A UK government-appointed body is to consider new laws to tackle increasingly professional extremist groups that harness the power of social media to disguise divisive messages as mainstream political campaigns.
Sara Khan, the group’s head, cited the work of the international Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir and far-right organisations who have rebranded themselves as counter-terrorist campaigns as examples of a new wave of “intellectualised” extremism.
"It's quite clear to me that extremism in 2018 is complex, multifaceted and it's changing," Ms Khan told The National. "The combination of social media, conspiracy theories and living in an era of fake news is a pretty toxic combination. Once these things become normalised it becomes even more difficult to challenge."
Ms Khan was appointed last year to head the Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE) and announced plans on Wednesday for a major research project in the coming months to examine the scale and threat from extremism before making recommendations to ministers.
Announcing the plans, she said that the “old stereotypes for far-right thugs and Islamist hate preachers don’t always apply”.
She said it was “too early to say” if the group would investigate specific named groups, their funding streams and the figures behind them.
Hizb ut-Tahrir – which has been banned in a number of European and Middle East countries for policies including advocating the return of a caliphate in the Islamic world – remains legal in Britain despite some calls for its proscription.
Former prime minister Tony Blair had promised to ban the organisation in 2005, a month after a series of coordinated terrorist attacks on the London transport network that killed 52 people. He later dropped the plan in the face of opposition from police and the Home Office, according to media reports. The National has sought comment from the group, which states it is a non-violent organisation.
Ms Khan has previously clashed with UK-based Muslim groups who opposed her appointment last year because of her support for key sections of the UK’s counter-terrorism programme, known as Prevent, that critics claim unfairly targets Muslim communities.
She has also been criticised by Cage, which works with Muslim communities and campaigns against what it considers draconian counter-terrorism legislation. The group has acted on behalf of Britons detained in Guantanamo Bay.
The government commissioned the CCE after a series of attacks on the UK in 2017 that followed five terrorist attacks that killed 36 people. One of them was carried out by a far-right extremist.
The attacks sparked concerns about an uptick in home-grown extremism fuelled by online recruitment and grooming, with little understanding of how it worked. Ms Khan has previously promised to investigate “hidden threats” from within homes in Muslim communities and has visited ten cities and met more than 300 experts as part of her preparatory work.
Ms Khan has received backing from the new Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, and said the work will not cover counter-terrorism policy, including Prevent. But supporters of the commission’s work expressed concerns that any recommendations made by the research project would be taken up by the government.
Ms Khan said the work involved building a grassroots movement – including a network of counter-extremism campaigners across the country – that would make it more difficult for the government to shelve her proposals.
“If it’s the case that we need more powers, that’s something we may recommend,” said Ms Khan. “We need to conduct the study and find where are the gaps of counter-extremism response. Is it capable of meeting the threat that extremism poses?”
Fiyaz Mughal, head of Faith Matters, a group that charts anti-Muslim attacks and an adviser for the commission, said the new “professional” approach by extremist groups was seen through the sophisticated use of websites, and the ability to apologise to “shape shift” and re-invent themselves after being called out as sympathisers for violence.
“The new bit is the change in technology that has allowed them to become even more slippery,” he said. “It’s about making the public see the wood from the trees. We’re trying to say: if it sounds like something is wrong – look at it more.”
Ms Khan was chosen for the job based on her work over the last decade as a founder and leader of Inspire, an organisation designed to tackle Islamist extremism and promote women’s rights. She has been at the forefront of efforts to deflect girls and women from travelling to Syria to join ISIS and become a face of moderate Islam in Britain.