Student Rights recently received a ‘suggested video’ on Facebook from CAGE, the controversial prisoner lobby group, which was entitled ‘10 Reasons to donate to CAGE’. The video lists some of these reasons, including their belief that they speak “truth to power”, “campaign against Prevent”, “[defend] the oppressed”, “give a voice to the voiceless” and “[do] not compromise”. It also urged followers to “Support us in calling for Justice & Accountability. Just like our prophets…”
When Student Rights requested an explanation from Facebook about why we were advertised this video, the automated response stated that “CAGE wants to reach people aged 18 to 50 who live or have recently been in the United Kingdom” and that they were drawing from “information based on your Facebook profile and where you’ve connected to the internet”.
Many members of the Facebook community who have received this sponsored advert will be unaware of CAGE’s history of extremist and Islamist connections as well as their long record of opposing the government’s counter-terrorism measures.
Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo Bay inmate and director of CAGE, has suggested that Al-Qaeda associated clerics are the “most credible voices” against ISIS. In addition, the advertised CAGE video defends Aafia Siddiqui (whom it refers to as “oppressed”). On top of her suspected links to Al-Qaeda, she has been sentenced to 86 years in a federal prison in the United States for attempted murder and assault.
Asim Qureshi, CAGE’s research director, claimed ISIS executioner Mohammed Emwazi (otherwise known as Jihadi John) was “extremely gentle” before being radicalised as a result of interrogation by MI5. Qureshi has refused to condemn stoning women for adultery as well as FGM (female genital mutilation). He was also once filmed at a rally of the Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir declaring his support for jihad.
CAGE has been especially vocal in organising academic criticism of the Prevent strategy. It has been at the forefront of attempts to solidify ties with student opponents of on-campus Prevent delivery, including members of the National Union of Students (NUS), the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) and the campaign group ‘Students not Suspects’.
In July 2015, an open letter condemning Prevent was signed by several hundred academics and graduate students, as well as a number of extremist activists. CAGE has since admitted helping to organise this letter. Many of these signatories signed a second letter attacking Prevent in September 2016, with their criticism largely based on CAGE’s ‘The ‘Science’ of Pre-Crime’ report.
On repeated occasions, CAGE has described Prevent as an attack on Muslims. In 2015, Asim Qureshi reportedly told parents that the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill meant that their children would be taken away if they attended political demonstrations or repeated political slogans.
Amnesty International have since severed all ties with the group, clarifying that “recent comments made by CAGE representatives have been completely unacceptable, at odds with human rights principles and serve to undermine the work of NGOs”.
Few laws or statutory requirements fall on Facebook and other host sites to monitor their content. This allows users free reign to publish their views, even if they are promoting extremism, inciting hatred or encouraging violence.
In the aftermath of recent terrorist attacks, political leaders have called upon social media sites and technology companies to intensively monitor their online content and prevent the proliferation of extremist material. It is therefore disturbing to see that controversial and extreme groups are seeking to use Facebook to spread their message.
The impact of online extremism on radicalisation is profound. Police reports have shown how Roshanara Choudhry admitted to watching sermons of more than 100 hours from the extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, before stabbing her local MP Stephen Timms in 2010. During the trial of Ednane Mahmood, who planned to “fight in the cause of Allah” in ISIS-controlled territory in Syria, it was revealed that his radicalisation was exacerbated by his online activity. Mahmood was eventually convicted of preparing acts of terrorism in 2015.
Similarly, Yahya Rashid had a history of online extremism, commenting on extremist videos and viewing propaganda material, before he attempted to travel to Syria using his student loan. There are increasing concerns from parents and teachers about safeguarding children on the internet.
Although social media companies have pledged to work together to tackle extremism in the wake of increased terror attacks across Europe, more could be done.
There are a plethora of organisations that have not been proscribed but nevertheless promote intolerant and extremist views. Illiberal and extremist ideologies must not be allowed to take advantage of social media for the advancement of their extreme message.