Radical Extremists Operate 'With Impunity' Online, New Laws Needed, UK Watchdog Says

Radical Extremists Operate 'With Impunity' Online, New Laws Needed, UK Watchdog Says
Counterterrorism special forces are seen at London Bridge in London, on June 3, 2017. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Mary Clark

Extremists can pro-actively glorify terror, openly promulgate anti-democratic ideologies, and radicalize others online—yet still stay within the law, a UK watchdog warned on Wednesday.

There’s a “gaping chasm in the law” that allows such extremist activity, the Commission for Countering Extremism said in a review scrutinizing existing legislation.

It called for a new legal framework to tackle the radicalization threat.

An extremist can’t be prosecuted for grooming others unless they are “encouraging the commission, preparation, or instigation” of specific acts of terrorism, the review (pdf) said.
“Not only have our laws failed to keep pace with the evolving threat of modern-day extremism, current legal boundaries allow extremists to operate with impunity,” Sir Mark Rowley, former head of the UK’s counter-terrorism policing, and the review’s co-author, said in a statement.
“During the course of conducting this review, I have been shocked and horrified by the ghastliness and volume of hateful extremist materials and behavior which is lawful in Britain,” he said.

'Actively Radicalizing Others'

Extremist groups are “actively radicalizing others and are openly propagating for the erosion of our fundamental democratic rights,” said lead Commissioner Sara Khan.

“Their aim is to subvert our democracy,” she said.

“This is a threat to our civilized democratic order, which cannot be taken for granted and requires a robust, necessary, and proportionate legal response,” she added.

Commenting on the Commission's review, CEO of International Corporate Protection Group and counter-terrorism expert, Will Geddes, told The Epoch Times that during the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic, terrorist groups have not been able to operate as they normally would.

But “one of their mainstays” is to try to recruit people to their cause, he said.

“This particular report addresses how certain materials can be promoted online, almost lawfully, as it's currently set within the legal parameters available to us, which can potentially be utilized as those recruitment tools.”

Recruited individuals could then be incited to carry out hateful and terrorist activities, he said.

Geddes praised the report for navigating the ambiguities of defining what is a direct incitement to terrorist acts and what falls within the sphere of radicalization.

“Where this report has worked quite efficiently is in determining that certain materials, even if they are not inciting directly terrorist or hateful action, if they are congregated by a particular group that is deemed to have only one agenda, and that agenda is hateful, or terrorist-related, that those materials would be deemed as the tools and the ammunition … to promote their ideals,” he said.

“If you have an individual that is collating and gathering and distributing materials that are very exclusive, rather than inclusive, those could be prismed as a particular philosophy, approach, and agenda,” he added.

'Terrorist Propaganda'

Mathew Dryden, a research fellow in the Radicalisation and Terrorism Centre at the Henry Jackson Society think tank, meanwhile welcomed the review's attempt to tackle gaps in the current law.

“The report is looking at ways to close some of those loopholes that currently exist that allow the preaching, for example, or the spreading of extremist or terrorist propaganda, without legal ramifications,” he told The Epoch Times.

Both Geddes and Dryden identified a need for social media to be on board in the fight against extremism online.

Geddes said that while many social media platforms will take a very draconian approach to, for example, the circulation of pedophile material, terrorist material can have “moral ambiguities depending on the audience that is reading it.”

It’s therefore important, he said, to ensure that those extremists sending clear messaging in praise of terrorism be categorized as harshly as those promulgating pedophile materials and be decisively shut down by online platforms.

Dryden meanwhile said that some of the bigger tech platforms had done “great work in taking some quite extraordinary steps to protect people from accessing harmful material online.”

However, some of the smaller “alt-tech” platforms had failed to sanction even “particularly vicious and hateful content,” he said.

“It will be interesting to see how, if at all, those types of platforms choose to or are mandated to assist with that material,” he said.

The review titled “Operating with Impunity-Hateful Extremism: The Need for a Legal Framework” suggests the government’s nascent Online Harms Bill be revised to include a robust legal framework for dealing with hateful extremism and to provide “clarity for both social media companies and the future regulator, Ofcom.”

“We believe praising and glorifying terrorists and their murderous actions help create a climate that is conducive to terrorism and such extremist activity should be outlawed as part of a new legal hateful extremism framework,” it said.