22 January 2021

The UK is the weak link in Europe’s counter-extremism efforts

By Ron Sandee

The day before former President Trump was removed from Twitter, Neil Basu, the UK’s Chief Counter Terror official, took the unprecedented step of warning that extremism had become so widespread online that it simply couldn’t be policed.

Extremists have long exploited gaps in existing laws to push their agendas – the rise in anti-Semitism being a perfect example. Whilst some welcomed the Trump ban, European political leaders were united in the view that it is governments – not private companies – who should decide limits on free speech.

The UK is introducing new legislation to remove harmful content online, but the truth is that Britain’s steadfast refusal to properly combat extremism will continue to render Twitter, Facebook and YouTube a safe place for extremists. Why is that the case?

We in Europe see the UK as an outstanding centre of counter-terrorism, but one that is wholly incapable of counter-extremism. Recent events have only confirmed this view. Convicted terrorists like Reading attacker Khairi Saadallah, are able to develop ‘close’ relationships in prison with radical clerics like Omar Brooks before committing atrocities. In October, two terrorists were convicted of the attempted murder of an officer inside HMP Whitemoor. Earlier that year, the media prevaricated over whether it was relevant that the Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi, was seen “praying” just 50 minutes before carrying out his attack. UK police also considered dropping the term ‘Islamism’ when describing terror attacks motivated by Islam.

So it is perhaps unsurprising that the Government has, thus far, sought to evade the fundamental question of how to tackle extremism when it comes to safeguarding against online harm. Whilst the legislation itself will set out a general definition of harmful content, the Government’s direction – as set out in its response to the Online Harms White Paper – recognises ‘extremist content’ as a “harm with a less clear definition”.

The Government’s own Code of Practice on terrorist content online sticks rigidly to UK terrorism laws. It is the equivalent of spending a fortune renovating your house but leaving no money to buy the furniture. And this has an impact. A recent report found that police struggled to define and separate extremism, hate crime and terrorism. More worrying still, it found that the police were confused about how to respond to extremism within their communities, beset by conflicting objectives and a lack of clarity as to what success looks like”.

In 2019 the Independent Commission for Countering Extremism called on the Government to adopt extensive changes to its counter-extremism work, including adopting a new definition of “hateful extremism” that incorporates material that makes the “moral case for violence”. Nearly 18 months on, they are still waiting for a response. Last summer, the Commission appointed Sir Mark Rowley to examine whether existing legislation adequately deals with “hateful extremism”.

It is thought the Government is considering official recommendations to create a legal definition of extremism, which could be used to criminalise material that currently falls short of the law. However, as Britain dithers, Europe is leading.

This week, France’s Muslim leader approved a new charter rejecting fundamentalist doctrines and accepting secular values. The charter is central to President Macron’s campaign against Islamist separatism and foreign interference. The charter rejects Islamism, which is specifically defined as “political Islam”, and labels its many practitioners, including the Muslim Brotherhood. It also rejects “nationalist” groups linked to Turkey – Macron’s administration has long accused President Erdogan of destabilising French security through its preachers – and supports a new licensing system requiring all Imams to sign the charter.

This is a sea-change in challenging extremism. It follows France’s Cabinet approving a landmark Bill to strengthen Republican values, which includes a ban on “clandestine” schools that promote Islamist ideology, and transparency on donations to religious institutions.

This is not new. As I wrote previously on CapX, the French Government had previously adopted an “Al Capone strategy” to dismantle Islamist groups like the Institut Européen Des Sciences Humaines. France also closed the French bank accounts of Milli Gorus and Diyanet, Turkey’s Directorate for Religious Affairs. Rather than going in through the back door, it is now beating down the front. Following the beheading of Samuel Paty, the French state inspected 51 Islamist NGOs, dissolving several, including some with clear connections to UK groups. The UK’s silence in response to such moves was deafening.

France is not alone either. In Vienna, the Austrian government raided several associations and societies suspected of belonging to and supporting the Brotherhood and Hamas. During the raids, the police are reported to have found assets worth more than €25 million, in some 130 bank accounts. Chancellor Kurz has also signalled clearly his belief that “political Islam” creates the “breeding ground” for terrorism itself.

Charles Michel, the President of the EU Council, has called for the establishment of a European institute to train Imams in Europe to “fight the ideology of hatred”. Ursula Von der Leyen has also consulted over new, tougher EU regulations to tackling the Islamist ideology, including an overhaul of the Schengen area.

While extremists exploit the UK’s weak approach, European governments are pragmatically and systematically tackling behaviour that undermines the authority of nation states. The UK enters 2021 at a crossroads: does it have the courage to tackle extremism, or will it continue to be the weak link in our shared European security. Brave and decisive action is needed to confront hateful extremism. The Online Safety Bill will be a further test of the UK’s courage.

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Ronald Sandee is a former senior counter-terrorism official at the Dutch Military Intelligence Service (MIVD)

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.