A former extremist has said today that “truth shouldn’t be judged by the loudest voice or by numbers” yet right now, the so-called Islamic State are very loud online and have many numbers reaching out to those at risk of radicalisation through social media.
The head of Islamist Studies at Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank, has spoken of his former life as a radical Islamist which led him to travel to Afghanistan for jihad and what exactly made him return.
Shaykh Dr Usama Hasan said: “I realised a lot of the principles of Islamism were mistaken and I began to campaign against terrorism and against Islamism, to critique it personally, internally and publically.”
Dr Hasan is one of many former Islamists working to counter extremism in the UK, trying to make their voices louder than those who wish to corrupt individuals with radical ideologies.
Earlier this year the Institute of Strategic Dialogue recommended that in order to combat IS and others who would use the web to propagate their messages we ought to coordinate and grow networks of former extremists and defectors by helping produce their content in order to drown out Islamist voices.
But why formers and defectors? What can they really offer that current counter-extremist strategies cannot?
Given their experiences of being drawn in by radical ideologies and extremist thinking, living the reality of that lifestyle and then coming out the other side, they are among the most authoritative and credible voices on the matter.
Who better to speak to individuals at risk of being radicalised than people who actually lived through to same manipulation and deception?
At least 800 British people have travelled to Syria or Iraq to support Islamist organisations with about half returning to the UK, say British authorities. That is a significant selection of people who could become counter-extremist campaigners and ought to be given a platform where they can reach out to people who are at risk of, or have been, radicalised.
Their credibility has more chance of resonating with extremists questioning their resolve to an Islamist cause while holed up at a base in Syria. Their experiences are more likely to hit home with teenagers trawling over extremist chat rooms in the dark. Their reality will be more relatable than any upper middle class white politician or inexperienced Prevent officer.
The government needs to support these defectors, helping them with reintegration and a commitment to a post-extremist lifestyle and, once they have become deradicalised, provide them with an opportunity to help others who have travelled down the same path.
Yet just a few days ago the new foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, spoke with his counterparts in the West asking for the UK to lead a campaign that brings members of IS to justice. What does this mean of those teetering on the edge of regret? Those who want to come home?
Mr Johnson’s threat is an unwelcome deterrent to former British extremists who have seen the error of their ways, like Dr Usama, and many others, before them. What incentive do they have to leave Syria or Iraq? And at the same time, due to a newly radicalised person’s conviction in the Islamist ideologies, the legal threat will not stop them from travelling to the Middle East.
In a report released by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London last year, it was pointed out that “although many governments have exercised their powers with discretion … practically everyone who is known to return faces legal proceedings.”
This renewed promise from Mr Johnson, while full of the best intentions in the fight against IS, it ignores the potential resource of defectors who are potentially the most valuable asset in counter extremist measures.
The government needs to recognise their value and help them come home. They ought to be given the opportunity to become the louder than IS and secure a dominant web presence.
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