting a legacy that disenfranchised youth may respect. Abdullah-X’s videos attempt to take on contentious issues within the Muslim world, providing a ‘counter-narrative’ to questions that many Muslims have. In one video, he considers Palestine and the growing call to boycott Israel, by questioning what it can achieve: “I wonder, is all my plaque waving and shouting in anger to others a Sunnah? I mean in truth, will my ‘peaceful protest’ for Gaza truly aid the Palestinian people or does it aid my ego… What is the bigger picture?”
For Abdullah-X, the bigger picture is not Israeli occupation and apartheid, but the failure of the Arab world to intervene in Gaza: “Because they live in the shadow of their paymasters… sadly their paymasters are not those who follow the Sunnah.” This ahistorical presentation is part of a wider trend in which Abdullah-X seeks to depoliticise British Islam in favour of shallower spiritual reflection.
Abdullah-X claims that he was a former adherent of Abu Hamza al-Masri and Omar Bakri Mohammed. He claims that his position as a former extremist uniquely places to deter others from following similar routes. He now has a female sidekick in Muslimah-X.
One of the most astonishing achievements of the counter-radicalisation industry is its burial of the idea that the people best-placed to deter individuals from extremism, might actually be those who have never engaged in any form of it.
In an interview with On the Media on 19 June 2015, Abdullah-X was asked if he is funded by MI6 or some other entity. He responded with the claim that the cartoon is “…a self funded project of myself and a few like-minded people.”
The 2015 White House Summit on Combating Violent Extremism was more a product than a catalyst of the global CVE agenda, which has been developing under the auspices of the Global Counter Terrorism Forum (GCTF). The GCTF is an informal group of 29 states plus the European Union launched in no small part because of resistance to the dominant security and counter-terrorism paradigm at the UN on the part of many developing countries, which served to prevent those states most invested in the ‘war on terror’ from enhancing their operational cooperation through UN mechanisms.
The UK co-chairs, in partnership with the United Arab Emirates, the GCTF’s CVE working group, which held its inaugural meeting in Abu Dhabi in April 2012. The minutes report that “The UK opened the session by underscoring the belief common to many GCTF members: that countering violent extremism is a battle of ideas; in such a battle, altering the grounds of debate and countering radical messages are vital.”
The following year, the GCTF organised the UN Conference on "Best Practice in Communications" in June 2013 in London. The meeting was co-chaired by Richard Chalk, then head of RICU. It recommended that “practitioners must take a strategic approach to CVE communications work and articulate the totality of a government’s engagement on a given issue”; that “messages should be simple, concise, tailored, and delivered by credible messengers”; and that “policies must be aligned with messages in order to be credible”.
Countering violent extremism… with our friends in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh
The GCTF has also launched the Hedayah Center of Excellence in Countering Violent Extremism, based in Abu Dhabi, to which at least one British government official is seconded. Hedayah’s publications include “National CVE Strategies: Guidelines and Good Practices”, a document that draws heavily on the Prevent school of counter-extremism. Hedayah has been lavished with US,EU and Gulf state funding, and is the obvious home for the UAE-based “digital communications hub” to counter ISIL propaganda announced by the White House last year.
Hedayah also hosted the GLOBAL CVE EXPO in December 2014, which stressed the need for “more effective collaboration on counter-narratives, drawing from experiences of policymakers, practitioners and industry/private sector representatives”. The month before it held an expert workshop on counter-narratives which extolled the virtues of using “victims, formers and ex-prisoners” in counter-narrative products.
The irony of establishing an International Center of Excellence on Countering Violent Extremism in a country whose CVE efforts include a strict ban on the regime’s political opponents, the Muslim Brotherhood, the mass deportation of Shi’a residents, and hiring Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater (now Academi), to form secret, mercenary armies, is not lost on all observers. In advance of the White House CVE summit, Steven Hawkins, director of Amnesty International USA, warned that abusive regimes could take advantage of ‘CVE-mania’ and use international funding to violate human rights in the absence of appropriate safeguards.
The UK is also exporting its counter-narratives programme through the EU and the UN. The former has established the Radicalisation Awareness Network(RAN) under the ‘PREVENT’ strand of the EU Counter-Terrorism strategy, which has a dedicated Communication and Narratives Working Group. The WGis co-chaired by Najeeb Ahmed, a Home Office Prevent coordinator, and Guillaume de Saint Marc, CEO of the French Association of Victims of Terrorism. The RAN network also has a Working Group on the Internet and Social Media, co-chaired by Yasmin Green (Google Ideas) and Rachel Briggs (Institute for Strategic Dialogue). RAN’s Issue Paper on Counter Narratives and Alternative Narratives reads as if it was written by RICU.
Similarly, the UN had a Working Group on the Use of the Internet for Terrorist Purposes, under the auspices of the UN Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force. This appears to have been disbanded, and its work taken-up the GCTF, but not before it had staged the Riyadh Conference on “Use of the Internet to Counter the Appeal of Extremist Violence” in 2011. This in a country declared an “Enemy of the Internet” by Reporters Without Borders and notorious for the mass beheading of alleged terrorists, apostates and blasphemers.
The Riyadh conference, which was co-funded by the German government and the Saudi royal family, brought together around 150 policy-makers, experts and practitioners from the public sector, international organisations, industry, academia and the media. The speakers included Christopher Wainwright (RICU) and Jared Cohen (Google Ideas). Top of the list of summitRecommendations was to “Promote counter-narratives through all relevant media channels (online, print, TV/Radio)”.
Under the heading “Credible Messengers as Important as the Message”, the summary of the proceedings produced by the CTITF records:
Leaving aside the many dubious assertions in this passage, when a UN Working Group meets in Saudi Arabia to recommend that security and intelligence agencies recruit former extremists and provide them with institutional homes in fake NGOs to produce state propaganda, things have clearly gone badly awry.
Do as I say not as I do
As we said in our report, there is nothing objectionable in principle about grassroots activism that tries to steer people away from violence and ‘extremism’ – or any form of other ‘-ism’ for that matter. Indeed, freedom to engage in whatever kind of non-violent activism one chooses gets to the heart of what it means to live in a democracy that holds freedom of expression dear.
But there has to be a basic degree of transparency and accountability, without which communities will not trust government, and people will not trust anyone. They need to be confident in the difference between government propaganda and genuine activism. They need to know that non-governmental organisations and grassroots organisations are independent of government and corporations, or otherwise open about their relationship to them. When civil society organisations become tools of government or business, it damages the non-profit sector as a whole.
This week’s revelations are symptomatic of the capture of government policy by an increasingly influential counter-radicalisation industry. Yet for all the best practice and international recommendations described above, radicalisation theory is still mired in Islamophobic bunkum, with no reliable metrics through which to substantiate its claims of effectiveness, and no evidence to support the assertion that the UK’s Prevent programme has been anything other than a divisive failure.
As a paper by the International Centre for Counter-terrorism in the Hague suggests: “Doing the right thing rather than saying the right thing produces, ideally, the stronger narrative and in that sense the interaction patterns between host community and vulnerable youth constitute a non-verbal message that might better manage to prevent extremists gaining more ground in a community”.