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THREAT ASSESSMENT: THE UK GOVERNMENT INITIATES A TASKFORCE TO PREVENT EXTREMIST AND “HATE PREACHER’S” UK ACCESS, A MOVE THOUGHT TO INCREASE COMMUNITY-BASED MISTRUST AND COVERT EXTREMIST ACTIVITY

Joseph Pollard, William Adams, Anya Golend-Pratt, Jayde Dorland, EUCOM and Extremism Teams

Jennifer Loy, Chief Editor

May 11, 2024


The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) Office[1]


On April 30, 2024, the British Government announced it would set up a new taskforce consisting of experts representing the Home Office, Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, to prevent extremists and “hate preachers” from entering the UK. Anyone considered to be an extremist or “hate preacher” attempting to travel to the UK will automatically be referred to the Home Office for visa refusal or, in the case they are already in the UK, visa cancellation. Extremists and “hate preachers” will be identified through a range of intelligence sources, including the UK embassy network, open-source intelligence (OSINT), and by working within local communities across the UK.1 


The new taskforce is almost certain to face challenges caused by the methods it will employ and recent government actions regarding counter-extremism. Plans for local community engagement will likely struggle to successfully identify extremists due to a lack of trust in the British Government among British Muslim communities. Community relations have almost certainly been strained due to British politicians and police reactions to ongoing protests in support of Palestine following the events of October 7, 2023, and perceptions that rhetoric by British Ministers and the UK’s new extremism definition has disproportionately targeted Muslims. The effectiveness of OSINT will very likely be restricted by insufficient staffing levels, limiting the taskforce’s coverage of the whole UK. It is likely that as a consequence of the context within which the taskforce is being introduced, it will face significant challenges in achieving its goal of identifying extremists to prevent entry into the UK with community relations almost certainly being strained further.


Recent Events

The British Government has sought to strengthen its approach to counter-extremism following the Hamas attacks of October 7, 2023, and subsequent ongoing Israeli military action in Gaza. In March 2024, DLUHC noted a 147% increase in antisemitic incidents and a 335% increase in Islamophobic incidents in the UK between October 2023 and January 2024, compared to data from 2022.[2] In 2024, the British Government added two new organizations to the list of proscribed terrorist groups, the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir in January,[3] and the extreme-right online network, known as the Terrorgram collective, in April.[4] 


On March 1, 2024, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stated that extremist groups and individuals are attempting to “take advantage” of the October 7 attacks and related events to advance “divisive” and “hateful” ideologies.[5] Sunak vowed to take stronger measures to combat extremism such as increasing support for the government’s Prevent program, which aims to inhibit radicalization under the CONTEST strategy.[6] Following Sunak’s address, DLUHC released a new definition of ‘extremism to inform government engagement with civil society groups and funding.[7] The definition is allegedly more precise than the previous 2011 Prevent definition including creating permissive environments for extremist activity as extremism itself. Muslim rights supporters criticize the definition for inviting the unfair targeting of Muslim communities and  being too vague in its classification of  extremist acts.[8] In effect, this would create a new list of groups that are not proscribed terrorist groups that will not receive government funding or engagement because of concerns about their legitimization of extremist ideology.


Assessments

The government taskforce will likely struggle to gain actionable intelligence from its engagement with community-based organizations. The UK’s new extremism definition and increased police presence at pro-Palestinian protests will very likely escalate government distrust and fears of profiling within British Muslim communities. British Muslims’ fear of profiling will almost certainly limit their willingness to cooperate with law enforcement and report potential threats. Such communities will likely perceive the proscription of non-violent Islamist groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, as confirmation of the government’s unfair targeting, causing a backlash against the taskforce’s establishment. The government’s treatment of pro-Palestinian protests will likely be compared to recent far-right protests, to support a narrative of a double standard and unfair treatment of British Muslims. Increasing hate crimes against Muslim communities following October 7 will very likely heighten distrust, likely being perceived as evidence of law enforcement’s inability to protect citizens. There is a roughly even chance that Muslim individuals and groups will blame recent government rhetoric for the recent rise in attacks. The threat of visa cancellation will very likely intimidate non-nationals in Muslim communities, likely inhibiting the taskforce’s ability to engage with local groups. Overt government attempts to work at a community level will almost certainly be treated with suspicion due to the legacy of similar efforts under the guise of the Prevent strategy, such as perceptions of Prevent as an excuse to spy on Muslim communities, dating as far back as the early 2000s. There is a roughly even chance that government distrust and rising hate crimes will lead to some Muslim communities distancing themselves from British society, likely increasing the influence of extremist individuals.


Protests against the government’s response to October 7 and the Gaza war will very likely increase following the taskforce’s establishment. Gathered intelligence will very likely alert law enforcement of the presence of extremist individuals at these protests, almost certainly heightening security measures at public demonstrations and escalating public concern regarding the policing of pro-Palestine protests and freedom of expression. Increasing protests related to the Gaza war will likely worsen polarization between Jewish and Muslim communities, furthering sentiments about security concerns for Jewish and Muslim individuals at these events. The development of polarized narratives between groups of protesters and counter-protesters will likely enable extremist individuals to spread hateful ideologies, exploiting government discontent as an opportunity for recruitment. There is a roughly even chance that rising tensions between these groups will increase the risk of violence, likely requiring the reallocation of police resources and limiting the taskforce’s efficiency. Far-right extremist groups will very likely highlight instances of violence at pro-Palestinian protests to spread Islamaphobic ideology, likely exploiting incidents as evidence for their beliefs about Muslim communities.  Extremists' exploitation of online platforms has a roughly even chance of facilitating self-radicalization among audiences and inspiring lone-wolf attacks against perceived adversaries. Far-right groups or Muslim extremist groups will likely spread false information about each other to the new taskforce, very likely to distract investigations and ensure their operations have limited disruptions to their own activities.

