- - Thursday, August 28, 2014


The British accent heard from the man who brutally murdered U.S. journalist James Foley last week is another reminder that British citizens are traveling to Syria to join terrorist organizations in unprecedented numbers. In the past few years, the Internet, which quickly spread the grisly video of his death far and wide, has transformed how the toxic message of radical Islam and jihad in Syria, which inspires these men, can be spread.

The danger posed by online extremism has been stressed by the British government, which reiterated after the killing of Lee Rigby that extremist propaganda remained too easily accessible online. This followed the 2010 example of Roshonara Choudhry, a student inspired to try to kill a member of Parliament by online videos of the al Qaeda-linked cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was later killed in a U.S. drone strike in September 2011.

Such incidents show how it is important to understand the extent to which the Web 2.0 generation is exposed to this message. At Student Rights, we have uncovered an alarming number of incidences in which online material or off-campus events featuring clerics accused of encouraging travel to Syria have been promoted via student social media.

Worse is the evidence that in some cases, this has featured clerics barred from the United Kingdom, highlighting how individuals prevented from entering the country can circumvent such bans — easily reaching willing audiences and undermining plans to ensure no ungoverned spaces, virtual or otherwise, exist for extremists to operate in.

The material has featured Ahmad Musa Jibril, identified as one of the most prominent spiritual authorities inspiring foreign fighters in Syria since his release from prison in 2012. Accused of running an online “library of fanatically anti-American sermons,” he was dismissed from his mosque in Michigan in 2004 after his sermons became “angry rants about Western crimes against Muslims peppered with invectives against Shi’a Muslims and [calling] on God to turn Jewish children into orphans.”

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabian cleric Muhammad al-Arifi has been shared with students via social media, and before being banned from the United Kingdom, saw his off-campus events also advertised in this way. Deeply sectarian, he has referred to Shia Muslims as “evil,” and has repeatedly encouraged individuals to join Syrian rebel groups — saying that there is religious justification for such action and calling for jihad in Syria “in every way possible.”

Student Rights has even found video and audio of al-Awlaki shared with students. Described as appealing to “the new ‘Facebook generation’ of young Western Muslims,” he provided advice and ideological justification to several “lone-wolf” terrorists prior to his death in 2011. This included extensive email contact with Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hassan and significant influence in former University College London student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempted bombing of Flight 253 in 2009.

Challenging those who would target young people with material featuring men like Jibril, al-Arifi and al-Awlaki is, therefore, crucially important, and universities and colleges should be approaching this issue in the same way as they would the invitation of extreme speakers onto campus.

Many institutions already have social-media policies in place, which address the posting of potentially harmful material, yet these rarely take political and religious extremism into account. Providing policy that does this, and ensuring that student union and university staff are given the relevant expertise to identify such material, is a vital step.

Should this not happen, the consequences of failure could be grave. In the same way that Choudhry was radicalized by her discovery of al-Awlaki’s videos, exposure to this material could see more young people lured into traveling to Syria or committing acts of violence in the United Kingdom or even in the United States. If we are serious about preventing this, we must ensure that our social media doesn’t become yet another “ungoverned space” for extremists to operate in.

Rupert Sutton focuses on domestic extremism and global terrorism and operates Student Rights at the Henry Jackson Society in London.

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