'Extremism online is region’s worst threat’, says British minister
ABU DHABI // The greatest challenge facing the region is the growth of extremism and the recruitment of young people using the internet, according to a British official.
Tobias Ellwood, a member of parliament and the UK’s parliamentary undersecretary of state at the foreign and commonwealth office for the Middle East and Africa, said that in working with the UAE, his country was trying to encourage other nations to be more aware of the threat posed online.
"One of the biggest challenges is the growth of extremism and the poisonous ideology which is challenging the peaceful religion of Islam," he said during a one-day visit to the Emirates.
"The internet is actually attracting young naive people or people from modest backgrounds, promising things that will never be fulfilled – if they move into an extremist environment, and that’s a big challenge we’ll have to face even if we defeat ISIS," using the alternative acronym for ISIL.
Mr Ellwood, who took part in the UK-UAE taskforce with Dr Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, said the threat was not just regional, but global.
"We’ve had attacks in London, Berlin and Paris, so it’s something we face everywhere," he said. "The region’s security is Britain’s security and we share challenges and therefore need to share solutions and work together with solutions."
He said this challenge will not be overcome with ISIL being pushed out of Iraq. "It’ll take ideologically a long time to push this out and prevent people from being absorbed into extremism simply because of the internet," he added. "But we have building blocks and 60 countries that came together in the coalition against Daesh."
Mr Ellwood said there were many segments to tackling the issue.
"The military component is one, while another is stopping the flow of funding to organisations," he said. "Closing these bank accounts down, stopping the sale of drugs which is used to pay for this and stopping the flow of people. We need the humanitarian and stabilisation support we provide for countries affected by extremism."
Two years ago, the UAE launched the Sawab Centre, jointly run by the Emirates and the US, to counter extremist propaganda on social media.
Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, called on the world to continue its war on ISIL, saying it had no respect for civilisation and was breeding hate.
But Mr Ellwood said the international community had not yet acquired the skills to close down those websites that made "false promises".
"We know the internet is the primary vehicle for attracting extremism," he said. "It’s something that’s new and modern."
Experts agreed. Before ISIL took control of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, the ideology existed online, said Dr Mustafa Alani, head of security and terrorism at the Gulf Research Centre.
"The physical state wasn’t there and it was only on websites. So even if you push them out of the cities they occupy now, which are two major ones, the organisation is able to survive."
He said ISIL was originally an "underground group", only visible in cyberspace.
"You can’t deal with them easily," Dr Alani said. "The war against terrorism is a partial victory. There is no 100 per cent victory where you eliminate the enemy completely by military means, it’s only one part of the requirement."
He said the major issue remained how to stop recruitment. "If you stop it, you starve the organisation of new members and the recruitment mainly happens online. Terrorism is a product and we’re dealing with the product without dealing with the causes."
Mr Ellwood commended the UAE’s humanitarian work as both it and the UK are deepening their collaboration and responses to humanitarian crises in Yemen, Syria and Somalia.
"We have a lot in common to make sure we help those who are caught up in man-made problems like war or war governance as well as natural disasters like famine and drought," he said.