        

Community engagement challenges will very likely cause the taskforce to rely on alternative means of intelligence collection, such as embassy networks and OSINT. The expanded definition of extremism will almost certainly increase the scope of OSINT material requiring taskforce analysis, exacerbating staff workload. The taskforce will likely need more personnel and resource capacity to cover all material from across the UK, instead adopting a targeted approach and focusing on communities perceived as vulnerable to extremism. The taskforce’s response to events following October 7 likely means that Muslim communities will receive the most attention for OSINT investigations. Communities becoming aware of the government’s approach will almost certainly develop heightened levels of mistrust, increasing the taskforce’s investigatory obstacles.


The challenges in governing intelligence collection in online spaces, such as the internet’s vastness and enabling of anonymity, will likely limit the effectiveness of OSINT in contributing to the taskforce’s goal of identifying extremists. The taskforce will almost certainly require greater transparency and collaborative efforts from online tech companies, such as social media platforms and messaging sites, to effectively monitor online extremism and identify cases previously unknown to the taskforce. Social platforms without robust content moderation practices will very likely reinforce their usage for distributing hate speech and extremist narratives, encouraging their usage by extremist threat actors. Taskforce efforts and tech company collaboration are very unlikely to uncover all cases of online extremism and hate speech targeting the UK, almost certainly because of the use of encrypted messengers and visual media concealment techniques, obstructing moderation tools’ identification abilities. The taskforce will very likely encourage platforms to bolster their human content moderation teams to circumvent artificial intelligence flaws. However, relying on human teams will likely slow down investigations, enabling spaces for extremist exploitation. Extremists' awareness of the difficulties in regulating online content will very likely reinforce extremist groups and individuals’ use of encrypted social networks and chat rooms to spread their ideology and radicalize others. There is a roughly even chance the taskforce will covertly attempt to access encrypted messenger group chats with suspected extremists and hate preachers. However, operations seeking access to these chats will likely be lengthy, risking the extremist targeting of the UK in the short term.


Future Implications

The UK government and newly established taskforce will very likely heighten the numbers of present police personnel at upcoming pro-Palestinian and far-right protests, almost certainly to monitor potential displays of extremist sentiments. The government will likely state that increasing police presence ensures the protection of protest participants, very likely aiming to increase citizen engagement and develop trust with community members. There is a roughly even chance the taskforce will host extremism awareness campaigns in schooling institutions across the UK, informing students on the harms of hate speech, the signs of radicalization, and how to report suspected radicalization. The taskforce will very likely rely on early intervention to mitigate the development of extremist sentiments in youth. The taskforce will likely expand campaigns to other prominent UK services, such as healthcare settings and larger organizations to bolster the UK’s defense against extremism and radicalization.


The taskforce will very likely employ deep web or digital forensics experts to help personnel navigate and track extremist websites, the dissemination of extremist material through social platforms, and locate threat actors, almost certainly undermining extremist groups’ exploitation of the surface web and target propaganda streams. Extremists' knowledge of government monitoring of their activities will likely cause some individuals or groups to go further underground and use the dark web, almost certainly providing them with a space to conduct activities, share opinions with like-minded individuals, and plan possible attacks without notice. The adoption of covert extremist techniques will almost certainly require a similar approach from the taskforce, with personnel likely having to initiate undercover operations to gain the trust of users and take down networks.


The Counterterrorism Group’s (CTGs) EUCOM, Extremism, and WATCH/GSOC Teams will continue to monitor cases of extremism in the UK and overseas that threaten British national security. CTG will track extremist events and monitor the British government's response to analyze their impacts on the UK. Teams will also monitor broadcasts of upcoming national protests and demonstrations and examine them as they occur for displays of extremism, releasing timely reports to alert the public of security risks and possible implications.

 

[2] Government strengthens approach to counter extremism, DLUHC, March 2024, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-strengthens-approach-to-counter-extremism 

[3] Hizb ut-Tahrir proscribed as terrorist organisation, Home Office, January 2024, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/hizb-ut-tahrir-proscribed-as-terrorist-organisation 

[4] Terrorgram collective now proscribed as terrorist organisation, Home Office, April 2024, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/terrorgram-collective-now-proscribed-as-terrorist-organisation 

[5] PM address on extremism: 1 March 2024, UK Government, March 2024, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-address-on-extremism-1-march-2024 

[6] CONTEST: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism 2023, UK Government, July 2023, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/650b1b8d52e73c000d54dc82/CONTEST_2023_English_updated.pdf 

[7] Government strengthens approach to counter extremism, DLUHC, March 2024, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-strengthens-approach-to-counter-extremism 

[8] New extremism definition unveiled by government, BBC, March 2024,

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