Ian Acheson

Winning the online war after the fall of Isis

Winning the online war after the fall of Isis
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Home Secretary Priti Patel downgraded our national terrorism threat assessment last week from ‘severe’, where it has sat for the last four years to ‘substantial’. Attacks have now been reduced from ‘highly likely’ to ‘likely’.

We’re never given the full analysis of the reasons for the changes in alert levels, which is independently assessed by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC).  But it’s fair to say from what we know, it’s more an art than a science. And there are plenty of reasons to remain pessimistic. The threat of violent extremists across the ideological spectrum to cause us severe harm continues.

It’s undoubtedly true that in terms of numbers, attacks and potential attacks thwarted by the security services in Western Europe have been on a downward trajectory from 2016 onwards. However, as research carried out by the Norwegian Defence Research Institute shows, the current rate of attacks – actual and stopped – is still higher than the preceding 20 years of data collection.

What's more, it's a mistake to think that the destruction of the IS caliphate in north-eastern Syria is even remotely the end of the story as far as the risk to our national security is concerned. The west's grotesque failure to prevent the escape of thousands of IS battlefield combatants and their dependants in the face of the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish-held zone will come back to haunt us for years to come.

At this moment, committed IS terrorists – many from EU countries, further alienated by years of harsh confinement in legal limbo – are fleeing in the wholly predictable chaos caused by the US withdrawal. What do the diplomats and governments, who stood by while this catastrophe evolved, think these people will do? Stateless, numberless and with an unchallenged fealty to a medieval death cult and nowhere to go? Some are almost certainly back among us already, awaiting instructions from the heir to Al-Baghdadi.

And while IS has certainly lost territory, they have not lost the capacity to operate online, radicalising the vulnerable, aided and abetted by our global tech platforms. Forced out of outright denial that there was a problem at all after years of pressure, Big Tech will now say it is taking unprecedented steps to control the deluge of appalling, lethally seductive material that finds its way onto our screens on a daily basis. It’s nonsense.

Ever noticed how quickly YouTube will act to remove material that is posted to its site that might breach copyright? Contrast this with the apparent inability to remove videos of the hateful rampage of death uploaded to social media by the Christchurch mass murderer or the Halle synagogue terrorist. When the tech giants protest that they are doing all they can to deal with this tsunami of hate, it simply isn’t true.

Worse still, the technology actually exists now to prevent much of this filth from being seen in the first place. My colleague at the Counter Extremism Project, Dr Hany Farid, has produced software that can identify and take down videos and images glorifying terrorism almost immediately. The technology is available free to any government that wants it. It took Dr Farid and others 12 months to perfect this fix. It’s taken five times that amount of time in obfuscation and evasion from Big Tech to be dragged kicking and screaming to accountability for it.

This matters because the terrorism that hits us next in the UK will probably not be a sophisticated attack; such incidents are easier to stop. The more organised and audacious your attack is, the more logistics and personnel involved, the more moving parts, the easier it is to penetrate and compromise. It’s much, much harder to stop lonely, alienated inadequate and vulnerable people in front of a screen in the privacy of their own homes being radicalised by online material. All you need is a broadband connection, a head full of spiders and a transit van.

In one sense, there is reason to be optimistic. I’m convinced it’s a matter of not if but when Big Tech falls into line and meets its obligations to halt the dissemination of material that weaponises hatred. When the latest derangement of our politics subsides, the new government must act to get the Online Harms white paper through Parliament and into law. No more dither and delay. It must also resist the siren calls of Big Tech that to do so is censorship. Compulsory seat-belt wearing was once looked on as an unpardonable intrusion on individual liberty. Now it’s automatic – and has saved countless lives. This is no different.

Ian Acheson is a senior advisor to the Counter Extremism Project