Government aims to tackle extremism with web monitoring and meetings

By staff writers
January 18, 2008

British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith yesterday outlined government plans to target websites promoting extremism, as part of efforts to stop "vulnerable people" being "groomed for violent extremism" by radical Jihadist groups.

Critics immediately said that trying to police the web was a losing battle, that dangers to civil liberties were involved, that the authorities were out of touch with disaffected youth, that foreign policy must not be a no-go area, and that the alternative groups being funded by the authorities lacked credibility.

But Smith remained adamant today. "Because something is difficult, that is no reason not to have a go at it. The internet can't be a no-go area for government," she declared

Ms Smith is to discuss her plans with experts attached to the communications industry, internet service providers (ISPs) and leading Muslims to discuss measures to block websites which promote terrorism.

The problem is that sites showing violence and promoting terror tactics are often multiply sourced and mobile on remote and anonymous web servers. Plus the idea that the government is trying to ban them may make them more attractive to people already disenchanted with official policy - particularly on Iraq and Afghanistan, which remain key recruiters for militants.

Similarly, promoting "moderate" or "Europeanised" Islam with official resources will be seen as advocating tame and de-Islamicised "government controlled" Muslims.

The government's definition of terror tactics as "anti-Islamic activity" was mocked by the right-wing Daily Mail newspaper as "appeasement" today, and its responses were termed too little, too late" by the opposition, indicating that it has a major task on its hand on all sides of a fractious "what to do?" debate.

"We must look at how you can filter out content, how you can work with internet service providers, how you can work internationally to get illegal stuff off the internet", the Home Secretary told BBC News 24 yesterday, as part of a string of media interviews following a press conference at Kings College London.

She added: "It will be difficult but we're determined, working with partners, to get rid of it."

Earlier Ms Smith said tackling internet extremism was part of a "broad approach", recognising the need to prevent people turning to terrorism in the long-term.

But the government remains granite-like in its resistance to suggestions that its international alignment with neocons in the US, with the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and with the denilal of statehood to Palestinians - all grievances cited by militants themselves - has anything decisive to do with the matter.

While critics acknowledge that such matters are no excuse for bombing and maiming civilians, they say that the government "has its head in the sand" over foreign policy, and the fact that injustice as well as ideology and religion are deeply implicated in the growth of hardline anti-Western feeling among people prepared to go beyond political struggle to armed action.

Ms Smith said she recognised the need to "debate, challenge and address those grievances", but would be drawn no further, and did not indicate any likelihood of a change in policy on the contentious issues.

In 2009 the government says it will provide more than £500 million to fund security and counter-terrorism measures, rising to nearly £600 million over the following two years.

It has also given backing to national 'road shows' at which leading Muslim scholars and opinion formers talk about extremist ideology. But those in touch with disaffected Muslim youth say that this is a strategy which does not comprehend how they gather, what they think and who they listen to.

Ministers estimate that about 60,000 people have attended events so far and that an associated website gets 50,000 hits a month. In web terms, however, this is tiny.

The government says it hopes that by encouraging more interaction between opinion-formers in the UK and in predominantly Muslim countries, misunderstandings about Islam can be corrected, reports the BBC.

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