The government is planning to spend nearly £200,000 on social media activity to deter would-be jihadis from leaving the UK for Syria, according to The Independent on Sunday newspaper.
The IoS reported that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) aims to counter “pro-jihadi propaganda” on social media glorifying the conflict by setting up its own online project to convince British Muslims not to go to Syria.
Documents seen by The IoS show that the FCO was granted £173,000 in urgent funding for “social media activity to deter UK residents from travelling to fight in Syria”. The spending, part of a project entitled “FCO deterring Syria foreign fighters activity”, had to be approved by a special Treasury unit, the Efficiency and Reform Group, because it fell outside public sector spending limits.
But although the budget and aim of the internet campaign can be revealed, the precise methods being used to win the battle for the hearts and minds of young Muslims are unknown.
Last week, The IoS made repeated requests to the FCO to detail which channels it uses in its social media programme and how it uses them. But the department said only that it was “emphasising the genuine risks of travel and the reality of the dangerous situation on the ground”.
Counter-terrorism officials have described the growing numbers of Britons involved in the Syrian conflict as most serious terrorist threat to the United Kingdom since the 9/11 attacks. Scotland Yard’s former head of counter-terrorism, Commander Richard Walton said earlier this year it was “almost inevitable” that some Britons fighting in Syria would seek to carry out attacks in Britain on their return.
Last month, 41-year-old Abdul Waheed Majeed, a father of three from Crawley, West Sussex, became the first British suicide bomber in Syria when he drove a truck bomb into Aleppo central prison. It is estimated that about 350 UK residents have gone to Syria to fight. Sixteen people were held in January alone on suspicion of Syria-related offences, including two 17-year-old girls detained at Heathrow. The figure for the whole of 2013 was 24.
On the other hand, advocacy organisation CAGE has condemned the “criminalisation” of British Muslims going to Syria.
In a recent article Moazzam Begg said British Muslims fighting in Syria are doing so to topple a dictatorship and are not going there to join Al Qaeda. He wrote: “It is not hard to understand why Muslims would want to go out to Syria to help. Scores of them go every month on humanitarian aid missions and face endless questioning at ports by British police under schedule 7 anti-terrorism powers. It is also understandable why people want to go out and fight for what they believe is a just cause, even if the wisdom of them doing so can be questioned…
“It is widely accepted that foreign fighters, including Britons, have been battling and dying alongside Syria’s rebels since 2011 and their numbers have increased over the last year. What is not established with any veracity is the suggestion that there has been a single act of terrorism carried out on British – or European – soil connected to Britons returning from Syria. Not a single one.”